After two years of short supplies that have sent many a parent heading to eBay or home in discouragement, supplies of the popular Wii video game console are finally showing signs of freeing up, just in time for the 2008 holidays.

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The Nintendo Wii's popularity among the masses has kept supply scarce, making the gaming console difficult for many parents to find.

While the timing of the increased supply reaching retailers just before the holidays is hardly coincidental, Wii manufacturer Nintendo has been making efforts for months now to increase production to finally meet the apparently insatiable demand for the consoles – all to the benefit of anyone who hasn't yet gotten one of their own.

Denise Kaigler, Nintendo of America's vice president of corporate affairs, told gaming Web site recently that Nintendo had increased monthly production of Wii consoles by about 33 percent in July and is now manufacturing 2.4 million units each month, worldwide, in an effort to address demand that she said “was not only strong (which we had hoped for), but unprecedented (which could not be planned for).”

“The reason we worked tirelessly to increase production was simple: No one at Nintendo likes hearing stories of consumers being unable to find our product,” she said.

That's pretty much all Nintendo has been hearing for the last two years, as Wii consoles regularly sold on eBay and Craigslist for more than twice their manufacturer-recommended $250 price point through early this year and continue to sell above their retail price today, under the “bird in hand” theory.

But there has been good news in recent weeks for consumers hoping to obtain the console at that $250 retail price, as that uptick in manufacturing has finally hit the streets. According to Kaigler, shipments in the Nintendo of America region are currently 50 percent above what they were this time last year, and many of those units are sitting on store shelves for longer than the minutes or hours they did even just a few months ago.

During several recent stops at one of the area's typically best-stocked (in terms of the Wii) retailers – EBGames in the Pelican Square shopping center across Route 1 from the Movies at Midway near Rehoboth – I've found the Wii console in stock at the store each and every time. Not filling the shop to the rafters, mind you, but enough that there were some still there on the day when most stores are releasing new shipments for sale.

The shop routinely posts a sign on its doors to indicate whether the Wii – and it's hard-to-find Wii Fit game with Balance Board peripheral – are in stock. And people who were likely soon to head out to the shop were calling to check on stock, too.

EBGames (formerly Electronics Boutique) merged with fellow game retailer GameStop in 2006, and Gamestop execs recently said that they expect to be able to keep Wii consoles in stock in most of their stores through the first week of December. That means you've got a week or two to line up your Wii purchase, if you haven't already laid hands on one.

Why has it been so hard to find a Wii? In October alone, according to data from the NPD Group, there were 803,000 Wii units sold – outselling the competing Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles and the PlayStation Portable (PSP) handheld system combined. Microsoft's Xbox sold 371,000 units in October with PS3 selling 190,000 and PSP 193,000.

That's a lot of Wii's to build, test and ship – and the disparity confirms NOA's assertion that the demand is “unprecedented.” As a result, even just a few weeks ago I was unable to find Wii consoles in-stock at major online retailers, except in bundles that packed on several extra games and additional controllers, bringing costs to $400 or more, just to land a system.

But as I wrote this on Tuesday, had Wii consoles in stock at retail price. That could last minutes, or days… But it lasting at least a few hours is more likely thanks to that uptick in Nintendo's manufacturing levels. And local availability is just as likely – for now.

Wide appeal has kept Wii scarce

So, now that you know you stand a good chance of getting a Wii at retail price if you act soon, are you planning to buy one for yourself or a loved-one?

Truthfully, many whose interest has been strongly piqued by the Wii have already found a way to obtain one.

Mine turned up in early 2007, in a modest bundle at Circuit City's Web site that was available for about 10 minutes.

After keeping an eye out for a Wii for months, Point Editor Darin McCann finally picked one up this summer. He said he decided to buy one when he spotted it at a store, knowing it had been scarce when he'd been actively looking for it a few months before. Point Graphic Designer Jamie McNamee got one this spring.

The Wii was also a hot item at this year's Harvest Ball auctions to benefit the South Coastal Library, selling well above retail price to the top bidders in both the silent and live auctions.

And Point Office Manager Beth Long and her husband picked up one for themselves just this past weekend, after asking me for some tips last week about what accessories to buy. They just walked into EBGames and picked it right up.

Note here the range in the types of people who are purchasing the Wii in our office alone: a 30-something mother of a 3-year-old, a 30-ish married couple, a 20-something married couple with a baby and a 50-something couple with a 3-year-old granddaughter. There's not a lot of commonality here, except that most of us are casual gamers who like to have a little family game time in our free time.

But that is the target market for the “play together”-focused Wii, which has transcended Nintendo's “Generations” theming on some of its games for both its consoles and its handhelds: casual gamers who are more likely to include women, or people who are a little (or a lot) older than the typical hardcore gamer. That person is still a 20-something single male who would likely prefer the high-definition graphics and the first-person shooter games that are the mainstay of traditional console gaming that sells the Xbox and Playstation consoles.

If you're buying a gaming console for that 20-something gamer, you'd make a better bet with either of those competitors. But if you're picking up a gift for the whole family – from young kids to grandparents – the Wii is probably what you'll want. That fits a lot of households in this country, and is a main reason why the Wii has been so hard to find, even as the economy has made shelling out for the purchase a little more difficult.

The core of the Wii's appeal continues to be in its ease of use. Its motion-based Wii remote controls generally mimic real-life movements rather than the finger and thumb exercise of traditional console controllers.

So, if you're playing bowling on the included Wii Sports game, you'll approximate a standard bowling swing. Likewise with tennis, golf and boxing. That means it's easier for both older and younger players to intuitively understand the control scheme for such games, as well as for previous non-gamers to pick it up.

Add in a solid selection of game titles designed to appeal to the causal gamer and families – not to mention the cartoon-style friendliness of the personalized Mii avatars for the systems users – and the Wii is a system that seems tailor-made for people like me and my family, as well as much of the rest of the general populous.

The Wii also does a pretty good job of offering some appeal to the traditional gamer as well, with vintage titles like Donkey Kong and Galaga available for download over the Internet at a small cost and even the more modern first-person shooter and platform games being available, too, if with slightly less impressive graphics than on the competing systems. There's also the Nintendo Channel, with information and videos about new and upcoming releases and downloadable demos for Nintendo DS games.

But the Wii excels with casual games that don't take hours to complete – or often even have a goal of “completing” anything – but offer many hours of enjoyment for repeat play and exploration.

The youngest players get offerings related to the popular Dora and Diego TV franchises, among others, with a simple control mechanism that has them tilting the Wii remote left and right to run one direction or the other and pushing a button to jump or explore.

“Cosmic Family” offers a free-form exploration of a cartoon rocketship for the 3-and-up crowd, while the Littlest Pet Shop toy brand is now debuting for a target audience of young gamers.

Meanwhile family experiences abound with titles like “Carnival Games,” in which you play traditional games from the amusement park or carnival, such as ring toss, a frog catapult game, a shooting gallery and basketball toss. The spin-off “Carnival Games Mini-Golf” now takes the local course to some interesting new places. And the new Monopoly game updates the classic board game for the Wii.

The “Mario Kart” racing game, with its Wii Wheel accessory, has been another big hit for the whole family, selling nearly 300,000 copies in October alone, while the “Cars” movie franchise offers other racing options.

More traditional gamers have had options like the “Legend of Zelda” franchise, while the Wii remotes have allowed some to live out their “Star Wars” fantasies by battling with realistic lightsaber sword-fighting moves.

And for those who don't consider themselves gamers at all, there are still some benefits. If you're picking up a console to play with the grandkids when they come visit, you may also want to make use yourself of the Weather and News channels, which can bring you the latest forecast and headlines right from the Internet, 24 hours a day, with the ability to boost text size when you're reading the news.

There's also an available Internet browser for some basic Web surfing, as well as messaging between Wii users and a photo viewer that accesses the memory card slot on the device. Just stick your camera's SD card in the Wii and you can show off your photos on the Wii.

Music games a rock-star of Wii

Music and rhythm games have been another big hit recently, both on the Wii and for its competitors. The Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises are bringing friends and families together to play favorite hits from several generations of popular music, and maybe inspiring some rock-star dreams in the littlest of players.

We recently picked up the new “Wii Music,” which had been much anticipated early on after a demonstration by Nintendo and has since generally been panned by game critics as too simplistic. To the contrary, we've found “Wii Music” to be one of the best games available on the Wii because of its wide variety of options – particularly in a household with younger children.

The game transcends the standard guitar or rock-band formula of the other two games and instead offers the freedom to jam freely or to well-known songs with more than 40 instruments, without – most of the time – sounding like someone dropped a box of cats.

As you'll learn in a series of built-in tutorials, the game's musical instruments fall into types that are played with drum-like motions of the Wii Remote and Nunchuck accessory, such as marimbas, steel drums and pianos; ones that are strummed or bowed like guitars, violins and cellos; ones that are played with key presses, such as flutes, bagpipes and horns; and oddball extras, such as scratching D.J.'s, beatboxers and rappers, cheerleaders, karate experts, dogs and cats.

The latter group all come with accompanying costumes, so you can see your Mii – the stars of this game, as they represent you – dressed up in a dog suit, barking along to “Ode to Joy,” or cheering “Pretty” “Pretty” while dressed in a short skirt and shaking pom-poms (yes, the guys, too).

The D.J. and beatboxer instruments offer such a variety of sounds that it offers fun even for those who really aspire to perform. And that's true, really, of all of the instruments, since – rather than trying to match a perfect performance – you're giving a limited ability to improvise to all of these songs, with a backup band of animated “Tutes” (tutors, of a sort), by yourself or with friends and family.

Though hitting the minus button on the controller will offer you a score to follow, feel free to hit an extra note or 10. You can pretend you were improvising, even if you weren't. Most of them will sound OK, even great. That's the beauty of “Wii Music.” (Musical types can have a blast with improve mode, accompanied by the Tutes.)

And if you're feeling up to tackling up to six parts of a song – two percussion parts, bass, chord, harmony and melody – you can even record the whole song yourself. Just like a real music studio, you can record a single track at a time, with everything coming together at the end.

Then you can make your music video, featuring a number of different stage sets and your Miis – up to six of you, you and your family and friends, or you and the Tutes. The videos can be kept in perpetuity, if you have space on your Wii, or even sent to friends if they also have “Wii Music.” And they can record their own parts for your song and video, even if they don't live anywhere near you.

If there's any real downfall to “Wii Music,” it's a lack of contemporary songs. You'll start with “Twinkle, Twinkle,” “Do-Re-Mi” and “Scarborough Fair” and open up some classical and traditional pieces, such as “Over the Waves” (the stereotypical circus high-wire song), “La Bamba” and “Jingle Bell Rock,” before completing most of the lessons and opening up Madonna's “Material Girl”; “September” from Earth, Wind and Fire; “The Entertainer”; “Chariots of Fire”; Wham's “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”; The Police's “Every Breath You Take” and some others, as well as some Nintendo game themes.

But what the game lacks in cutting-edge soundtrack it makes up for in flexibility, since a couple of clicks can recast “Twinkle, Twinkle” as a hard-rock classic, “Material Girl” as a reggae tune or “Happy Birthday” as a tango, changing instrument selection and tempo to suit. Or make it up as you go along and mix jaw harp, electric guitar, marimba, rapper, bagpipes and steel drums to do “Turkey in the Straw” in a whole new way.

Another great feature of “Wii Music” is its incorporation of the Balance Board from Wii Fit as a drum accessory. In drum mode, you can take lessons that will teach you how to play drums using the Wii controllers, with the Balance Board as drum pedals. Then you can jam along with the songs. (I have a whole new respect for drummers, now.)

Completing the game are three mini-games that let you conduct an orchestra to a small selection of songs, aim for perfection playing handbells (harder and way more fun than it would seem) and test your ear with a musical pitch game.

While “Wii Music” has had some knocks in critical reviews, Nintendo has expressed a lot of confidence, that it – like Wii Fit – will grow on people as word gets out and defy the skeptics. I'm inclined to agree. I can't begin to describe the amount of intensive family fun the game has offered in my house. What can you say when a 3-year-old wants to dance to mommy's “Chariots of Fire” music video or play the Japanese taiko drum to “Daydream Believer” rather than watch TV? Or when mom would rather try to complete all six parts of Vivaldi's “Four Seasons” than let Calgon take her away?

Fitness games, accessories a good buy

If you do pick up a Wii in the coming weeks, in addition to “Wii Music” there are a number of other purchases to consider.

Along with the Wii console, the Wii Fit game has been the hardest Wii-related item to find thus far. And that scarcity continues, even as the console becomes more readily available this holiday season. Nearly a half-million Wii Fit games were sold just last month, while Wii Fit has sold more than 2.8 million copies since its release in May.

I've already reviewed Wii Fit here, but there are now more games coming out that use the Balance Board, from boxing to skiing to skateboarding. “Biggest Loser's” Jillian Barbery also has a new fitness game that utilizes the board (though it has met with some pretty harsh reviews).

Entertainment Arts (EA) announced this week that it will soon release its own fitness game for the Wii, with a wider variety of exercises than Wii Fit.

There's also the new Active Life series of games for the Wii – the first one of which is “Outdoor Challenge.” This is another kid-friendly game, though it does a great job for family play. A control mat similar to that sold with the Dance Dance Revolution series of games comes with the game and is then used when players jump virtual ropes, stomp virtual moles, do virtual “mountain board” tricks and shift their balance to control a runaway mine cart.

This game has been a lifesaver as the weather has gotten wetter and colder in recent weeks. Even an active 3-year-old can wear himself out in no time with eight or nine 30-second sprints, some kayaking down a virtual river and a slide through a digital pipe, patting and pushing all the way.

If you've got a young kid and a Wii, this is one game to check out – especially as winter arrives.

Another useful add-on for the Wii is Wii Play – a simple set of games packaged with an extra Wii remote – that last month sold nearly as many copies as Mario Kart. In fact, Wii Play – released shortly after the Wii console was released – has sold more than 7.2 copies in the U.S. so far.

It's hard to beat paying an extra $10 for a game over the cost of an additional remote. Especially when that game includes cow racing, fishing, air hockey and pool. Pick up an extra Nunchuck, too, and you'll have enough controllers for two people to play most games.

Finally, for those getting a Wii this holiday season, I'd recommend you pick up either several packs of rechargeable batteries (and a charger, if you don't already have one) or a Wii remote charger, complete with replacement battery doors that have their own rechargeable batteries built in.

Judicious use of the charger makes sure the remotes are always ready for play, without making you buy a ton of mercury-filled, throw-away batteries. (That will put a little green in your Christmas!)

That should get you set on your way to enjoying the Wii in your own home – or in that of a loved one – this holiday season. Whether you start off with just the console and the included Wii Sports game or whether you go whole-hog with accessories, Wii Fit and some games, it's sure to make the Wii wait well worthwhile.