The Nintendo Wii video games console has soared past Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in sales and opened a huge lead over Sony’s premium-priced rival, the PlayStation3.

Sales momentum for the Wii, launched in November, is so strong that many analysts are now raising their outlook on how well it will succeed in drawing entire families into video gaming.

Yoshiyuki Kinoshita, an analyst at Merrill Lynch, now predicts that by the year 2011, a third of all Japanese households and almost 30 per cent of all US households will own a Wii.

In the US, where it was widely assumed the Xbox 360 had established a lead in the latest round of the “console wars”, NPD Group research showed that 436,000 Wii units were sold in January against 294,000 for the Microsoft model.

Wiis continue to sell out on delivery in stores in the US, Europe and Japan, and are changing hands on online auction websites at an average 35 per cent premium to their usual retail price of $250.

According to NPD Group research on the US games market, only 244,000 PlayStation3 units were sold in January despite the machine’s wide availability and offers of free games from many retailers.

In Japan, where Microsoft has struggled to make its presence felt and Sony has a cult following among hardcore games fanatics, January saw even greater dominance by the Wii.

Research by Tokyo-based Enterbrain suggests that out of combined January sales in Japan of some 600,000 consoles, Nintendo took a 68 per cent share against 25 per cent for the PS3 and 7 per cent for the Xbox 360.

Since the Wii and PS3 were launched in November, the Nintendo machine has flown off Japanese shelves at twice the pace of the PS3. The PS3 has yet to even hit the market in Europe.

Although the console war is in its early phase, analysts believe the position established by the Wii could ensure its supremacy for several years.

The Wii has differentiated itself from its rivals with motion-sensitive controls.

Some analysts had assumed the initial appeal of the Wii would quickly wear off in the face of the raw computing power of the PS3.

“There has always been a strong concern that the Wii was gimmicky,” said Credit Suisse analyst Jay Defibaugh, “but each passing month assuages that.”

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