Control Issues: Examining the NewBy: Andrew Joy
While many may hear Nintendo’s name and think instantly of such big titles as Super Mario, the Legend of Zelda, Metroid and Donkey Kong, the games are only a small part of a much larger equation. Innovation has been key for Nintendo and, with most every new system, they’ve redefined the way we play those games in some way. For the longest time, Nintendo was the unquestioned king of the home console industry, and that allowed them to pioneer some of most common aspects of today’s controllers. If you don’t believe me, then let’s do the list: the NES brought us the D-pad; the SNES introduced shoulder buttons; the N64 gave us the ever popular analog stick; and the GameCube...well, actually, the GCN really lacked any sort of real industry-changing innovation. In part, that I believe is what lead to their downfall (Nintendo now controls less than a quarter of the industry). While certainly not a bad system, the GameCube was a commercial failure, and with that looming over their head, it wasn’t so much a question of whether or not Nintendo would invest resources in a new system that may or may not sell, it was a question of whether or not they could.
Though Nintendo has flatly denied that they will ever do so, many thought the company might bow out of the console race and focus solely on developing software for existing systems. This next generation isn’t so much a console war so much as it is simply an arms race, and the other companies have already tried to prove to consumers that they can do graphics better than anything else we’ve seen today. But many have forgotten that necessity is the mother of invention, and with that in mind, Nintendo is taking a new stand: If you can’t beat ‘em, go fight someone else. It’s an undeniable fact: over the years, Nintendo has developed a certain stigma. Due in part to a deplorable lack of adult games from within the company, and an offering that is by and large very child-safe, the name itself has become synonymous with family friendly. With their next-gen console, the Wii, Nintendo has no plans to cast it off...instead they intend to redefine it. As part of a strategy that extends farther than their new console and encompasses the entire company, family friendly will no longer just mean “kiddie,” but will mean just what it says.
Despite the wavering success of their consoles, Nintendo’s own games have generally sold very well. With their bright colors and straightforward gameplay, most Nintendo games have a look that is appealing to the young and unthreatening to the old. While a kid might want to play Super Mario Galaxy (which likely the Italian plumber’s Wii debut) because it is part of his favorite franchise, that same kid’s parents, or even grandparents, might look at it and say, “That doesn’t look so hard.” But, really, it has been their own inexperience holding them back from actually picking it up and trying it. While I’m not saying an adult couldn’t learn to play one of today’s games, I certainly think they’d have a harder time overcoming “The Duke” than someone who was raised with video games. However, Nintendo has proved that there is a market (or, if you prefer, at least a niche) for games that you can easily pick up and play, and they are seeing a large and ever-growing success with the DS. And now Nintendo is trying to reach out to those people with Touch Generations (which includes games like Nintendogs, Brain Age and Tetris), a line of games that offers up intuitive play often with direct interaction through the touch screen. A similar approach is also being taken as Nintendo enters this next generation of consoles, as they are aiming to deliver a system that will not only reclaim a large portion of the existing market of hardcore and casual gamers by offering something fresh and new, but also cater to a group that is largely ignored and untapped: everyone else. And nowhere is this more apparent than with their controller.
For those of you who have been living under a rock, have been sealed in ice or have just arrived on this planet from a distant world (in which case, “Welcome!”), let’s look at how the Wii remote differs from your typical controller. Really, all you have to do is look at it to see the first major departure from the norm: the design. In an effort to seem more familiar and comfortable with those who have never played a game, Nintendo designed its new controller like a remote control (and, with an announced DVD add-on for the Wii, it will likely function as one, too), something most everyone has probably seen and used with a TV, DVD player or whatever. It has a slim, long shape that’s made to be held in one hand most of the time, it has a series of buttons that should look familiar to most people - like a power button, menu/home key probably closer to a DVD, digital cable or satellite TV remote and even directional arrows (think channel and volume control) - and it has a series of buttons that will certainly be familiar to those who’ve played Nintendo systems before, as it keeps a few of their better innovations. Even with all those buttons I mentioned already, the standard Wii remote has considerably fewer buttons than your typical controller, and that leads into the obvious question of how it is played.
Actually, the system employs a variety of methods in addition to buttons, chief of which is its motion-sensing capabilities. Using a small sensor strip that plugs into the console and is placed either above or below your TV, the Wii can sense actions you physically act out with the remote from little over 15 feet away. As all controllers are wireless this time around, up to four controllers can communicate with the system using Bluetooth. Rather than a generic button tap or series of button taps to achieve a desired action, players can now just pantomime exactly what they want their onscreen counterpart to do, and they’ll do it. No longer will it be a matter of exact timing to an onscreen gauge to send your ball flying, now you just let it rip by swinging the Wii remote like it is your golf club, baseball bat or tennis racket, such as you will in Wii Sports (and a variety of other planned titles). The controller also uses a variety of internal sensors (similar to what you’d find in a game like Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble) to pick up motion, too. Sensing motion and tilt on three axes, this allows for certain gestures, such as simply holding the controller a certain way or turning it on its side, to be recognized by the system and interpreted in the game. Obviously this simplifies the gameplay a great deal, allowing even the technologically inept to pick-up and play a game, but it also makes the Wii remote very, very versatile.
Certain genres, like first-person shooters (FPS) are bound to benefit from the new controls, while others may need to be reinvented, and perhaps for the better. As for FPS, like Ubisoft’s planned launch title Red Steel or Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, the controller takes away the need and hassle of inverted controls and the unnatural middleman that is your ordinary controller. From now on, it is just point and shoot, though that is only one of several examples we have seen. Apart from just wielding a gun with ease, you can also use it to swing your weapon, such as a sword (again, in Red Steel) or even a hammer, like you might find in the new Nintendo property Project H.A.M.M.E.R. Somewhat less violent, football is also getting a makeover in the Wii version of Madden NFL 07, where you’ll use the remote to pass and kick the ball and much, much more. And, there are many other examples we’ve seen as well, such as casting and reeling-in a fishing line (The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess), looking around with a flashlight (Necro-Nesia), conducting an orchestra and playing drums (Wii Music) and doing any number of other bizarre tasks (WarioWare: Smooth Moves). We’ve also seen the Wii remote turned on end, literally, and held length wise, similar to a steering wheel. Using the internal sensors, we’ve seen a variety of games controlled this way including Sonic: Wildfire, Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam and Excite Truck (a sort of spiritual successor to the Excitebike series).
Of course, those are just some of the examples that can be achieved primarily with one hand, but many games will also make use of one of the peripherals that plug into a port on the bottom of the Wii remote. Though some of the attachments we have seen so far are for pure novelty sake, most games showcased actually require the Nunchuk attachment, and it is rumored to be included with the system bundle along with the Wii remote. While you may be able to aim a weapon freely with the Wii remote, for instance, you would need the Nunchuk’s analog stick to control actual character movement. In addition to an analog stick, the Nunchuk also features two shoulder buttons and, as we started to hear rumors of before E3, has internal motion sensors all its own. Like the standard Wii remote, we’ve already seen this put to some very good use too. We’ve seen it thrust forward in Corruption to use a grappling beam; shaken and stabbed down in Twilight Princess to perform a spin attack and finishing move, respectively; and, used in tandem with the Wii remote, we’ve seen motion-driven combo attacks and special moves in Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 2. I’m sure we’re only scratching the surface of what these two can do together!