The release of the Famicom is often regarded as one of the biggest moments in gaming history, as it not only brought Nintendo into the home console arena, but it also introduced the world to a plumber named Mario. The console, as we know, proved to be an incredible success and has helped create the industry we have today, but there was a more important factor in its success that is often overlooked – the Famicom gamepad. The simplistic design of a D-Pad and two face buttons may seem archaic today, but when the Famicom launched it was a revolutionary idea, especially given the dominance of joysticks in arcades. The success of the original design is evident in the fact that we still think of gamepads as the main gaming controller today, and despite cosmetic changes the heart of the Famicom original lives within every single controller.
Over the years the faces and buttons have changed, and in 2001 Nintendo released the GameCube, along with one of the most comfortable and user-friendly controllers it's ever made. With gamers almost taking the gamepad for granted, Nintendo decided to move away from tradition and focus on a new control medium – motion control. The dawn of the Wii and the Wii Remote heralded in a new age for gaming; an age where the boundaries had changed and the method of control was completely new and unique. But looking back, it hasn’t been entirely a comfortable ride, and the vision of Nintendo’s motion revolution is only now becoming a reality.
The development of the Wii Remote itself was rumoured to have begun shortly after GameCube launched, with the original vision of motion control being a peripheral add-on for that console. But with the purple box failing to prove as big a commercial success as Nintendo hoped, the idea became the figurehead of Nintendo’s next big home console, and at the 2005 Tokyo Game Show we were introduced to the Wii Remote for the first time. And then the speculation began.
Fan mock-ups showed the Remote acting as an extension of your limb, making you a part of the game, with the most famous being the Star Wars lightsaber trailer showing the potential to make you truly feel like a Jedi. At E3 2006 Nintendo bought into this hype, showcasing games being controlled by physical movements around the room. The trailer for Red Steel showed off gamers really getting into the whole movement idea, and who can forget the over-eager demonstrator that played Metroid Prime 3: Corruption by leaping across his room, emulating Samus’ on-screen actions? Along with glowing reports of motion control really working from the show floor, this led to a situation where it was expected to be absolutely perfect at launch.
Only it wasn’t. No-one will ever forget the first time they played Wii Sports and that adrenaline rush that accompanied actually hitting the ball back in tennis by swinging your arm, and for many of you, actually returning it in court for the first time. But no Wii owner will also ever forget the time when they realised that they actually didn’t have to swing for the ball like a maniac to replicate the same effect: waggle was born.
It’s clear now that the fundamental problem the Wii Remote had at launch was that the axis by which it obtained information only told it which way you were swinging rather than strength, position, or any of the other factors that you need to create 1:1 control. Simply put, the Wii Remote replaced traditional button presses with a wave in a given direction, something which is proven by the existence of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, a game that was ported late in development to Wii. The swordplay was stripped away from buttons and placed onto the motion axis of the Remote, attempting to replicate swordplay but ultimately creating a waggle-heavy game.
But that’s not to say that the Wii Remote at launch was a complete disaster, and it was Twilight Princess itself that actually showcased perhaps Nintendo’s most successful creation in the motion control field – the pointer. It’s hard to believe now that the pointer had never been used in this way before in mainstream gaming, but back in 2006 allowing you to select items just by pointing was completely revolutionary. Twilight Princess showcased exactly how powerful it was through the bow and arrow, and later Metroid Prime 3 showed how the Wii Remote could revolutionise shooters. It’s little wonder then that throughout the Wii’s lifespan the most successful implementation of motion control has typically been through the use of the pointer, with even Super Mario Galaxy using it to great effect.
The big problem motion control had was that the relative inaccuracy for anything other than large motions meant that it developed a waggle-heavy aura.
The big problem motion control had was that the relative inaccuracy for anything other than large motions meant that it developed a waggle-heavy aura around it, and coupled with the sudden influx of the more casual gaming market thanks to Wii Sports, led to a decline in its popularity. Games such as Carnival Games and the Mario & Sonic entries dominated the charts thanks to their simple, yet completely inaccurate, use of motions, arguably leading to many developers simply ceasing production on the Wii.
By 2008 many were beginning to question Nintendo’s logic behind the push to motion control, as the ambitious visions of 2006 faded and waggle became the standard. Despite claims to the contrary, Nintendo was clearly listening and aware of the situation, which led to the reveal of MotionPlus at E3 2008, releasing a year later. MotionPlus was the first step to achieving the true vision Nintendo had at the beginning.
It was clear right from the start that MotionPlus was the realisation of Nintendo’s vision, with Wii Sports Resort, essentially Wii Sports+, showing exactly how the Wii was always meant to control. This was followed up by Red Steel 2 adding a layer of finesse that was simply missing in the original, and sports titles such as Grand Slam Tennis and Tiger Woods PGA Your 10 proved just how much more accurate motion control was with MotionPlus. It was finally back on the path that Nintendo had envisioned for it, but it wasn’t until 2011, arguably, that the full scale of this vision became a reality.
The release of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword will most likely be remembered as Wii MotionPlus’ finest hour, as instead of being a game that had motions bolted on, it had these controls at its heart and was built around it: the result was one of the most engrossing and critically acclaimed games ever created. Swordplay was naturally the big feature here, with the Wii Remote and Nunchuck nicely filling in the roles of sword and shield respectively. The level of control and precision afforded to gamers by MotionPlus was unlike anything anyone had seen before, and beyond the combat aspect, it allowed the developer's minds to explore puzzles in new and never before seen directions. The beetle, the whip and even flying your Loftwing are all things that have come from the new avenues opened up by motion control, and as a mark of its ability to be a real game changer, Nintendo even added it in for mundane tasks such as menu navigation. The fact that the pointer also got an upgrade allowing you to aim anywhere in the room and be centred on screen was the perfect finishing touch to the motion controlled masterpiece.
Five years after its inception, Skyward Sword is arguably the prime example of how motion control can change gaming for the better. But does Skyward Sword’s success prove that it's the future? Perhaps, but when looked at alongside the other MotionPlus titles, it's clear that motion control occupies a particular place in the gaming world. The common factor between many of the MotionPlus titles is that they are replicating a real-world motion, be it swordplay in Red Steel 2 and Skyward Sword, or racquet sports in the form of Grand Slam Tennis. The success of motion control through MotionPlus with these titles and the comparative failure of it in titles such as FlingSmash give a clear indication that while the technology is now at the level it needs to be, the ideas have to fit the controls, and not the other way around.
It would be easy to say now that Nintendo should never have released the Wii Remote in such a limited form back in 2006, but that’s not how evolution of design works. The perfection and crafting of the gamepad arguably took the best part of 20 years to get absolutely right, and even now work goes on to make them as comfortable and as user-friendly as possible. The Wii Remote and motion control in general have only been under public testing for five years, a mere quarter of what the gamepad has been. It would therefore be unreasonable for us to expect perfection in such a short time span, but after five years the concept has managed to find its place in the gaming world, with Nintendo's competitors also joining the scene.
Wii U is the next big step for Nintendo, and with it comes a move back to a more traditional controller, despite its other innovations. But that’s not to say motion control is dead: it's more likely that Nintendo has come to the same conclusion as many others have done — motion control is ideal in certain scenarios, but other times it is not. With Skyward Sword and others from which to draw, MotionPlus still has a bright future ahead of it, and with the 3DS already showing how subtle gyro controls can enhance varied gaming experiences, it is clear that motion-based gaming is here to stay. It appears that finally, after all this time, Nintendo’s motion revolution is becoming a reality, and with Wii U coming later this year its evolution will continue onwards.