The main gameplay hook has always been an unconventional selling point for Star Fox Zero
The main gameplay hook has always been an unconventional selling point for Star Fox Zero

Star Fox Zero isn't far away, yet rather than unquestionable hype about the first series entry for over a generation, much of the talk is over its control scheme. As the Wii U heads towards its retirement it seems like an apt conflict - innovation vs familiarity, instinctive play versus unfamiliar control.

The two tweets below, featuring our own Damien McFerran and familiar Nintendo fan Roger DiLuigi III, perhaps exemplify the split in opinion that'll only increase once the game hits stores.

https://twitter.com/RogersBase/status/718896797704257536

For his part Roger DiLuigi III has also encouraged franchise fans to have an open mind and try the game, as the general consensus (in reasoned debate, at least) is that the TV / GamePad controls can click nicely for some players. The issue, of course, is that the lack of a universally accessible and understandable control scheme will put some off to the point that, not unreasonably, they won't be inclined to spend a lot of money to try them out.

Splatoon Wii U.jpg

The Splatoon comparison is certainly reasonable, though there are two key differences between the shooter's use of the GamePad and that we see in Zero. For one thing Splatoon only requires occasional glances down at the controller, and it's feasible to go through extended periods (especially in single player) where the second screen can be entirely ignored. While the motion-based aiming does have similarities, and Zero does support some instinctive movement while watching the aim on the top screen, some particular levels and encounters in the latest Star Fox demand plenty of attention on the second view. One potential workaround to those segments, notably, is to switch the views and focus on the 'aiming' perspective on the TV rather than GamePad.

The second difference is that Splatoon allowed players to use traditional dual-stick movement and aiming. Star Fox Zero doesn't offer any such luxury - in terms of changing the control scheme - unless you jump into co-op. In single player you play the Nintendo way or no way at all. That inflexibility is certainly a necessity in terms of accommodating the level design, as highlighted above, but it's worth noting nevertheless.

The controls are innovative, and can feel terrific - in this writer's opinion - once in full flow, but the lack of immediate accessibility has proven to be problematic for Nintendo in promoting this release. The narrative around the game and a number of previews have focused on whether the controls work, and they're predictably divisive. If the fundamental merits of a title's gameplay are the focus in pre-release discussions, as opposed to how awesome it is to have a new Star Fox game, then Nintendo has an immediate problem.

In some ways Star Fox Zero has presented a microcosm of the broader problems that have made the Wii U toil so badly at market. Muddled messaging and a demand that players of all levels adjust and learn a fiddly new way to play runs contrary to Nintendo's past successes. Since convention was dropped for innovation - largely out of necessity - in the Wii and DS era, Nintendo became the name associated with accessible and clever gaming fun. The 'Touch Generation' of the DS made gaming easy for more people, while the Wii Remote delivered experiences that were as simple as waving a controller around. Both systems adopted their controls for more complex games, of course, but there was a true sense of instinct and natural reactions coming together when playing games on that hardware.

Mario Chase.jpg

In defence of the Wii U, some of its games do show how two screens can be used for terrific play, especially with asynchronous multiplayer. Nintendo Land, for the most part, demonstrated how splitting the views between players could produce interesting experiences, though even that collection had some baffling controls in Metroid Blast. It's been a generation, though, in which Nintendo's big concept was so awkward that it was barely used for the company's own games - Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is an infamous example, where Retro Studios wanted to keep things simple and made the GamePad blank when playing on the TV.

It was at E3 2014 (and investor meetings beforehand) when Nintendo stated that Shigeru Miyamoto and his team would commit themselves to showcasing the GamePad, yet little has come from it, with Star Fox Zero arriving after a route to completion that was accompanied by whispers of concerned localisation teams. Star Fox Guard is also coming, of course, and we've had DS games on the controller, though the latter don't always work particularly well. Through a combination of other priorities and the toughness of the challenge, it seems, Nintendo has struggled to find a late killer hook for the GamePad.

It may seem odd that a controller riffing on the most accessible gaming hardware of all - tablets - has struggled to win the day, but a lack of simplicity is the common thread. The need for Nintendo to combine full gaming experiences with the controller has led to a clash in priorities, and it's lacked the flexibility in form factor and approach that the Wii Remote and Nunchuk achieve so impeccably. Not to mention the fact that primitive free-to-play mobile approaches aren't exactly Nintendo's normal modus operandi (though it's dabbled), so the GamePad was never going to be pushed as a 'tablet' device.

A flame that shone brightly, before going out
A flame that shone brightly, before going out

No doubt Nintendo's followed all of these trends closely, while noting that the 3DS (with two screens naturally integrated together and continuing the DS approach) has achieved relative success in light of market challenges. The great issue the company faces, with the NX and in generations to come, is that it's now the brand of evolution and (occasionally) revolution. There's an expectation that the company will deliver new, interesting hardware rather than a core system offering familiar controls at a higher resolution. Sony and Microsoft, to be fair, look to innovate with mid-generation add-ons, with the PS4 to be complemented by PlayStation VR soon. It's worth also citing Kinect, though, as an example where a lack of simplicity backfired. A record-setter when initially launched, the questionable practicality of the peripheral, with the requirement for a decent-sized room and the player not being able to relax and play when 'being the controller', meant it lost its allure quickly and - perhaps like the GamePad for the Wii U - became an additional cost and unwelcome extra that damaged the Xbox One's early days.

Finding that sweetspot in the future, of accessibility and innovation, isn't an exact science for Nintendo - the tale of two generations from Wii to Wii U demonstrate that nicely. Star Fox Zero also shows how thin the line between clever innovation and a tough reception can be - this writer may talk up the controls and the way they enhance the gameplay until the cows come home, but the added proviso of "when you master them" will haunt the game should it fail to gain traction with the Wii U audience.

The greatest gaming innovations are those that are the easiest to enjoy - let's hope Nintendo masters that trick again with the NX.