Controversy. Confusion. Trepidation. Even Anger. All of these things have arisen since Nintendo unveiled its newest piece of technology. Ironically, “revolution” is the term most seldom used, even though it is the codename of Nintendo’s next generation console. It is only natural to become frightened or angry at something new, unfamiliar, unknown, and the Revolution’s controller is all three of those things. Still, amid the chorus of “Nintendo has lost it” and “WTF?!!” I’d like to be the voice of reason. I’m not here to build the Big N up or tear them down, I’m just looking at the possibilities. And, chances are, if people slow down and think about it, they’ll be excited just as I am.
I will admit, the first thing I thought when I saw the thing was “Intellivision.” Similar thoughts of “remote control,” “back massager” and “hospital buzzer” probably ran through the minds of countless other gamers. Being a cynic at heart, I immediately crossed my arms and scoffed. I’d expected gyroscopic tilt sensors, temperature pads, hell even holograms, but never in my wildest dreams (or nightmares) had I envisioned a remote control. How could this thing possibly change the way we game?
After a few minutes of angered confusion, I read about the controller, and why it looked the way it did, and how it could be changed and modified in any number of creative new ways. That’s when I got excited. Hopefully, you’ll share my excitement when I give some explanation on how this thing will work.
“Ok, enough preamble already!” you’re saying. I agree. Down to bare bones. The Revolution controller’s big feature is motion tracking technology. It is, in essence, a 3D mouse, or laser pointer. Imagine the gloves from the film Minority Report, but in a rectangular shape. That should give you the basic idea. But that’s only half of the story.
The Revolution’s controller looks like a TV remote for one big reason: simplicity. Game controllers are getting more and more complex, with 15-plus buttons, dual analog sticks, multiple triggers and shoulder keys...Nintendo has said “enough.” This new controller compresses the myriad functions of sticks and triggers into one application: basic hand movement. Simplicity branches off into a number of other cohesive purposes, that all lead back to the main reason. I’ll try to wrangle them all into one package that makes sense.
First let’s take a look at simplicity in general, because that’s what Nintendo’s PR people are pushing. Simplicity is a new trend in consumer electronics, as companies reach out to customers who aren’t part of the geek hardcore. The Ipod is a prime example. It’s small, sleek, and simply shaped. It isn’t covered with buttons and dials like CD players of old. The new controller follows the same line of thought; it looks like a remote control because that’s what the majority of people have been using for decades to control their entertainment. Only the gamer demographic has been able to adapt to the highly complex controllers in current-gen consoles, because they cared enough to adapt. The rest of the consumers have been left behind, and so have their wads of cash.
Shigeru Miyamoto said it best:
There you have it. Playing the next Zelda with dear old Mom (or Dad) will finally be a possibility. Instead of holding the Z-trigger to lock onto an enemy, positioning Link with the analog stick, and slashing his Master Sword with the B-button, all people will have to do is swing the controller LIKE a sword. Simple as that. Granted, some finer control might be necessary for character movement, but that’s where the other half of this new device comes into play: the Nunchuk controller.
“We want a system that takes advantage of new technology for something that anyone, regardless of age or gender, can pick up and play. Gameplay style that people who have never played games can pick up and not be intimidated by. We wanted a controller that somebody's mother will look at and not be afraid of.”
Like the N64 controller before it, the Revolution’s controller will have a handy expansion port on the back of its slim casing. An add-on has already been developed and will be packaged with the console. This peripheral is a stand-alone analog stick, very similar in appearance to the central “prong” on the N64 controller. On the back are two Z-triggers for more traditional targeting and other such functions. However this peripheral is an option, not a necessity for playing more advanced games. So, the newcomers will have easy pick-up-and-play control, and the veteran gamers will have their joysticks for deeper games.
Another peripheral that has not been shown yet will make traditional gaming even easier. It is widely known that the Revolution will be a “virtual console,” with the ability to download twenty years worth of games for the NES, SNES and N64. To make playing these classic titles possible, Nintendo designed a conventional controller “shell” that the remote-style controller fits into. This shell has a port in the top that will accept the new style controller, but still allow for its motion-control abilities. This opens the door for tantalizing new possibilities, such as playing some of our old favorites with the revolutionary new movement-sensing system.
Also, looking at the remote-controller, it is clear that turned sideways, it resembles an NES controller. The D-pad at the top and smaller “a” and “b” buttons will make playing old-school Mario and Metroid a snap. This backwards and forwards compatibility is exactly what we saw with the DS. Sure, it has the touch screen and microphone, but it also has a D-pad, shoulder triggers and four face buttons. Developers don’t have to use the new features, but they can do some amazing things with them if they stretch their minds a bit. The Revolution controller will be the same story.
Ok, so we know that this puzzling new interface can do both old and new tricks, and we’re pretty sure how it’ll pull off the old stuff, but the so-called revolutionary aspect is still somewhat vague. Only crude tech demos were presented at the Tokyo Game Show, and only select members of the press got to use the controller on these demos. How can we predict how our treasured franchises like Metroid will handle, or even third party titles? Well, that’s where imagination comes in. Let’s take a look at how this controller might work with some of our favorite genres, and how it might create some new ones altogether.
First off, let’s use Mario as the general third-person platformer. Mario 64 literally created the 3D platform game, and Miyamoto stated that the new Mario for the Revolution heavily influenced the controller’s design, just as the N64 controller was built around Mario 64. Our first clue comes from the demo video shown at TGS. A young woman is shown pointing the new controller at the screen and flicking it upwards quickly. These motions are accompanied by the trademark “boing” sound Mario makes when he jumps.
From this sparse info, we’ll postulate a new control layout. Let’s say that the motion control will be used to move Mario around in a 3D environment. Since the controller detects depth, pushing it forward or pulling it back could make Mario run and do a 180 turn, respectively. Doing the aforementioned wrist-flick makes the mustachioed plumber leap into the air, while turning the controller left and right will make our hero swerve to change his direction. The A-button will most likely control punching and other attacks, while the underbelly B-trigger will make Mario crouch or ground-pound. The Nunchuk stick will probably control the camera, and the two Z-triggers will be used to lock in the perspective or switch camera angles.
With this setup, the simplicity becomes clear: we’ve only used four buttons, all within easy, natural reach of our fingers. Mario 64 required precise use of eight buttons, in addition to the analog stick for primary movement. In all fairness our new setup is only a theory, but it could work.
Moving on, we’ll consider the Metroid franchise, because we’ve already speculated on how Zelda would function. Metroid Prime’s first-person perspective might have been hotly debated before the game’s release, but it worked like a charm in the final product and proved that the old franchise could be successfully updated. So, how will Nintendo graft this scheme onto their bizarre remote-controller? Prime’s controls are practically perfect, so messing with a winning formula could be a bad idea. On the other side of the coin, it could change first person gaming forever.
The most developed demo at TGS was a reworked area from Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. The press got a taste of FPS future, and they liked it. Really, really liked it, and not because Echoes was a great game. I’ll do a little setup first, so the Revolution FPS concept might be a little clearer.
When Id Software was making Quake, they realized that a fully 3D environment required fully 3D aiming. They needed a way for players to move their character and strafe, and be able to independently target enemies at the same time. Thus, the mouse-look was born. This new shooter interface was much more intuitive than the directional arrows and pageup/pagedown keys ever were, but again it was a necessity.
Yes, it was more natural, but only in the way of flying an airplane. Pushing the mouse forward and back let the player look up and down, but it was as if they were using a flight stick to point the nose of a plane. Inverting the y-axis was only a preference, not a genuine improvement. Mouse-look aiming caught on, but only because it had to. There was no better way to simulate pointing a gun in any direction.
Now we get back to the Revolution, and the Echoes demo. Here’s how it panned out: you’d use the nunchuk stick to move and strafe galactic heroine Samus Aran, much like a traditional analog stick or keyboard directional keys. The Z-triggers on the back of the analog attachment activated the different visors. All well and good, very conventional, but here’s the kicker: the remote-controller part was held like a gun, in essence it was Samus’s blaster, an extension of the player’s arm in and out of the game. The B-trigger fired shots and the well-placed A-button jumped, while the smaller “b” button was relegated to the morphball.
This is the evolution of the FPS genre. The only thing that could top this is full VR, and that’s still a ways off. Targeting enemies by simply pointing at them makes the beloved mouse-look appear sluggish and cumbersome. What’s more, the B-trigger makes the remote feel like a gun, much as the N64 controller did during heated sessions of GoldenEye.
I may be bold for saying this, but Halo is getting a run for its money. If developers truly see the FPS potential in this controller, how real it could feel compared to the older ways, they’ll flock to the Revolution and make it the new shooter console. The Xbox 360 is getting a lot of shooters for its launch, but that’s only because developers hadn’t seen the Revolution controller yet. For years, they’ve tried to recreate the keyboard-mouse experience with dual-analog sticks, but the end result always felt artificial.
Now they have something better to work with than what they were originally trying to copy. Let me put it this way: there’s a reason Counter-Strike tanked on the Xbox. In a twist of irony, Metroid Prime was criticized for not having dual-analog control. Now it has the monopoly on the most precise FPS control to date.
Another one of the TGS demos was a recreation of Delfino Island from Mario Sunshine. Players didn’t control Mario, however, but a small plane. Supposedly the reaction time was solid and zipping through floating rings with the little plane felt very satisfying. Imagine what flight combat games could do with this.
The same basic movement principle in full 3D, without a grounded character, could feel incredibly intuitive. It may even be possible to turn the controller sideways to imitate a flight yoke, while utilizing the face buttons and D-pad for weapon and thrust functions. Maybe Lucasarts and Factor 5 will bring Rogue Squadron back after all. And, I’m sure Pilotwings 3 is inevitable.
As you can see, all of the old-school game styles can be adapted to the remote-controller, and if not we always have the shell peripheral. I have no doubt that 3rd party houses will have little trouble porting their games to the revolution. But what we’ve talked about so far are the games we already know. The TGS video showcased a number of quirky yet interesting ideas for radical new game styles.
One shot demonstrated how a cooking game might work, with the controller used as a knife and stir-fry pan. Another shot had a guy swinging two controllers at once as if beating drums. Yet another clip featured a man drilling virtual teeth. There are already a couple of surgery games for the DS, and I’m sure that the fledgling genre will benefit from the new controller, and it might even become a cult hit. I’m also sure that fishing games, a category that’s been languishing for some time, will see a new infusion of life. The video showed an old man and his grandson fly-fishing with the controllers.
Iwata was right when he talked about the best ideas winning out over processing muscle. This new way of playing could spark a renaissance among offbeat independent titles, and some of those oddball ideas could grow into huge success stories. Who could’ve predicted that Katamari Damacy would’ve done so well? Looking even further back, GoldenEye was seen as an impending failure before its release. Instead it transformed console shooters. According to Nintendo, their new system and its controller will make the development process cheaper, quicker and smoother. They cite their new brain exercise games as an example.
So, is it really all up to the developers? Yes and no. Just as it has in the past, Nintendo will have to put its foot into the untested waters first. They’ll have to use their experience to forge new ground, to create stellar examples of how this new interface works. They not only have to prove that it’s not a gimmick, they have to show that it’s the only way for the industry to grow at this time. A tall order to be sure, but if they pull it off, the rest of the industry will follow. I can draw a parallel to what happened to Nintendo in the 64-bit era. Sony introduced the CD based Playstation, but Nintendo stuck with cartridges and lost the 3rd part support. This time, Nintendo is trying something new. Only time will tell if they’re taking the right risk.
Considering the possibilities, I think they’re making a good decision. A good number of Japanese developers, including Hideo Kojima and Yuji Naka, are quite enthusiastic about the controller. Could Nintendo be stealing developers out from under Sony and Microsoft, just as the competition did when Nintendo was too proud for their own good? We shall see.
In the end, it all comes down to who has the most customers. If your product is easy to use, sufficiently entertaining, and above all eye-catching, you’re going to get the attention of people who’ve never looked your way before. That’s what Nintendo is baking on.
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