Guest Blog: Wii U- Innovation and awkwardness

Nintendo has always been a bit of a cult brand, but I’m still amazed at how fondly remembered the N64 is. This is partly because of personal prejudice; I always recoiled from the mass hysteria drummed up in N64 fanboys over games that were simply mediocre compared to titles on other platforms (Perfect Dark came out two years after Half Life, and still got scores of 98 percent across the board – really, guys?). But there was a more fundamental problem: you needed three hands to work the controller.

OK, you didn’t very often need three hands, thanks to the discipline and imagination of game developers – but that three-pronged pad must surely go down as one of the worst design decisions in history. How did it get through ergonomics testing – were people just too embarrassed to complain?

I bring this up only because I fear that Nintendo have gone and done it again with the Wii U gamepad. It’s a stylish enough piece of kit – half-pad and half tablet, with a 6.2 inch touchscreen sandwiched between the usual array of buttons, pads and triggers. The 6.2 inch touchscreen is small compared to the average tablet – but it’s big compared to your hand. Any game that requires the full set of controls on the gamepad is going to require either very long thumbs and a cavalier attitude to carpal tunnel syndrome on the part of its players, or dropping the pad with your right hand to use the touchscreen. In short, 15-odd years after the N64, Nintendo has given us another three-hander.

The N64 pad got away with that design flaw because it was the first pad to offer analog and digital controls in one unit; likewise, the Wii U gamepad has the shock of the new on its side. Public demos have emphasized the possibilities for new modes of interacting with games using the touchpad and tilt/axial controls in combination with the old-fashioned joypad buttons, as well as collaborative gaming on the basis of different players using different controllers.

A proper touchpad console controller was somewhat inevitable. Nintendo’s DS is eight years old this November, and the explosion of smartphone games has made this mode of interaction ubiquitous. Even when it’s well-established in other fields, however, technological innovation can be awkward in the gaming arena. Nintendo has a good track record of taking risks with this stuff – sometimes successfully (the DS), but sometimes achieving little more than a few gimmicky show-off apps before the serious gamers return to joypads (the Wii).

I want to suggest that, in order to get the most out of a new breed of controller, it’s necessary to think a little more seriously about what games will suit it best. Consoles have always been good for fighting and driving games, because the relative precision and strictly limited control of an ergonomically-designed gamepad is pretty well-suited to what those genres require. Likewise, with all due respect to the Xbox Live CoD contingent, first-person shooters are still all about the classic keyboard/mouse combo, which comes as close to the speed of your reflexes as possible. (The emergence of high-performance gaming keyboards has also filled in some of the pitfalls of using a control surface fundamentally designed for work, not play.)

What games will suit touch-screen controllers? On the evidence of the smartphone market, puzzle games suit them very well indeed. The relatively simple control interface, combined with the emphasis on abstract thought rather than narrative, suits the pocket-sized iPhone app very well. With a full home console set-up, the possibilities are even greater for original and utterly mad multiplayer puzzlers. Some more ‘well-respected’ genres – especially those traditionally centred on a mouse interface, like real-time strategy games – will also transfer well.

The Wii U launch range doesn’t suggest that much thought has gone into it. Like the Wii, there are a few novelty games designed to show off the new kit. Like Nintendo’s recent behavior as a whole, there are a lot of recycled versions of their own intellectual property. And, like every other console, there is a bevy of action game remakes and sequels. The latter is partly due to the high-end game market’s general staleness than anything Nintendo has done, but it is still a problem.

Unless the ‘gimmick’ games give way to genuine killer apps, there just isn’t much to recommend the Wii U over existing consoles. Nintendo’s customer base may be cultish, but there are only so many times you can ask people to shell out for the same games slightly rehashed – especially if the key selling point is that you’ll need three hands to play them.

-Joanna Stevenson

  1. chrismo10 reblogged this from galaxynextdoor
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  5. joelbmffortytwo said: I don’t feel the need to have the console even though I enjoy Mario games very much. Of course, the moment they launch a Mario Kart Wii U I’ll think about it.
  6. galaxynextdoor posted this
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