Wii Truths Day 1: Motion Controls

wii Console_0The Wii was a special console for me. Its lifespan coincided with a leisure sweetspot in my own life that afforded intoxicating levels of videogame opportunity. I played a lot of Wii games and tracked all the Wii developments, be they exciting or mundane, major or minor, captivating or frustrating. I found plenty of fun on my PS3, and I suffered the exclusivity of many X360 hits, but I don’t regret spending the majority of my gaming prime with Nintendo’s bold experiment.

Although many will say the Wii died long before 2012 (and not without merit), the system’s successor is a week away from taking the baton, signaling the official end of Wii’s journey. With that in mind, I thought it would be appropriate to take a week and remember just what Nintendo’s “Revolution” was all about. Each day this week, we’ll take a closer look at one aspect of the Wii’s legacy, framed by a number of Wii Truths that have dawned on me as I look back on the generation.

First up, the Wii’s major selling point: its motion controls. The entire Wii marketing blitz revolved around the system’s intuitive, kinetic play style. Thanks to Nintendo’s expanded market view, which even made Wii a hit in retirement communities, the system flew off shelves faster than it could be stocked for the first year of its life. It was all thanks to an inviting white remote that effortlessly transformed into a tennis racquet, a bowling ball, and a golf club.

But the truth is...

Wii Truths Week

  1. Motion Controls
  2. System Features
  3. Software Trends
  4. Digital Distribution
  5. Game Spotlights

Nintendo went all in with motion controls at launch...

In the first seven months of Wii’s life, Nintendo published seven games. Motion controls were a core feature in six of them. Link’s sword and shield were controlled exclusively with the Wii remote and nunchuk in Twilight Princess, Excite Truck used tilting to steer, Mario Party 8 featured dozens of minigames that usually prompted some mechanical activity, and so on. Its initial “Wii Would Like To Play” TV spots showed barely any gameplay footage, instead focusing on families, friends, and even co-workers bouncing around the TV. Wii needed to set itself apart from 360 and PS3, so Nintendo played up the motion angle.

wii Sports Bowling

...but its hit franchises rarely benefited from motion thereafter.

The software library could not subsist on Wii-branded games alone, and Nintendo scrambled to pull its core franchises into the motion-controlled fold, to mixed results. Few would argue that Wario Land: Shake It!, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Kirby’s Return to Dream Land, and Metroid Other M were improved by their token motion implementations. And a handful of high profile Nintendo franchises were outright slammed for their clumsy integration of motion controls, most famously Donkey Kong in the racing game Barrel Blast and platformer Country Returns. Rare options for motionless Gamecube and Classic Controller play were welcome when available, as most agreed Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart, and Punch-Out played best without all the waggle. Nintendo seemed to pull out one or two games per year built around motion control, but for every Wii Fit there were a half-dozen Nintendo mainstays with functions formerly operated by buttons replaced by obligatory, half-hearted shakes.

Wii Sports Boxing perfectly illustrates how the marketing hype undermined motion controls' actual merits.

Wii Sports Boxing gets no respect. Generally regarded as the most disappointing Wii Sports game, Sony even mocked its silly controls in a PlayStation Move trailer. But the truth is, Wii Sports Boxing was the most responsive and nuanced of the five pack-in games. You can exert an impressive amount of control over your Mii’s boxing gloves by tilting the Wiimote and nunchuk like arcade joysticks. But who boxes like that, tilting their wrists around? Nintendo told us we could throw real punches and see convincing results on screen. That wasn’t the case. Players felt lied to (they were) and dropped the game before learning how it was best played, with wrist tilting and shaking. And Wii Sports Boxing was just the first of many games that duped players with promises of “intuitive controls,” chasing them off before the right way to play could be taught, if it was taught at all.

wii Sports Boxing

The true motion revolution came too late.

Almost three years after the Wii launched, Nintendo gave the Wii remote an upgrade it should have had all along. The Wii MotionPlus controller attachment and its gyroscopic sensors finally added the fidelity necessary for convincing gesture controls. Nintendo put the device to good use in Wii Sports Resort, Wii Play Motion, and most famously The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Unfortunately, the Wii’s initial bait-and-switch had already soured gamers and developers on motion controls: almost four years later, only forty games support Wii Motion Plus, most reeking with the stench of shovelware.

The most interesting motion games used a different design approach.

Most developers created Wii games with the goal of replicating a physical activity, starting with a question like “How can we make a golf game with the Wii remote?” But the remote’s limitations made for inevitable disappointment for anyone with any real experience on the links. The best games instead studied the controller’s features and asked, “How can we leverage the Wii remote’s strengths to create something intuitive?” The remote couldn’t handle wide motions well, but it exceled at pointing, tilting, and detecting tiny movements, resulting in fun oddities like Elebits, Fluidity, and Let’s Tap. Anybody can sense the mechanical dissonance between swinging a baseball bat and Wii Sports Baseball, but tilting the play field in Mercury Meltdown Revolution fit the Wii like a glove.

sin and Punishment Star Successor Crazyboss

The infrared pointer was the real star.

While motion controls often detracted from traditional games, the system’s oft-forgotten infrared pointer added an engaging new dimension to almost any genre. 3D action games like Captain America: Super Soldier and Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands added precise ranged abilities to their heroes’ melee action. The fast, accurate reticle gave twitch shmups like Sin & Punishment: Star Successor and Geometry Wars: Galaxies even more control. Sports games like Pro Evolution Soccer allowed the player to draw plays on the fly and easily target teammates for passes. And, of course, it made navigating menus a breeze for anybody. Intuitive, precise, and unique: the IR pointer was the Wii remote's best feature.

It was an underutilized FPS machine.

Thanks to that infrared pointer, the genre best suited to Wii was undoubtedly the shooter. Compared to an analog stick, the crosshairs were much more instinctual and accurate on Wii, if not quite up to keyboard/mouse ideals. Unfortunately, the standard definition visuals, shoddy online infrastructure, and juvenile stigma kept high profile shooters at bay. Still, games like Red Steel 2, Goldeneye 007, and Metroid Prime 3 made excellent use of the snappy pointer. Even the Modern Warfare and Black Ops games migrated to Wii with almost all of their HD-version features intact, though they were too late to cultivate a meaningful FPS movement on the system.

Dance Central Commodores Brick House

Sony and Microsoft surpassed the Wii remote's tech, but Nintendo had already ruined the party for everyone.

In the four years after the system launch, hardcore gamers had all but dropped Wii due to its infestation of peripherals, minigame collections, and casual games. So what did Sony and Microsoft do? They made their own motion control peripherals and supported them with plenty of minigame collections and casual games! Despite creating two fascinating approaches to motion controls, the HD console companies tried to emulate Wii’s explosive initial success rather than learn from its inability to stay relevant to core gamers. Two years later, Kinect and Move are still struggling to entice the hardcore with compelling experiences, even while Sony is pushing excellent PlayStation Move support into its shooters while Kinect is key to some groundbreaking dance games, if little else.

Plenty of waggle-plagued games rocked anyway.

For every Donkey Kong Country Returns, where the shake controls grounded an otherwise stellar experience, there was a New Super Mario Bros. Wii, in which waggle could have been replaced by a button but did no real damage to the experience. Perhaps it was an issue of frequency: when used sparingly and in short bursts, as in Kirby’s Return to Dream Land and Mario Strikers Charged, waggle was an acceptable supplement to the Wii remote’s modest button count. But in lengthy games with frequent shaking, the motion gimmicks often wore out their welcome. Whatever the reason, waggle wasn’t always the death sentence it was made out to be. Sure, shaking the Wii remote to make Mario spin in Super Mario Galaxy was kind of silly. But that didn’t stop it from topping Metacritic’s All-Time list for a while.

Super Mario Galaxy Lava Volcano Blast

Like them or not, Nintendo's motion control movement was one of this generation's most important developments. It was a polarizing issue: where do you stand? Join the discussion in the comments and check back each day this week for more of our look back at Wii's six-year life.