It was an idea so good that it vaulted Nintendo into first place last-gen with a console using last-last-gen technology. It was an idea so flawed that a Kotaku reader—the moment this series of best and worst features of the outgoing console generation was announced—shredded it. Motion controls... boy did they mostly suck.
If you want to be poetic, you can think of all video game controls as metaphors. You don't really walk; you lean a stick forward. You don't shoot; you press a button.
If you want to be more negative—and let's face it, motion controls can make a sensible gamer angry—video game controls are lies.
Motion control is the worst of those lies.
You're not really swinging a tennis racket. Hell, you're not even really swinging your arm. I mean, you are, but it doesn't matter. You just need to trick some motors into thinking you are. You could just swing at your elbow or maybe even your wrist.
Games shouldn't just look more real but they should feel real, too, yeah? Out with buttons. In with realistic movements. No, no, no. Terrible idea.
You're not even holding a lightsaber. You're holding air. You are flailing. You don't look cool. Maybe you are six and you are having fun. Sorry, kid. More discriminating second-graders are building awesome stuff in Minecraft. That's the truth.
Long before the Nintendo Wii made motion control the Big Thing in Gaming in 2006, video game creators were tinkering with motion control. Perhaps they were making the perennially mistaken assumption that the apotheosis of video games is realism. Games shouldn't just look more real but they should feel real, too, yeah? Out with buttons. In with realistic movements.
Cue the commercial for the U-Force, clearly the most logical controller for Mike Tyson's Punch-Out:
Those who have embarked on the quest for video game realism have frequently been motivated by the hope in the hearts of so many gamers and game-makers that the rest of the world will someday appreciate video games the way they should be appreciated. Appreciate them enough to not mock them, please! Appreciate them enough to admit that gamers aren't losers in basements. Appreciate us! Appreciate games! Play them!
To Nintendo's eternal credit, the Wii sent a pro-gaming message to nursing homes and nursery schools, to Thanksgiving dinners and 24-hour news channels. Play Wii Sports, Nintendo said. All you need to do is swing a TV-remote-shaped controller like you're swinging a tennis racket or bowling bowl, and you'll be having fun.
The Wii excited millions of people who had never been excited about video games—or been willing to be publicly excited about video games—before. The Wii pulled this off by presenting the least intimidating view of video games since people dropped a quarter and leaned on a joystick to play Pac-Man. Thanks to motion control, gaming would go back to being something that didn't need an instruction manual or even a second hand to enjoy. Video gaming would look like this:
Or at least like this:
The Wii won acceptance in the way the PlayStation and Xbox did not. Motion control got it there. The idea of swinging your arm to play a game got it there. And as it got there, Nintendo's top game designers went to work making games that...mostly didn't use motion control.
You barely needed motion control for Super Smash Bros. and Super Mario Galaxy. You barely needed it for New Super Mario Bros. or Animal Crossing: City Folk. You could use it for Mario Kart Wii, but you didn't have to. The first Zelda on the system worked fine without it on the GameCube. The next Zelda mandated it, but its best ideas (other than being able to bowl your bombs!) didn't need it.
If Nintendo's own sparing use of motion control wasn't a strong enough signal that there was something lacking with the whole motion control concept, there was also the fact that the company's best motion control releases required new technology. Wii Fit required a motion-sensitive board for you to stand on. Wii Sports Resort required an advanced version of the Wii's original tech.
The simplicity of motion controls may have engaged new audiences, but, compared to traditional button-and-stick controllers, they disengaged their players. You moved, and you hoped the tech read you right and then worked.
The problem with all of this flailing was clear to anyone who played a lot of motion or non-motion games: motion control was slow and imprecise. The simplicity of motion controls may have engaged new audiences, but, compared to traditional button-and-stick controllers, they disengaged their players. You moved, and you hoped the tech read you right and then worked. What had been triggered by the digital input of a button had become the hand-waving of a gesture. The former was clear. The latter was confusing. Did you perform the wrong action? Did the machine read you wrong? Who knows.
At first, the imprecision of motion controls seemed to be something that smart designers could work around, creating games like Wii Sports that did half of the playing for you, moving your character on its own while you just worried about arm swings. And it seemed like early Wii imbroglios like SSX Blur, which laughably expected players to draw invisible figure-eights in the air and expected the Wii itself to know that was happening, would give way to better games that did better things with better motion control tech. This didn't happen.
The original Wii Remote was lacking enough. Then came the better tech and the nearly-simultaneous sign of disinterest from Nintendo itself. Over the course of more than two years, Nintendo released two notable games for its better Motion tech, Motion Plus. They then moved on to promote a new console that would still support Wii Remote motion control, but that emphasized second-screen gaming on a controller that knew when it was being tilted but that expected its players to hold it with two hands and use its buttons and sticks.
Sony managed to release the best motion technology of the generation, the PlayStation Move. The highlights included optional support for a lot of first-person games and a TV-less game of jousting.
Microsoft? Their genius motion control idea was to make gaming less tactile than ever. It looked great in commercials. It conjured up a million mentions of a famous Tom Cruise scene from the movie Minority Report, in which, I'd like to point out... HE IS NOT PLAYING A GAME ON HIS COMPUTER AND THUS THERE'S NO REASON TO THINK THIS IS OR EVER WILL BE FUN...
There are talented people at Microsoft, but, seriously, if Nintendo's finest couldn't get motion control to be reliably fun while you were holding something, was anyone at Microsoft really going to one-up them with motion control that involved grabbing at air? Gamers like to touch things. This is not because they are sweaty freaks. It's because guitar beats air guitar, because boxing beats shadow boxing, because driving beats backseat driving. Gamers need to touch things to feel control. They did in the days of the arcades. They do now every day on iPhones and iPads.
The last-gen zeal for motion control got us bad game after bad game that was designed with the hope that not touching the controls would somehow be ok. Hence: Steel Battalion, the least playable release from a major publisher last gen.
Buying a game and having it simply not run on the hardware you have used to be a joy reserved for PC gamers. Motion control brought that experience to home consoles.
To be fair...motion control wasn't all bad.
Motion control reminded gamers and game creators about the value of having a controller that could accurately point at the TV screen. That lead to a renaissance of light-gun shooters on Wii, including the terrific House of the Dead: Overkill and Dead Space Extraction. It led to the welcome option to play a first-person shooter with a pointer-based controller, as seen in the Wii's Metroid Prime Corruption and a slew of PS3 games, including the artful Unfinished Swan. Cameras and sensors for the next-gen Xbox and PlayStation will both read the pointed direction of the conventional controllers for those systems.
There also were some wonderful motion control games this past gen. Really!
Five excellent last-gen motion control games:
(These games weren't good despite motion control; they were wonderful because of it.)
- Wii Sports (Wii) - Perhaps the most approachable, family-pleasing video game ever created.
- Wii Sports Resort (Wii) - Through its archery and skydiving modes, a showcase for how precise motion control can use subtle physical actions to make a game more interesting.
- Red Steel 2 (Wii) - As excellent and fun—and as physically satisfying in its combination of player-acted gunplay and swordplay—as its predecessor was awful.
- Flower (PS3) - A game about flying, controlled with the motions of a controller set nearly in flight.
- Dance Central (Xbox 360) - A dance game that could see how your body moved and rewarded you or penalized you for it.
Motion controls also gave us more gaming bloopers than we've ever seen before, so they're not so terrible:
Well, maybe they are:
Motion control isn't going away in the next generation. The Wii U supports Wii Remotes, and already used them well in Pikmin 3. The PS4 will support the Move. The Xbox One has a second-generation Kinect. All of the machines' default dual-stick controllers have motion sensors in them. Perhaps with restrained use of motion control we'll get more good motion games and fewer bad attempted cash-ins.
For better and for worse, motion control ruled much of the previous generation. It propelled the Wii to the front of the pack and then, as Microsoft introduced and emphasized the Kinect, it moved the Xbox 360 to the fore. Along the way, it produced a lot of hype. It got a lot of people to look at games differently, but it produced very few great games. It didn't even inspire that many good ones.
For wasting so many people's time and money, motion control exits the last-gen as a zero. Sticks and buttons, we never doubted how awesome you were.
Last-Gen Heroes is Kotaku's look back at the seventh generation of console gaming. In the weeks leading up to the launch of the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, we'll be celebrating the Heroes—and the Zeroes—of the last eight years of console video gaming. More details can be found here; follow along with the series here.