The Nintendo Switch has a motion control problem. To fix it, the company could revisit how it cracked the Wii.
In the gestational days of the Wii, Nintendo's best minds hit a roadblock. The R&D squad wished to invent a truly accessible video game console, as playable by amateurs as by experts, but as with most revolutionary ideas, the gulf between concept and execution proved hard to cross. Iconic designer Shigeru Miyamoto established with the team that, to entice people to play games, the traditional controller, which had accrued buttons, triggers and joysticks with age, needed to to be rid of convention. And so began a period of rapid and intense experimentation.
The first breakthrough came from Genyo Takeda, then general manager of Nintendo R&D, who suggested using a pointer to direct action on a television screen. A prototype was made. Dubbed the Gunbai (the name of the fan held by referees in a sumo match), a pointer sat on the middle of a traditional two-handed controller. The team tested the model thoroughly, but pointing with a bulky controller never felt quite right.
Leadership pushed the team to be more aggressive with unconventional design. Perhaps the controller would require no hands. Or maybe it would be strapped to your head. Akio Ikeda, one of Nintendo’s hardware designers, believed he had a solution: Keep Takeda’s pointer, but place it at the tip of a one-handed rod. Miyamoto directed the team to use the rod design as a new starting point — but ultimately, the rod won out.
The one-handed rod controller is simple, but effective. Shaped like a remote control, its ergonomics are immediately familiar to practically anyone who’s touched a TV remote: Point at the screen and click. Turned sideways, the rod can still be used as a traditional two-handed controller for classic games, similar to the rectangular controller for the original NES.
“That's how difficult problems are normally solved, isn't it?” Ikeda said in a roundtable following the Wii’s launch. “They're all cleared up at once.”
The Nintendo Switch, released earlier this year, is going into the holiday shopping season as an established commercial success that’s if not on par with the Wii, then approaching it. Ten months after launch, stores still can’t keep stock on shelves. While Nintendo has dropped the Wii branding (tarnished by the Wii U) and focused software on more traditional genres (the Switch doesn’t have an equivalent of Wii Sports), the company has made an effort to maintain some of the Wii’s design sensibilities.
The portable/console hybrid features two detachable motion controllers. Called Joy-Cons, they work similarly to Wii Remotes. Depending on the game, a flip of the wrist or a wave of the hand can control the action on screen. But while the Switch has been a success as a traditional game console, its motion controls haven’t struck the same joyful spark as its predecessor’s.
The issue is intent. While Nintendo designed the Wii and its software around its controllers, the Joy-Cons supplement the Switch. The new hardware is, above all else, a mishmash of console and handheld. Part Wii, part Nintendo DS, the Switch can be docked alongside your television or played on the go thanks to it tablet-sized portable screen. As a result, Nintendo’s motion controls have lost the spotlight — and with it, a sense of purpose.
The Switch’s design doesn’t compliment motion controls. Nintendo is pitching the Switch as a console that can be played where you want and how you want — an idea at odds with motion controls, which require more space and a specific physical mode of play. At home, with the the Joy-Cons separate from the tablet, the Switch can serve as an upgraded Wii. But on the go, with Joy-Cons connected to the tablet, the Switch becomes a large, unwieldy, single motion controller. It’s the Gunbai all over again. And like the Gunbai, it doesn’t feel right.
Whether it’s the Wiimote, the PlayStation Move or Microsoft Kinect, the success and failure of motion and controls have hinged on the “Set and Setting.” That is to say that motion controls — more so than any other type of game, barring VR — benefit tremendously from an appropriate venue. You need space, and you need encouragement and permission to perform the silly gestures.
The Wii, for example, excelled because Wiimotes worked in small rooms, were socially acceptable to play in public and private settings, and were supported by motion-focused games like Boom Blox and Wii Sports Resort. And PlayStation Move has found a second life as a tool for PlayStation VR, where its simple and “tangible” controls allow for immersion in constrained virtual spaces. That a VR headset prevents you from seeing yourself waggle the controls like a goofball certainly doesn’t hurt.
Conversely, Kinect suffered from a need for a large, open and well-lit living room, and ultimately, couldn’t survive without a reliable march of inspired software designed exclusively for the hardware. In the later years of Kinect, Microsoft pushed hands-free controls as a bonus feature, asking players to bark orders at military shooters or to navigate fussy menus by letting go of the controller and waving a hand. Microsoft's desire to keep Kinect alive with crummy motion controls only pushed players further away.
This year, Microsoft finally put the kibosh on Kinect. A tool with tremendous potential for improving accessibility in games slowly died because Microsoft never found a way to make motion controls more intuitive than simply using the controller. For years, Kinect handled poorly and unpredictably. Now Kinect is gone, and one wonders how many potential nongamers are gone with it.
Even the Wii’s motion controls ultimately suffered from a negative reputation. The system was let down by relatively few games that made excellent use of the Wiimote’s capabilities. Toward the end of its life cycle, fans started to see motion controls as a hindrance. Players began to use the pejorative “waggle controls” to describe games that required flailing to accomplish imprecise actions, like swinging a sword or aiming a rifle.
Time and again, mishandling motion controls has hurt accessibility, ultimately setting back hard-won progress.
Designers for the portable Nintendo Switch don’t have the same luxuries as designers for previous motion control hardware. They can’t assume a controlled living room setting. Players might be on a bus, at school or taking a cross-country flight in business class, where motion controls might attract some uneasy looks.
Needing to create motion controls that just work, whether the Joy-Cons are attached or unattached to the tablet, software designers have begun to compromise. Some solutions kind of, sort of, help. Action games like Splatoon 2 and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild have leveraged motion controls to make up for the limitations of the hardware’s imprecise analog sticks. The player physically aims the Switch at their target on screen, moving the hardware around the real world like a window into an alternate one.
More egregious is Super Mario Odyssey, which all but locks a handful of maneuvers behind motion-control gestures. A jolt upward throws Mario’s hat to the sky; a Frisbee-like flick of the hand sends the hat in a looping circle. The motion controls are obtrusive when the game is played in portable mode, requiring you to move the screen at awkward angles. But even when the Joy-Cons are treated like Wiimotes, the emphasis on motion controls fails to achieve the noble goal of the Wii: They don’t make the game more accessible.
Motion controls have the capacity to improve the experience, especially for a novice or inexperienced player. But on Switch, motion controls almost exclusively benefit players who’ve already overcome gaming’s sharpest learning curve: controlling 3D movement and a camera at the same time, while retaining muscle memory of the various button combinations.
Super Mario Odyssey’s motion controls are especially at odds with Nintendo’s ongoing push for accessibility, as they’re more difficult to perform than simply tapping a face button — two of which sit unused, waiting to be given a function. (Even more puzzling, Mario’s hat twirl can be accomplished without motion controls, but demands a needlessly complicated twirl of the joystick, one of the more challenging tricks to pull off reliably in a 3D space.)
Playing Super Mario Odyssey, you sense that Nintendo is dedicated, once again, to an idea that just doesn’t quite work. That it’s time to break from its own established conventions.
Nintendo’s leadership has found a new gimmick in video game hardware that travels, and it’s already begun to experiment with this capability to great effect. If anything, the company should be pickier with how and when to deploy motion controls, rather than following the current strategy, which seems to be, in simple terms, “Use every bit of the Switch’s hardware, whether it benefits the game or not.”
Not every game needs to deliver on Nintendo’s current “play anywhere” marketing pitch. For example, a new Wii Sports would flatter the Switch’s Joy-Cons and attract new customers, even if the game isn’t meant to take advantage of the hardware’s portable mode.
Nor does every game need a motion control gimmick; instead, developers should consider alternate ways to improve accessibility. While Super Mario Odyssey’s motion controls are undercooked, the developers generously included a beginner’s mode that places arrows on the world to direct players from one goal to the next.
Please don’t mistake this as an argument against Nintendo continuing to support motion controls; rather, it’s a case for the publisher to produce more games built with motion controls at their core.
Twice already, Nintendo has come close to launching a worthy motion-focused game on their new hardware. Both the minigame collection 1-2-Switch and the fighting game Arms feature playful motion controls. The former feels more like a tech demo, and the latter lacks precision, but they suggest Nintendo has bigger plans for motion controls, not as a supplement to a game, but as its reason for being.
And so as the Switch wraps its first year, the company appears to be slowly relearning the valuable lessons of the Gunbai. Break convention. Learn from experiments. And above all else: do what feels right, not what feels obvious.