The Wii Revolution has succeeded. Everyone knows this. What was once doubted and mocked now dominates and broadly entertains. But during the last 33 months of Wii success, a secret and newly relevant struggle has been hidden in plain sight.
This stumble in Nintendo's stride has gained little attention as its competitors chase its dust. It's about the key tool for movement in this big gaming movement.
The original promise of the Wii's controller, the Wii Remote, was that it would augur a revolution in game control, a Motion Control Revolution.
Yet nearly three years later, with the Wii Sports' sequel, Wii Sports Resort,on the verge of its U.S. release, the triumph of the Motion Control Revolution is debatable at best. At the very moment when the wisdom of releasing the Wii is beyond dispute, it can be argued that the Motion Control Revolution has stalled — failed even — and that Wii Sports Resort is the next best hope (the last one?) to save it.
First shown at a game conference in Tokyo in September of 2005, the Wii Remote was going to make imitation swordsmen and dentists of us all. It was going to turn us into sharpshooters and champion fishermen, or so Nintendo's video sizzle reel hyped.
When Wii Sports was released in November 2006, that Motion Control Revolution seemed assured. We swung the Remote like a tennis racket and heaved it like a bowling ball. Those motions first delighted our families at holiday gatherings and then an audience at The Oscars. Day after day, the anchors of cable news seemed charmed to play a game on a console whose name they struggled to pronounce.
Yet, since the Wii Remote birthed the great Wii Sports, it's no stretch to claim that the revolutionary Remote has spawned no other great motion control games.
That's Nintendo's hidden stumble, this struggle for the motion-sensitivity of the Wii Remote to prove itself the equal of traditional button and stick controls, to say nothing of establishing itself as the superior option. Gamers groan at the flimsy motion controls mapped to action games. A shake of a hand replaces what could have been the press of a button. In game after game, motion control presents a different option, but one that seldom seems better.
As right as Nintendo was about so many things, maybe it was wrong about this. Or, as is so often the case with Nintendo's Wii project, the failure here may be one of critical imagination. That happens. Forty years ago on Monday, a human being first stepped on the moon, and what people assumed would happen in the next four decades — trips to Mars, cities in space — have not been built. The guessers often guess wrong.
The future we may have expected in 2006 — of a 2007 and beyond filled with motion-based greats manipulated with a Wii Remote — has not come to pass. The lightsaber, magic wand and music-conducting Wii games we expected were made. But they felt constrained and inaccurate. Mario and Zelda have not been transformed into adventures of motion-based brilliance. Magnificent as that motion control in Wii Sports was, the ability to let a player control their game by swinging the Wii Remote appears to have inspired little confidence and limited mastery even in some of the world's most expert game creators.
Even in Wii Fit, the great successor to Wii Sports, the Wii Remote was all but relegated to a laser pointer used to select menu options. Meanwhile, the mechanism for the game's motion was the Balance Board, a controller inspired by a bathroom scale.
Other Wii designers minimised their use of the Wii Remote's motion control even more. Chart-topper Super Smash Brothers played without it. Blockbusters Mario Kart Wii and Guitar Hero tucked it away in shells shaped like wheels and guitars, doing little to convince anyone that motion control was a must.
A new Zelda down-played it. A new Mario limited its motion-control element, as have so many Wii games, to the occasional vibration of a player's right hand. This fall's New Super Mario Bros. Wii, made in the two years since the last Wii Mario, uses motion control no more than the last.
Some games have used the Remote's motion control aggressively. MadWorld, No More Heroes and Manhunt 2 harnessed its potential for violence. Wii Music marshaled motion for musicality. Boom Blox made it the mechanism for hurling baseballs at stubborn bricks. But fun as some of those games were, they were not hits.
In that dust behind Nintendo's Wii, Microsoft and Sony are in the chase. Last month they revealed their own Motion Controllers, tied to cameras and, in the Xbox's case with Project Natal, absent the need for players to hold anything in their hands. One wonders if the companies have noticed Nintendo's struggles with motion control amidst the Wii's triumphs. The use of arm and body movements to play games has not proven a game-changer in and of itself. By making games more appealing a wider audience, its been a component of a bigger change. But it's also been a red herring.
Designers borrowing ideas from Wii Sports had had better success drawing from the game's accessibility than strictly from its motion controls. The simplicity of its design made Wii Sports approachable, streamlined and friendly, the least intimidating game many people had played since Pac-Man. It has one of the shortest gaps between being turned on and being fun. These have been its smarter qualities — and have revealed that the genius of the Wii Remote may not be its swing but its shape. It can be understood when seen from across a room and clearly it's no threat.
If the lack of games doing great things with motion control was one sign of trouble for the Motion Control Revolution, another was last summer's revelation that Nintendo was building a gadget that would enhance/repair/improve the Remote's motion-sensitivity. Bundled with copies of next Sunday's Wii Sports Resort and made to be plugged into the base of a Wii Remote, the MotionPlus add-on is, in Resort, a necessary attachment for better sword-swinging, archery, bowling, golf and more. A swing is a swing and a flick is a flick, and the controller feels like it finally knows — instead of merely simplifies — how the player is moving.
After years of playing games made during Nintendo's era of the Remote, playing Wii Sports Resort with MotionPlus attached suggests that we've been using a tool that was too blunt for the task. It is a technological success but also an admission by its manufacturers that the original Wii Remote was not capable of the motions we imagined — or that were teased in that sizzle reel.
Wii Sports Resort has greatness in it. A couple of days playing it — of going back for more and more — reveals it to be another joyful construction, a game with plenty of fun to share. The necessary bolting on of MotionPlus could be proof that, like Wii Fit or Guitar Hero, the greatest, most accessible motion-based games needs a unique device of its own, a controller shaped to the actions and fantasies of the game it supports. Wii Sports Resort suggests that for all the virtues of the Wii Remote's simplicity, it was too simple on its own to enable a line of games made great by its motion control.
By exposing what's been wrong with it, Wii Sports Resort may be the game to save the Motion Control Revolution. (All images via Nintendo of America's press site. Super Smash Bros. player image from Nintendo/Stuart Ramson)