Motion Controls, The Most Popular And Most Broken Idea Gaming Ever Had

Motion Controls, The Most Popular And Most Broken Idea Gaming Ever Had

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 emphasised 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 penalised 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 emphasised 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.


  • Resident Evil 4. Pointer controls. Good stuff.

    All in all, it was one step forward, one step back. I’m sure a fair amount of people disagree (and hold a more negative opinion about it all), and for good reason, but y’know, it definitely marked a steady if not rocky step towards the future of gaming.

    • Oh man, played that on the GC and the Wii and the wii version was much better. I was able to ace all of those side missions, something I was unable to do on the Wii.

  • I like motion controls…
    I think one problem was developers thinking that their games either needed full motion controls or none at all, no middle-ground.
    I think the few times someone got it right, it was an amazing experience.

  • Motion control wasn’t universally bad because the games that best used it made use of the buttons as well as the motions so that the intent of the player was made clearer and the typical gaming affordances like camera control and playing with the interface were simple options.

    Kinect is a failure because it removed the buttons (while pretending this was some sort of “feature”). Instead of waggling your wrists to try and gesture something, now you have to flail about like some lunatic instead of being able to press a button. You can’t turn your head to move the camera because you’re then looking away from the screen, not at it. How do you check your minimap with Kinect? The fact that there aren’t any deep, serious games that are effective on Kinect — count how many Kinect games are on rails, for instance — merely proves the fact that the absence of buttons is a recipe to disaster.

  • This article is not only condescending to people that actually enjoy motion controlled games, but pretty much gamers everywhere. Surprisingly; what doesn’t work for you, might work for others.

    I’m a very competitive/good gamer, and would easily class myself as ‘hardcore’. Do I also enjoy motion controlled gaming? You’re damn right I do. My partner and I wouldn’t play nearly as many games together if it wasn’t for motion controlled gaming.

    Of course getting all the medals in Kinect Adventures would have been easier on a controller … but that’s not the point is it. I also think Pikmin on the Wii U is markedly better when using the motion controls vs. using the pro controller.

    This article is trash, gg, no re.

    • Agreed. Motion controls were actually a lot of fun when done right. I think the issue a lot of developers (and gamers) had, was that it was new.

      If there is anything becoming incredibly prevalent in gaming over the last few years is that gamers are incredibly conservative and just want the same experiences, over and over and over.

      Motion controls weren’t always done perfectly. That wasn’t an issue of the technology. It was an issue of the designer (and in instances, the player just not wanting it, and refusing to try to enjoy it).

      I think it’ll be interesting to see how people look back at Skyward Sword because of motion controls. Personally I think it was one of the best Zelda’s ever created. It was very well designed from start to finish, and the controls improved the Zelda mechanics and puzzles immensely. (The only issue was its over obsessed with hand holding and annoying beepings)

      I am guessing that people will think its one of the worst, and just blame motion controls.

    • You’re being a little harsh. The article actually explicitly states that Pikmin 3 on the Wii U used motion controls well, which I see you agree with.

    • No, it isn’t. The article is probably the most balanced article I’ve seen on the subject. It actually acknowledges a ton of good in motion controls, while most articles just talk about the downsides. And it actually treats people who like motion controls with respect–even making your point about bringing in new gamers for you.

      I’m honestly not sure what you are upset about.

  • I dislike motion controls when they are tacked on in places where sticks are superior. The swimming in Skyward Sword for instance, instead of me having to wave the remote around to inaccurately control my direction and crash into walls, just let me use the damn analogue stick to steer!

    I kind of like the direction Sony are taking with the Dual Shock 4 – building the motion sensor into the standard controller so we can still get some motion control but not at the expense of standard controls (assuming developers don’t mess with us)

  • Oh my God I’m in tears after that first motion control bloopers video… Karl Stefanovic at 2:15 yelling “here it comes!” made my week.

  • 2 minutes into the blooper clip, I’m not going to do anything, I’ll just laugh while I film it 🙂

  • Have to say that one of the most memorable gaming periods for me is having WiiSports bowling competitions with flat mates over the span of 9 months..

    • Not to be a dick about it, but how’d you do tournaments for nine months? We had tournaments at my work for about a fortnight before we all developed the technique to get a strike every time!

  • In general I dislike motion controllers mainly due to the fact it can be wildly inaccurate at times and most of the time, motion control feels it’s added on for the sake of a feature

  • I’m speaking purely from personal experience but I bet there’s a lot of girlfriends who joined their boyfriends in enjoying gaming as a hobby precisely because motion controls were easy for them to understand and once they were in it was easy for us to show them some of the better experiences that required more traditional controllers.

    That’s not a Last-Gen Zero but a Hero in my opinion coz it meant we could still get laid and enjoy plenty of gaming 🙂 *hugs Wii*

  • The only time I use motion controls is playing with my kids on Mario Kart or Wii Sports.

    However a game I heard that finally got motion controls right was Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. It’s my first Zelda game that I’ve ever played, and am very impressed and glad I did decide to take the plunge! Not sure what you guys think, but it is very intuitive and well thought out. I love using the whip, throwing/rolling bombs, but most importantly the sword slashing is awesome. Feels quite accurate and precise.

    *Edit*: It’s probably the only time the wife will play using motion controls, ie. Wii Sports, or Just Dance.

  • The best experience I had with motion controls this generation was with Kinect. It was the part where you calibrate it and you get to control your whole avatars body. I saw my little avatar standing there, in full ninja garb and I was amazed how perfectly he mimicked my every move. I waved, danced, thrust my pelvis, and my little ninja version of me followed my every move. I kept thinking ‘wow, this feels incredible, this feels like the first new hardware-related experience I’ve had in a long time.’

    And that was the most fun I had with motion control.

    There were no Kinect-based games that I enjoyed at all. My kids loved it, but beyond that little calibration moment of controlling my avatar, I didn’t really enjoy Kinect.

  • I reckon the Metroid Prime series in the Wii were/are the definitive FPS games; I could actually double jump, aim and hit something; they were simply intuitive and involving to play.
    Am kinda surprised at the Move being listed as the best as playing House of the Dead Overkill on the PS3 was an exercise in frustration over the Wii version; the Move controller on the PS3 just didn’t work particularly well, even firing failed to register at times.

  • Heavenly Sword on PS3 had some great motion control in the archery or catapult sections. So good I still just load up those chapters to play them.

    I don’t think it was a broken idea, I think the issue was that there was never a follow up to it, to take all the great ideas to the next level. The Wii was sold as a motion control console so the graphics didn’t matter. Unfortunately they always will. The Wii U isn’t really the 2nd generation of motion control systems. Nintendo needed to make a Wii HD in about 2009/10 that upped the power/graphics of the machine and continued to pour their efforts into being a leader in motion control. To find a great balance between cheap motion control and hardcore gaming. It was possible. It was obvious right from the start that the Wii would get old very quickly unless you were under 8 years of age.
    The balance board also needed a revision, version 2, the thickness of an iPad for instance. Which could be utilised in numerous games. The idea was there, but no games for it. A six-axis like pro controller for this Wii HD could’ve still kept the great titles coming to Nintendo. But no, it was too underpowered.
    I think that’s why the Wii U doesn’t generate much interest. I imagine what could’ve been if Nintendo solely focussed the Wii U on being the 2nd (or 3rd) generation of motion control.

  • Am I the only one who read this article as:
    Actually, there were some good games…
    Maybe they don’t suck so bad.
    …but there weren’t many good games.
    :'( I spent too much money on motion controls.

    The article just seemed a little confused in what it was trying to say.

  • Where was skyward sword in this article…? That’s the best use of motion controls I ever saw on the Wii.

  • The true inventor of hand manipulated video motion control is a man named Vincenzo Giovanni Ruello and experimental video maker photographer. He has released archive footage from 1987 on the net it is quite amazing 20 years before Nintendo’s Wii system

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