If nothing else, Nintendo is certainly an unconventional videogame company. Their tendency to zig when everyone else zags is both a strength and a weakness, being a trait that some people find endearing while others are put off by it. A handheld with two screens? Waving a remote control around? A controller with a giant touch screen in the middle? Certainly, not all of their experiments are successful, or even born out of necessity, and often times they’re labeled as gimmicks. But be that as it may, I think dismissing them as simple gimmicks undermines the value they actually have in the grander scheme of things.
Something I love about the videogame medium is how incredibly versatile it is. Ever since I was young, I always believed that there was a videogame for everyone. Can’t wrap your head around an action game like Super Mario Bros? Maybe a simpler puzzle game like Tetris is for you. Or maybe you’d rather spend months of your life dissecting the intricacies of a deep RPG. Perhaps you like your games to be more cinematic and movie-like. Or maybe your aviation fantasies are satisfied with an ultra-realistic flight simulator. There’s no rule that says a videogame’s quality or worth is based on what type of game it is.
But it’s not just about style or genre. It goes beyond that, as well. The type of hardware a game runs on, as well as your means of interacting with it, should be allowed to be just as versatile. This is an area a lot of people seem to get hung up on.
Let’s take a step back for a minute. In fact, let’s go back to 2004 when Nintendo revealed one of its most infamous “disruptions:” the Nintendo DS. I mean, really. What do we need with two screens? And does anyone really want to control a game with a touchscreen? Not to mention, it’s nowhere near as powerful as the more conventional Sony PSP that was announced just a little earlier. It’s just plain weird for no reason.
My reaction: why not?
At that time in the early 2000s, it felt like videogames were becoming rigid, as if they had to be a specific thing that worked a specific way. I don’t know if it was because players were becoming more adverse to change, or because publishers were afraid to try new things, but it was particularly frustrating for me. This wasn’t the attitude that made videogames so interesting in the ’80s. Granted, it was the wild west back then, and videogames were still trying to define themselves through trial and error. And while the experimentation wasn’t always successful, it was one of the things that made them exciting. I was sad to see that disappearing.
So for me, the Nintendo DS was a breath of fresh air. Why not have the game play out on more than one screen? Why not interact with it with something other than buttons? Why not let videogames be more than just conventional?
Gimmicky? Maybe in some ways, but it’s worth acknowledging that it had to go through a maturation process. The games available for the DS in its first year often used the touchscreen and other features in insubstantial ways, mainly just using them for the sake of it. But by the end of the system’s lifespan, developers had learned how, when (and when not) to make use of it.
I supposed I could be called a little bit of a motion control apologist, but I feel the same way about the original Wii. Motion controls have become a bit of a dirty word in the gaming community, but I believe they had more value than they tend to get credit for. Games early in the Wii’s life were spotty with their motion control experiments, often being used for minigames. But by the end, we were seeing very smart implementation in games like Trauma Team, Red Steel 2 and Pandora’s Tower. Heck, even comparing the Wii version of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, released as a launch title, with Skyward Sword, one of the last major releases for the console, is night and day, going from using waggle as a direct substitute for a button press to actual one-to-one sword control that tied directly into the gameplay.
More importantly, I would argue that trying to adapt the controls to a traditional controller would break the games. In fact, you can play Pandora’s Tower with traditional controls, but it’s clearly not how it was intended. That’s the key. Trying to adapt games to an interface they weren’t designed for is often a problem, particularly in the case of emulating classic arcade games. Going back to that wild west era, many of them had unique control methods: steering wheels, light guns, trackballs, knobs, handlebars, etc. Sometimes, it can be hard to make them work just right with an analog stick and buttons. In short, games are usually best played with the interface they were designed for, be it a traditional controller or motion controls.
Maybe it’s easy to think Nintendo gets a little too clever with their hardware, but I appreciate their willingness to get off the beaten path. Calling it gimmicky is a little shortsighted, because given time, it does result in some clever, unique experiences. And that’s what keeps their systems from being “just another game console.” It’s another thing that has kept me a fan of Nintendo for all these years, and I’m glad they’re keeping that spirit alive. I hope they continue to do so in the future.