The Wii that Wasn’t

  • Reading time:7 mins read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published by Next Generation.

Market analysts call the Wii a return to form after the relative flop of the GameCube. Design analysts call it a potential return to form after the relative rut of the previous fifteen years. Whatever the spin, when people look at Nintendo’s recent misadventures, generally the Gamecube sits right on top, doe-eyed and chirping. Its failure to do more than turn a profit has made its dissection an industry-wide pastime. Everything comes under the microscope, from its dainty size and handle to its purpleness to the storage capacity of its mini-DVDs. The controller, though, has perplexed all from the start.

The idea was simple enough: encourage tighter game development and make games more intuitive to play by establishing a button hierarchy. As with touch typing (dvorak more than querty), there is a home position, bringing priority to the most important actions. Less critical functions, meanwhile, are placed out of the way so as not to be accidentally triggered. In theory, this scheme would help to focus both design and play, preventing button sprawl and the ominousness of a new and convoluted control scheme for every game. In reality, it just freaked everyone out.

Granted, the execution was flawed: the Z button is placed ridiculously; the X and Y buttons are not distinct enough; and the D-pad is horrible. Other functions, like the “digital click” of the triggers, were random and sort of pointless, if interesting. What really bothered people, though, is that it was different enough to seem bizarre and non-standard without being different enough to seem truly novel.

The buttons were all different sizes and shapes, and aligned to the motion of a thumb joint, instead of symmetrically. What’s worse, there were two fewer buttons than on the PS2 or Xbox pads. Worst of all, in attempting to encourage better habits, the control scheme failed to lend itself particularly well to existing game templates. If a game was not intrinsically designed for the GameCube, the controller would be more an obstruction than a guide. Gamers complained that 2D fighting games would be impossible on the standard pad (as if they weren’t just going to buy a joystick anyway). Developers and pundits complained the pad made cross-platform development less feasible. Not that that stopped anyone.

Embracing the Theory

Indeed, the problem was rather the opposite. If you strip away all of the Dreamcast ports, barely-optimized cross-developments, and licensed games, there really are only a handful of innate “GameCube games”. Whether this was down to the weirdness of GameCube development or Nintendo’s policies toward third parties, one may wonder. What one may notice, however, is if one lines up the games that took advantage of the system, they are mostly somewhat… progressive, conceptually; more so than the controller was wholly able to capture. Put a little more bluntly, the games that most define the GameCube might well instead have been meant for the Wii.

This tendency manifests in two ways. Some games really were deliberately designed to the philosophy embodied in the controller, and have augmented simplicity on the brain. In retrospect, other games just would have made a whole lot more sense of the Wii – whatever theory they had going. One common factor is that GameCube games really like to incorporate new kinds of motion.

Super Monkey Ball – This is kind of a given, especially in that a much less interesting sequel was amongst the Wii launch crop. Still, uncanny.

Pikmin – It’s a real-time strategy game, optimized to work pretty well with a less than ideal form of input. Lacking a real pointing interface, the aiming pointer is locked a certain distance directly in front of the hero character, Olimar. There are two major functions: “go there and do this” and “stop doing that and come here”. All of the buttons are mapped well; none of the functions are useless. Still, aside from camera movement their uses are all comparably rare, and even more rarely time-critical.

killer7 – Get this: the game basically involves two buttons. You run forward with the A button, and you shift to first-person aim mode with the R trigger. There is also a button to turn around. When you reach a branch in the path, directional options pop up around the edges of the screen. Move the analog stick direction you wish (while still holding A) and you continue. The only other significant function is a button for special skills. That’s rarely used, though. So basically, wiimote-only design.

P.N.03 – As with its deranged brother, P.N.03 is mostly about running forward down long corridors and shooting. Any rotation usually involves aiming. The rest of the moves are mostly balletic dodges. Although Capcom tried, the commands are barfed all over the GameCube pad and generally ill-suited to a controller. Better to run with the B trigger, aim/steer with the pointer, and fire with the A button. That just leaves the nunchuk for dodging. There are also gesture-based special moves. Hmm…

The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker – So the eponymous gimmick, around which the game is built, is a wand which you wave around in rhythm, to change the direction of the wind. Ignoring the annoyance of stopping and sitting through a cutscene every time you want to change direction… huh. Curious.

Luigi’s Mansion – Another awkward control scheme that tries its best. One stick moves Luigi; the other rotates him. Pulling the right trigger activates a ghost-sucking vacuum in the direction Luigi happens to be facing; the left trigger uses another item. The face buttons do random things. A is for looking at and using stuff, and screeching Mario’s name. B turns on and off a flashlight. Okay. So how about, instead of an awkward relative control scheme, we just use a pointer to aim Luigi while we walk around? Then pull the trigger and hey ho.

Super Mario Sunshine – Not as obvious a choice as others, except as regards the F.L.U.D.D. backpack. I’m not sure why all the mascots needed a gimmick this generation, but when he’s not hopping around, Mario spends most of his time aiming and spraying at the environment. Hop, spray, and aim. Two buttons and a pointer.

Animal Crossing – Also not so obvious except in that the game is essentially designed to be one-handed. That, and nearly every tool begs for motion control. Shovel? Fishing rod? Butterfly net? Willickers.

Resident Evil 4 – Oh hey. It is a Wii game, now.

Metroid Prime – Although this game makes perhaps the best ever use of the GameCube pad, that doesn’t mean it’s ideal! The controls are broken down into “left hand” and “right hand”. Icons show hand gestures that Samus makes to change beams. Intriguing.

All and all, with its “ergonomic” controls, the GameCube was a step in the right direction. Many of the design ideals now embodied by the Wii began here. The only problem was, though the direction was right, the step wasn’t anywhere nearly large enough. The lesson: if you’re going to shake things up, better to make your own new space than to try to reform what’s already there.