July 20, 2018
Over the last few weeks, I have had a chance to sit down and play a few hours of Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus for Nintendo Switch. This port came from other consoles with a few compromises to get it on the hybrid portable system, but the guys over at Panic Button did a marvelous job retaining the fluid gameplay and adding Switch exclusive motion aiming. Playing this game feels a little like Splatoon 2 but with much more gore and swearing. The motion controls really add a lot to the game, and it got me thinking about my experiences with motion controls in different games, particularly the Zelda series.
It is my opinion that Zelda was among, if not the most influential series, on how motion controls were developed and have been integrated into gaming today. They have been integrated in every home console Zelda game (and a few mobile titles) since Twilight Princess, and they have met mixed reactions from fans since that time. While many find them gimmicky and annoying, other fans have found them intuitive and immersive. I have had my share of both feelings, and I think a healthy balance between motion controls to traditional controls can really improve gameplay. Today I would like to analyze how they have been implemented in various ways across the years, and what I think is the perfect combo moving forward.
To begin, let’s look at the first motion-integrated game in the series, Twilight Princess. Since then, motion controls have become much more refined and precise, so this early example did things completely different from any subsequent game. It was not necessarily worse, just different. The technology in the Wii Remote allowed players to input commands using a motion the way they would a button; you swing the remote, Link attacks with his sword. This felt much more mechanical than future implementations, but it was a crucial starting point that springboarded into the control schemes we know today.
Despite the mechanicalness of it, the controls felt easy to use and added just a little immersion to the world by allowing you to “hold the sword.” I’ll admit that yes, it was a gimmick, but it was a gimmick that clicked with most fans because of one key point. The controls worked. Many people at the time would give complaints along the lines of “I prefer traditional controls,” but worse comments were few and far between. Even with a new control style, the game was generally well received by players who would rather have had another control scheme.
I feel like this point kind of proves that there is something to motion controls. When they are implemented it is not necessarily a damning factor to most gamers. Why then were the motion controls so ill-received in Skyward Sword?
To find this, we need to look at the key differences between the two games in terms of control. While Twilight Princess had simple inputs like waving the remote vertically or horizontally, the improved Wii Motion Plus tech allowed players to get a 1:1 motion as they moved their sword around. More fluid and realistic control ought to make it better, right? Well in most cases I would say yes, but this game built around these motion controls where Twilight Princess was built upon a more traditional Zelda base. In this game you could hack and slash Bokoblins apart with an input no more complex than mashing the B Button, whereas nearly every foe in Skyward Sword had to be defeated by attacking in one particular direction or another. This made most enemies kind of blend together and led to a somewhat stale feeling when you met yet another foe that you defeat by swiping in a specific direction. Ghirahim, Stalfos, Moldarach, Gleeok, Scervo…. These are all very different styles of enemies and bosses, but when you fight all of them the same way, it gets a little tedious.
On top of this, as I said in my review of Skyward Sword through the Lens of Truth, the motion controls were shoved in where they didn’t necessarily add to the game. Flying the Loftwing and the Beetle or swinging your whip would have been just as satisfying, if not more so, with a simple button press or joystick steering.
After Skyward Sword’s oversaturation of motion controls, Nintendo went a different direction with the HD remakes of Wind Waker and Twilight Princess for Wii U, as well as the 3DS remakes of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. What came of this became standard between these games and further into Breath of the Wild, sharing more or less the same control scheme between all five titles. In these games, motion controls are used exclusively for aiming weapons while the entire rest of the game utilizes standard controls. This has been well received by most fans since the first remake released. Beginning with the fact that they are completely optional in each title, they are used in a subtle way which gives players a new and far more precise method of aiming. This is arguably the only way in which motion controls have objectively improved a game. While they worked fine for aiming in the original version of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, the best part about the control scheme they seem to have now settled on is that they no longer replace traditional controls, but they are integrated alongside them. Sometimes motion controls get off kilter and need a little nudge to get them back on track. In every Zelda game since Ocarina of Time 3D (except Skyward Sword) the two control schemes back each other up so whichever one is more practical at the time can be the one you use. The fluidity between the two is far beyond what either could do alone, and this is the key to keeping them relevant in games going forward. This can apply not only to Zelda, but also any title that comes to Switch. We have seen this combination of control schemes successfully implemented in Splatoon 2, Doom, Skyrim, and of course Wolfenstein, just to name a few.
I say keep the motion controls coming as long as they are backed up by traditional controls when necessary. What do you think? Do you like motion controls even for odd tasks like flying in Skyward Sword? Do you turn them off in favor of a traditional setup? Or do you land in the middle like me? Hit me up in the comments or on Twitter, I would love to keep the conversation jogging!