A New Way To Play

On a date I’ll avoid mentioning, the world changed. Simply acting odd in an airport now might result in an off-record trip to a nightmare gulag and getting electro-shocked until you admit to Jack Bauer that you know might where the anthrax is, when all you really know about Anthrax is they are f-ing metal, man. You can imagine my distress at being forced to do unnatural things to electronic devices in the middle of LAX.

I leaned down and blew very gently on my Nintendo DS, shifting my eyes side-to-side like a cartoon villain. Fortunately, the coast was clear, and that meant no screaming headlines (“Terrorist and Internet Jerk Arrested for Being Just Plain Weird with Electronic Box”) and no scream-inducing torture in my future. My client needed me. I had to get these fingerprints even if it meant a long time in a prison that doesn’t exist. If Phoenix Wright can endure, so can I, and we needed these prints to prove our client innocent.

The dust drifted away and the fingerprint became clear, and I had my first inkling that something big was coming toward me (and not just that LAPD cop). When it debuted, the DS felt like a gimmick, a bunch of input geegaws and doodads that might let you pet an e-dog. It felt more Virtual Boy than Next Generation of Interaction, if you get my drift, something that let you play a few pseudo-games before giving you awful headaches.

However, developers picked up the concept and ran with it, as Phoenix Wright was busy showing me in LAX, despite my reluctance and fear of jail. I blew gently on the DS to gather fingerprints, shouted into the microphone, used the touchpad to zero in on items of interest, and otherwise shifted through a series of interaction methods that seemed wholly unnatural, pre-DS. It was all smooth, transitioning from method to method as the game demanded, rather than some forced, half-baked system grafted on top of the standard two-button, D-Pad setup.

Looking back, Nintendo may not have officially standardized gamepad design, but they did lay waste to the competition. Pre-NES, the controller world was a Wild West of joysticks and twisty knobs and all out keyboards. Nintendo’s massive success imposed a cleansing alternative on the input-device world, and though you can still pick up arcade sticks and weird devices at your leisure, the Dual Shock, Controller S and other standard controllers are all lineal descendents of the classic NES gamepad. Like European nobility, the controller family tree is more of a straight line, which explains the occasional genetic oddity like Sony’s lamented “Boomerang” for the PlayStation 3.

If the signs coming out of trade shows and the press are any indication, the DS was just the beginning of the beyond-the-usual forms of interaction Nintendo plans to unveil in their next console. The Revolution’s controller is, if nothing else, very different, and if the concepts they’re playing with in the early previews are any indication, a new way to play is hovering just around the corner.

PC gamers have long gloated over mouse and keyboard inputs, while console designers see throwing more thumbsticks at a problem as a solution. Nintendo’s design is much simpler: Point and shoot. Tilt sensors and 3-D movement detection open up whole new possibilities, like treating the controller as a fishing pole in a fishing game, or using it to conduct a symphony, or waving a sword around to smack Ganondorf right in his pig face. Imagine concepts like that with a year or two of refinement, simple but revolutionary things like actually batting in a baseball game, or squeezing the stick and pulling the trigger for a goalie-killing shot as the Fat Guy in Ice Hockey, or chopping up food and stirring the wok in a bizarre Japanese restaurant game.

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Shigeru Miyamoto’s known for game industry blasphemy, such as, “We want a system that takes advantage of new technology for something that anyone, regardless of age or gender, can pick up and play. [Something with a] gameplay style that people who have never played games can pick up and not be intimidated by. We wanted a controller that somebody’s mother will look at and not be afraid of.” And I think they’ve done it this time.

The closest analogy I can make is a simpler time, back when it was possible to pick up a controller and figure out how to play in 10 seconds, because the buttons actually did stuff that made sense. We’ve pushed forward in console input design since 1986, but it seems to be common developer sense that having 16 buttons means every single one of them needs to be used in the game, or you lose (or something). The problem we’re running into lately is human-based: Nobody has the octopus-like hands required to operate further iterations of the More Buttons and Thumbsticks school of design, though that doesn’t stop anyone from trying.

The Revolution controller hearkens back to those halcyon days of yore, by being so intuitive you instantly know what to do with it. Oh, to look up, I point the controller up? Simple, but at the same time, completely outside the state of the gaming industry today. For my Mac-using compadres in the audience, I’ll make a comparison. It’s like using OS X after using Windows. Suddenly, you’re in a world where you have to think like a normal person, rather than an insane computer engineer from the moon. It’s jarring, but I think ultimately, it will push the industry into a new phase of game design, when it’ll be possible for anyone – Mom, Grandma, the dog – to interact with a game, because we’re back to the controls making sense, rather than “Ye gods, buttons!”

Or if you want another… you know, gaming-type comparison, consider Guitar Hero. Pick up the guitar-shaped controller, eye the five colored buttons, and how you play is instantly apparent without having to sit through 30-minute tutorials where they pretend you’re in a future guitar science lab to explain why hitting Y controls the strum function. A friend of mine picked up the guitar, put it on, strummed and pressed the fret buttons, and instantly knew how to play without even turning on the PlayStation 2.

The Revolution controller drinks from the same well of intuitive design and new ways to interact mean new styles of game play, the same way I can shout into my DS to convey to the judge that I object in Phoenix Wright or draw out a spell in Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow or cuddle my e-puppy in Nintendogs. The PSP promised a bigger, brighter screen and overpriced movies, but the DS keeps on selling. The PS3 and 360 promise hi-def support and new iterations of the same games you’ve played a million times. Nintendo’s platform offers incredible possibilities for new ways to play.

Millionaire playboy Shannon Drake lives a life on the run surrounded by Japanese schoolgirls and videogames. He also writes about anime and games for WarCry.

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