Everyone keeps complaining that Nintendo is stuck in the past. It's a console where their game design in many cases seems stuck in the super nintendo era with a few little nods of new tech thrown in as an after thought. Look at one of the best games on the system, Super Mario 3d World, it is hard to say, but it for the most part is a feature rich version of Super Mario Bros 3 with an isometric view in the stages. Some of the best game design on the WiiU comes in the form of third party games (Assassins Creed 4), Wind Waker HD (a remake of a GameCube game), and Pikman 3 (arguably a few features tacked on to the game design from… once again… GameCube).

Even when you look at some of the indie and the sparse third-party games, there are few games that aren't 2D or 2.5D in nature. Tech specs that show the WiiU (when optimized) clock in possibly stronger than the PS3 and Xbox 360, mean that it's not a hardware problem. It's not even a limitation of available engines as both Unreal and Unity support the Wii U. So, if it's not a limitation of the hardware what could it be?

Developer Culture

Given, a lot of things with developers for Nintendo are walled behind some of the strongest NDAs in the business (you thought that they were bad about pulling YouTube videos of their IP). However, from the developer kits that are shipped, and what comes out on the other end, we can surmise a lot about the culture that the Nintendo Developer Network is trying to push.

The development kits that ship for the WiiU are a bit crazy in nature. In the box (probably multiple boxes actually), you get every piece of hardware that works on the Wii U:

  • The Dev Unit
  • The Dev Gamepad
  • A Dev Wii U Pro Controller
  • Two Wii Remote Plus
  • One Nunchuck
  • One Classic Controller (Pro?)

From this, I get the impression that Nintendo wants you to support all of these controller methods. Not only that, but they want you to support your game for a Wii Remote without a nunchuck connected. Look at that list again and see if you feel the same way.

What Does This Mean For Games?

This push to support everything is a huge weight on developers! Scratch strange processor architectures, poor support docs, high development kit prices, and slow response times. If I as a developer wanted to test and support this many different input devices (not to mention remote play on the GamePad), I could have just as easily made a cross platform game for PS4 and XBox One with similar amounts of control QA.

But further than this, the control schemes are… Well to put it nicely, they are horrible! This goes back to having to support users who only have a Wii Remote Plus with no nunchuck. Using the Wii Remote Plus as your lowest denominator, you have two input schemes:

  • Analog motion controls with A & B buttons and a D-Pad (then hard to reach 1 & 2)
  • Digital UDLR with 1 & 2 (holding the controller sideways)

Using motion controls gives the developer the most flexibility but it doesn't match well to games that demand longer play times. It also is a lot harder to map to traditional controls offered by the other input devices. Because of these hurdles, most games go to using the digital input control scheme (which has fewer 4 fewer inputs than the SNES if you are counting!)

This makes it very hard for developers to target games with more immersive designs or features. Heck, even 2D games have trouble with just two action buttons. It's so bad that the Mario games resort to hard to trigger shakes and gestures to replace shoulder button input. With this sparse control set, games are pretty much limited to platforming with a jump and attack/action button.

Fighting the Culture from Above

So, if you are a consumer, you would just tell developers to abandon support for Wii Remotes. But, this has a ton of consequences!

First, you have the culture from Nintendo leading by example to support every input device possible for (almost) every game.

Secondly, you have the Nintendo consumer culture. With historic franchises like Mario Party, Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros, and Wii Sports; Nintendo has come to be the local social game platform. What this means for controls is that when players are wanting controls for everyone to play the next Mario Kart, they are much more likely to grab one of each controller type and expect them to work.

Third, the Wii U still can't escape its cultural identity as the WiiHD. For many consumers, the Wii U is still seen as the upgrade to the Wii. This means grabbing all of that old generation one Wii gear and trying to use it on your Wii U. Backwards compatibility is great, but this means you have a huge audience that are expecting to play new titles with nothing except the four Wii Remotes that they've had lying around in a closet and that now have blue battery acid stains coming out of the batter compartment! The worst part, even the oldest original Wii Remotes (the ones without the upgraded gyroscope) are supported.

It Only Gets Worse For Developers

Even supporting this limited control scheme is hard across all of the input devices. From playing first and third party games, it is apparent that there is no generally accepted mapping from device to device. For classic Nintendo games on the virtual console, 1 maps to both X and Y while 2 maps to A and B. However, for the Wii U Mario games, the buttons are grouped up and down so that 1 maps to Y and B while 2 maps to A and X. This leads me to believe that there is no low level control scheme mapping.

So while culture basically forces developers to support control schemes manually. This isn't non-ideal, it is basic control mapping that game engines offer to cross platform games! So once again as a developer would I rather develop in Unreal where I know pretty much out of the gate whatever I map to X on PS3 will be A on Xbox 360, or would I rather sit around having to manually map basic controls just to target the vast array of input devices for Wii U: a single console with low adoption rates?

Can I Use My New Hardware Now?

To further complicate things for the consumer Nintendo seems to limit when you can use hardware. For instance, if I play New Super Mario Bros U (seriously, can you not come up with a better, shorter title? and something that won't be confused with New Super Mario Brothers Wii), I can play single player and have to use the GamePad. But, if a friend comes over, the game pad no longer can be used for an onscreen character and only can be used for the all seeing overwatch mode. For Super Mario 3D world, it's even quirkier. Any controller can be used for 1 player mode (this is good), but when in multiplayer, the GamePad is always delegated control of the overworld map.

With the lack of titles, one would be inclined to use their brand new GamePad and Wii U Pro Controller on Virtual Wii Virtual Console and non-motion control Wii games. NOPE! You will be surprised to know that those awesome devices haven't been mapped to work at all when your system is in legacy mode. Even for games where control mappings are a no brainer and the game supports the GameCube or Classic controller, there is no support.

So, Nintendo, as a customer I must ask: "Why should I buy the Pro Controller or use my GamePad if you don't support them?" And unfortunately for game developers this continues the cycle.

Things Get Worse for Consumers

The reality of the limited control scheme becomes even worse for end-users when you try to put things in practice. Personally, when I have friends come over, I don't want to be cruel and set them up with the analog controls using the Wii Remote. I don't want to have to explain to my friend who doesn't play video games and keeps dieing that they need to shake the controller twice to be revived in Mario. I don't want to tell my friend who's a big fan of Mario games that crouching (a very useful move if you know how to use it) isn't available if you use the Wii Remote. So, when people are over, I am stuck with the Wii Remote.

The story doesn't end there however, because inevitably, my friends leave my house and my Wii still exists. But, I find after the sour taste of using terrible controls, I don't have a desire to go back and play my Wii U games even with the incredibly comfortable Pro Controller (more on that in a bit). The game goes back in the case, the Wii U gets shut off and not used until there's more people in my house than PS4 or PS3 controllers.

How Can Nintendo Solve This?

It's a pretty grim picture that I paint unfortunately. The culture surrounding a console (even with such low adoption rates), is hard to change. But, there are a few things that I feel Nintendo could do to help alleviate some of these issues.

1. Define and publicize a standardized control scheme

If we are going to have a bunch of games with this limited control scheme: bite the bullet and come out with a standard. Make sure all of the first party games adhere to this standard too (this will mean going and pushing updates to existing games!). If you provide a low level control scheme to developers, this lessens the workload on them. And, this means that when users pick up a game that works across all of these devices they know how the controls will map to each device (at least more intuitively than right now).

2. Package the Nunchuck With Wii Remote Plus

It's crazy that to buy a Wii Remote Plus with a Nunchuck costs as much as a Dualshock 4 or Xbox One controller. What's worse is that the devices are sold separately. This means that the majority of users will buy the Wii Remote Plus and just skip on the Nunchuck. Bundle them together and raise the price to $50 (the same as a Dual Shock 3 or Pro Controller). Then developers can be confident that if their users have a Wii Remote, then they'll also have a nunchuck. ** This also helps consumer confidence when people go home and have everything they need instead of finding that they may not be able to play a game because they don't have a nunchuck.

3. Push the Pro Controller

Despite its lack of accuracy, all digital input buttons (compared to Xbox with analog triggers and Playstation with analog triggers, bumpers, and face buttons), the Wii U Pro Controller puts up a good fight against even the Dual Shock 4. It's incredibly light, instantly turns on (almost to a fault), and is awesomely comfortable. Unfortunately, few people really know that this controller exists. It is masked by the GamePad and the WiiU's support for last gen hardware.

Instead, Nintendo should bring this to the forefront of consumer attention. Put one (heck maybe even two) of them in the box. Have give aways! Run a PR campaign! Lower the price.

The more that the Pro Control is adopted, the more third party support you will get when developers can be assured that users will have at least one really comfortable controller that maps directly to Playstation and Xbox.

4. Figure out the GamePad

When turning on my Wii U to see if any of my impressions had changed about the controls, I was astonished when I had an update. Actually the update wasn't what surprised me (or the fact that it took 5 minutes to install a <10Mb patch). What was aggrevating about this was the message that popped on screen.

Please turn on GamePad to continue with this update.

The only thing on screen was a single button: a repeat of the screen before it which told me that an update had to be installed. But, for no consumer facing reason, the GamePad not only had to be connected, but had to be used to hit "OK". I suspect that this is because the firmware update also updated the GamePad, but still it is quite a bother and, this isn't the only time something like this occurs either.

At the home screen, your TV is populated with random Mii's of people playing games around you with suggestions of what to play next (this actually is kind of cool if any of the news was useful). However, look down at your game pad and the view is completely different and much more mimics the traditional Wii screen with tiles and all of your available titles. You can flip these screens by clicking a button in the lower right hand corner, but shouldn't the view mimic each other? Similarly, the settings screens are equally as aggrevating. I can understand requiring the GamePad for text input, but why limit otherwise standard menus?

So, am I just being picky? Am I sitting on a high horse that has grown up to controllers that have only added analog sticks and three buttons (shoulder bumpers and a system button) since the 16 Bit era?