Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Rantings of a control freak

I'm going to take a brief moment to address an issue that has been bothering me since the Nintendo Wii was released: a sudden need for physical effort while playing video games.

I bring this up because just last night I beat Metroid Prime: Hunters on my Nintendo DS Lite. In this game, you run, jump, shoot, and die in cheap ways in a 3-D sci-fi environment.

With the control scheme I use, my left thumb controlls my character's movement, my left index finger fires my weapon, and my right thumb has a bendable stylus wrapped around it, pressed against the touch pad, which I use to freely control my aim.

In theory, this sounds like a pretty slick idea to imitate in a handheld game system the freedom to aim that PC gamers have with a mouse. In practice, as you surely know if you've heard anything about MPH, the control can be awkward, clunky, and downright uncomfortable.

I get a hand cramp that becomes more severe as time goes on after only about 30 minutes of gameplay due to how I must hold my decidedly non-ergonomic DS in order to play properly. The alternative control scheme is to use the right thumb to press buttons to aim, but that's akin to using the arrow keys on a keyboard to control a mouse cursor. Imagine how inelegant that would be when Clippit starts shooting rockets at you.

I eventually got comfortable enough with the aiming to almost (emphasis: almost) enjoy it, but I find it unacceptable that playing a video game would put me in physical pain.

I consider the Nintendo Wii and the fact that most of the games I'm interested in playing on it involve waggling the wireless controller--essentially a remote control with only a few buttons on it that is called a Wiimote in the vernacular--and waving it and swiping it and twisting it and otherwise bandying it about in unsafe manners.

Metroid Prime 3 involves pointing the Wiimote at every enemy on the screen that you want to explodify. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess involves attacking with your sword by physically swinging the Wiimote as if it were as sword. And let's not get into the embarrassment that was Wii Bowling.

I often like to lean back on my couch and lazily press buttons. I'm not one of those people who plays a racing game and leans forward while holding the controller to one side while going around a tight corner, but the Wii would have me become one of those people.

Beyond that, in order for the wireless sensor to even detect what I'm doing with the Wiimote, I need to be sitting upright or even standing for anything to register properly. As if getting exercise out of a supposedly relaxing passtime wasn't bad enough, now I need to exhibit proper posture?

I'm just waiting for Super Mario Pigskin Brawl Party where you chuck your Wiimote across the room to simulate a football pass and then actually tackle the other players to take them down in-game. As far as the sports games go, if we need to go to all the effort of exerting ourselves, why the heck don't we just go outside and play real sports?

Duck Hunt was fine by me. Most people can't afford an infinite supply of ducks and a hunting dog that is trained to laugh at you. Shooting ducks with the Zapper was pretty cool, and I really can't imagine how awful the game would have been if we had to use the control pad to aim. Especially if Clippit showed up and started firing rockets at us.

Dance Dance Revolution is also fine by me. I've played a DDR clone, StepMania, using my computer keyboard, but it just doesn't have the appeal that actually "dancing" to the beat does.

But these are both games that really require a nonstandard controller. Furthermore, Duck Hunt and DDR are both games that are really meant for shorter sessions, or longer sessions with regular breaks, so that the physical exertion of busting a move or gunning down hapless waterfowl doesn't take a serious toll.

You won't be playing for hours on end (or even for more than about 30 minutes) unless you're really hardcore, and even then, there's a brief break between every song and every round of ducks.

Games such as Metroid Prime 3 and Twilight Princess don't have those built-in breaks. Other games in the Metroid and Zelda series really lend themselves to long playing sessions for those so inclined, and speed runs in which a player goes through the entire game from start to finish are not at all unheard of.

Not to mention the fact that all the other Metroid and Zelda games worked perfectly well with traditional controllers prior to the advent of the DS and the Wii.

However, add in physical exhaustion and/or discomfort from extended playing, and long sessions are no longer just a question of how long it takes for your eyes to dry up and roll out of their sockets. It's now a matter of either endurance to withstand the pain/exhaustion, or self-discipline to stop playing before the pain/exhaustion sets in.

Either way, I resent the fact that my enjoyment of a virtual world where I can escape from reality--a virtual world in which I become an agile bounty hunter or tireless swordsman unfettered by my own real physical limitations--is now hampered by my own physical limitations.

I recognize that the Wii is attracting an audience that never would have played video games otherwise, but I and other traditional gamers feel as though we're being left behind. This newfound interactivity is foreign to us, and unwelcome.

I have plans of playing video games with the grandchildren I aspire to have some day, and what a shame it would be if I were wheelchair-bound and couldn't stand up to play virtual tennis with them. What a shame it would be if I couldn't raise my arms above my shoulders to place the Wiimote on my head so that I can play WarioWare: Smooth Moves with them.

I'm not trying to make fun of John McCain here. I'm just saying that it's bad news for him if they throw out the voting process this year and let the election be settled over a game of WarioWare: Smooth Moves.

And, in all seriousness, I think this whole trend of using alternate controls for everything is bad news for anybody with any real physical limitations.

It's bad enough that there are games out there that I already have trouble playing because I'm somewhat color-blind (You: "Stop shooting me! I'm on your team! The Red Team!" Me: "Everyone is brown!!!"), but I can usually get by if I memorize that Mysterious Color A is green and Mysterious Color B is about to blow me to smithereens.

I occasionally enlist the help of my friends and family to sit next to me and shout out colors as I play. This is especially helpful when fighting bosses that are only vulnerable to certain weapons when they turn certain colors.

Such as the final boss of Metroid Prime: Hunters.

And believe you me, I almost didn't attempt to finish the game when I found out the final boss was color-coded and I'd have to walk away with a big hand cramp. But I finished it because I'm a loyal Metroid fan.

The DS and the Wii are not the only game systems out there. But as more and more kids grow up with exposure to such interactive video games, I fear that Wii-wagging will become the norm, and formerly "hip" people such as myself will become dinosaurs and distanced from these new video game technologies by sheer virtue of the fact that we are physically incapable of keeping up with them.

Am I a lazy whiner? Sure. But if somebody told you that, from now on, you had to stomp your feet every time you wanted to turn a page in a book you're reading, you'd probably get tired of it pretty quickly.

There are some games that put the Wiimote and the DS touchpad to good use, and I happily accept them, just like I accept Duck Hunt and DDR. Still, I wish to emphasize that because we have these new control options available does not mean that we must use them.

I had this same problem when the Nintendo 64 came out. Every video game had to be in 3-D for no other reason than that the technology was there.

Maybe this Wiimote nonsense is Nintendo's new toy, and everybody wants to play with it. It is my hope that this need to do things differently is just a fad, and that when it's all over, the only games that use these highly interactive controls will be the ones that truly need them, and that they'll be developed for a platform where one can comfortably hold whatever object passes for a controller.

And secretly, I'm hoping that those aren't games that I ever want to play.

Oh, and so much for that "brief moment" I promised. Oops.

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