Why Nintendo's Next Console Needs A Great Controller

I purchased a Wii U late last month mainly so I could play it with my brother. We both grew up playing Nintendo games, and I wanted to be able to play the latest “Super Smash Bros.” with him when he came home this past weekend. 

To me, the Wii U is what the Wii should have always been: Great graphics playing at a high frame rate, resulting in superior gameplay.

And yet, I wish Nintendo focused on simplicity instead of gimmicks.

Like the Wii, the Wii U will be remembered not for its games, but for its controller: The Wii had the Wiimote, and the Wii U has the GamePad, a tablet-like controller with a massive 6.2-inch screen smack dab in the middle of your hands. Extra buttons, joysticks and triggers line the outside of the screen.

Nintendo’s heart was in the right place with the Gamepad: The idea was if your parents or loved ones wanted to watch TV at the same time you wanted to play Wii U, the entire Wii U library could be played directly on the GamePad, thus freeing up the TV screen for others.

But in the month I’ve owned this console, I’ve never used this feature. If I’m playing a game, I want to play it on the biggest screen possible. Sure, everything looks really crisp on the GamePad, but I can’t imagine playing a full game on that thing while people around me are watching or doing something else. (Frankly, I think that focuses on the wrong thing: If other people around you want to do something else, you should probably put down the controller for a while and join them.)

But here’s why I’m focusing on the controller, instead of the games: Nintendo’s chief game designer Shigeru Miyamoto — the creator of Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, and countless other iconic mascots — says Nintendo “has groups working on ideas for new hardware systems.”

“While we’re busy working on software for the Wii U, we have production lines that are working on ideas for what the next system should be,” Miyamoto told the Associated Press.

In other words, Nintendo’s next system is not set in stone. And that’s a good thing.

For the first time in four years, Nintendo is on track to see full-year profit. But that’s only because in the last six months, Nintendo has released a new “Mario Kart” game, two new Pokemon games and two new “Super Smash Bros.” games. And with teases for new “Legend of Zelda” and “Star Fox” games on the horizon, Nintendo has given fans plenty of incentive to buy a Wii U right now.

It’s never been a secret that Nintendo’s special sauce is its first-party titles: Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, Donkey Kong. In other words, Nintendo’s main source of income is nostalgia.

Meanwhile, Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox consoles continue to eclipse the Wii U, in terms of sales. The main reason? Some of the biggest games don’t come to the Wii U, simply because it would mean development teams would have to completely rewrite most of their games to fit Nintendo’s ultra-specific ecosystem, which is not only lower tech, but completely different in terms of controls.

So, it seems controls are the main sticking points with third-party developers, as well as longtime fans.

Check out this GIF of how Nintendo’s controllers have evolved over the years. What started as simple rectangles and a few buttons quickly evolved into all sorts of interesting shapes and styles. The last two designs — the Wiimote and the GamePad — are clearly the most outlandish.

Outlandish game controllers can sometimes result in interesting gameplay experiences for fans — emphasis on “sometimes” — but not enough games take advantage of this uniqueness. And in the end, it’s kind of a lose-lose: Developers have to work extra hard to port their games to the Wii U, and gamers will probably need to buy another console if they want to enjoy all the best games (PlayStation and Xbox usually get the same titles due to their similar architectures and control schemes).

Nintendo is more or less a silo. It prefers to think of itself as the Apple of gaming: Innovative, fully integrated hardware and software, with little outside help.

But by rejecting smartphone platforms and designing its consoles and controllers to be incompatible with most others out there, Nintendo relies heavily on its first-party titles like Pokemon and Mario.

Those franchises may never get old, but what if they do? What if those games receive poor reviews? At that point, what would Nintendo do without its bread and butter?

It’s fine Nintendo wants to distance itself from the pack, but it shouldn’t do so at gamers’ expense. Motion controls and tablet interfaces are fun in a few instances, but they’re mostly gimmicks. I would be perfectly happy if Nintendo decided to return to the GameCube controller, for instance. It still allowed me to enjoy all of Nintendo’s games (and plenty of other third-party titles), it was unique, and boy was it comfortable. My brother and I could play that console for hours.

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