In the current video game climate, the build up to the next big release can often be put off kilter when we’re looking to receive a new control scheme which promises to deliver an authentic gaming experience. Of course developers have been toying with control innovations since gaming began; extra peripherals such as GunCons and EyeToys, motion controls like Wii and Kinect and soon to be released virtual reality hardware are all remembered with perhaps a grain of salt. Yet when a game does rock the boat with its controls, can we really review and receive these games the same as any other major gaming release, or do we need more preparation for something new?
The particular example in recent memory is with Nintendo’s big 2016 release, Star Fox Zero, a game in which it’s unique control scheme has certainly been met with mixed results. The game, which is at its heart an on-rail shooter, takes full advantage of the Wii U’s game pad, utilising the player’s television screen for dramatic, cinematic action sequences while the second screen in their hands places us in the cockpit of the protagonist’s space craft for precise aiming. This immersive method of control is taking a step further by having all the player’s teammates radio through the game pad, in what we can safely assume is an attempt to make us feel like we’re as close to participating in these space dogfights as we can get. Think almost virtual reality without putting that headset over our faces. Yet the game has met mixed reception at best and largely it’s the control scheme that’s seems to have confused people. For example, “It’s forced reliance on the Gamepad’s screen and motion controls cause it to barrel roll right into mediocrity” (Gamesradar) and “Star Fox Zero feels like every muddled, unsuccessful experiment with the Wii U was stuffed into a single game” (Polygon). Yet it is perhaps IGN who have left the most interesting remark on the game, stating “learning to use the unintuitive controls is a difficult barrier to entry, though it comes with a payoff if you can stick with it”. So is the control scheme simply bad, or is it something we’re just not prepared to invest in at the minute.
Arguably Nintendo are the likely bet for trying new control methods with their last two consoles focusing on motion controls as a given, but with their rivals seemingly dedicated to the traditional controller mock-up, perhaps this acts as testament to how unprepared gamers may be for the next step in gaming. We don’t see PlayStation or Xbox dedicating their major releases to new control methods; in regards to PlayStation we see the touch pads and Sixaxis aspects that Sony had toyed before seemingly stricken from the record. Furthermore we see games such as Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection removing these controls that were blooming back in the late 2000s from its re-release, and with the Vita seeing very little attention in recent years reveals that Sony have lost interest in innovating their control styles, at least where their latest console is concerned. It seems developers believe we got tired of (admittedly often intrusive) motion controls, I mean even the Wii lost its appeal half way through its run. Thus the journey of motion controls in recent memory went from mandatory to optional to removed altogether.
Yet there are some great experiences featuring these controls methods, Super Mario Galaxy and Wii Sports are a delight to play with Wii Remote and Nunchuk, Mario Kart celebrates the whole new level of challenge with the steering wheel and Vita experiences such as Tearaway still stand out thanks to their innovative controls. Yet it’s their ease of understanding and adapting to these controls methods that prevent them from falling into the position of Star Fox Zero. Yet I’ve spent time with the new Star Fox and the more I play, the more I get used to the new control scheme; it’s not something to hate but it takes a long time to come to grips with it and for the unease to disappear. Frankly without these motion controls we’d just have another Star Fox 64 on our hands, which is another problem for another day (*side note* which was also a reimagining of the original Star Fox on SNES making it the fourth time this game has been reimagined…?). Yet despite this flaw, it’s hard to shake the opinion that the game would have been overall more enjoyable without these motion controls.
However it is thanks to these control schemes that Star Fox Zero will be remembered in future. It’s unlikely to see the same fate as the largely forgotten GameCube title Star Fox: Assault because it has this niche that helps it stand out within the series, and within modern gaming as a whole. The question is how much longer can we keep repeating the same control schemes and still find gaming a memorable and engaging experience. Games such as Grand Theft Auto and Uncharted may be hugely anticipated and successful titles, but playing them can often feel like consuming a piddly meal deal sandwich at lunch. We eat it because it provides that sustenance we need and at the time it was enjoyable, but once the day is over we’re unlikely to remember that meal as anything special. At least Star Fox wants us to experience and try something new. Yet why does it fall short of the success mark?
Indeed we’re back at the innovative controls. Indeed as immersive as Star Fox Zero is trying to be, it never wholly embraces its new control scheme; rather it rests in limbo between the new (different), and the old (familiar). Players can and will become familiar with the new control scheme but at this moment they will naturally never wholly accept it as a given because the game can’t believe in it completely either. Perhaps Nintendo realised this, perhaps this is why the game never truly feels like a sequel and rather more like a reimagining of a classic game. But could there still be a future here?
That now all depends on the Virtual Reality hardware coming our way soon. If it accomplishes what the Wii couldn’t, that being turning player’s away from their familiar controllers for good and thus changing the landscape of gaming as we know it, then maybe this little Wii U title will be remembered more fondly than it is at present. As once we’ve accepted new controls schemes as the norm, we’ll be better prepared to receive games such as Star Fox Zero.