Seventh Generation Games: The Golden Era of Gaming Part IV
By Josh Snyder
In this series, author Josh Snyder examines the seven key elements that defined seventh generation games. Each element will be examined alongside a game that best exemplifies that particular aspect. Taking it one step further, each essay will hypothesize how these elements will be refined or evolved in the next generation.
Motion Controls: Engaging the Digital World Physically
There have been two advancements developers and hardware engineers have pursued since the early days of the medium – three-dimensional graphics and environments, and motion controls. Three-dimensional graphics were easily achieved during the fifth generation, specifically with games like Super Mario 64. However, the pursuit of motion controls predated even the first attempts at three-dimensional graphics. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) had the Power Glove, a gigantic glove covered in buttons that claimed you could control your favorite games with a simple flick of the wrist, along with the Power Pad, a giant mat with buttons across the surface that you pressed with your feet. Sega released the Activator, a octagon-shaped device that players placed on the floor and stepped in the middle of, at which point the Activator would read body movements and translate them to actions within a video game.
It should come as no surprise that neither of these peripherals were successes – motion controls were far more difficult to implement than many designers realized, and when hardware was released, the games made specifically for them were of such low quality that it all but guaranteed a low adoption rate. If a hardware manufacturer wanted to do motion controls right, they would have to be an integral part of a new library of games from day one.
Several years after the Power Glove and the Activator, gamers found themselves eagerly anticipating the most sought-after home console ever – the Nintendo Wii. While Nintendo dominated the handheld space for many years, their dominance in the home console market was waning. The Super Nintendo was the last time Nintendo had a console sitting atop the sales charts, and emerged the consensus “winner” of a generation. So why were customers so eager to get their hands on the new console that followed the N64 and the Gamecube?
The Nintendo Wii had motion controls, right out of the box.
Immediately, eager gamers lined up in hopes of finally playing the Star Wars lightsaber game we all really wanted to play this entire time. Nintendo wowed audiences with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, demonstrating a version of Link who moved his sword when the player swung their controller. To say that this was a big deal would be an understatement.
Sadly, many of the launch titles, including Twilight Princess, didn’t quite live up to the hype. Sure, there was motion controls, and they were fun, but they were not the one-to-one movements gamers had hoped for. Unfortunately, despite countless opportunities, we never got that Star Wars lightsaber game (The Force Unleashed is most likely the closest we will come for now). But gamers held out hope that a developer would release a game with true motion controls, one built from the ground-up specifically for the Wii.
The Wii was such a success that both Microsoft and Sony released their own motion controls, the Kinect and Move, respectively. But just like the Power Glove and Activator before them, the games for each were low quality affairs that did little to help the motion control movement. Fortunately, Nintendo never lost sight of their original vision. Games like Super Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption used motion controls in ways that enhanced established gameplay mechanics, rather than reinventing the wheel, as many other developers attempted (the Wii version of EA Redwood Shores’ The Godfather: The Game has a motion for nearly every conceivable action, yet many are counter-intuitive or simply do not work).
However, something seemed to be missing from all of these games. Gamers were promised a new way to interact with games, but with that came promises that video games would never be the same, that gamers would want motion controls in all of their games. And although Super Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption were fantastic games, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine these games played with a standard gamepad. The reality was that not one motion controlled game carried with it that sense of wonder and joy that comes with experiencing something new and profound – it all seemed like a gimmick. Would we even get just one game, one that would make sense of this new way to play games?
As usual, the only thing getting in our way was for Nintendo to stand up and release the game themselves. But when they did, we all instantly understood what motion controls brought to the table.
The Game that Defined Motion Controls: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
It may have taken them the better part of the seventh generation, but when Nintendo finally released The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, they illustrated the power of motion controls when done right. There isn’t a single element of Skyward Sword that isn’t enjoyable – every activity, from catching bugs to boss fights, is, simply put, fun. But what makes this game so special is that there are two elements working in tandem that elevate this to one of the best games ever created. All of the basic elements of game design are present, and are some of the best examples anyone can find. Level and enemy design, pacing, original score – it’s all executed to perfection. Even character development, something that has been lacking in Zelda games for years, is above and beyond anything else in the franchise.
And then you realize that all of these elements work together, alongside heavily integrated motion controls, and then it clicks – this is a game that could not be made for any other console.
Nintendo was able to implement one-to-one motion controls for Skyward Sword. Swing your sword from your lower-left to upper-right side, and Link mimics your movements in real time. With this level of precise control, every fight becomes an intense experience, and on more than one occasion I found myself sitting forward on my couch (sometimes even standing), clutching the controller, blocking and attacking an enemy who could easily cut me down if I laid back on my couch and half-heartedly swung the controller back and forth. This is a game that requires effort, but the payout is more than worth it.
But it is more than your sword that benefits – everything uses motion controls. Where this was an obvious flaw in games like The Godfather, here it is pure joy. Every item uses motion controls, often in clever yet easy to understand ways. Some are obvious, like the Slingshot and the Clawshot – just point and shoot. Others, like the Whip, which can latch onto enemies or levers, are handled with such a high level of precision that you’ll find yourself just running around, swinging the whip as you go, just because it is so much fun. It looks, feels and behaves like you would imagine, and it is impossible to replicate that feeling on any other device. Even devices like the Beetle, a flying mechanical beetle which can scout out a new area, or pick up bombs and drop them on unsuspecting enemies, handles like a dream.
Everything in Skyward Sword works so well that you would swear that this is Nintendo’s fifth time making a successful motion controlled Zelda game from the ground up. But that only speaks to how innovative Skyward Sword is – fifteen minutes with the game, and an entirely new concept will already feel natural.
How Motion Controls Can Evolve
When choosing seven aspects of game design to explore, motion controls were the one I struggled with the most. This is due partially to their controversial nature – many gamers feel that motion controlled games have watered-down core gameplay mechanics, and that their popularity only increased the amount of quick, low-quality cash-ins on the market. So how do you reflect on an aspect of the seventh generation that has little success? You point to games like Skyward Sword, proof that the concept works and that it is worth working toward.
Not every game should have motion controls integrated, but at the same time, many games could benefit from partial integration. There seems to be an “all or nothing” mentality with these games, and it often ruins perfectly fine games (the overuse of motion controls for Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor) or prevents great ideas from coming to the market (see the lack of a Star Wars lightsaber game, seriously).
For motion controls to truly evolve, developers and publishers need to ditch the “all or nothing” mentality and use motion controls for games when it absolutely works (a great current example is Forza Motorsport 4 and the ability to use the Kinect for head tracking while using a steering-wheel peripheral to control the car). Having to swing a controller every time you swing a sword in the next Elder Scrolls game would get tiring fast, but imagine if you could manipulate items in your house by using your hands instead of the imprecise analog sticks? Or imagine a version of Madden that allows you to draw up your own plays or call an audible with gestures, but can still be controlled with a standard game pad?
Balance is key when implementing such drastic changes to gameplay. Motion controls have great potential, and there is a market for these games. Hopefully, developers can find useful ways to implement gesture-based gameplay into their games without diluting the overall experience. And once that balance is found, games like Skyward Sword will no longer be an anomaly, but the new norm. And that future cannot get here soon enough.
Final Thoughts on the Seventh Generation
Writing this series has only reaffirmed my belief that the seventh generation has, far and away, been the best generation for video games, ever. There will always be the classics from the early days, and even games like Halo: Combat Evolved hold up surprisingly well today. But many of the games of this generation will have shelf lives far beyond anything we’ve seen before. My hope is that this high level of quality can be sustained.
I think it can – there are plenty of opportunities for even some of the most loved games to become better. I recently wrapped up my final play-thru of Skyrim, and as amazing as that game is, there are aspects of the design that could be improved, most likely with better hardware running the games. Towns still feel somewhat empty, and mission structure is surprisingly linear. But the quests in Skyrim feel epic compared to those in Oblivion, and the towns are bustling metropolises compared to the ghost towns in Cyrodiil. Games are always improving, and it stands to reason that they will continue to do so next generation.
I would be remiss if I did not mention a few aspects of the seventh generation that I would like to see done away with. Not every innovation was a positive one, although the thought process behind them is understandable, at least from a business standpoint. Things like paying to unlock DLC that is already on the disc is a practice that needs to be done away with immediately. Capcom found themselves in some hot water over content on the disc for Resident Evil 6, content that could be unlocked at a later date, for a price. Capcom has since backed away from this practice, and all other developers need to follow suit.
And of course there are the dreaded micro-transactions. Mostly kept to the realm of free-to-play games, mico-transactions ask you to pay small fees for minimal gain or resources, with the hope that gamers will make a lot of little purchases. EA added micro-transactions to Dead Space 3, and it immediately became clear that this form of money gouging needs to cease. The items one could purchase were of so little value that it rendered them pointless, and instead gamers are treated to sales pitches for these useless items right in the game itself. It’s one thing if you keep it at the main menu, but to see these pop up when playing the game cheapens the whole experience.
Micro-transactions can also create an unbalanced gameplay environment. The multiplayer portion of Mass Effect 3 was a surprise, in that it was somewhat deep and refreshingly fun. Better weapons and gear were acquired by racking up credits and unlocking packs with random items contained inside. That, or use real money to just buy the packs. Fortunately, the multiplayer in Mass Effect 3 is cooperative, and the negative impact of buying better gear was minimized. Still, it comes across as a dishonest practice, and removes what was otherwise a brilliant implementation of a standard risk/reward system.
Finally, here’s hoping that the eighth generation includes more female protagonists, and in general becomes a much more inclusive environment than the one we have today. I have written extensively about this before, so I won’t go into detail here, but it does sadden me to see some amazing games that tell truly incredible stories, and to share them with my wife or female friends, only to see them lose interest as the first plastic Barbie doll walks on screen. There is no way in which more gamers would hurt the industry, and one way to increase the amount of avid gamers is to be inclusive.
Video games are poised to become the premiere form of entertainment, and have finally crossed the threshold from toys to serious art. And it is encouraging to see so many great games accompany this important transformation. Each of the seven games highlighted in this series are examples of what the medium is capable of, and it’s only a matter of time before games like Portal 2 or Red Dead Redemption are just par for the course. And in twenty, thirty years, gamers will look back on the seventh generation, and see it as the era in which video games evolved, grew up, matured. The seventh generation is the golden era.