It’s pretty undisputed that most gamers play with either a controller or a mouse and keyboard. As gaming has evolved over the last few decades, those two input methods have emerged as the most useful and ergonomic. Despite this, some more unique, motion control schemes have also risen to prominence since gaming’s inception, including the ill-fated Virtual Boy’s VR goggles, the PlayStation 2’s Eye Toy camera, and perhaps most famously, the remote-like Wiimote. Some peripherals, like the Wii Balance Board and the Guitar Hero guitar controller, came packaged with games in an attempt to make you feel more like the rock star or yoga devotee that you’re emulating. While gaming has largely moved on from motion-based controls – not to mention that these alternative controllers are often derided for their high costs, the space they take up, and the fact that they can sometimes be used for only one game – there’s a special sort of magic in using more of your body to perform an in-game action.
My first experience with body-based controls – outside of playing Dance Dance Revolution in a couple of arcades – was with the Wiimote and Wii Sports. Packaging Wii Sports with all Wiis was a masterful move on Nintendo’s part: the game was designed to be a casual entry into video games for people outside the usual gaming demographics and a way to show off the Wiimote’s motion control features. The game’s emulation of real-world sports and intuitive control schemes meant that it was easy for new players to jump right in without having to learn to use a complex controller or multiple in-game systems. This emphasis of pick-up-and-play mechanics was one of the things that made the Wii a smash hit.
I used to spend hours playing Wii Sports with my dad; we sunk a ton of time into the golf game in particular. Through the Wii’s motion controls, we learned more about the nuances of each course, the effects of wind speed and direction, and the different types of clubs than we would have if we’d simply been using a timed button press, as so many golf games did prior to the widespread use of body controls. More importantly, the motion controls meant that I actually had to peel my lazy butt off the sofa and stand up if I wanted to play 18 holes with Dad. Though it isn’t anywhere close to an aerobic workout, simply standing up and getting your blood flowing by taking a carefully-timed swing is better than nothing. Though other games I’ve played can (rightfully) call themselves “immersive”, nothing has come close to the feeling I got while playing golf with motion controls. Heck, it even got me interested in real-life golf!
While the Wii’s peripherals are generally small, sleek, and lightweight, Guitar Hero has always been on the heavier side of things. Back in the series’ heyday, almost anyone with kids of a certain age owned at least one of the game’s full-size plastic guitars that doubled as a controller, if not the entire set of drums and a microphone, too. While they were certainly expensive and did take up a lot of space, nothing made you feel more like a rock star than jamming out in front of your TV with a “real” guitar.
I grew up playing rhythm games like DDR with a controller. Bopping my head along to the beat while pushing the control sticks in different directions was fun, but it was nothing compared to the full-body experience of playing Guitar Hero at a family friend’s house for the first time. We set up the instruments, picked a song, and started dancing. My parents’ friend, a videographer, got out his camera and started doing music video-style shots of everyone performing. Even my parents, who weren’t gamers beyond a few rounds of Wii Sports golf, got into the fun, swinging the mic around like they were on American Idol.
What made this possible were the physical “instruments” we were holding – if I had a standard controller in my hands instead of a guitar, I probably would have been a lot more focused on hitting the right notes or getting the high score. While those are definitely fun activities, dancing around someone’s living room with a plastic guitar feeling like a pop star in a music video took it to a new level. Sure, Guitar Hero and its ilk were a pretty short-lived fad, but at least they were something new and different – and they offered a great workout! Like Wii Sports, Guitar Hero forced you to get off the sofa and move if you wanted to play effectively. It was also a way to get the whole family involved in play, making gaming seem less like a kid’s toy and more like an activity everyone could enjoy – just look at the Wii’s success in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Many of these kinds of games, peripherals, and consoles might have been fads, but at least they brought us enjoyment for a short period of time. They also made us to get physical with our games, encouraging us to stand up, move, and even work out with items like the Wii Balance Board (and that Vitality Sensor that never materialized). In the days since the rise of motion controls, it seems as though mainstream gaming is moving back toward more traditional control schemes. That’s perfectly fine for most games – can you imagine playing Overwatch with a Guitar Hero controller? – but for the few titles that were made better by the inclusion of the body in play, there will always be a little something missing.