Op-Ed: Why the GamePad Shouldn’t Matter

Is utilizing the Wii U GamePad more of a red herring than a miraculous cure-all for flagging system sales?

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 03/18/2014 09:00 3 Comments     ShareThis

When Wii was coming into its own as a console and the Wii Remote still held an infinite amount of possibilities, a defining moment on the system for me came while playing Metroid Prime 3. Sitting in the cockpit of Samus’s Gunship, the game prompted me to use the Wii Remote to push the thruster forward to get the ship moving. It was brilliant. Sure, a button input and the analog stick would have been just as effective, but the tactile sensation of moving my arm as though I was actually pushing the thruster was so much more memorable. I was convinced that there was no way Nintendo could ever go back to traditional controls after the wonders of Metroid Prime 3.

As Wii’s lifecycle rolled along, though, more and more games came out that focused on Wii Remote-only or Classic Controller support, with a minimal amount of motion controls. New Super Mario Bros. Kirby’s Epic Yarn. Lost in Shadow. Xenoblade Chronicles. All these games and more either eschewed waggling entirely or barely implemented it. Yet, despite this transition, I never once felt like Wii’s hardware was being underutilized because motion controls stopped being the focus of the experience. I realized that motion controls were a big part of Wii’s architecture, certainly, but that didn’t mean they needed to be shoehorned into every single game. Some of the finest titles released on Wii controlled best with traditional physical button presses.

Flash forward to now and one of the common complaints levied against Wii U is that there’s no game like Wii Sports that demonstrates the necessity for the GamePad. With its enormous touch screen sitting firmly in the center of the controller, the GamePad was supposed to be as much of a control revelation as the Wii Remote was. Two years in, however, and there isn’t one game that can be pointed to as the Wii U GamePad killer-app. There have been some clever implementations of the controller, like in The Wonderful 101 and Game & Wario, but beyond a handful of titles, there’s not much else. To which I say… big deal.

With games like Super Mario 3D World, Pikmin 3, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Wii U is already home to some incredibly memorable and fun titles. Titles that have already defined the quality of experience that gamers should expect from this generation. What’s interesting, though, is that they all don’t use the GamePad in any mind-blowing ways. The GamePad, in all four of those titles, is simply a compliment to the excellent gameplay and play mechanics on display. I can understand the belief that because Nintendo isn’t making a show of the GamePad like it did with the Wii Remote, that it’s a big part of the reason Wii U is selling sluggishly. I understand the notion, but don’t agree with it.

Wii U’s poor sales can’t be summed up by simply pointing the finger at the GamePad and saying it needs its own Wii Sports. A title like that would help, no doubt, but really, it’s a whole new ballgame in the video game market. Wii cultivated the casual crowd as we know it today, but those gamers are in the wind, so to speak. From smartphones to social media gaming, the players who flocked to Wii simply aren’t as available as they were when Wii debuted. While it’s possible that if a game as simple and engaging as Wii Sports existed on Wii U that crowd could be lured back, I find that to be more wishful thinking than anything else. Really, this rationale essentially suggests that the only way Wii U can succeed is if Nintendo can bring back casual gamers, which I wholeheartedly don’t buy into.

Sony’s PlayStation 4 is a good example of how utilizing the features of a controller isn’t necessary for the success of the console. When it was revealed, the DualShock 4 was lauded for having a touch pad and a light bar that would interact with the PS4 camera for motion control functionality. When PS4 actually launched, the camera was removed as a pack-in, all but eliminating developer incentive to use the light bar, and the touch pad itself hasn’t been utilized in any particularly innovative way. Yet, PS4 is king amongst the three major consoles of this generation. There’s more than one reason why PS4 is successful, but there’s no denying one of the reasons it isn’t failing is because the DualShock 4 isn’t using all its features. Heck, even the Genesis controller’s six buttons were underutilized, and it gave SNES a run for its money!


One thing that seems to escape notice is that the GamePad is just as appealing in practical applications as it is creative ones. Case in point; off-screen play. I love that I can grab the GamePad and play a game while having a show or movie displayed on the TV. Sony’s use of PS Vita and Microsoft’s use of Smartglass to offer second screens both pale in comparison to the full suite of buttons and functionality that the GamePad offers. On a related note, games like Wind Waker HD are all the better for having the screen de-cluttered of icons by placing them on the GamePad, instead; beautiful games can use every bit of TV screen they can get. While the GamePad’s primary uses so far haven’t been quite as glamorous as the Wii Remote’s, it remains a great innovation that deserves more credit than it gets.

I’ve posited my own views on what Nintendo can do to fix Wii U before, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say it should abandon trying to make a killer app that highlights the GamePad, I do think that it’s an issue that’s been blown out of proportion. The GamePad is still full of potential, but the games that are played with the controller don’t live and die by how well they utilize it. Batman: Arkham City might have done some cool things with the second screen, but at the end of the day, my only concern with the game was that it was the same excellent Arkham title that PS3 and 360 got. Developers shouldn’t be wracking their brains trying to find some clever way to incorporate the GamePad if their game doesn’t need it. Wii U might benefit from people being less hung up on Nintendo showing us some new way to play and just give us something that’s fun and innovative, instead.

3 Responses to “Op-Ed: Why the GamePad Shouldn’t Matter”

  • 849 points
    ejamer says...

    Totally agree. I want good games – but it doesn’t matter if they use the gamepad in unique and original ways. They just need to be fun!

    Like anything else, the gamepad is a tool that can be used to make some cool… but it’s just one tool of many, and developers don’t need to use every tool in their box to create a compelling experience.

    One of my favorite games on the platform so far has been the eShop title Toki Tori 2+. Outside of supporting off-screen play, it doesn’t do anything special with the gamepad, and I’m perfectly ok with that. Even some of Nintendo’s own first-party titles choose not to use the gamepad!

  • 180 points
    Anthony Vigna says...

    The more “innovation” is forced onto a potential Wii U game, the worse it will be.

    There were so many Wii games that shoehorned motion controls in because developers thought that they needed to use it. A mentality like that is hazardous in game development. Instead, it should be important to use what is available when it makes sense and is convenient for the player.

    I have to agree with this article. If a new Wii U game comes out that only offers off-screen play, I really can’t complain if the game is fantastic.

  • 1549 points
    penduin says...

    It’s funny to watch developers making the same mistakes they made with the original DS all over again. Not every input needs to do something! We’ve blown into microphones, tilted our hands, and dragged ‘n dropped enough. Follow what makes the game fun, not what you feel obligated to use just because it’s there.

    A map is fine. _Nothing_ is fine – look at Tropical Freeze. If you want to do something wild like ZombiU, great! (Though I guess not everybody thinks that’s as great as I do…) Otherwise, put in off-TV support and call it a day.

    Sadly, it seems like third parties are taking just as long to learn this lesson on Wii U as they did on DS. But, whatever. The saddest thing is, some developers are all excited about syncing with tablet apps, where interaction is painfully non-real-time and detached. Lunacy.

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