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Can indirect control ever be better than left/right/jump?

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The producer of the original Sonic the Hedgehog, Yuji Naka, has unveiled his latest game: Ivy the Kiwi? But, as with his new studio Prope's previous game Let’s Tap, you won’t have direct control of your character.

The reason for this is clearly to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Wii-mote and DS-style touch screen control systems as you place and manipulate vines to move your Kiwi bird through the level. And possibly to avoid direct comparisons with Sonic.

But is this kind of control system actually appealing? As someone whose mind baulked the first time Link auto-jumped off a ledge in Zelda, I have to say the thought of all this palaver just to move is a bit disappointing. How do you feel about it?

Take a look at the game in motion:



First impressions? The art style is good and the level design looks inventive and seems to flow well. Also, not enough games have Kiwi birds as the central character (The New Zealand Story is the only other one that springs to mind). But now look at an expert player having a go:



At this speed, the indirect control system detaches you from the character to the point that it becomes a faceless object. You may as well be pulling a ball through the maze with the ivy - that's the way your brain will come to see it because your attention is no longer on the character.

As you can see from the end of the level, the little kiwi dude(ette, I believe) has much potential for likeability. But that’s the telling thing – it’s only when the game isn’t in progress that you get any kind of impression of the character’s personality.

A sense of detachment isn't the only problem with indirect control schemes. Despite Capcom's Zack & Wiki having loads of plus points, there's no denying there were several occasions when the pointer control for character movement was infuriating - especially when you've got a Nunchuk with a perfectly good analogue stick in your hand. For all the game's intelligent and innovative Wii-mote control, basic character movement suffered from compulsory use of the pointer.


Above: The Wii-mote shines in Zack & Wiki - but basic movement doesn't

So has any game really succeeded with indirect control? Some lead characters are completely controlled by external influences, such as Echochrome, which sees little men walking forward inexorably until they meet an obstacle. You influence their movement through manipulating the environment, never by saying 'turn around' by pushing the opposite directional button.

Essentially, this is the same as classic puzzler Lemmings. The little fellas keep walking and it’s up to you to save them. While you do influence them more directly than Echochrome (by giving individuals umbrellas, instructions or by blowing them up), you're still trying to control the uncontrollable.

One indirectly-controlled platformer that centres around a single character in a more traditional-looking game is Yoshi’s Touch & Go on DS. This started off life as a tech demo for the DS’s touch screen, but was so addictive, it was released as a full game.



The result was awesome. The depth of scoring and control offered by the touch-screen interface is superb (except when you play outside and the mic mistakes the breeze for your breath, leaving baby Mario to plummet through cloud vapour).

But, great though it is, even this idea doesn't seem enough to fill a whole game. It's comprised of two sections - falling through the air, then travelling right on Yoshi's back... then it ends. It works because you learn the route through the sky and how to collect everything through repetition. As a whole, it's a memorable experience, but it's still a rather restricted video game.

Then there's NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams on Wii. Not only was the 'mindsight' system one of the most broken control methods ever seen, even the developers played the game with a Gamecube controller through personal choice.


Above: 'Mindsight' Wii-mote control was abysmal in new NiGHTS

Are any indirectly-controlled games truly magnificent? Killer 7 is unquestionably a classic and featured a somewhat detached control scheme... and tellingly it's a niche title despite its brilliance. Heavy Rain is another game that plays with control conventions to the point of alienation - and it certainly isn't for everyone. It's hard to think of one game with both critical acclaim and mass-appeal that's truly satisfied as much as traditional button-controlled titles.

Even Super Monkey Ball, which is a logical fit for the Wii-mote and iPhone is still most playable on a Gamecube with an analogue stick. Even though you're indirectly controlling AiAi via the tilting ground, you're essentially pushing the direction you want to go, which is about as direct as you can get without controlling the monkey's feet.


Above: Super Monkey Ball: The best indirect control system ever?

I don't think any of the above is a fear of change on my part or a reaction to motion control in general. Even when you only have buttons to play the game, I'd much rather have direct control of my character. Put it this way - do you think Yuji Naka would have had such a massive hit on his hands in 1991 if Sonic had any control system that wasn't left/right and jump?

04 May, 2010

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9 comments

  • Cyberninja - May 5, 2010 11:45 p.m.

    well if it works i dont care
  • philipshaw - May 5, 2010 3:46 p.m.

    I liked Heavy Rain's controls once I got used to them, so for me that's an example that works well
  • CH3BURASHKA - May 5, 2010 6:36 a.m.

    Though I am unsure in terms of my feelings towards this specific game, I do believe in all types of controls: indirect, motion, 3D (Natal), etc. It's all in the implementation. To quote a wise man, "It's not how big it is, it's how you use it." Or something like that.
  • garnsr - May 4, 2010 8:09 p.m.

    Kirby's Canvas Curse was all indirect control, wasn't it? I think it did fairly well, but it didn't catch me quite like the regular Kirby games.
  • TheWebSwinger - May 4, 2010 7:51 p.m.

    Looks super fun.
  • EnragedTortoise1 - May 4, 2010 4:08 p.m.

    It's a pretty cool idea, but not a practical one.
  • R_U_Guys_From_British - May 4, 2010 3:46 p.m.

    I love normal controls, left, right, jump, shoot, etc. I'm quite ignorant to alternate controls and things of similar ilk.
  • Nyterage - May 4, 2010 3:46 p.m.

    Bah to this casual stuff >_< BAH I SAY. What's the point in playing a game where you don't have direct control of your character? ~_~ honestly....when i play a game i atleast want to feel like i am in control.
  • db1331 - May 4, 2010 2:33 p.m.

    Whoever is playing that has obviously memorized the level. That crap would be infuriating trying to control it the first few times. That spike pit would catch almost everyone off guard the first time.

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