In the current gaming climate, there are four primary ways that one may interact with and play games. Using a controller whose design has been largely standardized over the past few decades. Using a keyboard and mouse, a setup that, while not the more ergonomic as keyboards were made for typing above all else, has remained a favorite for 40 years. Using a portable touch screen device like a smartphone or tablet that incorporate a mix of touch and motion controls. Or using a VR headset with accompanying motion sensing peripherals.
While I cannot even say that I particularly like all of these methods, they all serve a distinct purpose, have their own pros and cons, and are by in large standardized pieces of hardware that contain some variation between what is offered by different companies, but software developed for them should remain forward compatible, at least with regards to control schemes. However, in the past 15 years not all gaming hardware, or I suppose input methods, abided by these conventions.
From 2004 to 2016, which was basically the tenure of Satoru Iwata come to think of it, Nintendo focused on creating games for the Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS, Wii, and Wii U. Two generations worth of systems that all look a bit out of place next to what came before, during, and after this era, but then they ditched these concepts they had been playing with and went back to a (mostly) standardized controller set-up with the Switch. While that is a bit of an exaggeration, as many games developed for the Wii and Wii U allowed the use of a “Classic” controller, the point I am getting at here, and the point of this entire article, is the fact that a significant number of titles released for the aforementioned quartet of platforms are not compatible with modern control schemes.
While I am highlighting Nintendo systems here, there exist a multitude of titles throughout gaming history that exist in a similar state, in that there really is no way to easily and conveniently play them using standardized input devices without the titles being either altered or compromised in a variety of manners. Some of these are more minor, such as how the original Asteroids was enhanced by the way the game looked on the original arcade screen, causing the simple vector-graphics to glow in a manner that many have compared to stars. Or the trackball controller in Centipede, an uncommon input device that is praised by those who played the title back when it came out nearly 40 years ago. While these two titles have been included in a plethora of re-releases over the years, the lack of features such as these can make the more easily accessible versions of these titles seem like compromised ports lacking in the minute details needed to replicate the experience the creators originally intended.
There are a myriad of examples of arcade titles in a similar situation, where it is hard to get the full experience without original hardware of some sort of custom approximation. However, arcade titles were never, and still aren’t, designed with preservation in mind, and many of them are designed with unique input devices because, well, that is the only place where companies can toy around with unique input devices nowadays. Yes, peripheral controllers are a thing, but they bring forth a number of complications and limitations, and have become rarer across the gaming landscape as people have begun purchasing so many digital goods.
Anyways, the difference between arcades and the DS, Wii, 3DS, and Wii U is that they were platforms with libraries spanning hundreds of games, and were developed in an era where the industry was just beginning to realize the importance of porting older and classic games on modern hardware, and how not everybody playing games has access to 20-year-old hardware. They came out following the generation where classic game re-release bundles were becoming commonplace, where Nintendo themselves put out classic NES games for the GBA, and the Wii allowed people to buy classic games with the Virtual Console.
What I’m saying is that Nintendo should have known that, eventually, people would want to replay these titles on modern hardware. Now that we have reached a point in history where the Wii and DS are long since discontinued, and the 3DS and Wii U have left the public consciousness, this question deserves to be asked, and… the answer is almost universally quite messy, as unlike the NES, SNES, N64, GCN, GB, GBC, and GBA, there is no simple way to correspond the necessary input devices to a modern system.
Without the original hardware, or the iterative hardware of the 3DS, how would one go about playing DS games on modern hardware? Well, the simple answer is emulation, but whether it be on a desktop computer or even on a touch screen device with some sort of controller-esque peripheral, this approach has a number of issues. The DS was designed around two vertically orientated screens that themselves were treated differently from game to game. Sometimes the bottom screen was simply used for the map, UI, or menus, other times it was continuous with the top screen, and more creative examples used the bottom screen as the main input, ignoring the buttons all together.
This variability and reliance on the original hardware means that there are very few, if any, set-ups that could be broadly applied to every game, and with the current emulation tools being what they are, it is easy for titles to feel compromised when played on modern hardware. Though, this is something that dramatically and wildly varies based on the game in question and its use of the unique elements of the DS. Something like Kirby Super Star Ultra, New Super Mario Bros. or the library of mainline Pokemon games for the DS emulate just fine because they largely relegated UI elements to the bottom touch screen.
Other games like Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, Henry Hatsworth, Chibi-Robo Park Patrol, or Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword feel like they were deliberately not designed for anything other than the original DS format, either due to occasional touch screen use, regular touch screen use, or frequent touch screen use. It is an inconsistent problem, and the only truly reliable solution is to replicate the DS format as best as one can, but once the DS line completely disappears, how does one really achieve this? I honestly have no idea unless somebody rigs two smartphones together and attaches a controller adapter to them, but that solution is not widely feasible for fairly obvious reasons.
The Wii has similar issues with regards to its motion controls and general control scheme, but because it had a traditional single screen display, emulating these games is a lot easier and less of a hassle. Hell, if a game had classic or GameCube controller support, there really is no issue with playing them, and emulation can easily be considered a superior way to experience these titles. But what about the other games that proudly used the Wiimote and Nunchuk? Well, it’s yet another crapshoot that requires configuration and makes for inconsistently enjoyable experiences depending on the title and its control scheme.
Something like No More Heroes would be entirely playable if the motion controls were bound to extra buttons and the right stick, while Super Mario Galaxy is a title that inevitably feels awkward if using the right stick to simulate its on-screen star cursor. Super Paper Mario has sections where the right stick could comfortably replicate the cursor with minimal dissonance. But playing something like Red Steel 2 or Skyward Sword without motion controls strikes me as a compromised and frustration riddled experience. Though for the record, these titles could probably work well with the Switch’s Joy-Cons, but that may very well just be a temporary fix that will only last a generation… I am so glad that aside from Super Mario Party and 1, 2, Switch there are very few notable Switch titles that use the Joy-Cons extensively.
The 3DS bares the same issues as the DS, albeit to a lesser extent due to shifting design trends, and a slight issue that pops up in the handful of games that emphasized the 3D display, but Nintendo more or less dropped the whole 3D angle back in 2014. While the Wii U… is yet another crapshoot. When the GamePad is ignored, the problems are almost nonexistent, but when the GamePad is a crux and the game relies on it, then it becomes a problem. How many games use the GamePad extensively? A couple. How many are noteworthy games that lack a port to another more common system where the games were reworked to? Well, the number is thankfully very small. The Wonderful 101, Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse, Nintendo Land, and Star Fox Zero are the only ones that come to mind. The latter two of which are not really worth redesigning around another control scheme, and may as well be tossed into the sea.
Or in other words, the Wii U would have been a problem, but Nintendo seems to be inclined to erase that failure from their records, and all of its otherwise noteworthy titles are seemingly scheduled to be ported over to other platforms. As for third party titles on the platform… most developers wisely avoided this innovative control scheme and chose to not develop a game around that dead-end technology.
While it can be seen as short sighted to draw the lines anywhere and declare that innovation or creativity should cease, I try to be very future minded, and innovations that lead to nothing are little more than ancillary relics that are only of historical value. It is a risk that I believe outweighs whatever innovations people crave, as aside from ancillary optional additions to standardized input devices, such as gyroscopic aiming or paddles on the backs of standardized controllers, I really hope something like this never happens again. Because for as great as the games made during the DS, Wii, 3DS, and Wii U eras were, I worry about whether or not these titles will be available for future generations to enjoy and enjoy fully.
I suppose that a similar sentiment could also be levied towards other threats to games preservation. Such as the end of various online games, the looming threat of streaming-only games, and the closure of online storefronts with exclusive digital-only titles, along with the delisting of individual titles. But the idea of these games, games from a generation I grew up with and games that I dearly love, being tethered to slowly dying original hardware and suboptimal emulation, it somehow irks me more than all of those legitimate worries, and it makes me wish Nintendo kept it simple all these years, so this problem would not exist today.