First Look: Nintendo Revolution Controller Feels Smooth As Puppet Strings

New York demos prove small device's 360-degree sensitivity.

NEW YORK — Will the next generation of gaming be defined by a console with a controller the size of short remote control?

Nintendo brought its Revolution console to New York this week, and MTV News made the shortlist to go hands-on with the system’s unusual wireless controller. The Revolution, Nintendo’s next home console, is planned for release in 2006, and it’s decidedly different from anything Nintendo has done in the past.

In a hotel room more than 39 stories above midtown Manhattan, Nintendo Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing Reggie Fils-Aime played master of ceremonies for eight demos that showed just what Nintendo’s controller can do.

It was a focus decidedly different from the fall’s pre-release demos of the Xbox 360, which focused on the increased level of detail that comes with playing video games on high-definition TVs.

“What I would want to challenge both current gamers as well as new gamers [with] is, ‘What do you want in your experience?’ ” Fils-Aime asked. “Do you really want to see beads of sweat on the player? Or do you want to play games in a whole new way?”

Announced with great fanfare at the Tokyo Game Show in September (see “Nintendo Revolution Controller Unveiled, And It’s Revolutionary” ), the controller is armed with sensors that allow users to control the action with a wave of the hand.

The demos in New York started with simple pointing. On one TV, blocks floated across the screen. Aiming the controller at the screen produced cross hairs onscreen. A press of one of the controller’s action buttons fired a shot, as if the demo were a modern-day “Duck Hunt.” Another pointing demo had the controller guiding an onscreen stick across an electrified maze. Precision was required, and even with just one hand, was easily produced.

The more elaborate demos showcased the controller’s 360-degree sensitivity. In one, a biplane set aloft above the tropical Isle Delfino from the GameCube’s “Super Mario Sunshine” was controlled entirely by tilting and turning the controller in midair. Gripped either as one would hold a paper airplane or a TV remote, the controller could be tilted back to make the plane pull back and rise. To roll the plane, the player needed only to roll the controller. Turn the controller and the plane turned. It was all intuitive puppetry. Movement was responsive and augured well for any Revolution game that requires a player to steer characters and vehicles in the air, space or underwater.

A graphically simple fishing demo showed how moving the controller toward a TV and away from it — as well as to the right and left — could position a floating fishing pole anywhere over a 3-D lake. Tilting the controller aimed the pole downward. The controller’s built-in rumble signaled the nibble from a fish, and a jerk back pulled the pole — with fish — from the pond.

The day’s final demo involved tethering the controller to a cell-phone-sized device topped with a control stick. This setup, which Nintendo describes as the “Nunchuck,” was used to demonstrate how Revolution might revolutionize the control of a first-person shooter. Nintendo developer Retro refitted the GameCube game “Metroid Prime 2: Echoes” to work with the “Nunchuck,” mapping character movement to the analog stick but allowing the character’s aiming hand to be controlled directly by the midair movements of the player’s controller hand.

In September Nintendo showed a brief movie that featured players swinging the controller wildly to seemingly swing swords and bang drums. That type of free-swinging control is indeed possible with the Revolution, but the demos in New York allowed for much more subtle movement. Hooking a fish required little more than a flick of the wrist. Aiming in “Metroid” could be done without lifting one’s elbows from one’s lap.

Nintendo says it doesn’t want to release screenshots of the demos as many of them are designed with primitive graphics that would have seemed at home on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. The idea, company leaders say, is to get people excited about the possibilities of the controller rather than focus yet on graphics. The de-emphasis on graphics is consistent with a report this week from gaming site IGN that quoted horsepower specs from developers that indicate that the Revolution, while more powerful than the GameCube and original Xbox, won’t be in the league of the Xbox 360 and PS3. Games on Revolution will look better than games available on the PS2-era of consoles, but how good remains to be seen.

At the New York demo event, the Nintendo folks were content to dream. “I want a Western,” Nintendo Head of localization Bill Trinen said during the demos. “I want to stand there and draw my gun.” Trinen also discussed the possibility of the controller for cooking and fitness games and two-controller, two-fisted boxing games. Fils-Aime suggested a new wrinkle to survival-horror games that might have the player using one controller to point a gun and another to scan the scene as a flashlight.

After an hour with the controller it is easy to envision dozens of uses for the controller in existing games. It could be used to dribble a basketball, pull the reigns on a horse or get a soldier out of the line of fire.

But at the same time some motions, like moving a character forward in a 3-D game like “Zelda” or “Grand Theft Auto,” would seem more challenging to commit with just the remote. Would players push the controller toward the screen to advance? Or use the controller’s D-pad, which would seem to be less nuanced than using a standard analog stick? Or would they need to use the “Nunchuck,” an add-on that Fils-Aime said was not yet confirmed to ship with every Revolution console?

Following the demo MTV News reached out to developers who have held the controller to get their thoughts on the device’s potential for changing the way video games are played. Check back Friday to hear what they had to say.