A Brief History Of Nintendo's Controversial Attempts To Simplify Games

The "paradigm shift" promised by a recently unearthed Nintendo patent is just the latest in a string of always-peculiar, sometimes-unsuccessful attempts by Nintendo to simplify (some say: dumb down) video games. Six prior attempts go under our microscope.


News broke late last week that famed Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto filed a Nintendo patent application last June intended to empower any person on the planet to get to the end of a video game. (The patent was first unearthed by users of message board NeoGAF)

The June 2008 patent was described by game blog Kotaku as a "hints 2.0." The document outlines a new way to structure games that would allow users who wouldn't -- or couldn't -- play through a game in full to access a digest of save files, chapter breaks, video play-throughs and similar aids to get the most of their games. The invention, in the patent's words, would be a "program for allowing a player to freely play and enjoy the game to the end." Gamers using this system wouldn't be able to save their progress, ensuring those who want to play through without these aids to to keep from "losing his/her interest in the game."

Whether it was the slow sales of the Wii's 50-hour-plus "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" in 2006 in Nintendo's native Japan that spurred this or something else, it's no revelation that many people don't have the time in their lives or the skill in their fingers to play through epic video games. More casual gaming, experienced through the likes of "Wii Sports" and "Rock Band" is in vogue. But of what the epic games? The patent mentions action-adventure games, role-playing games and -- think "Zelda" -- action-role-playing games, and offers the outlined solution.

But it shouldn't be surprising that Nintendo might be looking into this. The company has a long and controversial history of trying to make gamers easy -- and risking angering hardcore gamers in the process.

Long before Peter Molyneux's and Ben Mattes' development teams removed death from "Fable 2" and "Prince of Persia"…before Atari featured DVD-like scene selection in both "Marc Ecko's Getting Up" and "Alone In The Dark"… Nintendo was pleasing and angering gamers by… simplifying things.

Depending on your perspective, here are six key highlights and lowlights:

Six Big Nintendo Attempts To Simplify Games

The No-Jump Link

In 1998, the company that made its first big gaming money with a game starring a character named Jumpman -- and was the chief creator and innovator of the jumping-based platform genre -- released a game that had automated jumping.

The auto-jumping game was "The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time," a title that has long been celebrated for many things but seemed a bit bizarre in its day for letting the console handle all the in-game jumping. "Zelda" hero Link made his jumps without you. If players ran to the brink of a passable gap, Link would jump. Walking slowly to the same edge would cause Link to stop, eye the gap -- and not jump. No button could make him jump. But with that full-speed run he'd make the needed leaps, and make them perfectly every time, no player-skill, no manual aiming, no precise timing needed. This idea has been used in subsequent "Zelda" games but has been ignored by most other game developers.

Paperweight Role-Playing Games

In 2000, Nintendo released the first of a series of streamlined role-playing games staring Super Mario and his family and friends, a series that rejected many of the standards of other turn-based role-playing games. "Paper Mario" had experience points and items, but it had both fewer menus than the average RPG and a late-game power-up that turned the game's formerly turn-based encounters into action-oriented fights (Imagine a side-scrolling "Final Fantasy" suddenly playing like "Super Mario Bros.") Those elements returned in subsequent "Paper Mario" games.

A Giant Green Button

The first sign of Nintendo's designers applying their simplification concepts to the company's hardware emerged in the design of the GameCube controller. Almost any controller design was going to be simpler than the preceding three-pronged Nintendo 64 controller that had been designed to be held in any of three ways. Nevertheless, it was still a surprise to see Nintendo introduce a controller designed around one over-sized button. This giant green button was encircled by other kidney-shaped buttons. To this day, that button configuration makes the GameCube controller the controller least likely to have the wrong button pushed on it at any give time. The differences between the buttons are obvious to the touch.

A Two-Input Racing Game

The GameCube era may have included the introduction of some complicated GameCube-to-Game-Boy-Advance wiring schemes for so-called "connectivity"-based gaming, but it also introduced one of the simplest gaming control-schemes ever invented. The 2003 racing game "Kirby Air Ride had no throttle button. Kirby moved down the race track no matter what. Players used an analog stick to move Kirby and a single action button to perform any of Kirby's other accelerating, decelerating and combat moves. That's it. Just two inputs. While the game design simplifications of "Ocarina of Time" and "Paper Mario" did not get in the way of big sales, the control scheme of "Kirby Air Ride" appeared to do nothing for the series. "Kirby" hasn't been back in his own console game since.

Stylus and Remote

Maybe the GameCube's big green button wasn't the hardware simplification that the world was clamoring for. Instead, Nintendo correctly deduced, people would really like to play games while holding a pen or wielding a TV remote, thus the historic sales numbers for the Nintendo DS and Wii.

Barely-Controllable Tennis Players

Sports video games had become increasingly complex for decades. Nintendo's line of "Mario" sports games seemingly demonstrated the lengths Nintendo thought it needed to go to make simpler sports games. But, no, the company could make them even easier to control. How? By letting the computer control the player-character's footwork. With 2006's "Wii Sports" tennis, all gamers had to do was worry about the timing and angle of their tennis swings. The two (!) tennis players on their side of the court would automatically run to the optimal places from which to make those swings. How easy was that? Easy enough to get live sessions of "Wii Sports" tennis played on televised award shows, late-night talk shows, morning shows, news programs, etc.. There's no doubt that this one was a good move.


There's so much more that could go on this list of Nintendo Simplicities: the no-fail/user-inputs-their-own-score design of "Wii Music," the attempt at popularizing drum-controlled games on the GameCube, the on-and-off decades-long support of simple light-gun games, the attempt to streamline the real-time strategy genre with "Pikmin," etc.

And, yes, some of Nintendo's initiatives have run contrary to this ethic of simplification: online Friend Codes, GameCube-GBA connectivity, the control scheme for "Luigi's Mansion."

Nintendo seems ready to make playing games simpler… again. Are they betraying the core values of their medium, by making games less interactive? Or are they smartly meeting time-strapped and low-skill gamers halfway?

Whichever the case, they've been trying to simplify video games for a long time.