What motion controls could do for JRPGs

This is a column by Jason Schreier dedicated to the analysis (and occasional mocking) of his favorite genre, the Japanese role-playing game. Whether it's because they're too antiquated or just too niche, he believes JRPGs don't get enough attention in the gaming industry today. It's time to change that.

While plowing through the last few sections of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword several weeks ago, I realized that I didn't want it to end. Not because I wanted to keep playing -- the action-adventure game had already stolen more than 40 hours of my life -- but because I wanted to continue waving my arm up and down to kill things. I was completely enthralled by the game's motion controls.

And I used to hate motion controls.

You see, Nintendo's latest Zelda uses the Wii controller's MotionPlus accessory to recognize the precise movements of your arm. Slash horizontally, and hero Link will do the same. Slash vertically, and Link's sword will follow suit. Slash diagonally? Well, you can probably guess.

As a cranky longtime gamer with a crippling fear of change, I spent a long time thinking that this sounded terrible. Waggling my controller in games like Super Mario Galaxy and Twilight Princess felt more like inconvenience than innovation. Would Skyward Sword really feel all that different?

Yes. Yes it would. It felt phenomenal. And it made me start asking another question.

Could motion controls add some flavor to JRPGs?

There's no easy answer. As any developer who has worked with the Wii understands, it can be tough to find the balance between intrusion and necessity. Go too far and you risk leaving players tired and sore. Stay too minimal and it can seem like your motion controls have just been grafted on.

Exacerbating this issue for traditional JRPGs is the fact that the genre is known for turn-based, menu-driven, slow-paced combat. Players will typically have plenty of time to think and decide what they want to do next. It's a system that seems to be at odds with the instinctual, rapid nature of motion controls.

But maybe there are ways to combine the two.

Take Xbox 360 RPG Lost Odyssey, for example. Every time one of the game's protagonists attacks a monster, you get a limited window of time in which to push a certain button and do extra damage. The Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi games have similar mechanics.

What if those timed hits were activated by motion controls? What if you selected from a menu to attack or cast spells or use special abilities, then swung your controller to determine their effectiveness? Precise movements and proper timing would be the key to victory. It'd require both sharp instincts and keen strategy.

One of Skyward Sword's biggest strengths is a design tenet that would be perfect for JRPGs: fewer, more challenging battles. Thanks to the motion-controlled swordplay, that random lizard with a shield is just as pesky to bring down as the gigantic scorpion boss. A JRPG that offers similar trials could work really well.

And what about minigames? Or quick-time events? Countless JRPG scenes could have been enhanced by motion controls, like the rhythm-fueled sword-fighting sequence in Final Fantasy IX's introductory play, or the carnival games of Chrono Trigger. Imagine steering Final Fantasy VII's motorcycle with one hand and swinging your arm to hack down enemies with the other. There are a lot of possibilities here.

It's easy to dismiss motion controls as an unnecessary gimmick, and as a toy better suited for flinging suicidal birds than going on grandiose quests and adventures. Hell, I've done it. But after seeing what Skyward Sword can do, I think it's time we reconsider that approach.


Jason Schreier is a freelance writer/editor based out of NYC. He's a contributing writer for Wired.com and occasionally writes for a number of other sites and publications, including Edge Magazine, the Onion News Network and G4TV. You can follow him on Twitter at @jasonschreier.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.