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In Praise of the A Button




It could be the context-sensitive buttons in Ocarina of Time or Resident Evil 4. Or maybe the ground-pound in Donkey Kong Country. You’ve probably experienced it throughout Super Mario Bros. and spent hours getting better at it in Star Fox. Indie hits and the best mobile titles understand it. Sometimes, even Nintendo forgets about it.

It’s the value of simplicity. It’s part of the vision for a game, and it’s used throughout the industry. In art, it can be choosing stylised visuals over highly detailed, realistic graphics. In music, it could be the use of memorable melodies. For controls, it is the ease of the player translating what they want to do into what actually happens.

First, understand that valuing this simplicity is very personal. Every game I’ve ever really loved has some kind of primal simplicity to its mechanics or narrative hook. While I am willing to bet that most people visiting a Nintendo website share this history, it is not a universal value for all gamers.

The most exciting aspect of simplicity, especially in Nintendo games, has been the limited vocabulary. Rather than just adding 20% to your movement speed or extra damage as you level up, the levels themselves evolve. You begin Mario by jumping, running and sometimes shooting fireballs – by the end, you still are – but you have been through, over and under an entire world. You understand the versatility of Mario’s jump and run.

Given all that, why should we praise simplicity in video games? It’s because the core ideas of a game are what last. We remember jumping and stomping goombas in Super Mario Bros. and shooting in Space Invaders. The most important interaction in the original The Legend of Zelda? Slashing objects with Link’s sword. In Metroid? Samus opens doors by shooting them because that’s what you, as the player, can do.

What do you do in the Assassin’s Creed games? In the first, you could probably reduce it to listening to conversations, jumping off of tall buildings and killing people. As the series has gone on, more and more has been added to its vocabulary, diluting its simple formula. No one even calls them stealth games anymore and their popularity is waning. Games in this vein have all been lumped into the vague “action-adventure” category and are approaching critical mass.

By contrast, shooters are going through a renaissance. Games like the latest Wolfenstein, Blizzard’s upcoming Overwatch, and most importantly, Splatoon, are returning to the primal simplicity of “move and shoot” and making massive waves by doing so.

In a completely different way, games following Half Life, or more recently, the Dark Souls series, have altered the delivery of story to avoid breaking your control of the character, and to reduce the external information (such as complicated lore) that is unnecessary for playing the game.

By returning to a Nintendo-like focus on player interaction, developers are freer to innovate in setting, story, characters, and new mechanics. Indie darlings like Stardew Valley or Undertale can be played with four directions and a few interaction buttons.

We can see the dangers of forgetting these lessons in Nintendo’s games too. The Wind Waker was a beautiful cartoon to those who loved it, while Twilight Princess tried a more naturalistic look and expanded into an epic adventure – a Lord of the Rings pastiche and gunslinging western in one. For its lack of focus, the latter game ultimately suffered in comparison.

Later, Skyward Sword became a running joke (pun not intended) for its “stamina lime”. Not to mention the recent backlash against the cumbersome controls of Star Fox Zero, where in the original and Star Fox 64 it only required one directional input and a couple of different buttons for various boosts and shooting.

Resident Evil is another series that, at its Resi 4 and REmake heights, was associated with Nintendo, and only ever needed one thumbstick: used for both aiming and shooting. When Resident Evil zigged away to the high definition consoles while Nintendo zagged with the Wii, each entry added more and more modes of interaction. This was ostensibly to make them more like action games but just resulted in Resident Evil 6: incredibly detailed graphically, but a controller-chucking nightmare with dodge rolls, two different types of crouching, arcane weapon switching menus and worse.

Shovel Knight, the best game of 2014 and filled to the brim with action and adventure, could be played on an NES controller and still feels more advanced than the bloated, fourteen-button annual releases from big publishers. Even in that year, the well-received Shadow of Mordor succeeded by simplifying the Assassin’s Creed style of play and adding more interesting systems that could be interacted with using a morerefined vocabulary.

All of this is to highlight how wonderful simplicity can be. Look to the Bravely Default games, whose turn-based battles are a welcome change to increasingly complicated JRPG battle systems. Look to Super Mario Galaxy and its successors, that achieved so much by trimming the number of moves that Mario uses. Look especially at Splatoon, a game that made shooters even more accessible by simplifying the controls. Finally, see the love showered upon the timeless art styles of The Wind Waker or Paper Mario as opposed to more “realistic” games that become dated as they age.

With video games always evolving as a medium and virtual reality upon us, it is important to praise the core values that make games that people love and games that last. With the Wii U on its last legs and the NX on the horizon, if Nintendo is still going to compete, they will also make an effort to return to their strengths in simplicity. After all, the tall grass in Pokémon doesn’t need to be photo-realistic, and Samus Aran doesn’t need her attacks mapped to ten different buttons.

  • Mitchell Akhurst

A button


Mitchell is a writer from Currawang, Australia, where his metaphorical sword-pen cleaves fiction from reality daily. When he's not writing, he plays video games and watches movies. While thinking about writing.

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  1. Katrina Filippidis

    April 28, 2016 at 3:01 am

    Completely agree with this article! I always felt that assigning too many buttons to things is just cognitive overload, and on the flipside, you can have relatively few button designations but if they don’t make sense that’s bad for gameplay too. Here I’m referencing some of the older games that Angry Video Game Nerd plays where the buttons are so hard to figure out & gameplay is poorly designed. But when you get it right, less is definitely more.

    • Mitchell Ryan

      April 29, 2016 at 5:36 am

      Thanks for the response, I feel like it maybe speaks more to Nintendo fans or fans of retro games because of the minimalism that ex fact0r mentions. And a great point with the poorly designed controls.

  2. ex fact0r

    April 28, 2016 at 8:52 pm

    Some of your comparisons & comments here are completely out of left field. When did this “renaissance” in the shooting genre happen? Aside from Wolfenstein: The New Order, there hasn’t exactly been an influx of classic styled shooters recently. And how do you make a direct comparison between Wolfenstein and Overwatch? One is a single player only hallway shooter and the other is a multiplayer only MOBA+FPS hybrid. Qualifying Overwatch as simply a “move and shoot” game is a drastic underselling of the game’s depth, and quite frankly, just plain wrong.

    Shadow of Mordor is a simplified Assassin’s Creed? Shadow of Mordor has skill trees and more button combinations than any Assassin’s Creed game I’ve played (and I’ve played most of them…). Speaking of Assassin’s Creed, my most memorable and enjoyable thing to do in those games is using the hidden blade, which happens at the simple press of one button. As the games have gone on, the Assassin’s toolkit has grown, but I hardly call adding a weapon wheel to be complex. Funnily enough, ever since the series’ inception, the biggest critique of the Assassin’s Creed games has been that its open combat is too simple due to minimalist design (counter attack all day), so I highly doubt anyone is staying away from these games due to complexity.

    At the end of the day, I agree with the core of your argument (“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci), but there’s a huge difference between simplicity and minimalism. It’s rather irrelevant how many buttons are needed for a game. I’d argue that both Super Mario Bros and World of Warcraft have beautiful simplicity to them, yet one game has me pressing a couple of buttons while the other has me pressing dozens of buttons, frantically…

    • Mitchell Ryan

      April 29, 2016 at 5:51 am

      Thanks for such an in depth response! While I don’t necessarily think it’s all about minimalism, there is definitely a level of simplicity that isn’t for everyone, for the same reason that the frantic multi-button battles of WoW aren’t for everyone.
      As to Overwatch, you might be thinking of Battleborn — apart from the wider than usual choice of characters there is nothing MOBA-like about it. Like Blizzard’s games usually are (and it sounds like you agree when it comes to WoW), the simplicity of their vision is taking a well understood genre, in this case a team/arena shooter, and adding their special touch. I’d say that’s in the spirit of the Nintendo simplicity that I’m trying to laud.
      In any case, I’m glad to see that topics like this can encourage this sort of debate. While I might not be the one to write it, I can see an interesting story in here about the combat of Assassin’s Creed!

      • ex fact0r

        April 29, 2016 at 7:54 am

        I’ve been playing Overwatch since the early beta phase, and it definitely has a very large MOBA influence. Each character has 4~ unique abilities, including an ultimate, exactly like characters in MOBA games. And unlike practically all other big shooters (Halo, CoD, Battlefield, etc) there is a character select screen (ala MOBAs) where the team picks their heroes in an attempt to make a team of characters that synergize with each other while also getting a balance of tanks, healers, damage dealers, and supports (again, ala MOBAs). For years shooters have had basic classes like ‘sniper’ and ‘assault’, but Overwatch’s characters & their abilities, and the capacity for so many team compositions and ability combinations is so distinctly MOBA. As an avid MOBA fan and an Overwatch player, I think it’s impossible to deny the MOBA influence here 🙂

        • Mitchell Ryan

          April 29, 2016 at 9:47 pm

          This is really good, most of the preview content so far hasn’t described it like this. I’ll definitely have to come back and write something on the open beta. Perhaps a look at all the differences between Overwatch and Splatoon.

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