Nintendo and Accessibility

Nintendo's Mario looking pensively at a Game Accessibility symbol.

Nintendo have recently been making waves in the fields of game accessibility. Some very positive and some causing consternation. I wanted this post to focus on some of the very positive things Nintendo have been involved in (over decades) to improve the accessibility of their games to disabled people.

For balance I will close with five items I'd love for Nintendo to address to make things much better for many disabled players struggling with their games in 2017. To the good stuff...


Box icons detailing (a little) accessibility info: Boxed Wii games indicate compatible Nintendo controllers with each game. Simply presented info like this can help some players work out if they'll be able to play the game. With Wii Mario Kart, for instance, if they could manage most Gamecube games, but really struggled with the Wii remote, the picture below gives confidence that they should be fine.


Wii indictation of game controllers.



Demo Play: Seen in Wii New Super Mario Bros. If part of the game gets too tough, activating this mode will see the game take over and play automatically. Once demo-play has seen you through the tough bit you were stuck on you can deactivate it and resume manual play. Wonderful (patented) idea, that I don't recall seeing elsewhere.


Easy Mode: Super Mario Run featured one-handed play, and a one-handed tap to play mechanic for Nintendo's first phone game. Upon requests from users struggling with the difficulty, a much appreciated "Easy Mode" was added. All of this, alongside iOS accessibility features, made the game possible to complete using a single head switch (see pictures below). Wonderful stuff.


Super Mario Run, Easy Mode added to improve accessibility.


Colin McDonnell completed Super Mario Run using a single head switch.


DS XL and Nintendo Switch: The enlarged XL version of the DS offered a slightly bigger screen and bigger buttons. As I understand, this was to take into account some elderly players who complained that the standard DS was too difficult to use. The Nintendo Switch expanded upon this by allowing for the games to be played on as big a screen as needed.


Smart Steering and Auto Accelerate: Two fantastic driving assist options in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Switch. These enable easier driving for all. This includes visually impaired players struggling to see tight corners and those struggling with the game's difficulty in general. With these modes one handed and even one button play becomes a possibility. This feature can also be seen in Intepid's Drivey from 2005 and partially in SEGA's Intelligent Braking System seen in F355 Ferrari Challenge. Who cares who did it first though, when it's so massively helpful.





Sound Voyager: One of the earliest console/handheld games that could be played without the need for looking at the screen. Released in 2006 via the Nintendo Club. I would love to see some more audio games make their way to consoles.





Support for Alternative Controllers: So important in removing physical and some cognitive barriers to access. I'll be up front. This remains a big problem on all Nintendo machines (I'll explain why later). However, across the decades until 2015 Nintendo have actively done more than any other games console manufacturer to support alternative access.


In 1987 a team of Nintendo America employees created the NES Hands Free controller. This was designed for paralysed players able to use their head with a chin controlled joystick, and sip-puff for the four buttons of a NES handset. If you discount the Atari Kids controller, this was the first assistive technology games controller manufactured by a big games company aimed at disabled gamers.

Around the SNES era there's this lovely anecdote of Nintendo of America helping a young player who'd been in an accident needing a one handed controller.

In 2000, after some years of technical support, Nintendo gave their seal of approval to the Pathways Development Group, Team Xtreme range of assistive technology interface boxes. These enabled people to use stock assistive technology switches and (D9 style) joysticks on the NES, SNES and N64.


NES HANDS-FREE CONTROLLER: A new way to get more kids in on the video game challenge.

  


In 2006 the Wii brought some simpler methods of play to the fore. One handed gamers found a games machine they could typically use out of the box. Many new people found the method of bowling intuitive and fun in Wii Sports who struggled with the complexity of a Dual Shock like controller. Undoubtedly things were opened up for many more with this design, and it was a massive success.

However, not all players could manage swooshing an arm about, nor precise manipulation of the Wii remote. Perhaps as a concession to this (as well as wanting to please more conventional players), Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros Brawl both allowed for four methods of control, including a GameCube controller. As a side note, EA Sports "Family Play" play option in 2008 Wii Madden, FIFA and NBA Live offered assist modes and simpler controller requirements. If only more games offered this combined versatility, what a difference it would make.

Post N64 (pre Switch), for those unable to use Nintendo branded controllers on the Wii and Wii-U, a small number of 3rd party controller adapters enabled far greater options. Pictured second below is a photo of accessible gaming advocate Colin McDonnell, able to navigate the menu systems (Wii-U only) and race using a single head mounted switch and a single sound activated control (via a Titan One connected PC).


EA Madden NFL 08 Wii: Family Play accessible gaming option.

Colin McDonnell using a single head switch to navigate menus and play Wii-U Mario Kart 8.


Symbolic Menu Systems: Hugely beneficial to a range of people struggling with text alone and I would say was another reason for the huge success of the Wii. The Wii-U improved upon this by allowing for navigation using the d-pad, which can also be of benefit to completely blind players (with a help sheet read from a computer) and of course those unable to use motion controls.




Accessibility Support: A recent on-line accessibility support ticket system offers a fairly direct route through to Nintendo. They also publish yearly upon some of their efforts around Corporate Social Responsibility and Accessibility (also see this message from Mr Shibata). From this I was reminded of their long standing support of the fantastic Starlight Fun Centre project. This gets Nintendo hardware and games to children in hospitals around the world who might very well need a distraction from what is keeping them there. It has been running since 1990 I believe.

Starlight fun centre.




Five accessibility barriers that I feel Nintendo would do well to solve.....


1. Motion control barriers: Some players cannot, and will never be able to, swoosh their arms around and manipulate a controller in six degrees of freedom.

2. A lack of alternative controller options: Point 1 above, a lack of reconfiguration options and the lack of a Titan type adapter leaves the Nintendo Switch far behind the competition. A solution would be to encourage developers to include alternative control schemes that can solve these issues (as with Wii Mario Kart) and in parallel to support someone like Jefferson Kopee to make a universal controller adapter. Especially so one that will bridge PC controls to a Nintendo Switch.

3. Lack of accessibility information: Here Nintendo are top of the competition but it could still be so much more inclusive and helpful.

4. Forgetting past accessibility needs and successes: Nintendo have much to be proud of in accessible game design. Ease of access things like symbolic menu systems carry through from system to system. But in games will this be the case for the likes of Easy Mode, Demo Mode and Steering assists? These should not be novelties, but be duplicated, developed and encouraged.

5. A lack of accessibility options in general: Something so clearly missed between the Nintendo Switch and rival game consoles is the lack of in-built accessibility options. Things you can choose to use or not depending on the broad needs of a gaming audience. It would be wonderful to see Nintendo address this. Looking at their past history, I think people should be hopeful and patient.

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