Aiming with sticks? So yesterday! Gyro aiming is the future

Translation: Katherine Martin

With the release of «Splatoon 3», Nintendo has reignited my love for motion controls. Which makes the failure to implement gyro aiming as standard on consoles all the more frustrating.

Gyro aiming allows you to use the movement of the controller to aim instead of lining up a shot with analogue sticks. In terms of game feel, it’s comparable to using a PC mouse. After several intense «Splatoon 3» matches, I’m convinced that every game should have a gyro aiming option. Motion-controlled aiming isn’t just much more precise – it’s also faster than targeting with analogue sticks. It feels so good that I never want to go back to using the old stick controls.

If you’ve never experienced the pleasure of gyro aiming, I’ve made a quick video to demonstrate the «Splatoon 3» controls.

The right analogue stick is still used in «Splatoon 3» to make sweeping camera movements. If, for example, there’s an enemy to your left, you can push the analogue stick that way (as you typically would) to focus the camera on them. Gyro aiming allows you to get the enemy into your crosshairs quickly and precisely with slight movements of the controller.

What might sound cumbersome in theory feels intuitive and «right» after taking a little time to get used to it. Once it’s all clicked into place, there’s no going back. If you ask me, it’s mind-boggling that gyro aiming still hasn’t established itself as the industry-wide standard for consoles.

The pioneers of motion control

When you look at the history of gyro aiming, one company’s tireless efforts in this area stands out: Nintendo’s. These days, gyro controls come as standard with Nintendo games. But even this long-established Japanese corporation had a tough time implementing the feature.

A shaky start: motion controls in the Wii era

Nintendo laid the foundations for motion-controlled aiming with the launch of the Wii in 2006. The controller, which was revolutionary at that time, has a built-in accelerometer capable of measuring increases and decreases in speed within a 3D space. For the most part, the sensor was used for quick, boisterous movements such as swinging a tennis racket in «Wii Sports». What the accelerometer isn’t suitable for, however, is precise aiming.

Instead, shooters on the Wii worked by way of the controller’s built-in infrared camera. It can measure the relative position and orientation of the controller using a «sensor bar» placed above or below the TV. Right after the console was launched, this «pointer function» came to the fore in the first-person shooter «Red Steel».

As you can see, using it isn’t exactly plain sailing. Rather than being fixed in the centre, the crosshairs move with the pointer. What results is an unsatisfying mix of old-school light gun shooters à la «House of the Dead» and modern first-person shooters.

The Wii era’s clumsy beginning became etched into many gamers’ minds, and continues to be associated with gyro aiming today. Unjustly so. After all, the modern motion controls used in «Splatoon 3» have little in common with the hapless flailing involved in «Wii Sports» or the subpar «Red Steel» controls.

Gryo controls become the norm for Nintendo games – and it’s all down to «The Legend of Zelda»

Three years after the Wii hit the shelves, Nintendo released the «Wii Motion Plus», a small add-on with a gyroscope for the Wii controller. With this new hardware, even small, precise movements could be detected. In fact, gyro aiming would’ve been possible with the new sensor too. Except for an archery mini game in «Wii Sports Resort», however, the add-on was unfortunately never used.

About two years after the emergence of «Wii Motion Plus», Nintendo released a new piece of hardware with an integrated gyroscope: the Nintendo 3DS. Unlike with the Wii controller, the sensor was integrated right off the bat, meaning the hardware’s potential could truly be harnessed.

The first game to feature gyro aiming on a handheld console was the 3DS remake of «The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time». In the new edition, the gyro sensor allows long-range weapons to be controlled from a first-person perspective.

Admittedly, the feature doesn’t look particularly elegant by today’s standards in the «Ocarina of Time» remake. Nevertheless, the game is an important milestone for gyro aiming in Nintendo games – every 3D Zelda game since has featured motion controls. That’s «Wind Waker HD» (2013) and «Twilight Princess HD» (2016) on the Wii U, «Majora’s Mask 3D» (2015) on the Nintendo 3DS, and «Breath of the Wild» (2017) on the Switch and the Wii U. «Breath of the Wild» was actually my first encounter with gyro aiming – and it was love at first sight.

In «Breath of the Wild», you use the right analogue stick to move the camera. Unlike in «Splatoon», however, motion controls aren’t always active. It’s only when you press the ZR button and draw a long-range weapon that gyro aiming mode springs to life. There’s nothing more satisfying than shooting a Bokoblin in the head with a slight movement of the controller, or hitting a Guardian in the laser eye with millimetre precision.

Like «The Legend of Zelda», the 2015 launch of «Splatoon» is a key milestone in the history of motion controls. With the release of the colourful multiplayer shooter, Nintendo proved that gyro aiming wasn’t just a gimmick, but something that enriched the core gameplay in a meaningful way. This unique gameplay was developed further in «Splatoon’s» 2017 sequel, before being perfected for the recently released «Splatoon 3».

Gyro aiming features in third-party games on the Switch

By implementing gyro aiming in their own games, Nintendo has also inspired third-party publishers. In recent years, games with an exclusive gyro aiming mode have been released for the Switch. From action-adventure games such as «Assassin’s Creed III» and horror smash hits such as «Dying Light», to RPGs such as «The Outer Worlds», there’s a whole smorgasbord to choose from.

Motion controls especially come in handy in first-person shooters, where precision and speed play the deciding role between victory and defeat. In this video, you can see the motion controls in action in «Doom Eternal’s» switch port.

Late to the motion control party

Beyond the confines of Nintendo, gyro aiming sadly hasn’t become established everywhere. While Sony has habitually flirted with the idea, Microsoft has ignored the issue completely until now. At least Valve is using Steam Deck to drive gyro aiming forward in the PC gaming sector.

Sony can’t make its mind up

Just before the launch of the PS3, Sony showcased their answer to the Nintendo Wii: the Sixaxis controller. Similar to Nintendo’s controller, the PS3 controller does have motion sensors, but they’re not precise enough for motion-controlled aiming. So the Sixaxis was only deployed in shooters as a gimmick. It involved, for example, throwing grenades in «Uncharted» or trying to hold the controller as still as possible when aiming a sniper rifle in «Killzone».

A few months after the launch of the Nintendo 3DS, Sony ushered in its second and (as of yet) final handheld generation with the Playstation Vita. Similar to the 3DS, the Vita has a built-in gyro sensor, which features in some first-party titles. In Vita-exclusive «Uncharted: Golden Abyss», you can use gyro aiming to dish out a volley of precise headshots.

After a successful start for gyro aiming on the Vita, Sony ditched the concept completely when the Playstation 4 was launched roughly two years later. Although the PS4 controller has all the necessary technical capabilities for gyro gaming, no first-party games have made use of the feature. The only exception is post-apocalyptic zombie shooter «Days Gone», a brainchild of from the studio that developed «Uncharted: Golden Abyss.»

Still, Sony has stepped up its game in this regard in the last couple of years. As part of a major «accessibility offensive», Playstation Studios has begun to incorporate a myriad of accessibility options into their games. Gyro aiming now counts itself among them. Not yet available on a system level, however, the feature can only be activated for individual games. We can only hope that Sony won’t change its mind within the next couple of years.

In the video below, you can see how developer Naughty Dog implemented motion controls in the recently released «The Last of Us: Part I».

Steam Deck: gyro aiming on a system level

In 2015, Valve brought a device with a built-in gyro sensor to PC: the Steam controller. If you have one, you can use the Steam launcher to determine whether the controller’s gyroscope should replace the mouse or stick inputs. Basically, even if a game isn’t programmed for gyro aiming, the steam controller enables you to use the feature anyway.

Though the Steam Controller was taken off the market due to a lack of demand in 2019, you can still use other controllers with gyro sensors, including as a replacement for a mouse or stick. This leads to an absurd situation; namely, Playstation 4 games that don’t have a gyro aiming option on the original hardware are available with gyro aiming via Steam. The video below demonstrates how you can activate the option on a PC using «Horizon: Zero Dawn» as an example.

Despite this, the feature isn’t all that widely used by the PC community. This is hardly surprising, given PC gamers already have an ultra-precise, quick aiming device in the form of a mouse and keyboard set-up. Released at the beginning of this year, the Steam Deck handheld has far more potential for widespread use. In the video embedded below, Valve’s Scott Dalton explains how it all works:

Hopefully, Valve will make their PC handheld available in other regions (and Switzerland!) soon. The more gamers get to experience gyro aiming, the likelier it’ll grow in popularity.

Microsoft has no interest in Gyro

Microsoft’s only foray into the world of motion controls was in 2010 when it released the «Kinect» camera for the Xbox 360. With its special sensors and infrared projectors, the camera is very good at accurately detecting movement and transferring them into games. Since the hardware was actually intended as a substitute for classic controllers, it doesn’t enable motion-controlled aiming. Though a success for Microsoft, Kinect was dismissed by the hardcore gaming community as yet another useless gimmick.

Since manufacturing of the camera was discontinued in 2017, Microsoft hasn’t ventured into any other alternative control options. Gyro aiming on the Xbox remains a pipe dream for now. The fact that Microsoft surveyed their customers last year to find out which Playstation 5 controller features they’d like to see in an Xbox controller has raised my hopes somewhat.

My verdict: gyro aiming is the future

Gryo aiming is much faster and more precise than aiming with analogue sticks. It bridges the significant gap that exists between controllers and mouse control, and gives console gamers a level of precision that can’t be achieved with traditional control options. Those who play «Splatoon 3» without gyro aiming probably won’t be able to keep up with the best of the best.

The negative reaction of many gamers to any mention of gyro aiming is down to the concept’s shaky start in life blighted by the pointing and waving of the Wii and PS3 era. Modern gyro sensors and controls have no connection to the old gimmicks.

I’m convinced that gyro aiming will become the de facto standard for controllers in time. For Nintendo, motion controls have been the norm for years. Meanwhile, Sony will hopefully continue pushing the topic as part of their accessibility offensive without changing their minds again. In addition, Valve’s gyro aiming option on Steam and Steam Deck has laid an important foundation for the continued development of gyro controls in the world of PC gaming. Let’s hope that Microsoft sheds itself of the negative rep of the Kinect era and introduces an Xbox controller equipped with gyro sensors soon.

Even if you’re a gyro sceptic, you should give the controls a chance. Who knows? Maybe something will just click and you’ll wonder how you’ve managed to survive with old-school controls for all this time.

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My love of video games was unleashed at the tender age of five by the original Gameboy. Over the years, it's grown in leaps and bounds.

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