We've heard it before: Natal is Microsoft's sledgehammer, swung straight into the walls that years of button pressing and circle strafing have slowly erected around traditional gaming. We've seen similar attacks from Nintendo's Wii, as well as from the massive genre of the Instrument Protagonist, but Microsoft is hoping for much more than a dent. In the wall. Do you get it? It's like a metaphor and stuff.
The bizarre problem with Natal in its early state is that it, um, works. The technology is clearly functional -- heck, it's vaguely magical -- which makes the absence of truly compelling software almost immediately disappointing. Anyone can simply hop in front of the camera, which never seems to stop and ask, "Who are you and where did you come from -- and why are you so fat compared to the last person?" You're recognized within seconds and can start playing a moment later. And then you slap flying balls.
It's a bit of an unfair demand considering the product's not due until 2010, but the impatience is testament to the convincing nature of the technology itself. In the meantime, Microsoft is exploring Natal's tricks in two existing games: Beautiful Katamari and Space Invaders Extreme.
Did you just briefly imagine how those two games would work with a camera? The chances are good that your ideas line up perfectly with those from Microsoft, since they're so elegant and simple. In the case of Katamari, the titular junk ball is steered by pushing its imaginary equivalent in front of you, arms outstretched and hands turning to change direction. Tsunoda dubbed it a Superman pose -- which we sincerely hope makes its way into an actual Superman game in the future.
Space Invaders Extreme was even easier to grasp, though having the simplest premise in the entire world certainly helps (reminder: shoot the aliens). In Taito's hypnotic update to the xenophobic classic, your body becomes the ship at the bottom of the screen. Moving back and forth horizontally steers the ship, while raising your arms will fire your weapon at the incoming aliens. It's up to you whether you simply hold your arms aloft and fire continuously, or do a ridiculous double-handed chopping motion when you want to fire in interrupted bursts. The latter is much more entertaining, most of all for the people watching you.
Some quick precision is lost when ditching the d-pad or analogue stick (consequently making high scores in Space Invaders Extreme more difficult to attain), but as an alternative Natal offers an effective and accessible control system. There's still a question mark over the technology's noticeable input lag -- Kudo Tsunoda assured us that the final product would aim for a more acceptable latency of 100ms -- but quick reflexes aren't really required to enjoy a game like Space Invaders casually. In other words, the intended audience isn't likely to care that much.
But what of those who do care? As Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima recently pointed out during the Xbox 360 Creator Discussion Panel, one of Natal's strengths is its peaceful coexistence with traditional controllers. The potential for hybrid control schemes, or even subtle motion-based enhancements, could yield some very unique titles in the future. The gap between potential and reality is significant, but considering how much exercise he's been getting, perhaps Kudo Tsunoda is the one to leap over it.