Missed Kinections: in loving memory of the Xbox Kinect

Microsoft’s defunct motion-controlled system might be gone, but it’s not forgotten

We’ve seen our fair share of gimmicks in the gaming sphere. We’re not immune to dazzling displays of pioneering tech that pledge to change how we play, but inevitably end up unceremoniously fizzling out just a few years later. And though it was the Nintendo Wii that yanked our hobby into the mainstream spotlight, smashing stereotypes about games and the people who play them, it was Microsoft’s all-singing, all-dancing (quite literally, sometimes) Kinect that caught my eye.

While the Wii brought motion control to the masses with its simple, engaging mini-games and impressive line of smooth, plastic accessories – tennis rackets, steering wheels, guns, golf clubs, even frying pans, apparently – the Kinect went one step further, insisting that you were the controller. I also didn’t need to buy a whole new gaming system to use it, either; while so many of tech innovations remain prohibitively expensive for many, existing 360 owners “only” needed to fork out £150 for a sensor that plugged into your console.

Xbox One Kinect
Xbox One Kinect. Credit: Barone Firenze / Shutterstock.com

Later on, you didn’t even need to do that. By the time the current-gen rolled around in 2013, the Kinect sensor 2.0 – a chunkier, more cumbersome offering than its predecessor – was bundled in with the Xbox One as a part of the system itself. It promised to take what the Wii had started – family-friendly gaming for all, regardless of experience or dexterity – and build on that legacy, tempting a whole new generation of players.

I loved it initially. I loved its ambition and promise, and that it took everything that put my friends off playing video games – the complicated controller, the disproportionately violent content, a perceived (if incorrect) lack of sociability – and eliminated those barriers. While the Wii’s motion-controlled software and family-friendly titles opened the door to the possibilities of gaming for non-gamers, Kinect not only welcomed them in, but Microsoft vowed to remember me, too.

That was the problem with the Wii, you see. Its offerings were “healthy and wholesome” when “healthy and wholesome” are typically the last kind of games I play. In its rush to tap into that mainstream audience, I felt entirely left behind by Nintendo. Beyond my twice-weekly attempts at yoga, the Wii became something I was forced to dust off when my friends and their kids came over.

And look, I get it. Unless you grew up with a controller in your hand – or you transitioned from a single joystick to the complex arrangement on current-gen controllers organically – everything about contemporary gaming feels… well, overwhelming. But motion control bridged a gap between my tech-phobic friends and the tech-savvy ones. It levelled the playing field completely. You don’t need to remember where the hell “A” is on the controller when your body itself is the controller, right?

But more importantly than that, the Xbox 360 was my preferred console system, and – at least to my own admittedly individual tastes – Microsoft offered a more diverse catalogue than Nintendo. Consequently, I was delighted at the prospect of fusing the magic of motion-control with a more diverse selection of games.

xbox 360 kinect
Xbox 360 Kinect. Credit: momo_leif / Alamy Stock Photo

How disappointing it was, then, to watch each Kinect-enabled game announcement and feel an aching sense of déjà vu. The games available at Kinect’s launch also came from the healthy and wholesome stable, disproportionately focussed around sports and fitness. And while there was plenty there to get my toddler excited – for example, Kinect: Disneyland Adventures allowed us to explore Disneyland without any of the expense or kerfuffle of getting there – what was there for me? What was there for any “core” gamer?

And then there was the sensor itself, of course. You needed space – and a hell of a lot of it – to play without hurting yourself (or others), and the tracking system was prone to wander off. Simple things such as selecting a menu option became outrageously unpredictable, a frustrating mini-game all of its own. Few – if any – Kinect-enabled games had meaningful longevity for anyone, let alone for the 360’s key demographic. For all its promise, the Kinect was afflicted with the same issues as the Wii, only worse, because the Kinect’s sensor bar was considerably less reliable than Nintendo’s peripherals.

At its best, the Kinect was incredible. Being able to switch your weapons in Mass Effect 3 via a voice command never got old. Getting a red card for swearing in FIFA added a layer of realism to the game few, if any, thought possible. But it feels like we’d only begun to scratch the surface of what that motion-controlled, voice-controlled sensor could do. It feels like we’d only flirted with its true capabilities before Microsoft abandoned it.

Like many innovations, it now feels like the Kinect was ahead of its time. The ambition was undoubtedly there, but the technology powering it sadly wasn’t robust enough. As we transition into next-gen, though, and Microsoft remains distinctly taciturn on the future of motion control and the Kinect – although a new, neater sensor was teased last year – I still have hope we haven’t seen the last of the Kinect just yet.

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