An Uncomfortable Proposition: Zeemote JS1 Review

zeemote_feat

While smartphones and tablets have become increasingly powerful, with graphical capabilities approaching what is capable on dedicated gaming devices, there is very little debate about how absolutely unsuitable touch screens are for any serious gaming. While it’s been possible to use USB and Bluetooth controllers on Android for some time, those arrangements have had their downsides. The controllers are intended for either home video game consoles or the PC, so are not well suited to mobile use.

So it’s only logical that a company would come along and attempt to develop a controller from the ground up for mobile gaming. Unfortunately, the resulting product is anything but logical.

Zeemote JS1

The Wii "nunchuck"

The Zeemote JS1, as the not terribly clever name suggests, is a variation of the Nintendo Wii’s “nunchuck” controller. A “variation” may in fact be a strong word, as the Zeemote takes the phrase: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” to the absolute extreme. Other than being blue and adding a couple of extra buttons, the Zeemote is essentially a shrunken down version of the wildly successful Wii controller.

Not wanting to tangle its owner in cables, the Zeemote is completely wireless, connecting to your Android 2.x+ device over Bluetooth. While using Bluetooth is a natural choice for a mobile gaming controller, it would have been very nice to have the option to at least power the Zeemote from the smartphone or tablet’s USB port. As it stands, power comes from two AAA batteries which slide into the bottom of the device.

In terms of input, the Zeemote offers an analog stick, A and B buttons on the front, a C trigger on the bottom, and the power button on the top which doubles as a D button in-game. While the C and D button puts it two digital inputs above the Wii nunchuck, the Zeemote doesn’t have the motion sensing capabilities of Nintendo’s creation. So while you may have one more button, you are losing out on one of the main reasons the Wii controllers work so well.

Lost In Translation

With as comfortable and effective as the Wii’s nunchuck is, it seems like a natural choice for a small mobile controller. But something went horribly wrong in the process, as the Zeemote doesn’t feel comfortable at all; replacing the smooth curves of the original with flat sides and sharp edges that almost scream out “It was cheaper to do it this way” or “This isn’t actually patent infringement, honest”.

To be fair, some of the Zeemote design choices are essential for its intended use. Trying to keep something as bulbous as a real Wii nunchuck in your pocket is an unpleasant concept, but even still, the ergonomics of the Zeemote aren’t much better.

Complicated by the overall small design of the Zeemote, the buttons themselves are extremely uncomfortable to use. A and B are so small and close to each other that your fingertip can easily cover both buttons at the same time, making it exceptionally difficult to rapidly press either of them without accidentally pressing the other.

Even worse is the C “trigger” button. For reasons that absolutely defy explanation, the C button on the Zeemote is actually concave, meaning to use it you need to literally insert your fingertip directly into the button and push it inward. In practice, this means you need to hook your finger around 180 degrees just to get your finger into position. I simply cannot imagine why anyone thought this was a good idea, it’s easily the most uncomfortable button placement I have ever experienced. If the C button had been made a proper trigger, the Zeemote would have been a much better product, but as it stands, this one button is so inconceivably terrible that is makes the entire product even more of a chore to use than it already was.

This is how you hold the Zeemote JS1. Seriously.

Realistic Limitations

With the terrible button placement, your best bet is to simply forget the C trigger exists, bringing the total button count down to 3. You should also take into account how difficult it is to accurately transition from the larger A button to the smaller and sunken in B button, so I tend to only use the A button whenever possible. Effectively, this leaves only two buttons left on the controller, one of which being the D button which requires you to take your finger off of the analog stick to operate…

So essentially, the Zeemote JS1 has only a single button that you can use reliably while remaining in control of the game.

This situation wouldn’t have been nearly as bad if the Zeemote had also ripped off emulated the Wii’s motion capability. With motion control on board, tilting the Zeemote would have allowed you to give directional commands, leaving the analog stick for more accurate movement. A layout like this would have been brilliant for many types of games (such as first and third person shooters), but alas, without motion capability we are left with only 2 axis control.

This makes the Zeemote absolutely useless for modern first person shooters, as you can look around well enough with the analog stick, but there is no way to simultaneously move. The only way to do a shooter with the Zeemote is by using DOOM style controls, where left and right on the stick turn your character, and up and down to move forward and backwards. This scheme is used by games such as Deadly Chambers, which works well enough, but doesn’t allow for aiming up or down. Such a control scheme would be completely unusable for more modern style games such as the fantastic Dead Space.

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Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: www.digifail.com .

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