Quick, Robin! Hand me the bat-pad!
Ah, the controller. It’s all the rage until the launch is over and then it slinks back into obscurity. Tonight, readers, the Inverseman is going to give his opinion on various controllers so let’s dig into some well known ones.
In Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence, one of the various intelligences suggested by Gardner is kinesthetic intelligence, so most would attritubte this to spatial awareness and atheletics. I’d also though would like to apply this idea to a kinesthetic comfort to certain controllers, which would make playing games a lot more intiuitive and enjoyable. Moreover, another factor I’m analyzing in this piece is the elegance of the controller’s design. Is there a logic and reason to the design? What kind of games are best played with this engineering?
One of the early controllers of the 8 bit days, eschewing an odd joystick and single button for two buttons and a revolutionary directional pad. Able to be operated with a single thumb, the controller was a manner of convenience form-factor and opens new options (A and B buttons). This classic design would later be inherited by the Game Boy and all the way to the Wii. A controller that uses two thumbs gets two thumbs up.
The SNES added two more buttons for additional functions and shoulder buttons, giving a player four primary options and two secondary options. Four buttons accessed easily with a single thumb while the LR options are accessed comfortably with the index fingers. This extends to the “gold standard” of control. You could make just about any game of the 2D era function wonderfully with an SNES controller. Moreover, the evolved legacy of the SNES controller lives on in the DS, which added a nifty touchscreen to its compact package.
What happened here? The N64 pad is an interesting experiment. Aesthetically, it’s a giant cluster of oddball items stapled together. As Nintendo’s first dip into 3D that wasn’t a failed add-on, the N64 pad has squishy buttons and the analog stick pales in comparison to every other stick. However, the N64 also has genius embedded in. Since games would be in 3D, analog control would become the primary way to maneuver in the new environment. C-buttons function as “Camera Buttons” and additional options, so while it’s not an extra stick, it does serve a purpose.
The most curious part of the N64 is the Z-button. If you hold an N64 pad with one hand by the analog stick, it feels like a gun trigger, effectively making the N64 pad perfect for FPS games like Goldeneye, that’s great ergonomics if you disregard the hard and unfriendly analog stick! The back of the N64 pad has even more secrets, the expansion port for the rumble pack, now an industry staple built-in, and any Pokemon fan’s mandatory Transfer Pak. So the N64 was quite versatile in its shape in spite of its construction and scattered inelegant design. For some additional insight, a few of our other writers had a thing or two to say about the N64, so check that out too!
The Gamecube controller, I’d argue is one of the best controllers Nintendo has ever put out. Compact and smooth, the GCN pad fits snug in one’s hands, the direct opposite of the Xbox original’s controller. The analog stick is now is the primary contact with the left thumb unlike the 64 and it even comes with a grip, something literally no other controller has. The odd C-buttons are now a C-stick, wonderful for camera control and its low profile along with the “obsoleted” d-pad in a minor corner of the pad. The LR buttons are brought back but now as pressure sensitive triggers that click while the Z button is moved to the “button-side” of the pad. The most interesting part though is the face button arrangement. Knowing that “A” is the primary button of any game, it’d make sense to make it the largest while the B button sets to the side and the auxiliary X and Y buttons wrap around the A button.
The buttons themselves are sized and shaped according to how often they would be used and serve as a great way to feel around the controller for where your thumbs need to be; it’s a smart move. Contrast to the “cross pattern” Nintendo moved away from the usual for a refined layout based on importance of the button’s function. The GCN pad has such a legacy, nobody would think of playing Smash Bros without one. Top marks for the Gamecube controller with elegant, comfortable, and reasonable design. My only complaint though would be a request for a second Z button and just a bit more durability, knowing years of Melee going into these things.
The Wiimote is Nintendo’s self-claimed “revolution”, ushering in the era of motion control that would become a staple for years. From an aesthetic stance, it’s an elegant piece shaped like a familiar remote for new gamers but also hails back to that NES paradigm of button layout with the 1 and 2 buttons. The A button serves as primary once again with a D-pad above and a B trigger bellow. Add a Nunchuck and you get your analoge stick and two more buttons added. Everything sounds good in theory until you hold the beast. Firstly, the two “controller halves” are in two hands whirling around everywhere looking for stability and where the buttons are. The debacle is worsened when you have no idea how to hold the controller. (Sticks/d-pads in the left, buttons on the right, but what if I’m left-handed? Now I’m “moving” my character with my right hand and attacking with my left!)
Such an arrangement only works well if the game is fine tuned and honed with this control scheme in mind, which granted, most mainline Nintendo made-for-Wii-control titles are and control not only comfortably but logically. However play something like Smash with this combo and you’ll be begging for a Classic Controller at the least. Motion control is great when it’s thoughtful but the need of the MotionPlus revealed its weaknesses, still, it deserves props for making copycats out of the other guys. From a more design standpoint, scrounging for batteries is also a pain too. Overall, the Wiimote is definitely revolutionary and innovative in its own right, but it’s really the paradigm it’s trying to introduce that’s the perfection of the revolution.
Wii U Gamepad
Said revolution which… Is having a hard time coming about. The Wii U has a touchscreen like the DS and all the conventional buttons on a Classic Controller Pro aka Sony’s Dualshock2 and motion detection like the Wiimote. Oh! And a camera… I guess? Truth be told, I don’t own a Wii U like most gamers, so I cannot attest much to it, but putting a touchscreen on the pad does not seem to help its case much. Unlike a neat DS or 3DS, the pad is a bit more bloated in design and the whole dual-screens thing works because of two similarly sized screens instead of one screen and a giant HD TV. Unless holding the thing is a dream, the Gamepad isn’t much to write home about.
Taking cues from the NES, the Genesis also sports a D-pad but also 3 buttons for its 16bit triumph. A small complaint here is the access to the three buttons isn’t as clean as with the SNES, having to have your thumb dance across a row of buttons instead of being in a 4-way cross of A, B, X, and Y like the SNES. When the Sega Saturn introduced three more buttons, it would become more preferable to man the D-pad with the left thumb but the six buttons like piano keys, making for awkward experiences, especially when playing the countless iterations of Street Fighter 2. Fortunately, the Dreamcast got itself together for Sega’s last hurrah, more or less mimicking the Dualshock.
The PlayStation Dualshock
In a way, Nintendo’s legacy of the SNES would become Sony’s inspiration when they themselves entered the console war. The addition of the two analog sticks basically heralded the entry of 3D into video gaming. Though I must attest that there were some growing pains for the modern Dualshock, namely the analog sticks’ absence early on, making quite a number of games impossible to play. Then there was odd addition of the SixAxis controller with the PS3, which is more or less irrelevant unless you want to make funny faces in Little Big Planet. But more or less, this is essentially the modern standard of pad control, which the Xbox would take on as well. Though I must complain that Dualshock 3 L2 and R2 buttons are squishy temperamental things and in every iteration of the Dualshock, the d-pad is a disjointed tough piece of work to maneuver.
The same design continues that was originally with the SNES and perfected by Sony but with mild tweaks. Firstly, the LT and RT buttons are intuitively designed, especially if you’re going rounds on an FPS. Swapping the where the stick and the d-pad are is a logical move, since you’ll less likely be using the d-pad for control these days anyway, but even this d-pad beats out Sony’s. Not much to write home about in developing innovation but it’s a comfortable tweak with a comfortable design. Though, points off for the original Xbox controller being far too big for me to hold as a kid.
For those oddball games or everything else, arcade sticks have their own nuance, since essentially you can “piano” on six to eight big durable buttons with one hand and man an old school joystick with the left without worry of it slipping out your fingers. It’s perfect for frantic fighting games where every finger feels a button instead of one thumb dancing from button to button. Of course, the blessing is a curse as well since fighting sticks have significant bulk. And as for the keyboard and mouse, it depends on the keyboard and mouse’s construction, but those are built for precision and rapid clicking, namely in RTS and FPS games. Though from a standpoint of personal opinion, I vastly prefer the durable arcade stick to the secretary-like control of a keyboard and mouse, so unless I’m playing a competitive FPS (or had the insatiable urge to type papers or play Mario Teaches Typing), I’d easily plug in a USB controller of a different sort.
In the end, controllers are important pieces of how the gamer communicates with a game, and elegant design and ideas can lead to making games not only pleasant for the mind and hand-eye coordination, but also pleasant for the fingers. Join me next time when I play chess using my intestines.
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