Debating consoles over the years has been equal parts intriguing and frustrating. I mean, there are so many aspects of gaming to dissect and so many different opinions to take into consideration, that you’re guaranteed to never have the same discussion twice. There’s the hardware comparisons, the evolution of gameplay from platforming to the third dimension, which games are the best of all time, the importance of story versus gameplay, if video games can actually be considered art… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. That being said, there’s one aspect of these conversations that have been very cyclical for me, and I’d like to address it – Controllers.
Controllers have changed a lot since the beginning, haven’t they? I mean, the Atari only had a joystick and a single button, yet we managed to make it out alive. NES introduced a groundbreaking control scheme with its directional pad, as well as ‘B’ and ‘A’ buttons which were entirely separate from ‘select’ and ‘start’. All of a sudden, it was possible to do pretty much anything. The SNES controller further refined our gameplay experience by adding more buttons for our right thumb to access, and placed some bumper buttons up top for our index fingers… after all, our fingers weren’t doing anything up there before, so let’s put them summabitches to work, amiright? AMIRIGHT?! Today, we have more buttons, triggers and bumpers, and more. Still, there’s one thing that can’t be denied – The influence of the SNES controller is evident in almost every design we’ve seen since. There are some exceptions of course, but gaming might not have been the same without the SNES pad around for inspiration.
But much like every other aspect of gaming, I’ve come across a varying degree of opinions in regards to which control scheme is best. Everyone has different preferences, but those who seem to prefer the ‘unique’ controls of the Wii-mote or the Gamecube controller always have the same thing to say… and this is the only aspect of ‘game talk’ that I seem to relive over and over again – “Well at least they’re trying to do something different, instead of copying the SNES/PS1 controller”, and they say that like it’s a bad thing. Correct me if I’m wrong, but since when was the SNES or PS1 controller considered an abomination to mankind? Who EVER had a negative thing to say about their experience with such hardware? Nobody… and you know why? Because they just worked, that’s why. They were mostly comfortable AND intuitive, and allowed us to make the most out of the games that were coming out at the time, if not ever since.
I get the angle that some gamers just want new and inventive ways to play their games, instead of feeling like they’re doing the same thing over and over again, but I feel like those people are just trying a little too hard to distance themselves from a trend. You know the old saying – If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Well, Sony and Microsoft both apparently understand this in regards to their controllers. The PS controller added more buttons up top and eventually a couple of joysticks. They’ve had little need to change it since. Microsoft originally released a massive controller for the original Xbox, but eventually scaled it back and then perfected their design with the Xbox 360. In fact, I’d probably rate the Xbox 360 controller the best of all time, even though it’s D-pad sucks and isn’t really built for those quick, button-mashing fighter games, like Street Fighter IV and Mortal Kombat.
So, how is it that Sony and Microsoft apparently get what works with their gaming controllers, yet the original trend setting Nintendo, does not?
N64 – Let’s be honest, this wasn’t a great controller. It worked, yes, and there isn’t a single N64 game that feels comfortable unless you’re specifically using this controller… but come on. You had three handles on the damn thing, one of which was absolutely useless (hint: it was the left one). Your left hand always had to use the center grip, because that’s where the essential joystick and Z-trigger had been located. The A/B buttons in combination with the C buttons were just sort of awkward, and those pesky yellow dots weren’t comfortable to press.
Gamecube – I rank this one as the worst of all time. I’ve had someone tell me that it felt so comfortable it practically melted in their hands… and you know what? I’ll agree with them on that – When I was holding this thing, it was heaven. Those triggers up top were magnificent and really helped to seal the deal. That being said, using the buttons on this damn thing was an entirely different experience. You had a usable stick on the left, but on the right was this short, nubby little ‘C Stick’, which was mostly awkward. Next, the A button was transformed into a ginormous red panic button, and the X and Y buttons were made into almost rectangular shaped buttons that formed around it, so they weren’t comfortable to use either. Nintendo wanted this controller to look fun, but actually using this piece of hardware was anything but.
Wii – Yayyy! Motion controls! Grand in theory, but a failure in practice. I’ll give you one simple reason why – The nunchuk. You could use motion controls, but you had to have a small handheld joystick for the other hand… which wasn’t wireless, but leached power from the Wii-mote itself via a cord, hence ‘nunchuk’. It worked well enough together, but if they were going to go through all that trouble, they should have made the joystick wireless, or even go back to making traditional controllers. But, oh, the fun doesn’t stop here, does it? You can use a ‘classic controller’… but not unless it was plugged into the Wii-mote, which you wouldn’t be using anyway since both hands would have been on the classic controller! GAHHH!
Wii-U – OK, this is actually kind of cool, but still rather silly. Tablets are all the rage now, so OF COURSE Nintendo had to make their latest and greatest controller a freakin’ tablet. There are some really cool ideas in its implementation, a major draw for me being the fact that you can have your kid play on the tablet while you can watch your regularly schedule programming. Still… the thing is a TABLET. It’s BIG. It doesn’t really feel all that comfortable to hold, in my opinion. Again, it just feels like another gimmick, and Nintendo… you need to stop taking advantage of stupid people by selling them a gimmick every time they get a paycheck.
My intention isn’t to pick on Nintendo, exactly, but it just so happens to be their controllers to have pissed me off over the years. Anyway, my point is this – Just because something hasn’t changed much over the years (such as the controller designs used by Sony and Microsoft), doesn’t mean a decline in quality or performance. If anything, these companies have found something that has worked VERY well, and instead of trying to change the way we control our games every other minute, they have instead focused their resources on refining what already works.
Controllers shouldn’t be the constant game changer from generation to generation… it should be the gameplay itself (amiright, AMIRIGHT?!). How do you change the FPS game? Look at the open world mechanics of Far Cry 3 or the upcoming Killzone Shadow Fall for inspiration there. How do you change third person sandbox games? Look at Watchdogs, which allows you to hack into pretty much anything with a small electronic device (in-game, of course). I think there are plenty of people who think that gaming has gone as far as it can in the gameplay department, but that’s just bullcrap. A devs imagination is the limit, is it not? They are literally creating something out of nothing, right? So why do people say, “This is it! All we have our Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Halo games!” No, you’re just not looking hard enough. Try something outside of the mainstream, folks, you may just realize that it isn’t the controllers that are providing you with better experiences after all….