Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Xmas Day

After the latest series of long posts I think I'm going to take it easy the rest of the week. Enjoy the fruits of my prized image garden over the holiday break, eh?

In another universe.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The pre-GameCube Nintendo Controllers

Continuing from the Console Controllers of the Big Three post.

See Also:
The Playstation Controller 
The Xbox Controller
The Gamecube Controller

Yeah, this one isn't really dedicated as I hadn't planned on speaking about these but I think I will now.
"These" refers to the ctrllrs of the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and the Nintendo 64 (N64). Sadly, I don't have any of these controllers on hand but I have used all of them. (I'm old.) (ㅎ︵ㅎ)

 For your pleasure, here's something you might wanna pick up for the holiday season!

Oh, if you're wondering what that gun thing is then you probably never saw the 'NES zapper'.
Yeah, I never saw one in real-life, either.
So starting from the beginning. The controller that started it all. The NES controller.
Note: I will distinguish the NES from the Famicom in this blog post as most Americans, like myself, will not have encountered the Famicom counterparts, such as the hardwired controllers, in our childhoods.

D-pad, Start, Select, A and B.
This one represents simplicity itself.
A four-directional pad and four face buttons. No front-end controls of any kind. Nevertheless, I want to caution you from passing over this first competitor due to its lack of features compared to our contemporary offerings.
For comparison, the Xbox 360 controller has four shoulder controls (two triggers, two buttons), 9 face buttons (including the R3 functions), two analog sticks and a D-pad (which effectively adds four extra buttons). That's 17 assignable buttons and two joysticks. Wow. I'm sure gamepad designers back then would have asked the question, "How many fingers do humans have in your time?"
The D-pad, or joypad, was actually an innovation for home gaming controls of the day. Joysticks had been the standard up to that point, a carry-over from the arcade environment where gaming was born. This seems like a step backwards though, doesn't it? Going from joystick back to D-pad? But you have to remember video games didn't have 3D environments that could take advantage of the control benefits a 360º joystick could provide. Side-scrollers and other such games only needed a directional pad, as handheld gaming *cough* Game Boy *cough* has demonstrated.

Ergonomically speaking, there's really nothing to say. The NES ctrllr has all the ergo. grace of a brick of plastic. Basically all this one was, haha.

Nintendo did issue a single upgraded iteration of both console and ctrllr much later though: the NES-101, also known as the NES 2, a.k.a. the Top Loader, came with the 'dog bone' shaped ctrllr.

As the NES 2 came out after the SNES, any innovation credit should properly be accorded to the latter console's ctrllr. All ergo. changes were retroactively appropriated from the SNES ctrllr.
  • The A and B buttons have been shifted to a slant, for easier reach from the right hand's natural gripping position.
  • The Start and Select buttons have also been slanted.
  • The ctrllr's edges have been rounded for comfort.
This next one is the iconic gamepad. This controller's design became the basic template on which the most popular console controllers since have been based on or at least influenced by. (Ironically, Nintendo itself has shown less deference to this design than its peers.)
Pictured: Super Famicom, top. SNES, bottom.
Remember my remarks on the parallels between the Dreamcast and Xbox ctrllrs? Well, rather than the Xbox using the colour scheme of the Dreamcast, both ctrllrs (and many others) got their colour scheme of the X-Y-A-B buttons from the SNES. Furthermore, the usage of these four letters became a standard in the industry. (I'm baffled by the decision to place the X button at the top of the diamond and the Y button to the side, though. Or maybe the designers weren't thinking in terms of Cartesian planes.) (⌐⌐_)

The North American market only ever encountered the Purple/Lavender coloured ctrllr, though. They made this change to better colour coordinate the ctrllr with the console. A needless loss, I feel.
In addition, while the Super Famicom's face buttons were convex the SNES had concave buttons.

The SNES ctrllr added two extra face buttons, the X and Y, and introduced shoulder buttons, L and R, for the first time. This combination forms the basic template on which the Xbox, PlayStation and Dreamcast ctrllrs are based. What a legacy! So yeah, the slanted buttons, the rounded edges. Handy.

Years later the PlayStation would come out, then the Xbox and Dreamcast, all using the shoulder buttons and four face buttons layout. PlayStation went with the coloured symbols rather than the alphabet but the influence remains clear. But wait, where is Nintendo's offering? Well, Nintendo's controller designers are nothing if not innovative and they set out to outdo themselves with the N64.
It might have been too much. Just a little.
It has two shoulder buttons, a D-pad, Control Stick, 7 face buttons and a Z button 'trigger' on the bottom.

It's no secret that I think this is one of the worst controllers ever made. Near the end of its service life most games completely ignored the D-pad and L-button.

Nevertheless, credit where credit is due: this controller is innovative. Many, myself included, have made jokes about how it looks like it's designed for someone with three-hands. Hilarious, hilarious jokes aside, this ctrllr is actually designed such that the user can hold it several different ways.
  • You can hold it by its two outer grips, ignoring the control stick and Z button trigger. 
  • You can hold it by the center grip and right grip, ignoring the D-pad and L shoulder button. This is the normal way most people hold it.
  • I never had need to use it this way but there were some FPS games in which you could hold two controllers by the center grip, dual-wielding. I dunno how that would have worked though. How do you access any other buttons?
That's pretty different, I'll admit. There's really only one way to hold most every other game ctrllr, no?  Well, besides the whole two-finger or three-finger hold thing I have trouble with. That difference doesn't hold a candle to the range of difference capable here though.

The return of the joystick marks another fateful Nintendo contribution to the video game industry. Digital D-pads ruled the land and for a time, all was well. Technology hadn't developed to the point where large 3D environments could be rendered well. As this deficiency began to wither away it became clear that the 8 directional movement provided by D-pads wasn't the best. The analog stick allows for 360º movement control and its re-introduction gave additional impetus to the propagation of 3D games. That led to the development of PlayStation's Dual Analog and eventually the wide-spread prioritization of control sticks over D-pads. Damn, Nintendo! We walk in the garden of your turbulence!

On the other hand, this meant the D-pad's use began to decline. The design of the controller forces the user (and the game designer) to choose which way the controller will be held and, consequently, which controls will be within reach. Naturally, the right grip is a given. This last detail cements my opinion of this controller. That's a lot of wasted material there on the left. More than one of you guys commented that you "never had to use the D-pad anyway". This doesn't excuse the design flaw, this is a testament to its poor nature. You could have tightened things up a little, couldn't you, Nintendo?

And the C-buttons. They were too closely packed. Yeah, what a paradoxical combination with what I just said, no? Maybe it was just me but my thumb tip isn't sensitive enough to discern which direction the obtuse triangles imprinted on them are pointing. I remember pressing the wrong one more than once. Furthermore, their placement in relation to the A button meant I had to release it in order to press the Right Triangle. This frustrated me to no end while playing Star Wars Episode I: Racer. A to thrust, Left and Right C buttons to roll. Even the least hardcore amongst you must recognize the disadvantage presented by needing to release the GO FAST button during a race, yes?

By the way, Aldar Beedo was mah boo. His MARK IV Flat-Twin Turbojet podracer kicked ass.

As for gripping style, of course I used three fingers. There are only two buttons on the shoulders. And, ok, it is kinda cool that the middle grip feels a bit like a gun. Although the Z button isn't a trigger in the true sense, it felt like one when I was a kid. Moreover, the grips are comfortable.

So there you go. Yeah, my rage and such doesn't come out so much when I'm going into detail about it, eh? Nintendo has done a lot for us gamers, and while I maintain my disapproving stance of the N64 ctrllr I am not so blind as to deny it due praise for its good works.

And that concludes my run of Controller reviews. Thanks for reading, guys.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The GameCube Controller

Dedicated GameCube entry continuing from the Console Controllers of the Big Three post.

See Also:
The Playstation Controller 
The Xbox Controller
The pre-GameCube Nintendo Controllers

NB: Henceforth I will use the following abbreviations: (why is abbr. itself such a long word?)
  • crtllr - controller
  • PS - PlayStation
  • GCN - GameCube
  • ergo. - ergonomics
Unlike the previous two posts, this one will probably be much shorter I'm sorry I promise. (⌐⌐_) In contrast to the extended families the PS and Xbox ctrllrs enjoy, the GCN ctrllr is an only child. It has no predecessors, no descendants. No wait! Guess what I haaaave~ ♫

The Wavebird Wireless ctrllr.
Yeah, baby! Hot stuff right here. You know they don't even make these anymore? Wireless ctrllrs will be the wave of the future, I tell you. My dream is that all consoles will one day use wireless as the standard.  <( ̄◡ ̄)>
What's that? Wireless is already here? Xbox 360? Sixaxis? DualShock 3? Wii-mote? Move? Kinect?

Well, my work here is done. Farewell, comrades.
Oh, wait. Ergonomics. Right. *ahem*

So yeah, only two specimens for examination this round, people. And they're basically identical so... yeah. Nevertheless, we shall carry on.

The bare obviousness of it might actually cause a lot of people to miss this but look at it. It's different in the very fact that it's so... normal. No point prevaricating around it; the GCN ctrllr looks, dare I say, unremarkable alongside its peers. And not in a bad way.
To refresh your memory.
See there's the secondary analog stick on the right, the primary on the left above a D-pad (get with the times Sony, come on), a four button array on the far right and some front end buttons. Actually those L and R buttons are a bit unusual. I'll get to that.

But yeah, first impressions: this is a pretty straight-forward piece of hardware right here. In fact, I'd like to note that this one doesn't have any expansion capabilities whatsoever. The N64 had that Rumble Pak slot, remember? And the Wii-mote can connect to the Nunchuk. But the GCN ctrllr is more reminiscent of a PS controller: What you get is all you need. Plug and Play. (Original Xbox ctrllrs also had expansion slots.)

Oh, the small oddity of the L/R buttons? When depressed completely they click, effectively giving this ctrllr an additional two 'buttons'. Conversely, unlike the PS and Xbox ctrllrs, the analog sticks on the GCN ctrllr cannot be pressed at all. It lacks any "L3/R3 function". (That's what I like to call it, giving homage to the designation given by the PS ctrllrs that used it first.) In my opinion, the GCN did not benefit from this exchange. Whereas the user can utilize R3 functions freely without also needing to apply superfluous input to the joysticks, the GCN's L/R buttons must (obviously) be depressed before reaching the 'click' point. Thankfully, this never inconvenienced the gamer due to the game control designers' accommodations. In my experience they always gave the L/R clicks complementary functions to the L/R buttons themselves. This is smart but I feel providing R3 functions in the first place would have been better.

Now then, as you might expect, we will take a look at the contours of the grip.
The GCN crtllr.
Well, look at it. That's a smooth curve and a gentle angle right there. It fits right in your hands. I normally use a three finger grip with this ctrllr.

Though a two finger grip also feels perfectly comfortable.
The two finger grip, though seldom needed, comes in handy for actions like using the bow in Wind Waker (assuming you assigned the bow to the 'Z' button like me).

The Wavebird is the same as the regular ctrllr with regards to button placement/spacing, etc. but its grip is slightly taller.

It's easier to tell haptically than visually.
This doesn't affect comfort as the difference is slight. Otherwise, the two are ergonomically identical.

Nothing harsh to say about this controller, though nothing especially praiseworthy either. If not for the L/R button/click issue the GCN ctrllr would draw almost even with the Xbox 360 but it falls just a tick short on my ranking due to the cord. The Wavebird does not save it; it has wireless capability but it sacrificed its rumble feature to do so. ╮(╯_╰)╭

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Xbox Controller

Dedicated Xbox entry continuing from the Console Controllers of the Big Three post.

See Also:
The Playstation Controller 
The Gamecube Controller
The pre-GameCube Nintendo Controllers

In my opinion, the Xbox 360 controllers represent the finest development in gamepad ergonomics design yet achieved. Ironically, out of the three I set out to examine I don't personally own an Xbox 360! It's my brother's. Haha, that might not make a difference in some of your minds. You might be thinking, "Well, either way you have one in the household, big diff" but if you have multiple siblings like me you probably understand.

Anyway, it wasn't always like this, as Bonjour Tristesse will happily tell you. J-just the latter portion of his comment hehe.

Yeah, I remember that piece of hardware.
Let's start from the beginning. The big one. The fat boy. The Duke, as some call it. The one with a logo that clubbed you over the head with brand awareness. The one reputed to have a spy-camera secretly installed behind said logo.

Three guesses which console this controller was for. Nobody? No takers?
Yeah. This was the original Xbox controller right here. Look at that honker. I used one playing with the Xbox in a Toys R' Us. I remember, there weren't even any good launch titles on the shelves yet. More apropos, I remember wondering, "Am I supposed to press those black and white buttons with my index finger? I haven't seen such poorly placed buttonry since the N64." This thing was massive. But then, the console itself was massive. Its usage has since died down somewhat but for a while 'xbox huge' was popular internet slang.

Consumer outcry in Japan started first, probably because us Asians don't have the large meaty paws that Microsoft apparently thought Americans had. I'm picturing a board meeting with this tacked up on the drawing board.

Gwarsh, how'm ah suppost tah play vidja games wit a controller dat ain't et least duh siza muh face??

The Type-S (probably stands for Small) controller came out in Japan and became standard-issue hardware for everywhere else soon after.
Much better.
Note how much everything has been shifted. The black and white buttons have been moved down, the Start and Select Back buttons have been transplanted to a symmetrically balanced location and the D-pad and 2nd analog stick have been squeezed closer together at the expense of logo real estate to create an arrangement more reminicent of your classic PlayStation controller. Microsoft would have done well to note that there's a reason the Sony design has been doing ok all these years. Fortunately, unlike Sony, Microsoft is willing to take what is good, dispense with what is bad and produce a better product for us, the consumer. I want you to note how the primary control for the left thumb is now the analog stick, not the D-pad. The D-pad has been relegated to a secondary position. Again, this is one of those little things some people might give little attention. You might say, "I shift my thumbs lower and play on my DualShock just fine, man." Good for you. I maintain that the most natural path for a thumb is aligned with the forearms.

For this switch in D-pad and analog stick placement, Microsoft deserves credit for seeing and recognizing that prioritizing the joystick would best serve in-game movement control for 3D environments. However(!), the accolades of innovation belong to the design team at Sega for the Dreamcast console. (And to Nintendo for the N64, but I'll get into that later, ok?)

Note the triggers, the empty expansion slots, the colour scheme of the X-Y-A-B buttons, and the priority placement of the joystick above the D-pad.
Ok, I'm not absolutely sure about the colours of the X-Y-A-B buttons. There might be and probably are more factors involved there but the similarities can't be ignored. But yeah, you remember this baby? Man, Dreamcast. Sega's final fateful stand in the console wars. Microsoft owes something else to the Dreamcast, you know? Xbox Live. Yeah, Sega pioneered online console gameplay with this thing. Pay your respects, people. ( ̄_ ̄)7 *play taps*

So yeah, the size reduction came much appreciated. Check them out when placed adjacent to each other. It's like a before-and-after picture.

Dayum, gurl. You been workin' out? (O_Ô)
Type-S still possessed some flaws though. The placement of the Start, Back, Black and White buttons... awkward. I can't put it any other way. I mean, they weren't as bad as they could have been? I never accidentally pressed them when using the Left Analog stick nor while reaching for the four digital buttons but I can't, in good conscience, say they were 'well placed' by any means.

Which leads us up to the present: the Xbox 360 controller.

I mean, wow. This controller's grips have such organic and natural contours. But I'll get into that in a moment. First, I can only assume that Microsoft's insecurities had been alleviated by this point, such that they felt comfortable removing the logo altogether and replacing it with what is actually a useful button! Moreover, the LEDs that ring it indicate which player the controller has been designated. Ingenious! The Start and Back buttons have been moved once again, this time to a nice and unobtrusive center position. The White and Black buttons? They've been replaced by the Left and Right bumpers. You may be saying, "Hey wait, now there are four buttons on the front! It's like L and R all over again, why aren't you complaining about balance, huh?"

Well, before I answer that here's a comment Mark posted yesterday for my PS controller post.
Will do, Mark. As to the two vs. three finger hold on the PlayStation controller, I envy his lack of issues with the balance. But as for the Xbox controller, I hold it with three fingers, too! To this you might retort, "Well, hold your PS controller with three fingers then." But when playing games, especially FPS types that utilize L2 and R2 extensively, I've always felt more in control with fingers on the buttons at all times. This is when I feel the irksome imbalance. With the Xbox 360 controller... well, now.

 Look at that much more gentle angle compared to the PlayStation controllers. When I pick up this one my fingers naturally slide into position. That's ergonomics, in a nutshell, guys.
Three fingers supporting.
Also take note how my index finger lines right up with the trigger.

Like so.

These positions are equivalent to the L2 and R2 buttons, yes, but there are three key differences between the Xbox and PlayStation's front button control schemes:
1) The triggers are given priority over the bumpers. In Xbox games that use both buttons the more important action will get assigned to the trigger and the secondary action will be assigned the bumper. Moreover, when given customization options I've found that I enforce this preference myself where possible. It just feels more natural. Unfortunately, in my experience R1 gets priority over R2. Perhaps this is because the game designers simply take the numerical designations into account and nothing else. Furthermore, neither 1 nor 2 line up 'just so' with my index fingers. (T_T)

2) The bumper buttons, the secondary controls, have been set above the triggers. Moving my finger up to press these secondary buttons rather than down like when pressing the L2/R2 feels more natural, too. I confess I don't know why this is so. The gap between the bumper and trigger isn't more nor less than the gap between L1 and L2. Puzzling...

3) The Xbox has a button/trigger combination while the PlayStation has a button/button combo. The tactile sensation of pressing either L1 or L2 is exactly the same whereas pressing the bumper button and pulling the trigger feel drastically different.
I completely understand if this difference, these differences make no difference at all to you. Maybe you don't really care about anything I've said in this entire post. You just pick up and controller and go. Well then, cheers and go on your way. I know at least one person on Sony's design team noticed because the short-lived Dual Analog controller introduced ridges on L2/R2 to distinguish them from L1/R1.
Just in case you're confused, the Dual Analog controller was the first iteration of PlayStation 1 controller that had analog sticks. I know I didn't call them by this, their official name, in the Playstation Controller post. My apologies.
From top to bottom: original, Dual Analog, DualShock.
So there you go.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Playstation Controller

Dedicated PlayStation entry continuing from the Console Controllers of the Big Three post.

See Also:
The Xbox Controller
The Gamecube Controller
The pre-GameCube Nintendo Controllers
As aforesaid, the PS controller has remained essentially unchanged since '94. It started out like this:

Simple. Clean. Elegant?

Once upon a time, primary movement control in a video game came through use of the D-pad. Shoot with , jump with X. There were games in which the L and R buttons wouldn't be used at all, especially the older ones. (Things have come a long way.) If at all, they would only reorient the third-person camera sometimes. But this was enough for most of them.

Eventually, we got the analog sticks. This was a big step forward! Now you could walk, walk faster, OR run full tilt. Up until then, the D-pad's digital signals limited your choices to 'Go' or 'Not going'. There was no speed gradient. Still, the four L and R buttons remained secondary controls. Game designers would try their best to assign the most needed functions to the face controls.

Dual Analog controller.
I want you to note the slightly elongated handles. I didn't pull this information from any kind of official document but I think this design change corroborates my belief that at that time the PS controller was still meant to be held with three fingers of each hand supporting it from the bottom. You didn't need to have your middle fingers on the L2 and R2 buttons because they weren't used often enough to warrant it.

A detail not to be overlooked: The addition of the analog sticks eventually lead to the inclusion of two more 'buttons': the L3 and R3 from pressing the analog sticks.

Note the change in design on the joysticks from smooth concavity to textured convex rubber. In my experience this improves gripping ability, especially on sweaty hands. Also the handles have been shortened back to their original size. I'm not sure when the trend began but these days firing control in FPS games has been assigned to the R1 button, I'd go so far as to say exclusively so. This trend exists across the board for console games and Playstation's were no exception. Grenade throwing or weapon switching usually ends up L2 and R2 so gamers now have need to leave fingers on those buttons at all times. This leaves only the four fingers supporting from below. Again, I don't know with certainty that this shift has anything to do with the reversion to short handles but I think it is related, even if only obliquely.

Since then there have also been some changes involving pressure-sensitivity of the face buttons, motion-sensing technology on the Sixaxis/Dualshock 3 but these aren't the focus of this blog post. The ergonomics. That's what I want to talk about. This controller hasn't changed much in that respect. Oh, it came close, real close to changing with the PS3. Check this out.

Also known as the Boomerang controller. If you followed that link, before you call me on it, I know, it was only a prototype for which he clearly states he put ergonomics aside. Nevertheless, I'd like to point out how NEEDLESSLY long those handles are.

This is what it would have looked like being held.
Note that even in this artist's rendition, the Playstation controller is being held with six fingers supporting it. I've never held one but just looking at it I don't think you can deny that it doesn't seem to be designed to be supported by four. The center of gravity is just wrong, see? The controller would rest against your index fingers. Maybe you don't think that's an issue but I find it uncomfortable having a button also serve as a point of support.

Ok, here's the controller we know and love, right? It's iconic, I'll give you that. I just wish the gamer community had been a little more open to change and/or that Sony had a little more spine.

I got out my PS2 controller, the DualShock 2, and took some photos.

Here's the grip I find most secure and comfortable.
Three fingers, yes?
Only one finger to access L1 and L2.
Examine this side view.
See the angle it makes and where the apex lies?
First the angle.
This angle is why the balance of the controller is 'off' in my opinion.
Resting the controller on two fingers leaves it tilting forward, see?
And I don't know about you but I don't play with my forearms angled upward to compensate for that angle. That gets tiring.

Furthermore, with my fingers gripping the controller naturally, the other fingers do not line up with the L and R buttons like they should.

See how the middle finger clearly doesn't line up with the L2 button?

Closing the fingers results in this odd resting place.

Holding the controller like this is not extremely uncomfortable but it isn't as natural as it could be. See how the weight rests on two points, 1) My pinky and ring finger. 2) The L/R button rack. That's not right. For one, my pinky really doesn't have a strong grip on anything. They're almost fully scrunched. It bothers me that the rest of my fingers are active but the pinkies atrophy from lack of use. ATROPHY!
In addition, when using the D-pad there is no supporting force from below. The third finger should be there, see? And that apex cavity is certainly not for the ring finger, it's too far forward.

Final push, k?

Supporting it at L1 and R1.

Letting go.
The controller fell forward. My middle fingers ended up in the gaps between L1 and L2, R1 and R2.

I don't know how you held it, Mark, but this is how i hold mine and it's bugged me ever since I got a PlayStation (the original box-shaped one). I have taken hand size into account. This balance issue occurs in my friends' hands, too, though I would venture to say they haven't given it nearly as much neurotic attention as I have.

So yeah, I just wrote an entire post on the ergonomics of this gamepad! A similar treatment of the others will follow, in addition to a bonus one on the N64 controller, though I can't promise they will be as long as this one. Excepting the N64 controller. I have choice words to say about that one.