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.