REPLY TO ALL: Controller Prejudices

After Valve got weird on us with its new controller, it led us to this weeks’ question:

REPLY TO ALL – The Horrible Night contributors answer gaming questions and try to determine who has the right opinion.

When were you right/wrong about judging a new controller?

Duke Controller

Duke! via Ben Heck

Andy: I have a confession. I liked the original Xbox controller. Not the S version. The original. I never switched over to the S. I only used that original one the entire time I had an Xbox. And I bought that thing on launch weekend.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t finish Knights Of The Old Republic until I got a 360…hmmmm.

Justin G: I’d have to say that my eyes were entirely right when judging the Wiimote, at least for me. I’m not an uncoordinated person, but particularly when you combine the Wii-mote and the nunchuk, I’m a lost cause. Hands close together, I have no problem using both hands in a semi-complex series of movements. Get them away from my body, using the Wii-mote for aiming and whatever and the thumbstick/trigger of the nunchuck? Stephen Hawking could beat me.

Andy, the Duke controller was literally too big for my hands. To keep it in perspective, I have adult sized hands and dwarf fingers, but that thing was massive. And it seems that it had a lot of buttons.

Justin L: The DUKE. I’m surprised Microsoft never followed up on that because I know a lot of large-handed gamers that had a bit of a cult-like affinity for that big beast. That being said, the S was much better and actually helped me make my late-gen purchase of the Xbox. Haha.

Before I move on. Consume this evolution of video game controllers.

I’ll stick with the negative for now because I want to praise Nintendo later, but that Gamecube controller was the worst. Everything about it was awkward, and not quite as good as its competitors as far as analog controls go. Weird button placement. Weird triggers. Worst of all, it all just felt cheap and a majority of my controllers had issues with the buttons sticking.

Justin G: What?! The Gamecube controller was the best thing on the market since the Genesis controller until the Xbox 360 controllers came out. You, sir, are wrong.

Andy: Oh, Nintendo controllers. The SNES was pretty much the epitome of great controller design. And every one after that has been a problem.

Perfection? via Crumblier

The N64 was the absolute worst controller of all time. Three prongs, and you generally needed to switch your grip around on every game to play it properly. I agree with Justin that the Gamecube controller wasn’t much better. It was better than the N64, but worse than pretty much every other controller.

Justin L: We’re ALL wrong. The N64 controller was fantastic. I’ve was absolutely intimidated by it, but it was the perfect introduction to analog control. Mario, Zelda, Goldeneye would not have been possible without that iteration of controller. It looked dumb as hell, but everything else about it was perfect (for the time). That being said, I hate holding one today.

Gifford is right about the nunchuk though. No one was comfortable with that thing. I survived Metroid Prime 3 and Skyward Sword, but I didn’t enjoy it. But you cannot deny the universal usability of that damn Wiimote. It made sense to everyone who touched it. Also props to Andy, the SNES was the greatest retro controller.

Andy: I don’t know if the N64 controller was so good, or if just the games were so well designed that they made the controller make sense.

Justin G: I started to say that the SNES controller was inferior to the Genesis 6-button. It wasn’t. And the SNES controller introduced shoulder buttons (as far as I can tell from our graphic). I did manage to forget the NES Advantage. Man, that controller was awesome. Actually, all controllers with the turbo function were awesome. I credit the third-party Genesis controller with Turbo for me not having carpal tunnel today.

Speaking of Sega. Can anyone address the atrocity represented by the Sega Saturn 3D controller?

Sega Saturn 3D Controller

What.

Justin L: Good god. What kinds of hands was that thing actually made for?

Also what the hell was the plan for the NES U-Force?

Andy: Has anyone ever used an Atari controller? I’ve had extensive experience with the 2600 and 7800 controllers. I take back what I said about the N64 controller. Those controllers are probably studied in ergonomics research institutions to determine what not to do. Just awful.

Justin G: The only thing I can figure is that U-Force is used for controlling the flying stomper-things in TRON.

Yes, Andy. We had some that we used with our Commodore 64 (interestingly, the same pin setup as the Sega Genesis controller). They were horrible. That said, the NES controller was from the same “sharp angles and hard injection-molded plastic” school of design.

I almost missed this NES handsfree controller on the poster. That would have been a tragedy.

Cole: The NES Advantage can’t be mentioned without mentioning the NES Max. The turbo infused-weird wheelish d-pad thing (now that I think about it, it was the precursor to the circle pad!) was amazing, especially the turbo button for some games. I remember getting grounded and my NES controllers were taken away, except for that one, so I still played. Maybe my dad thought it looked too weird to be an actual controller. In fact, I’m not sure why I even had it, but it felt really good in the hands. It had those extended handles that the regular NES controller wished it had. I don’t know why it even existed. It didn’t fit a market like the NES Advantage did. And if we are going to talk about weird controllers, how did the Power Pad exist in the 80’s? Do we even need to mention the Power Glove?

NES Max

Max is short for what exactly?

Andy, were those the paddle controllers? If you want bad controllers, take a gander at the Intellivision ones. Each game had a cover that you slid into place over the keypad. I don’t know what the hell Mattel was thinking. Worst controller of all time. And I don’t agree with the N64 bashing. I love that controller. But I don’t remember switching back and forth that often from prong to prong where it made it a big deal. I even played some Wrestlemania 2000 in the last year and never had an issue. I wonder if the DUKE took inspiration from the Dreamcast and Saturn controllers. Terrible all of them, and I have big hands.

Andy: I have the advantage of having held an N64 controller very recently and tried to play actual games with them. I stand by my earlier statement.

Justin L: A voice of reason arrives! Thank you, Cole. You rarely (if ever) switched grips during an N64 game. You were set from the moment you hit start. Long live the N64 controller.

The first thing I thought of when I saw the Steam Controller was the NES Max. Why the hell did you own one, Cole? I always thought the kids with the Max just didn’t know about the Advantage. The Power Glove is too easy to pick on; that thing had no point other than for use in the scene in The Wizard. It’s crazy though, looking back at all of the ideas from Nintendo during the late 80s and early 90s and to see some of them come back in the shape of things like the WiiMote and DS.

But ok, even though I don’t think it’s fair to react to the Steam Controller, let’s address the elephant in the room: What do you think of Valve’s new, mini-boom box controller?

Steam Controller

Visualize your own joke here.

Andy: I just looked at it, and I’m totally baffled. Like, what the hell? I now have to take both my thumbs off of the sticks at some point in order to actually use the 4 face buttons.

I’m in a grad program for design right now, and I can’t imagine they did extensive user testing on that, which is essential to good design. Something short circuited in the process.

If you don’t want to do the standard ‘2 stick, 4 button, shoulder button’ config that the PS4 and XBone are sticking with, fine. But if you want to shift paradigms you have to take the human hand into account. The Wiimote is a good example of a different way to control games without having that standard layout that’s been in place since the NES era.

Justin G: What. The. Hell. Is. That?

I mean, I can build things that work and are functional, but I’m certainly no Bob Vila. That said…did Owlman and an Xbox controller make sweet, sweet love? That’s not an elephant in the room, that’s an elephant graveyard. Except sadder. [Please take all of Andy’s actual, relevant points and pretend I just agreed with them, nodding sagely]

Justin L: I definitely don’t understand the Steam Controller, but I don’t think Valve would let it get this far without it being tested. Some devs have had hands-on recently as well.

I had the same WTF initial reaction, mainly because this was a poor way to unveil the thing. They just threw it out there for the trolls to eviscerate. Smart people need PR help because I don’t think this was the best way to handle any of their Steam announcements. It seemed to only hit the people who are already in Steam’s corner and it didn’t do much in changing people’s minds.

HOWEVER, I can’t wait to try it. I can’t wait to be wrong. There’s gotta be something to this. I mean haptics. I mean, I almost understand what that means, so it must be from the future.

Spelunky

May require a stick.

Andy: I’m open to the idea, I just can’t imagine how having to take my finger off the left stick for any game that requires fast reflexes is a good idea. I read some of those reviews, and they were talking about playing Spelunky with that controller and it worked. I’m already pretty bad at Spelunky when I have full movement controls, I don’t need to be doing it one-handed.

Justin G: Obviously ,without getting hands on, it’s impossible to really say, but boy. For a precision platformer or even something like Arkham Asylum/City where you use the face buttons heavily, I have to wonder. Not trying to troll, but…

Justin L: What intrigues me is people saying that Spelunky/Super Meat Boy work just fine with the controller AND others are able to enjoy genres like real-time strategy. While I doubt that the hardcore platforming crowd or the professional Dota 2 players will be making a switch, the fact that they could is pretty intriguing for the future of this device.

But seriously, it looks like it should come with a slew of 80s hip-hop albums.

Cole: I think, obviously, it’s hard to say whether that controller is going to be for any of us until we get hands on. I don’t think Valve is going to release something that a majority of their core audience couldn’t use to great success. That would be really naive of me to say that and I know it. Though, I think they did let go one of their high up controller people quite a while ago, so who knows. But the fact that quick twitch games like Super Meat Boy is playing fine has me less worried. Actually, I’m not worried about that controller at all. Not because I think it will revolutionize how we play games (it might), but I know that I’ll always have other input devices to use. They aren’t getting rid of the mouse and keyboard or Xbox controller anytime soon (at least I hope).

Justin L: That’s an excellent point. No matter how weird controllers get 1) every controller iteration was weird once and 2) other controllers don’t go away. The innovation is definitely exciting, and now I just want Valve’s engineers to work with Nintendo to make an even weirder one that somehow utilizes our nipples for input.

Strike Controller

There’s always a backup plan.

Andy: I think Nintendo has been the king of weird controllers. Sony and Microsoft are basically iterating on each other very slowly. Hell, Sony didn’t change the controller in any significant way between PS2 and PS3 (no, the six-axis doesn’t count because it sucked and no one used it). Sony at least looks like they’re trying a new shape for PS4. I’ve heard some interesting things about the Xbone controller like the triggers have their own force feedback, but we’ll have to see how that goes.

Cole’s point does make me wonder though: which controller will be the de facto “PC Controller” for the next generation? It’s clearly the 360 controller right now. Microsoft had a really big advantage with the Xbox controller in that they also control the OS that most games are written for, so they could make it really easy for that controller to work there, but with the Steam controller, it seems like there might be a real choice.

We’re not in the place where the Sidewinder or something similar could make a big impact, so it seems like Valve has a big opportunity to take over that mantle. The games for PC and ‘console’ will be essentially the same, so taking the controller over will be no big deal.

Justin L: From everything I’ve been hearing about the PS4 and Xbox One controllers it sounds like they are even better than their current gen brothers. So I wouldn’t see why the Xbox One controller couldn’t step up in the next few years. We’ll never go back to the Sidewinder days.

Cole: But what if I want a boomerang to control my dang video games?

Conclusion

Since our conversation began, Valve released a video demo for the Steam Controller (below) that answered some of its capability quetsions, but the true test will be when you have it in your own hands. In the meantime, controller iteration is great for the industry, after all it has gotten us here, and things used to be even stranger.