Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Oscillations and Evolutions

There's a belief among Star Trek fans that goes, the even numbered movies are good while the odd numbered ones are bad.  It's not something I ascribe to since the idea broke down as the film series progressed.  On the other hand, I do think the notion of even (good) and odd (bad) applies rather well to Nintendo controllers.

The Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES for short, had two distinct versions.  The first was the red and brown Famicom, which was a very well made piece of hardware.  However, the grey and black box I'm more familiar with has its share of problems.  Cartridge loading tray issues aside, the controllers were hard on the hands.  Their angular rectangular shape meant that the corners were constantly jabbing into the player's palms.  The D-pad, while innovative at the time, only allowed pressure inputs along the x/y-axis.  So, unless you happened to have exceptionally fat thumbs diagonal movement was always a bit finicky.  There was a special aftermarket cover that attached over the controller and rectified these annoyances.  Funnily enough it essentially changed the shape of an NES controller into an SNES gamepad.

If I had to pick an all-time favorite game controller, it would probably be the one for the SNES.  Simple, responsive and rugged, it was everything a short tempered child (or teenager) would want in terms of design.  The change from the strangely sequenced "B" and "A" buttons to convex "A" and "B", concave "X" and "Y", plus "L" and "R" bumpers meant that the number of buttons (when counting "select" and "start") doubled from 4 to 8.  The D-pad was also improved by having its "+" shape imposed on a circular backing, thus making diagonal movement a breeze.  Unlike its chief competitor the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive) 3-button controller, the SNES gamepad didn't suffer from sticky unresponsiveness with age.

Sadely, the N64 didn't carry on the tradition...don't get me wrong...there were improvements such as the rumble pack and thumbstick, but the overall design never felt particularly ergonomical to me.  As far as I know, no game released on the N64 ever made real use of the D-pad, essentially turing the left third of the controller into superfluous ornamentation.  Needless to say, the GameCube controller was a significant upgrade.  Although the yellow c-stick never seemed to get much use, the contours and general shape were comfortably similar to the DualShock and Xbox Controller.

The Wiimote, as its nickname implies, was more of a TV remote than anything else.  The sensors were never particularly reliable, at least until the Motion Plus accessory was introduced.  Technically it was possible to turn the Wiimote horizontally and use it like a fat NES controller (with largely the same problems as that 8-bit design).  On the positive side, it was possible to use GameCube controllers for certain games.

Moving onto the next generation, the WiiU controller was quite nice.  In some ways I like it more than the Switch even though the two are fairly similar in terms of layout.  In particular, the thumbsticks on the Switch are a bit too small for adult hands.  They're not impossible to use, but I find precise movements are a lot easier to pull off on a pro controller.  Unfortunately, using the bulky pro controller kind of deprives the Switch of its primary feature - portability.  The whole setup is also a bit fragile.  I unintentionally found out that Joycons don't hold up well to edge-on impacts.  If previously manufactured handheld Nintendo gaming devices are any indicator, then I imagine we'll see a hardware revision or two for the Switch in the next couple years that addresses the issues I've just mentioned.  As it stand now though, Nintendo seems to oscillate every console generation in terms of controller quality.   

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