Videogames, politics, science, all the important things in life.

Bad Controllers– The Dreamcast

Posted by nfinit on October 10, 2009

Today’s Bad Controller is a subject near and dear to my near to my heart, as it addresses Sega’s latest (and last) console, the Dreamcast.  And it’s awful, awful controller.

The Dreamcast is clearly playing the bottom in this relationship

The Dreamcast is clearly playing the bottom in this relationship

As I mentioned previously, I acquired my Nintendo hate early in my relationship with gaming–But  it was growing increasingly difficult to be a fan of videogames while at the same time maintaining a smoldering hate for the house of Mario,  what with Nintendo’s underhanded and unfair business practices of maintaining profit and producing good videogames.  I was well aware that my cunning strategy of contemptuously ignoring the NES could only last so long–  7800 games were disappearing off of shelves and finding themselves in giant unorganized cardboard bins mixed with PC productivity software and single-episode VHS tapes of The Beverly Hillbillies.  Also, Castlevania 3 looked really fucking sweet.

Dark days indeed.  Fortunately, before I wound up playing Kareteka too often and thus hating games forever, Sega came along– a company that combined Atari’s charming ineptitude with an ability to make good games (as well as the foresight not to sell their company to a guy with a vested interest in destroying the videogame industry).  With Sega– and it’s outstandingly good sixteen bit console the Genesis, I was able to ignore Nintendo for another good five years, up until the point where Square released Final Fantasy 3 and made it impossible to consider yourself a videogame enthusiast and not own a Super Nintendo.  So Sega remained pretty important to me up until the point where they were forced to exit the console business, and it’s adorable lack of business acumen is something of a point of pride to fans of the company.  After all, it’s easy to pull for competence.  And Yoshi.

The Genesis could have totally did this if it wanted to

The Genesis could have totally did this if it wanted to

God, I hate Nintendo.

Sega has traditionally been an arcade-focused company, and as a result one of the things they’ve always been good at was controller design.  The Genesis controller, for instance, was a perfect fit for its era, a huge chunky plastic blob that you your hands naturally molded around, your thumbs instinctively finding the oversized action buttons and the glorious, near-perfect floating circular direction pad that would remain a Sega trademark for over a decade.  This uncanny ability to make good controllers carried on as Sega’s ability to make otherwise good hardware stell fell to ruin.  The Saturn was a disaster in almost every aspect, but it’s gamepad– provided you ignored the forgettable first-issue American controller– was quite simply the best 2-d action pad ever crafted.  Even Sega’s first attempt at a modern analog controller was suprisingly decent, they managed to comfortably fit all six Saturn action buttons and a pair of analog shoulder triggers on a 3-d controller, something Sony Microsoft and Nintendo have either ignored or abandoned entirely.  But sadly I’m not here to talk about good controllers.  I’m talking about this fucking thing instead:

Just look at it!  Its like a giant malignant sperm!

Just look at it! It's like a giant malignant sperm!

Sega’s was fully capable of making fantastic gamepads, which only made the wretched Dreamcast controller all the more frustrating.  Sega tried to do everything right with the Dreamcast– a lead on the best hardware on the market, the best launch game lineup ever assembled, integrated online connectivity for every system sold– Everything but the controller.  Well, the controller and a sustainable business model that actually resulted in Sega making a profit.

And not getting EA on board.

And not locking down piracy.

And convincing people not to buy the Playstation 2 instead.

Okay so maybe the Dreamcast controller was a minor part in why the Dreamcast ultimately failed and Sega wound up producing Sonic the Hedgehog games for Nintendo in less than five years, but it was -a- reason, and that’s all I care about right now.  But to understand fully why the Dreamcast controller was so terrible you have to know what other companies were doing with their controllers that Sega refused to do with the Dreamcast, namely Sony’s Dual Shock.

Note:  Also a bad controller

Note: Also a bad controller

By the time of the Dreamcast’s launch the Dual Shock was the industry standard for controller design, and for good reason.  To this day Sony’s not bothered to improve on the Dual Shock in any meaningful way aside from adding geegaws such as motion control and wireless support.    It features twin analog sticks (a virtual necessity in 3d games where control of your camera is almost as important as control of your character), eight function buttons, integrated force feedback rumble and most importantly is light and small enough that it fits your hand well enough that you can game for hours without really realizing the controller is there, which is probably the single most important characteristic a good game controller can have.  Virtually every analog controller released since has lifted at least some of the design cues from the Dual Shock, and in the PC gaming world the basic design is virtually copied across all major controller manufacturers.

Now compare that to the Dreamcast controller and you start to see exactly how bad Sega’s design hampered developers– One, and most importantly, they removed half the thumbsticks, making independent movement and camera control all but impossible in an age where every genre had either moved to or was transitioning to 3d.  Additionally the thing only had four face buttons and two shoulder triggers– the triggers were very nice in arcade racers like Sega Rally 2, but useless when quick on/off digital control was paramount.  For all intents the Dreamcast controller had only four useable action buttons, meaning you couldn’t play a decent Capcom fighter– not that you’d ever want to considering that Sega got rid of their brilliant circular digital pad in favor of a pointy, uncomfortable Nintendo knockoff cross d-pad.

All of this is aside from the point that the controller was simply enormous.  Fully outfitted with the memory card (more on that in a bit) and the rumble pack is was a heavy, unwieldy beast, not to mention pointy in all the places you never want a gamepad to be pointy.  Also the cord– for reasons unexplained my modern science, it came out of the bottom of the controller.  Meaning it was constantly underneath your hands, in your lap, catching on the table, knocking over drinks, scaring the cat, ruining your marriage, forcing you into alcoholism, resulting in your untimely death when you finally wander in a drunken stupor in front of a semi trailer truck one icy Christmas Eve.  Good god almighty I hate this controller.

Oh, and all this was all because of this fucking thing:

Sometimes the pictures do the captioning themselves

Sometimes the pictures do the captioning themselves

Much like Superion was a shitty giant robot made up of smaller, shittier robots, the Dreamcast controller was a giant shitty controller that contained a smaller, somehow shittier controller.  Or in this case an entire shitty micro gaming console known as the Virtual Memory Unit (Whoops, pre-existing trademark!) VMU.

The VMU was supposed to revolutionize the way we interact with games, which in practical terms meant it played minigames using it’s horrible, stunted controls and sub-sub-Gameboy quality screen.  In reality it was a memory card with illusions of grandeur– few third parties ever utilized the thing; it proved difficult enough to convince developers to produce real, full-scale games for the Dreamcast without also being expected to produce horrible minigames for a Tamagochi with early onset Alzheimer’s.  Did I mention that the batteries only lasted two weeks before needing to be replaced?  Because there was that, too.

The Dreamcast controller was built around the VMU in a very literal sort of way, and for little good reason other than to try and further justify the VMU’s existence.  When plugged into the Dreamcast controller the VMU’s screen could be used as a secondary video output– but hardly anyone ever made use of this feature aside from wacky animated background images while the real, full-size game played on the television screen.

(Note that Nintendo would take this same basic idea, refine it to a useable form, and make an assfuck million dollars with the Nintendo DS.  Sega was good at making competent people rich)

So were there any redeeming features about the Dreamcast controller?  Sure, the Analog triggers were a good idea and were copied across successive console generations, but that started with the Saturn 3d gamepad, so that really doesn’t count as a Dreamcast improvement.  The analog thumbstick didn’t give anyone cancer, but it also didn’t click, so that’s a wash.  And unlike the 7800 controller it didn’t even make a good toy gun.  But, if you cut off the cord…

Fun fact:  All game controllers and most remote controls can also be used as spaceships.

Fun fact: All game controllers and most remote controls can also be used as spaceships.

Bingo!  Instant spaceship!  Plus you’re now safe from accidentally playing TimeStalkers.


2 Responses to “Bad Controllers– The Dreamcast”

  1. hugh betcha said

    A novelty of the industry is that in even the most loathesome and unsuccessful console’s libraries, there was usually a single game, possibly created by a dying child’s wish or something, that made clear its potential, however unwieldy. The Saturn had Dragon Force, the Jaguar had Tempest, even your 7800 had its near arcade-perfect Donkey Kong.

    What was there for the VMU?

    What was the flagship title that vindicated this thing to the guy who signed the check to get it manufactured? The Tetris, the Mario 64, the Golden Axe?

    The VMU is unique among failed consoles in that there’s no explanation. We want one, we rail at Sega, “WHY DID YOU DO THIS? I HATE YOU!” but in the end we must reach stage 5 of grieving, understanding only that we’ll never understand.

  2. nfinit said

    Apparently the minigame for Sonic Adventure was kinda-sorta decent in the sort of way that it’s the only thing you’d ever want to play, but it was a blatant Tamagochi ripoff.

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