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

Bad Controllers– The NES

Posted by nfinit on October 23, 2009

Before I come off as a raving lunatic with this update, I’d like to offer a few caveats.

Yes, the NES was a great system.  Even the bit of me that remains a rabid 16-bit Sega fanboy must admit that.  Yes it had a hand in saving the industry after the Crash.  Yes, its library was great.  I won’t deny any of those things.  And I also won’t deny that I seethed with jealousy as I watched my NES-owning friends play an entire generation’s worth of iconic gaming goodness I never had full access to.

But there’s something else I refuse to deny.  I refuse to deny that thing thing:

Bad controller.  Magnificent tabletop!

Bad controller; magnificent distressed pine tabletop!

Wasn’t an awful controller.

c’mon.  Admit it.  You remember the halcyon days of ’87, cross-legged before the family TV on a Saturday morning, those precious hours when the parents had Things To Do other than watch television, throwing bombs at every exposed wall in Hyrule your thumb sore and blistered from the direction pad, your fingers numb from trying to find purchase against the thin sliver of plastic in your hands, your tendons writhing in agony from being held in a position previously only found in woodcarvings depicting the Spanish Inquisition–

For those of you too young to have played games on the NES, you can easily re-create the NES game pad experience thusly:

1:  Locate a bathroom.  For purposes of this experiment it is recommended that you do not use your own bathroom or that of anyone you wish to remain acquaintances with.

2:  Using a hammer, brick, or similar dense object break off a chunk of tile, roughly four inches wide and two inches  As we are striving for an authentic re-creation of the NES experience, sharp edges are not to be avoided, they are in fact encouraged.  Do not be shocked or concerned at the sight of your own blood, this is normal.

3:  Grip the tile as if you were trying to type out a text message.  Feel free to hum the Super Mario Brothers world 1 theme during this time.  Maybe pretend you’re blowing up Hitler’s head with a rocket launcher.

4:  Do nothing else for the next four hours.

Not only was the NES pad a stunning setback for the state of ergonomic design, it’s popularity made it the de facto standard of it’s day, and as a result all competing systems had gamepads that aped the basic design.  The Sega Master System gamepad, for instance–

(basically everything in the 80s looked like itd cut you if you touched it.  I blame Reagan)

(basically everything in the '80s looked like it'd cut you if you touched it. I blame Reagan)

Only compounded matters with a d-pad more suited for hitting diagonals than a straight line, as well as the absence of a pause button.  Atari, meanwhile, in a very Atari-like move, managed to make a bad situation worse with their own attempt at a gamepad for the 7800.

In accordance to California legislation, all Atari badging must also serve as warning against accidental use.

(In accordance to California legislation, all Atari badging must also serve as warning against accidental use.)

Nintendo’s SNES controller would continue their fundamental misunderstanding of the operational tolerances for the human hand– although concessions were made for a more rounded, less Torquemada-inspired shape, the SNES controller was still entirely too thin for be comfortably held for any appreciable length of time.

But sadomasochistic industrial design was not the only place the NES controller failed in it’s goal of providing a comfortable gaming apparatus– there were two other baffling, albeit subtler design cues that continue to haunt modern gamepad design to this day.  For instance, the Select button:

Grey, Black, Red-- Yup, its 1984!

(Grey, Black, Red, dodgy Star Trek font-- Yup, it's 1984!)

As is immediately apparent to anyone who’s ever played Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!, the NES controller simply doesn’t have enough buttons.  This was a common issue at the time, the stuff the NES was capable of playing had a layer of complexity that often required more than two simple action buttons– even arcade titles of the day could easily swamp the NES’s abilities, for that reason many games made use of the NES’s Select button.  Now, one may ask why stupid thing wasn’t just an action button to begin with, after all it’s not like you needed a separate button to “select” menu options when your thumb was already on the d-pad to begin with.  But it was a simpler age, I suppose– what’s truly baffling is that the idea of an option button remains with us still.  The Dual Shock and all Xbox controllers retain this vestigial curiosity, whereas the current 360 and the Playstation 3 controllers feature a second option button in the Live/Home buttons.  Nintendo itself looked to be rid of this redundant button with the N64 and Gamecube controllers only to have the Wii Remote feature four option buttons available at any given time.  At least Sega had the good sense to only include one big, easy-to-find Pause button on any controller they made, although with the other horrible design decisions made with the Dreamcast it’s a wonder they didn’t hide the Pause button underneath the optical drive door.

Then there’s Nitnendo’s charming inability to grasp the most basic mechanics of the English alphabet:

(A second possibility remains that Nintendo intended for the controller to spell out Bad Dudes and ran out of buttons

(It's entirely possible that Nintendo intended to spell out "BAD DUDES" and simply ran out of buttons)

I can’t believe this doesn’t get enough notice– Maybe it’s because the majority of gamers my age grew up with the NES/SNES, but the backwards nomenclature of Nintendo action buttons confuses me to this day.  Maybe you could make and excuse that Nintendo is a Japanese company and thus it only makes sense for the alphabet to be read backwards, but why the hell could Sega figure this out twenty years ago?  Sega’s not even in business anymore!  Nintendo has had three decades for someone in the organization to point out to Shigero Myamoto that B should follow A and not the other way around.  As a result, most Nintendo games have had their action button wired to the outermost button on the pad, whereas with Sony, Microsoft and Sega have managed to figure out that the main action button should remain in the general vicinity of where the thumb naturally falls– in other words, the innermost action button.  To this day when I pick up my DS I’m stuck for a few moments as my brain attempts to rewire thirty years of muscle memory to Nitnendo’s insane, sadistic demands.

What’s neat is that sometimes the Nintendo method for mapping action buttons will pop up in games not appearing on Nintendo systems.  Metal Gear Solid is the most notable example– Apparently it’s asking too much of Hideo Kojima to compromise his artistic vision so that the button layout in his games makes some sort of logical sense.

But by far the worst feature in the NES’s liturgy of bad design is the very part that has stayed around the longest– The implement of torture known as the Nintendo D-Pad.

(Not quite as bad as the AIDS epidemic ravaging Africa, but a close second!)

(Not quite as bad as the AIDS epidemic ravaging Africa, but a close second!)

Just look at that thing!  It looks like something a goth chick would have pierced through one or more naughty bits.  It’s something you expect to see emblazoned in wrought iron on the helms of soldiers of the Austrian Empire.  It’s something that, if you were to see it in a videogame, you would instinctively run into the next screen to get away from.  And yet for thirty years it has stood as the industry standard, three decades of adults and children alike willingly pressing that hard plastic shard into their tender thumbs, smiling all the while, memories of Megaman and Kirby forever associated with crippling pain that they’ve been trying to forget for the past third of a century.

It didn’t have to be this way!  Lo, Nintendo-ites, and weep as you behold what a D-Pad was meant to look like, and with it a controller that was meant to be held by the human hand!

(The best thing to ever fit into your hand that isnt also attached to another person.)

(The best thing to ever fit into your hand that isn't also attached to another person.)

Observe a directional pad that is actually cut long enough so that the thumb never need rests against against a blister-inducing edge, marvel in the floating circular design that flows in the direction of your thumb instead of stubbornly pressing against it, diagonals that actually respond when called upon, and three (three!) magnificently large action buttons that fall naturally beneath your thumb!

Yeah okay so in 1999 Sega tried to copy everything wrong about Nintendo controller design and promptly went out of business. I’m blaming the NES pad for that, too.


At this point I must ask myself if I am being fair to the NES controller, and to be honest I’m not entirely.  As I mentioned above it’s not like anyone was doing a better job at the time, we’re talking about an era where the previous Best Controller Of All Time was quite literally a stick and a button atop a slab of black plastic. Its more notable for the horrible ideas that successive hardware designers simply could never shed themselves of to this very day.  The controller itself is fondly remembered because it was the best of a very bad bunch, but its popularity would ensure that its design would linger for decades to come.

Next week I return to the Atari for the truly atrocious 5200 joystick, a controller so bad it probably sank the console it was sold with.


3 Responses to “Bad Controllers– The NES”

  1. hugh betcha said

    Wow, you’re right, it IS an Iron Cross. Nintendo Godwin’d its own controller before Godwin’ing existed.

    I was, quite happily, immune to the digit-wrecking that NES controllers are/were vaunted for- due to playing piano from the age of six, I was quite accustomed to contorting my hands unnaturally around hard-edged rectangles. When you’re required to operate an 88-button machine for thirty minutes a day, holding a tiny 2-button machine is sorta like goin’ back to playing Megaman 2 after playing Megaman 1 OH I WENT THERE

  2. nfinit said

    On that note I wonder if playing a musical instrument in general makes you more or less better at games, and vice versa. Are we losing an entire generation’s worth of Clarence Clemmons due to Mario Brothers?

    I dunno if anyone in their right mind is going to go out of their way to defend Mega Man 1. Maybe it was an alright game, but it’s one of those properties that had a sequel that just completely invalidated the original concept. It’s like going back to yellow mustard, you just can’t do it.

  3. Anonymous said

    So you say that the Nes controller, which is one of the best controllers ever, sucks? Why don’t you do us all a favour and get off the internet. Idiot.

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