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Archive for the ‘Bad Controllers’ Category

Bad Controllers: The Jaguar

Posted by nfinit on February 13, 2010

Observant Bigredcoat readers have noticed that I tend to use the Bad Controllers feature to pick on Atari.  There’s a good reason for that– Atari spent nearly thirty years making terrible game consoles and could not once produce a game controller meant for human hands.  Even their lone commercial success, the 2600, requires that you partake in a fair bit of nostalgic wistfulness before you can admit it’s controller wasn’t a catastrophic failure of the understanding of the design of the human wrist.

Now, I like Atari.  I grew up with Atari, and Atari games are what made me fall in love with gaming.  Atari is the gift that keeps on giving, as their commercial exploits– or failure thereof– have provided me hours of easy blog content.  But sadly, the Atari gravy train is nearing its end, as today’s update will explore Atari’s last console and it’s into experimental interrogation techniques disguised as controller design, the Atari Jaguar.
One of the terms that sports writers get to throw around a lot is “historically bad”.  “Historically bad” describes awfulness that goes above and beyond mere failure, awfulness that sticks out in a sea of suck, awfulness that sets the standard for futility for future generations.  The 2003 Detroit Tigers were historically bad, having lost more games than any single team in American League history.  The Carolina Panther’s Chris Weinke was a historically bad quarterback, having lost 17 games in a row and sporting two wins in five years in the NFL.

If any entity within the videogame realm qualifies for historically bad status, then it’s Atari..  We’re talking about the company that all but created the Crash of 1984 and the near-destruction of the console gaming industry; the company that turned away the rights to publish Nintendo’s NES; the company that thought it was a better idea to sit on a warehouse full of completed 7800 consoles for two years instead of actually selling the stupid things– So the infuriating thing about this article is having to admit that Atari very nearly came close to producing something that looked like a good system with the Jaguar.

Now, I don’t mean “good” in terms of hardware– the console itself was a nightmarish amalgamation of half a dozen chipsets running under radically different architectures with no clearly defined CPU– Nor do I mean they did a particularly good job marketing the system, as they forced the “64 bit” thing down everyone’s throat despite not being able to provide a clear case for why the Jaguar was a 64 bit system.  Even the poorly documented development tools provided by Atari seemed designed to thwart any attempt at producing decent games for the system.  Yet despite these flaws– and the overseeing malevolent eye of Jack Tramiel– the Jaguar managed to produce a handful of decent games, something Atari hadn’t managed to do in quite literally decades.

Well okay, maybe two.  But still, this was more decent gaming than Atari had managed to pump out with the 5200 or 7800 or the Lynx, and we’re dealing with a period in gaming history when developers had a wealth of platforms to develop games for.  They’re just lucky that Jeff Minter is more concerned with the benefits of psychotropic drugs than making money off his work.

But maybe it’s a good thing the Jag sported as few compelling games as it did.  After all, if it had any more than Tempest 2k and Aliens vs Predator going for it, we’d have to actually use this  goddamed thing:


The first thing you’re struck by when viewing the Jaguar gamepad is that there’s too many buttons, and nearly all of them are in the wrong place.  This wealth of buttons has its roots back in Atari’s own pre-Crash roots, where plastic overlays were considered important elements of the gaming experience.  More on that later.

The second thing you’re struck by is that despite this embarrassment of buttons, the thing somehow manages to not have nearly enough buttons, or at least enough buttons where they might be of some actual use.  Remember, this was 1994– Games were massively more complex than what could reasonably be played on a 3-button pad and fighting and sports games ruled the market.  Even Sega admitted that the standard Genesis 3-button gamepad simply could not compete with the wealth of input options offered by the SNES and released a superb six-button pad of their own in 1993.  Yet here was the Jaguar sporting all of three action buttons and still Atari wanted to sell the Jaguar as the most advanced games machine ever released.   I mean, maybe this was a workable gamepad for when you just needed to port Final Fight.  Aliens vs Predator?  Not so much.

The Jaguar was one of those weird transitional consoles that popped up between the end of the 16 bit era but before anyone was really interested in upgrading their systems, and in many ways its design reflects how it was stuck between the 16-bit and PlayStation  eras.  It was one of those systems that had an add-on CD player, for instance, back before console developers knew better than to split their userbase in two–

well, before they’d do it again, at any rate.  The design of the controller itself is probably the best reflection of just how caught in time the Jaguar really was– in between not having enough action buttons to faithfully replicate a game of Super Mario World, the designers saw fit to re-introduce a design cue last seen in 1982–

You may remember these systems as being the last consoles released before the entire industry COLLAPSED UPON ITSELF.  Now I don’t want to sit here and blame the entire Crash on  controllers that looked like a Motorola DynaTAC 8000, but you will remember that the very first console to actually make money after the crash went back to two action buttons and a d-pad.  Just saying.  Anyway.  This damned thing.

The idea was that gamers would pop in a plastic overlay over this section of the pad and thus every game developed could sport its own customized controller layout.  Which was fine, until you realize that the keypad was so far away where a normal person would want reach while playing a game that it may as well reside on nether regions of an enraged  gorilla.

The whole point of the overlay is vaguely silly anyway.  If there’s any point in a game where I feel compelled to look down to see what button I’m supposed to be pressing, then you’ve failed as a game designer.  This is why tactile feedback is so important to gamepad design and why the Genesis and SNES pads were rather outstanding– The SNES featured a row of scalloped and convex buttons, whereas the Genesis had a bump on the middle action button.  You always knew where your thumb was resting .

(Sadly this idea was forgotten sometime after the release of the Gamecube pad– to this day I cannot tell you exactly where the face buttons are on any Playstation gamepad, and if prompted by a quick time event I have to look down at the buttons to see where the “X” button is at.)

And then there are the myriad of other, smaller problems with the Jaguar pad.  The D-pad, for instance, is a flat featureless cross inexplicably surrounded by a raised circle that thwart attempts to make simple rolling motions, and the action buttons themselves are amorphous blobs with no analogous shape found in Euclidean geometry.  The shape of the pad is not designed to be held as much as it is engineered to feel like it’s in constant danger of slipping out of your hands.

The baffling thing about the Atari Jaguar gamepad is that Atari would go on to use this same design to develop a very good gamepad, the Atari Pro Controller, representing the only example of Atari ever building a device that did not inflict intense physical punishment upon anyone attempting to interface with it: The Atari Jaguar Pro Controller.

Not only did Atari finally manage to develop a controller meant to be held by a human hand, having excised sloping surface present on the original controller, leaving a nearly flat surface that doesn’t actively try to squirm free from your grasp, and there were enough buttons present that you could wholly ignore the keypad, provided the game you were playing were developed with the Pro Controller in mind.  Which, of course, seeing as the Jaguar itself only sold around 200 thousand units, meant that few games were developed to do so. But hey, if you ever want to play an authentic game of Primal Rage, this is the gamepad you want to have on hand.

Make no mistake, the Atari Jaguar would have been a colossal failure even if it sported the best game pad ever made.  The whole operation was handled in the way the Tramiels always did business– cheaply, and with obvious contempt toward consumers and developers.  Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Jaguar is that it’s failure would represent the final indignity the Tramiel family would be allowed to commit upon the gaming industry.  By the time the Jaguar’s fate became obvious to everyone involved, Sony had so fundamentally changed the business of console gaming that it would be impossible for any company that wasn’t an enormous corporate behemoth to compete– which, when you’re dealing with a family as regressive as the Tramiels, isn’t always a bad thing.


Posted in Bad Controllers, Retro Wankery, Sperging about games | 2 Comments »

Bad Controllers: The Duke

Posted by nfinit on December 20, 2009

The opening years of the 21st century saw America at the height of its economic and political power. We were loud, we were brutish and we didn’t particularly care what the rest of the world made of us. We had the best economy, we had the best bombs, and we had a government that had no compunction about using those bombs on possibly wholly fabricated political grounds. All in all, it was a great time to be an American.

That political hubris was mirrored in our consumer culture. We didn’t produce a lot, and maybe we didn’t necessarily produce the best quality anymore, but what we did produce was the biggest, loudest, and most excessive– and a lot of these things turned out to be terrible, terrible ideas.

For instance, the Hummer H2

You remember Hummers, right? Hideous beasts driven NBA stars and populist Libertarian governors? They where the very rolling symbol of America’s might and material excess until crude oil hit two hundred dollars a gallon and GM suddenly realized the entire Hummer brand revolved around a fleet of vehicles that averaged 9.5 miles per gallon. Hummer is currently in the process of being sold to Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company Ltd, as the Chinese are the target market for hilariously inefficient Chevrolet Tahoe derivatives.

Hardee’s Monster Thickburger

With eight strips of bacon, three hundred grams of beef, approximately seven cubic meters of American cheese and enough calories to feed a Nike sweatshop for a week, the Monster Thickburger remains the ultimate symbol of American culinary might, and was single-handedly responsible for laying to waste the entire genus Bovinicus Angusarius
And the Microsoft Xbox.

The original Xbox was a brutal, clumsy mess of a videogame system; little more than a Celeron-based PC stuffed inside a slab of glossy black plastic. It was America’s first foray into the videogame hardware market since the Atari Jaguar and looked the part– big, loud, uncouth and generally ominous.

At first glance the XB1 doesn’t seem like a failure. After all, it got Microsoft’s foot in the door of hardware development and laid the groundwork for the Xbox 360. However in Microsoft’s haste to produce the Xbox they managed to perform a rather remarkable feat: they produced a console they didn’t own the rights to produce.

Microsoft was operating under the impression that the ready availability of inexpensive Intel CPUs and mid-range Nvidia graphics chips meant that there would be a steady supply of cheap chips and that economies of scale would mean that the system itself could quickly be sold at a profit while at the same time offering a price point comparable to Sony’s PlayStation 2. What Microsoft refused to take into consideration was that it cost Intel and Nvidia money to keep production lines open– Entire fabrication divisions had to be dedicated entirely to producing chips for the XB1. For a traditional console this isn’t a problem– If say, Nintendo found that IBM wasn’t willing to produce Gamecube chips anymore, they could just sell the rights to produce the chip to whatever chip fabricator was willing to submit the lowest bid. But all of the XB1’s chips were owned wholly by their parent companies, and Intel and Nvidia were not willing to produce chips at a discount for Microsoft.

By 2004 Microsoft was selling a rather respectable four hundred-dollar Linux/Myth TV box for two hundred dollars. As a result Microsoft was forced to hurry through a design for the successor, the Xbox 360, cutting the supported lifespan of the first Xbox to an unheard-of four years– And in the process creating a successor console that’s been riddled with production errors to this day.

All of this hubris, this bravado, this complete lack of oversight leads us to this monstrosity:

All discussion about the Duke begins and usually ends with the size of the blasted thing, so let’s get that out of the way first:

In Microsoft’s defense this was the age of Bonds and McGwire and Canseco so maybe Redmond was operating under the impression that Americans would start imbibing human growth hormone to offset the 4200 calories they were taking in by eating at Hardee’s three times a day. Or maybe Manute Bol was on the design team. Either way the design of the original Xbox controller was a farce, and all the more frustrating in that Microsoft had experience creating perfectly competent, if uninspiring PC game controllers:

But then again we are dealing with the same company that would later think that this:

was a good idea, so maybe we should have seen this coming.

But I’d be remiss if I were to cite the staggering size of the Duke as it’s only flaw– after all, I could just put up any number of webcomics from the period and save myself 1400 words and a Sunday afternoon. But this is about more than just the Duke’s pain-inducing girth– this controller’s got issues.

For instance, what’s up with that button layout? Yeah, they managed to shove six face buttons onto a dual-analog pad, but Microsoft was forced to do so in such a way that placed two of those buttons so far north of the rest of the rest that your thumb needed two Sherpa guides and a Snow Cat to find the stupid things. Meaning that for the only real use for six face buttons– 2d Capcom fighters– was ruined.

If anything, The Duke goes to prove why you don’t really need six face buttons on a modern game controller– even if you manage to produce an abomination of a game pad that could actually fit a half-dozen buttons under your right thumb, by this day and age you don’t really want to move your thumbs off the sticks more often than necessary anyway.

Oh yeah, about that:

Apparently at some point in the Duke’s design Microsoft decided that placing your hands roughly twelve feet apart from one another wasn’t enough for the player to easily discern which hand was controlling which thumb– Maybe they had a point there, the nerve damage that came about as a result from using The Duke probably confused the central nervous system of many play testers. So in order to differentiate between the left and right hands Microsoft decided to lift the right thumb stick from designs first described in the lost texts of the Marquis De Sade.

Also there’s this:

At some point Microsoft’s designers realized that creating a game pad the size of a baby’s head would leave an enormous swath of unsightly black plastic sitting between the thumb sticks.  Microsoft’s solution for this quandary was to slap a garish Xbox logo in that space– a huge round emblem that for the world looks like it should do something when pressed, yet is just a big dumb puffy sticker.

But Microsoft needed used the big gulf in the center of the Duke to house twin memory card bays, one of which was used to house a headphone adapter– you may remember that Sega used this vast cavern in the middle of the Dreamcast controller to at least house a PDA– The Big Green X wasn’t even useful in controlling the headphones. It was just there, like some sort of big green supernumerary nipple, begging to be played with but ultimately not attached to anything fun.
Like many failed American ventures, Microsoft was forced to look to Japan to make something useful of the Xbox 1 controller and salvation was

found in the excellent Controller S. Although the S would place the black/white buttons in an even more inconvenient location, by the time the Controller S became the de facto controller for the Xbox worldwide, developers realized the best use for the black/white buttons was as a sort of second and third Select button, used for activating map screens and the like. The Controller S is in fact one of the all-time great controllers– with twin thumb sticks, a decent face button arrangement and twin analog triggers the game pad design had finally settled into a useable standard and would later go on to form the basis for the excellent 360 controller.

But the story of The Duke does have a happy ending– unlike most controllers hellbent on terrible game pad design, Microsoft realized the staggering mistakes made with The Duke and went on to base the Xbox 360’s controller on the successful and beloved Controller-S design– they even remembered to do something useful with the big dumb button in the middle.

Posted in Bad Controllers | 2 Comments »

Bad Controllers– The Atari 5200

Posted by nfinit on October 30, 2009

I want you to do something for me– chances are if you’re reading this you’re the type of person that keeps a gamepad handy.  I want you to take that gamepad and play around with the thumbstick.  It’ll look something like this:

Note: Not to be considered an endorsement of the Gamecube or it's awful controller

Go ahead, thumb it for a bit.  It’s alright, it likes to be thumbed.  Okay, you notice how the thumbstick wants to snap back to the center?  Now, you probably don’t think about this sort of thing (because you’re not insane and obsessed with controller design) but it might strike you that that ability to snap back to center looks pretty important.  I mean, it’d suck if you had to manually move the thumbstick back to the center every time you wanted to, say, keep your guy from moving off the side of the screen.   That’d be an awful way to design a controller, right?  I mean, it’d probably be the very first thing you made sure your controller could do properly, or at least near the top of the list along with “make sure the innards of the controller aren’t prone to random vaporization” or “don’t put the reset button on top of the controller itself


I mean, you and I know all that, and we’re not even paid to design gamepads.  We’re just strangers on the internet didddling thumbsticks.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I present you with the 5200 joystick.
the fucking stick doesn’t center
You push the stick to the right, it just sorta…stays there.  Admittedly, the rubber boot around the joystick makes a valiant, albeit doomed effort at pulling the stick to center, but it’s in no way a subsitute for springs, of which Atari was too cheap to build into the joystick.  You want to move it to the center, you have to manually move the stick vaguely toward the center and hope you have it in the right position.  Now this may be fine for certain applications.  Let’s say you somehow managed to put Windows 95 on your 5200 and thus were in need of mouse.  While you were there you could use it to play Mech Warrior.  Pac-Man?  Not so much.

The 5200 being a product of the pre-Crash arcade industry, pretty much everything in it’s catalog was based in some way off Pac-Man.  Dig Dug?  Underground Pac-Man.  Mario Brothers?  Italian Pac-Man.  Mrs Pac-Man?  Female Pac-Man.  Point is, the controller wasn’t just deeply flawed,  it proved incompatible with almost every game  ever released for the system.

The main reason this happened was so Atari could advertise that the 5200 had 360 degrees of movement.  Apparently how many directions your controller could point to was a huge issue for videogame marketing departments in the early 80’s– The Intellivision touted 16 points of contact vs the 2600’s paltry eight– Atari decided end the argument and implemented full analog control for the 5200.

And that’d have been fine if Atari was somehow expecting a slew of Missile Command and Centipede-like games, where the player controls a cursor.  Only there was only ever those two, and no reason to think there would ever be a huge demand for games of that nature, and even if there did prove to be an explosion of cursor-controlled games, gamers would be far better served using the only pheriphrial Atari would go on to release for the 5200:

Doubles as a bowling ball cleaner when not used to play Missile Command

The above magnificent bastard, who’s very existence instantly invalidated the reason for the 5200’s controller to exist in the first place.  Atari released a gimped controller that was only serivcable for two games in the console’s entire lifespan and then released a controller specifically built around those two games.

Anything else about this controller sounds petty in comparison, but as long as we’re here anyway–  the construction quality stinks; build tolerances were purposefully made low as to prevent the stick from locking up; as a result the controller feels like it’s on the verge of breaking apart in your hands.  As I alluded to previously the button contacts  desentigrate.  That’s not hyperbole, they quite literally disappear over time; and not in the metaphysical “the universe is prone to entropy” sort of way, but the “you’ve owned the controller for a month and the contacts have oxidized into dust” sort of way.  Finally, for reasons that remain unclear Atari engineers saw fit to put a Reset button on the controller itself, right beside the Pause button.

I want you to think about that for a while.  The Reset button rests beside the Pause button.  No one says anything about this simply because the rest of the controller is such a magnificent train wreck.  It’s like ATF agents were combing through the smoldering remains of the Branch Davidian complex and found out David Koresh had been selling bootleg shota hentai the entire time.

The 5200 controller was such a stunning failure that it may have been the single greatest determining factor in the demise of the system itself, or at least made it exponentially more difficult to gain traction ahead of the Crash of ’84.  Not that the 5200 didn’t have problems outside of the controller, of course.  Atari was the very first system to fall victim to a shortsighted lack of backward compatibility with it’s predecessor, a mistake Atari would correct in the 7800–but by then it was 1986 and no one cared about the 2600 or Atari.

You might ask exactly what the hell was going on in Sunnyvale, California that no one thought that any of this was a bad idea– After all, Atari wasn’t exactly operating out of Nolan Bushnell’s garage anymore.  By 1982 Atari was the fastest growing business in the history of American business– billions of dollars and thousands of jobs depended on every decision this company made.  So how could the smartest, fastest, most sophisticated corporation of it’s time allow this to happen?

There’s something we need to keep in mind when presented with America’s obvious insanity during the 1980’s, whether it be Macho Man Randy Savage, the inexplicable popularity of Phil Collins or The McDLT, and it’s this:

Whether it was a side-effect of cold war paranoia or a natural extension of the excesses of the 70’s or just a lot of rich people with nothing better to do with their money than fuck up their sinus cavity, if you were rich and powerful in the 80’s you were doing massive amounts of sweet, sweet Columbian blow.  Rock stars were doing it, the entirety of Major League Baseball was doing it, apparently every single person with any authority whatsoever inside Atari hq was just eyeball deep in the stuff.

Posted in Bad Controllers | 1 Comment »

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.

Posted in Bad Controllers, Sperging about games | 3 Comments »

Bad Controllers– Pelican Sucks Special Edition

Posted by nfinit on October 17, 2009

As long as consoles have had controller ports, there have been knockoff 3rd party gamepads.  Some of these have been improvements upon the original design:

This picture officially banned in seven US states as well as the entirety of Australia

This picture officially banned in seven US states as well as the entirety of Australia

Or a more recent example, the best Playstation controller ever made, Logitech’s sublime wireless PS2 controller:

So smooth, so supple, its probably what a girl feels like!

So smooth, so supple, it's probably what a girl feels like!

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.  No, I’m here because of shit like this:

Seventy dollar Gamestop exclusive or a five dollar controller decal?  You make the call!

Seventy dollar Gamestop exclusive or a five dollar controller decal? You make the call!

Unless you’re one of the insane, dedicated few willing to throw good money down to improve upon the perfectly functional controller that was sold with your system, the term “third party controller” most directly translates to “chinzy crap”, the sort of gaming peripheral even mainstream gamers feel awkward about buying and the hardcore only turn to as a last resort.  Maybe you’re putting together a used system for a nephew who doesn’t know any better.  This is the sort of thing that leads down this horrible road:



Maybe you found out that your fourth for Madden Night doesn’t own a PS2 and has no intention of buying a controller.  Then this could happen:

The front of this controller is fashioned from the hood of a 75 El Camino.  True story.

The front of this controller is fashioned from the hood of a '75 El Camino. True story.

Or maybe you’re just an awful human being

Choking hazard

Choking hazard

Either way, it’s rare to go into the process of buying a 3rd party controller and expecting a quality piece of kit out of the process.  Which is a shame, as there’s no need for most of these efforts to look and feel as cheap as they do.  It’s like these manufacturers go out of their way to make their product as regrettable a purchase as possible.  After all, there’s no good reason for something like this to exist

Terrible joke immediately following:

Warning: Insensitive joke immediately following this caption

Unless you’re specifically trying to embarrass someone in the process.  You’re telling me that at no point in the design process for this abomination that someone didn’t speak up and say “Hey, maybe it’s just me or does our controller look like it has Down’s Syndrome?”

As you’ve probably noticed, 3rd party controllers tend to share a lot of design cues.  Inexplicable rubber grips are a favorite

I'm almost positive I owned a Trapper Keeper with this exact image

Sadly horrible squid monster remains criminally underused in modern industrial design

"Horrible squid monster" remains criminally underused in modern industrial design

More rubber than a UCLA frat house

More rubber than a UCLA frat house

These moldings seem to exist entirely to peel off and leave a gummy residue that immediately makes the user regret ever holding the controller after about a week of use, provided they manage to last that long without first breaking apart in a cloud of polystyrene splinters.

Also popular is pasting the controller maker’s logo over the front of the gamepad, as nothing provides better advertisement for a shitty controller than a sticker the size of a baby’s head.

Quick, name Captain Americas favorite gamepad!

Quick, name Captain America's favorite gamepad!

This isnt hip!  This isnt hip at all!

This isn't hip! This isn't hip at all!

The Microsoft Xbox, brought to you by Mad Catz!

The Microsoft Xbox, brought to you by Mad Catz!

Let us not forget the inexplicable presence of the Slowmo button, a relic from the 8 bit days that remains with us still.  They were of marginal use back when hitting “start” merely paused the game– now that hitting “start” usually brings up a menu screen, the slow-motion button is good way to wipe out your entire savegame file, or irreversibly turn your console’s translation setting to Swahili.  Hori is strangely dedicated to the idea of turbo and slo-mo switches, despite their otherwise sterling reputation as one of the few 3rd party controller manufacturers that actually go out of thier way to improve upon the original product.  For instance, Hori’s otherwise excellent 360 gamepad:

Hori deserves better than to be placed in the same page as Pelican

Hori: More proof that the Japanese are more awesome than you

You hit the wrong switch on this thing and you can wind up buying three thousand dollars worth of Netflix rentals before you regain control of your system.

Sometimes a bad controller can come about as a result of a company thinking they have a clever new idea that ultimately proves disastrous .  For instance, the Nyko AirFlo controller likely sounded like a good idea when it was being thrown around in committee– For whatever reason Nyko’s engineers (this is provided Nyko or any other third party controller vendor actually employs engineers) thought that hand sweat was a pressing issue for gamers, so they took a Dual Shock, gutted the rumble motors, carved just enough holes in what remained to provide some sibilance of structural rigidity and came up with this goddamned thing:

The T stands for Terrible waste of money

Something the Borg would use, if the Borg were lame and had an unreasonable fascination with surplus PC cooling fans

Which, I dunno.  Maybe the AirFlo was a good idea, but I never trusted the thing as it felt like it gripping it too hard would result in my palms being ripped to shreds by a pile of ABS plastic shards, like some sort of gaming stigmata.

Rarely, a company can go the extra mile and take a pre-existing bad controller– let’s say the godawful N64 pad– and through some horrible dark alchemy known only by the most potent necromancers– make it worse.

The Pelican logo isnt so much branding as it is a dire warning

The Pelican logo isn't so much branding as it is a dire warning

You have to admire Pelican’s dedication to it’s craft.  Here they’ve managed to combine the worst parts of the SNES and the N64 controllers into a pulsating green blob.  Pelican is remarkably good at this sort of thing, they’ve turned regretable controller purchases into something of a cottage industry.  Take for instance the “Wii Compatable Wired Game Pad”

“Classic retro design and feel”.  It’s a Gamecube pad!  This isn’t retro!  YOu can’t call something that was still in production two years ago retro!  You’re just trying to trick soccer moms into buying this thing for ten bucks instead of the Classic Wii controller.  And I do mean “trick”, as the ‘cube controller doesn’t work with a lot of stuff the Classic Wii controller was designed for.  It’s deceptive shit like this that just turns people off gaming altogether and you’d think Sony and Microsof and Nintendo would institute a bit of quality control and truth in advertising for their liscensed vendors.


Hey, wasn’t this supposed to be the NES update?  Yes, it was!  However I would be doing Nintendo an injustice if I were to slag upon their company without my full creative abilities at my command.  So you got a cheap update full of pictures culled from Amazon instead.

Posted in Amazon is terrible, Bad Controllers, Oh God No | 3 Comments »

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.

Posted in Bad Controllers, Sperging about games | 8 Comments »

Bad Contollers: The Atari 7800

Posted by nfinit on October 3, 2009

Back when I kept meaning to update this blog regularly (but invariably putting that off to such important concerns as Disgaea PSP, general moping about and self-abuse to Japanese lesbian group sex) I was inspired by an article in a recent Game Informer listing what the editors believed, in typical diseased, ill-informed Game Informer fashion, were the 10 worst controllers of all time.  Now, this was all well and good, the sort of meaningless fluff that can only be expected from a magazine that primarily serves as a Gamestop store catalog- They listed the Genesis 3 button pad as a bad controller– more to the point, one of the ten worst controllers of all time.

Which, okay yeah, I can understand wanting to create controversy or maybe the editor in question was a Nintendo fanboy or whatever– But the Genesis pad was unequvocably one of the best controllers of all time, without a doubt the best all-round gaming pad until the SNES came out and made the old 3 button pad obsolete.  How do you fuck up this badly?  Did this guy somehow miss the entire Genesis era and just assumed anything past 1991 that used less than six buttons couldn’t be a good game?  Did he fuck himself up on Kylon paint shortly before writing the article?  Was he a clueless hack that had no ethical qualms about receiving a paycheck for writing about subjects he clearly had no qualification for?

(Seriously though, he’s huffing Krylon, right?  Probably the glittery kind with the metal flakes that helps cut up your lungs.)

At any rate, it got me thinking– You don’t really see a lot of discussion regarding the merits of our gaming controllers, despite these blobs of ABS plastic representing the most intimate and immediate contact we have with our games.  Also a series of updates regarding the mertis to controllers would allow me to pad out a lot of updates, with the bare minimum of effort needed!  It’s a perfect combination of obsession and apathy– and rather than just list the worst controllers or the best, I’ll talk about all of them– or at least the controllers I have personal knowledge and use of, and those that don’t, I can fake it.  Wait, why am I still typing?

First off, this fucking thing:

Its never a good sign to see more games coming soon as a bullet point

It's never a good sign to see "more games coming soon" as a bullet point

This is the Atari 7800, and I actually owned one of the cursed devices– two, actually, the second one purchased due to the proprietary power cord fraying and forcing me to spend a precious birthday gift slot re-acquiring a system I knew full well was damned to obsolescence due to the stupidly large library of putrid games I’d acquired.  What’s worse, I specifically asked for the 7800 over a NES the Christmas of ’86, due to an errant bit of Reagan- inspired juvenile patriotism making me blind to the fact that there was simply no way Atari was ever going to make a Castlevania game.  It was a lesson I took to heart– Thanks to Atari, I realized America sucked and I promptly switched Democrat, much to my parent’s relief.  In short, Jack Tramiel made me hate America.

Oh yeah, this asshole:

His head is so large because it contains millions of awful ideas

His head is so large because it contains millions of awful ideas

Jack Tramiel .  This guy bought Atari in 1984 and immediately proceeded to piss away any relevance America had in the game console industry, managing only to gain some small success in the PC industry before being soundly destroyed by the advent of Wintel boxes.  He had the chance to buy the rights to the NES from Nintendo at one point and thank god he didn’t, we’d probably all have spent our childhood playing football and doing well in school instead of playing videogames.  I have a pet theory that he orchestrated the entire Crash of ’84, but that’d take longer to explain than I can be bothered with at the moment, but for now let’s just say that that asshole was more or less responsible for making sure The Atari Corporation sucked wind until it was eventually taken behind the chemical sheds in 1996.

Funny thing was, the 7800 was as it was envisioned wasn’t that bad of a system.  The graphics were superior to the Commodore 64 and Colecovision, it could play very accurate versions of Ms Pac-Man, Joust and Dig Dug, and was even fully compatible with the 2600 library.  All of which would have been excellent selling points in 1984, when the console was finished, produced, and ready to be sold.  Then Jack bought the company and shelved the entire production line– allowing several tens of millions of dollars of research and development to languish in a Southern California warehouse along with an entire library of finished games for two years– two years in which Nintendo released the NES and proceeded to dominate the market, changing it irrevocably.  By the time Tramiel decided that maybe there was still money in the console gaming market the fight was over– Even if the 7800 wasn’t sporting mid 80’s tech and outdated early 80’s arcade games, there was just no way Atari was going to get back on the map, especially given the $300k advertising budget Tramiel allocated the effort.

Not visible in picture:  death of American console industry; tendonitis

Not visible in picture: death of American console industry; tendonitis

The 7800 Controller though, is a godawful disaster, indicative of it’s pre-Crash roots.  The narrow wedge design was obviously meant to encourage players to hold it flat in the palm of their hand, but actually using the stick forced you to hold the controller sideways and thus in an orientation that made no sense at all to what you were doing on-screen.  The big chunky red buttons certainly look inviting in a very 80’s arcade sort of way, but they were mushy and imprecise, and worse yet there was no way to firmly hold the base and still access the buttons.  Or worse, your grip would force you to hit the buttons accidentally as you were constantly seeking to re-adjust your grip due to the immense, crippling strain your wrists were under just trying to play a freaking game of Galaga.  The 7800 controller does, however, sport one redeeming feature:

Pew pew!

Pew pew!

Held upside down it’s a pretty rad space gun.  Which is an important feature when you’re 12 years old and realize you’ve ruined your own Christmas.

Posted in Bad Controllers, Sperging about games | 5 Comments »