Thoughts on Video Game Controllers


They’re an aspect of gaming we don’t usually think too much about, though it affects the entire “experience”.   We shake them—even when there’s no technological reason for it—we twist them in the air, we use them every time we sit down to our favorite game.  Yet, how much do we really think about our controllers?

One of the earliest video game controllers wasn’t solely for playing video games.  The controller for the Intellivision.  One gets the sense that they’d envisioned the Intellivision to be more than “just” for gaming, that, to use modern vernacular, it would take television to the next level.  The controller alone speaks of that, looking like a television remote control out of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

A good controller, I think, is one that doesn’t make the player think about which button he’s pressing.  Whether it’s a little green triangle, a green Y, or whatever else, the player has to hit it when they have to without thinking about it.  They have to let their fingers fly over the buttons without necessarily thinking about where those buttons are and what they look like.

Relatedly, the controller itself has to “fit” well, it has to “feel” right when the player grips it.  Now, by and large, each player has their own preferences when it comes to how a controller “feels”—its shape, weight, balance, and so on.  Generally, though, you get the basic design found in most controllers—two protuberances for resting in the palms of the hands and wrapping fingers around, buttons and control sticks mostly within reach of thumbs and, perhaps, the index and middle fingers.

Now, there’ve been a lot of attempts at “innovation” over the years—or just plain money-grubbing—that didn’t exactly work out too well.  Take the SEGA Activator, for example.  It worked with infrared signals—which is to say, it didn’t work out that well at all.  It was a great attempt, but—yeah.  That’s about the best that could really be said for it.

Then you have the original X-Box controller.  Here is a side-by-side comparison with the original on the left, and the new one they came out with, on the right.  Now, I know a lot of jokes had been made at the original controller’s expense—but can you really blame them?  The four buttons were in an odd configuration, but that’s fine.  Innovation means trying out new everything, including button styles and placements.  The size of the thing—which is the number-one joke everyone makes about it—would have been forgivable, if the size were useful and well-balanced.  The only thing taking up more space was the emblem, which made the greater size of the controller as a whole hard to take.

Nintendo can’t stick to one controller design at all, and the oddity of the Nintendo 64’s controller, compounded by the Wii’s “nunchuck” would take up an entire article in and of themselves.

The PlayStation’s original controller isn’t that different from the PlayStation 3 controller.  The Dual Shock analog sticks were added a little bit into the PlayStation’s run, and it became black in the PlayStation 2 run.  The PlayStation’s controller is a basic set-up—but it works.  That’s why it hasn’t changed much over the years.  It hasn’t needed to.

Myself, I prefer the Dreamcast controller.  It had a nice heft to it, but it wasn’t too heavy.  The back of the thing let the fingers curl all the way around it nicely and naturally.  Plus, I also geek out over the technology behind it.  The Visual Memory Unit, or V.M.U., alone is enough to geek out over.  This little thing could do everything—play mini-games, connect with other V.M.U.s to play mini-games or swap files.  The little thing was a wonder.  In order to compete, Sony came out with their PocketStation, though it never quite had the same “pizazz”.

There are as many different types of controllers as there are gamers for them.  The sheer number of first-party controllers is huge. and when you add third-party hardware into the mix, the number skyrockets even higher.  There’s a controller for every gamer, and they all can—or at least try to—offer more than just being a hunk of plastic to grab onto.  There’s a lot of technological skill that goes into making a controller set-up that works efficiently but doesn’t take the gamer’s mind out of the game.

They’re essentially designed to be forgotten about, which is almost counter-intuitive.  It’s a fundamental aspect of our hobby, and it makes sense that designers would want to, well, show off—that they don’t, as a general rule, I dare say shows how seriously they try to take us and the hobby we all love.

The controller isn’t something we think about too much, but we literally wouldn’t be gaming without it.

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