Editorial: Nintendo’s Controller De-Evolution

Controller design is vital to the usability of a console, as it is the only way in which we can interact with our games (sorry, Kinect, but violent flailing in not interacting – it is a seizure). This may seem like an obvious point, but in their attempts to innovate Nintendo has often strayed from proven design concepts, introducing some of the worst control experiences ever seen or imagined.

Let's just pretend that the right side of this photo doesn't exist, OK?

Nintendo systems and controllers through the years.

The essentials of game controller design are similar to those of software user interface (UI) design, with modern smartphone operating systems an obvious example. In the case of a touchscreen phone, the controls must be readily identifiable, often with text or pictorial representation of purpose, in order to be understandable to the average person. From the standpoint of user experience, the disparate console landscape (particularly in the early days) could present a challenge to novice gamers, with controller designs differing as greatly as the consoles themselves. Not only are there different physical sizes and shapes to the controllers, but also significant differences to the sizing and spacing of their requisite buttons, and, most significantly, in their default control assignment. Ergonomics can be an issue, with the worst offenders proving to be uncomfortable long after the button layouts have been memorized (more on the Wii U later).

Nintendo started out with brilliant designs that have withstood the test of time. Small, rectangular, and containing only the most basic controls, the NES game pad was (and still is) easy to hold and use. With the NES gamepad it takes only moments to learn the controls of any game, and the directional pad (or D-pad) provides the sole means of movement in the game. Forget the dual-joystick X/Y axis control schemes, secondary shoulder button mapping, and clickable analog sticks of today; Nintendo’s original gamepad design (and the contoured ‘dogbone’ revision from the later NES-101) is timeless in its simplicity. The Super Nintendo that followed was controlled by a gamepad as well, and this design was larger, but still comfortable. Additional buttons had been added which allowed for deeper control in games that took advantage of them, and the new shoulder buttons become an industry standard.

Seriously. WTF is this?

The Nintendo 64 controller is designed for three-handed aliens.

As the golden age of gaming came to a close, Nintendo introduced a new console that marked the start of a downward spiral in controller design from the company. The bizarre contraption that shipped with the Nintendo 64 may be the most radical departure from a traditional gamepad imaginable. Even the later Wii controller offered the buttons of a standard gamepad on its surface, in addition to the motion “functionality”. The Nintendo 64 controller, on the other hand, teased users with legacy controls that were irrelevant for human beings, as reaching the D-pad required a third hand to operate. My own theory about the origin of the N64 controller is the only one that makes sense to me: its design was dictated by the alien race which had overthrown Nintendo by the mid 1990s (a gripping and possibly true story for another day). Because of these overlords, Nintendo may not have been 100% responsible for this useless pile of garbage, but after apparently escaping their oppressors by the end of the decade, the controller to follow did not exactly restore the former NES/SNES glory.

Unlike the N64 design, Nintendo’s GameCube controller seemed, more or less, to have been intended for use by human beings. However, this design abortion proved useful only for people with very small hands (so it is perfect for Adeki), who also happen to have very large hands (so, not perfect for Adeki). In simultaneously “appealing” to people with different hand sizes, finger lengths, and levels of dexterity, it appealed to no one in particular and should never be used. The D-pad alone is one of the worst ever seen on any controller, and everything else – from the controller’s overall shape, size, and the position of the control buttons – is as terrible as it could possibly be. In short, if you doggedly insist of reliving this era in Nintendo history, self-mutilation is a must for proper GameCube controller use. (The only rational explanation for the design is that Nintendo wanted their users to grow to hate physical controls, as their next console would do away with them.)

This is your target demographic, Nintendo. DEAL WITH IT.

The beauty and grace of Wii gaming.

This brings us to the oddly named Wii console, with its shiny Wii Remote controller (popularly referred to as the “Wiimote”). This strange device indeed looks like a remote control, but it is actually a game controller (if you consider imprecisely waving at your television “control”). From what I can gather about this period in “gaming” history, the device was generally used to smash the delicate LCD panels of the new crop of flat-panel televisions, possibly in an effort to justify the purchase of ever-larger displays. I barely emerged from the Wii era without a damaged flat-panel TV, myself, but I never felt that I was fully in control of what was happening on the screen in waggle games, either. I can not argue with the mainstream appeal of the Wii console and its ultra-easy control schemes in casual games, but it set the entire industry back as rivals introduced their own motion nonsense. (I admit that I am not the most objective judge of motion controls – in fact you might say that motion control never really Kinected with me.)

Finally we have the Wii U, which might be the most disastrous failure of design and execution in Nintendo history. The system itself looks like a bloated Wii, and the name (appending “U” to the end of the previous console’s moniker) was an obvious marketing blunder. One could argue that Sony’s PlayStation has carried the same name since launch, with a mere version number differentiating the successive updates; but the Wii never targeted the “hardcore” (or intelligent) gamer who might appreciate differences in version number. On the plus side, the Wii U did allow the Wii generation to get back into the waggling they crave (most having long-since given their Wii to grandma so she could watch Netflix on her mid-1980s Zenith console TV). The Wii U’s controller is an ergonomics nightmare, and designed using what was wholly unimpressive hardware even at launch. A small, washed-out resistive touchscreen sits in the middle of the giant tablet/controller thing (tabletroller?), and it uses a wireless connection with the console to provide some occasionally compelling dual-screen gaming. Think of the Wii U console/tablet combo as a huge DS for your living room – only less fun, and with worse battery life. Far worse. But as large as the Wii U gamepad is, the battery is inexcusably small, with a capacity of only 1500 mAh. (In comparison, the latest iPhone has a 1960 mAh battery, and larger Android phones such as the Google Nexus 6 reach the 3000 mAh mark.) A higher capacity internal battery is available, but at 2550 mAh it is still inadequate. (A full teardown reveals the wasted space within the Wii U gamepad, which could have held multiple battery packs – if Nintendo had deemed battery life important to a wireless controller.)

It hungers for human blood.

The Wii U controller is larger than most Asian men.

In closing, it seems like Nintendo has never been content to simply iterate on a classic design (like Sony), unleashing a number of bizarre experiments over the past two decades which look more like unfinished prototypes than shipping products. While I can forgive Nintendo for the N64 controller, given the obvious influence of evil alien overlords during what I can only assume was a dark period in the company’s existence, I must take exception to not only the miserable GameCube controller, but the waggle-mote and Wii U wank that followed. Give me an NES or SNES gamepad any day, I say! Controllers for humans! Down with the waggle!

In closing, and with the next Nintendo console (code-named “NX”) on the invisible horizon, the final frontier may just be virtual reality (VR). And by final, I mean that I will never buy a such a console (or anything else with “VR” in the name). Consider yourself on notice, Nintendo.

Footnote: I admit that the alternate Wii U Pro Controller is actually very good, but as it does not ship as the default control device I stand behind my slander of the most comically terrible control monstrosity ever constructed.

20 comments on “Editorial: Nintendo’s Controller De-Evolution”

  1. ¡Bienvenido a la fiesta! Disfrutar de su estancia en la estupenda Lusipurr.com, ciudad de las mil sueños rotos!

    I hated the GameCube controller more than the N64’s controller, but really, that’s like hating a self-inflicted lobotomy more than a third leg growing from my shoulder. I don’t know why I disliked it so much more, but I could never shake my aversion to it. I could get past the N64’s excess real estate because, in the end, it just wasn’t in the way. But the GameCube’s button layout was a kin to the haphazard bubbledebubble of my confused teenage years.

  2. Mother effer. Someone fix the html in my comment, please? I will make you tea.

  3. My favorite Nintendo controller, after the SNES, is the Wii Classic Controller; the one shaped like an SNES but with a couple of analog sticks added (not the one with added handles, though). Of course, in typical fashion it’s made stupider by needing to be attached to the Wiimote, with a cable set on the bottom instead of the top. I didn’t particularly dislike the N64’s at the time; it was weird, but so was the N64, and it just seemed to fit, though the analog should have been on the left. I did not like Gamecube’s; it just seemed like they wanted to copy Playstation but HAD to make it goofy. And finally, I do think of the WiiU Gamepad as a giant DS that plays virtual console games, and I love it for that – I try to use it as least often as possible for actual WiiU games though.

    Sony got it right on almost the first try, and had the good sense just to make slight adjustments that made sense each generation, but Nintendo wouldn’t be themselves if it weren’t for trying something different all the time, whether good or bad, never perfect, but always their own way, and that’s why it’s fun to talk about what you love and hate from them. Sony, it’s like, “well the original controller was good.” “Yes but the PS2 controller was better.” “True, but the PS3 controller was better than that.” Try and write an article about that… it just makes too much logical sense to attach strong feelings to it.

    I never got to use a dogbone NES controller, and I want to try it someday.

  4. @Java ¡Gracias!

    The N64 was my first system so by default the weird design was OK – until I played a game that actually used the D-pad. I never got used to the GameCube controller. I still have to look down to reliably hit the X or Y buttons on that damn thing. Why make them off center like that? Why put the trigger – you know, it’s pointless. It is terrible.

    @Dancing Matt I’m with you 100% on Sony’s controller. The Dual Shock was introduced a couple of years after the PS1 launched, but since then (1998) they have only made incremental changes. The PS2 and PS3 controllers looked the same, and it wasn’t until the PS4 that things changed slightly – but not enough to require re-learning the controller (though I really want a proper “start” button back). Think about this: 18 years of pretty much the same controller from Sony. 18 YEARS!

  5. @Seb: No need to change what works perfectly. The Dual Shock was a winner from the beginning. In fact, the PS4 updates have made it less useful, in my opinion.

  6. The PS3 controller (and PS2 and 1, for their time) almost can’t be criticized. It is perfectly gaming-centric, taking the best ideas in controller function which worked well and people liked and designed for maximal input and minimal fuss. It’s only not my absolute favorite controller because I kind of don’t like handles compared to the SNES/NES (and Genesis for that matter)’s flat pad. I can’t comment on PS4’s controller, but it looks like a step too far in some other direction.

    Here you can see the general difference there between Nintendo and Sony’s design philosophies in their whole machines; whereas the former is always looking to set itself apart, sometimes working, sometimes failing, sometimes both (as in the Wii), the latter puts itself firmly in the center of what makes sense: iterative building on a successful model, which is successful because the gimmicks are only ever an afterthought, and the primary needs of a modern gaming console are what’s emphasized.

  7. It’s important to remember that Sony entered the console industry a relative newcomer, and they were hitting it out of the park almost from the beginning. And then they followed on success with success. Even the PS3, somewhat maligned at the time, is still ticking over with new games and new releases. What of the 360 or the Wii? They are long consigned to the dust of the dead generations.

    Sony’s ability to break into the industry and succeed (by and large almost faultlessly) should be a sign to the other hardware manufacturers of the solidity and durability of Sony’s approach. But they don’t seem to be taking the lesson.

  8. @Lusipurr I agree. While a newcomer, Sony had an incredible design team, and set the standard for the industry with the PlayStation.

  9. For me Sony was by far the greatest thing to happen to RPGs but the ergonomic design of the controllers definitely made fighting games even more enjoyable as well. I remember two games from the same series that made this very true; Soul Blade and Soul Caliber III. In Soul Blade I was able to master every ability in the game including critical edges which were near impossible to stop once you got going. The same was true with SCIII – I had the ability to juggle somebody from 100% to zero without them being able to even make a single move. I imagine this was why he was nerfed so hard in 4. All this I don’t think I could have done on an Xbox Controller or god forbid the N64 controller.

  10. Sony does make a damn good controller, but the Wii U GamePad has a special, blurry place in my heart.

  11. @Cari I agree completely – Sony’s controller is the RPG and action game controller par excellence. For that matter it is the ideal racing and sports gaming controller as well. Really, it’s just the best controller. I have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours in Final Fantasy games on PlayStation, and that controller never once felt uncomfortable. Try level grinding with a Wii U tablet!

    @Adeki That Wii U gamepad looks blurry to you because your vision is obviously questionable. Why else would you have purchased a Wii U over a PlayStation 3? An embarrassing retail blunder, no doubt. It’s not too late to sell the Wii U and buy a PS3. I hear the refurbished units are just $79 these days.

  12. Wii U had some good games. Sadly I own them all. (There were like five…)

    Bayonetta 1&2 Combo (I’m gay and I find this game VERY sexy)
    Super Smash Brothers U
    Super Mario Maker (It has it’s moments)
    Hyrule Warriors
    Mario Kart 8 (Also has it’s moments and is still a good party game)

    We also expect the new Legend of Zelda to appear on Wii U and later on the NX.

    Honestly this library is larger than my PS4 library and if SE keeps up their trend of bringing their games to PC it’s going to make me regret the PS4 purchase entirely.

  13. The PS3 is an amazing system, I think one of the best consoles ever made for all that it can do. But WiiU is also great – if you like what it offers. So as an example, I have 14 physical WiiU release, a handful more digital ones, and a whole bunch of VC games – as well as a comparable assortment for PS3. But I have not and probably will not ever buy a PS4, because there is almost nothing of interest for me there.

    I can see why anyone would have no interest in a Nintendo console either at this point, but there are those who still like what they provide; the classic series, some platformers and adventure games, and a few odd bits. They enjoy the visual/aural style and small challenge but lots of fun that comes with them. I mean, you would think by Smash Bros 4, Mario Kart 8, and Super Mario Bros for the 20th time it would be ground into the dust, but they’re just as good as ever, unless you’re just over it.

    The middle ground would be wanting Nintendo to publish games on PlayStation, so you can play the few you like without having to buy a new system without extra gimmicks. It’s understandable, but Nintendo does not want to be a company whose ames get 2nd or 3rd billing on a system. Some people want Nintendo to make a high spec system for 3rd party support to play, what, Dark Souls and Grand Theft Auto, which I think is ludicrous. Oh well, end note, Xbone is shit, and fuck VR.

  14. @Sebastian I’m going straight for the PS4, and the Gamepad is definitely not as #crisp and #clear as it should be, and I had no reason to buy a PS3 because it didn’t have Persona 5 on it! I mean, it will in February but not the collector’s edition. >.>

  15. @Cari: Perhaps PC parity potentially precludes positives PS4 presented previously.

    @Dancing Matt: I can’t argue with you about the Wii U because the things it does well are important to you. If you are a Nintendo fan you are obviously stuck with their consoles. Just as the original Wii is only relevant because of homebrew, Nintendo continues to use their position as nonstalgic favorite to recycle previous greatness via emulation with the Virtual Console. Take nonstalgia out if the mix and rate the Wii U as a current platform with only its native Wii U games, and it’s rather poor.

    P.S. Your end note is amazing. Five stars!

    @Adeki: Don’t get #fresh with me. Your excuses about P5 are as contrived as your explanation of #YarnYoshi.

  16. Great opening line and a fine article, Sebastian!

    I didn’t play the Wii very much, but I did enjoy the Kendo game that was included in the Wii Sports upgrade. I must be one of the few people who never sent his controller flying out of his hand. Which is ironic, because I’ve sacrificed several dualshock controllers to the altar that is the Souls series.

  17. @Seb: Man, my point is just that with over a dozen full-on mostly first-party games, as well indie titles like Shovel Knight, Shantae, and now Axiom Verge, I’ve had some of the most consistent fun gaming since probably N64. The VC games (mostly carried over from Wii) are an icing to that, and what justifies the Gamepad in my experience. I can see how any part or all of what WiiU offers could be useless to someone else; honestly, I thought it would be shit at first and waited a couple years, so I’m surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed it.

    @Adeki: If you haven’t had a PS3 by now, don’t worry about it, forget it ever happened, and go for PS4. You can get all those games HD remastered anyways.

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