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.
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.
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 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.)
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.