When we think what goes into designing a modern game controller, the one thing we must consider is ergonomics. Ergonomics is the beginning and the end with a controller, and you’d think there would be one definitive controller, but alas that’s not true. There is no one perfect controller for everybody to use, as opinions change just as often as hand structures. Thus, the more shapely controllers get, the more the designers need to pay attention to the common elements in human hands. Size has been an issue at times, like with the original Xbox controller. Often you hear comparisons between Japanese and Western sizes, where Japanese have smaller controllers that don’t fit into the Westerns’ big damn hands.
The main thing with any controller, be it specialised or not, is that anyone could pick it up and understand how to use it. Modern controllers have evolved into button monsters, where people can feel overwhelmed by the amount of buttons and their core functions. This is an actual problem, as games have grown in complexity but with no real good reason. One can argue for the dual stick controls, but that is just poor man’s version of mouse and keyboard. If you look at the modern controllers, they all share the exact same layout and core shape. There is no true distinction in them outside detailing, like how the D-Pad was awful on the Xbox 360 controller. The Wii Remote is exception to the rule, but now even the N3DS Flanders uses the standard layout with slight modification with the C-nub.
I argue for four basic controller progenitors. The First is the Tennis for Two, which evolved into the Pong controls we all know and love. Spacewar was controlled with two levers, and its two arcade variants in 1971 saw both a button based controller on Computer Space and something that resembles an arcade stick in Galaxy Game. WASD is pretty much an ascendant of your normal keyboard and the arcade layouts used. Then you have the Game & Watch, with the first real D-Pad combined with a button. Any and all modern controllers are direct ascendants of the Game & Watch combined with the levers in form of the sticks. Of course, you have the gun and racing wheel controllers, but there are more or less simple adaptation from controls outside of gaming. It’s funny to think how CAPCOM’s Steel Battalion controller is basically a huge arcade controller for home use for one game. The Steel Battalion controller has become one of the last of its kind, as we’re seeing less and less special controllers made for consoles. most third party controllers don’t even vary the shape of the controller, even f they may shuffle the button placements a little bit. Hori has a controller designed for FPS games, where the sticks and face buttons have changed places as well as the six face buttoned fighting game controller I’ve reviewed in the past. That controller still works just fine.
When you consider portable consoles, they have to conform with portability and ergonomics. In a sense, they’re as flat controller as you can get with a screen bolted to them. The PSP is a good example of this. There’s some nice examples how to add a level of ergonomics to the console, like in GameBoy Colour where you find Nintendo using the battery cover to add some grasping area to the unit. The GBA, PSP and PSVita all use curved sides to encourage certain style of grip on the unit, leading the fingers into proper positions. However, any version of the 3DS feels off because it lacks support to the hands while expecting the user to handle it like any other modern controller. The 2DS had less of a problem with this mainly because of its lighter weight. To be honest, the PSVita as well suffers from the weight. Weight is an issue that the designers should address further, as lighter weight allows the user to handle the controls in whatever way they wish. GameBoy Micro, albeit somewhat poor in the ergonomics department just like the Game Boy Advance SP, is extremely handy device due to its size and weight. This is one of the reasons why the modern controllers have become such ergonomics monsters; it’s much easier to hold something with heft when it falls into your hands, but it also locks you into one usable position, and to the one controller. Buying a new controller is a dread nowadays, as they’re expensive as all hell. I remember back in the day when you could buy a controller with a hundred Finnish marks, or just under twenty euros. Now be prepared to dosh out sixty to seventy euros, or in the Wii U’s case, some hundred and fifty euros.
Perhaps the current controller reflect the modern game design. A lot to see, little to play.
This post was originally supposed to be a preface to a controller review, but it kept growing in size, so I decided it to give its own spot.