The Dual Shock, Your Thumbs, and Why We Have to Get Used to Living With Nintendo.

I’m the sort of insane outlier who spends a lot of time thinking about videogame controllers.

While that may sound odd to most of you I think it’s strange we don’t give them more thought. They’re quite literally the gaming related thing we come in contact with the most, and their functionality and ergonomics have been overlooked by gamers (and sadly console manufacturers) for far too long.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what elements make the best controllers, and what little mistakes ruined what were otherwise good designs. These elements have evolved into the current industry standard, which depending on your point of view is either Sony’s DualShock 3 or the Xbox 360 controller.

There are small but important things that serve to separate the DualShock 3 from the 360 controller in the minds of gamers. The mushy, imprecise analog triggers on the DualShock 3 are a poor imitation of the 360 pad’s crisp and responsive triggers, a feature first seen on the Dreamcast controller and carried on over from the Xbox 1 design. As a result, Call of Duty players tend to migrate to the 360, and the disparity in analog triggers one of the reasons why people tend to prefer Forza Motorsports over Gran Turismo 5, which still defaults to the right thumbstick for analog throttle and brakes.

On the other side, the 360’s d-pad is unforgivably clumsy. The only thing you can really rely on it for is for very simple menu functions where the game only calls for either up/down or left/right functions at any given time. God help the gamer who is expected to chose from a complex menu in the middle of a hectic action scene, you’re more likely to hit left when you meant to press down, and the pad is worse than useless in most 2d-based games.

But these are minor differences that don’t honestly effect the two system’s userbase terribly much. PlayStation 3 loyalists who like Call of Duty tend to just map the primary fire button to one of the digital shoulder buttons, whereas 2d 360 fans, well they just play Call of Duty instead. But there has been one great debate within the two warring camps, And while it may seem like a meaningless aesthetic issue, meaningless aesthetic issues have always been at the heart of fanboy console wars.

And it’s about your left thumb-- and Nintendo’s upcoming war for your right one.

 


 

Back when the Playstation was released back in the heady days of 1994, Sony shipped a gamepad that was for all intents an ergonomic Super Nintendo pad, albeit with what was at that time among the worst d-pads ever created.

Over time gamers grew to accept the PlayStation d-pad, Kristin Enmark-style, but one thing became obvious the moment the we encountered our first zombie in the abandoned halloways of Raccoon City: Digital controls were absolutely useless in the new world of 3d gaming.

After a couple of stalled attempts (and notably Nintendo nailing the issue with Super Mario 64, a game designed around the use of an thumb stick for 3d control), Sony finally addressed the issue with the very first DualShock, upping Nintendo’s ante by grafting 2 thumb sticks to the bottom of the PlayStation 1 controller.

While the DualShock design was serviceable for 3d control, it was not an optimal design. One must move their thumb up a great deal to reach the action buttons. To a layperson this sounds trivial, but anyone who’s actually used the DualShock for any great length of time can tell you it’s a pain in the ass to use. Ideally you wouldn’t want to move your thumbs from the two sticks and the four shoulder buttons, but developers can’t help themselves and if you give them a button, chances are they’ll map something of dire importance to it, regardless of where on the controller that button may fall.

Nintendo saw the issues inherent in the DualShock and tried to correct them, but in so doing created a controller that was so focused on being the Best 3d Controller Ever that developers actually hated working with the thing:

 

While Nintendo perfected the thumb stick placement, they got a host of other things wrong. The shoulder buttons were too mushy to be of use in the sort of games you’d want to use them in, whereas the face button layout was so far outside Nintendo’s own iconic square design that 3rd party devs usually refused to optimize the DualShock layout when porting games over from the PlayStation 2. Spurned, Nintendo would attempt to abandon the idea of a control pad altogether with the Wii.

 

We’ll skip ahead to the present day, where, the Xbox 360 pad is the gold standard in 3d game pad design, even if the prospect of playing fighting games and platformers on that d-pad is enough to drive a person to the use of bath salts. Importantly, Microsoft got the placement of the left thumb stick correct-- it’s a small change, but holding holding your thumb above your hand instead of to the side feels more natural, and it’s eminently easier to reach down to access the d-pad for menus than it is to reach up for the same.

True Sony fanboys swear the thumbstick placement isn’t an issue; even more alarmingly many have convinced themselves the Dualshock 3 is the superior ergonomic design. One can only assume that over many long years of PlayStation loyalty that the bones in their hands have twisted and splintered into terrifying claw-like appendages.

Thing is, over all these years, all these designs, from the original DualShock to the Gamecube controller to the Xbox Duke and Controller-S to the 360 pad, no one has addressed the one silly thing about modern controller design:

Why is the right thumbstick still below the face buttons?

In virtually every 3d game on the market, the left thumbstick controls movement and the right the camera, and you use them in tandem for a full range of movement. Ideally this means you’d never want your thumb to leave either stick, or at least leaving the camera control should happen roughly as often as your movement thumb-- so why isn’t the right stick in the same place?

Nintendo realized this was a stupid situation derived from entropy more than useablity, and in so doing have created what could become the best 3d controller ever:

Finally. Both thumbsticks are where you’d want them to be if you were to spend four hours at a time not moving your hands for any reason other than Doritos consumption. You know, of your own free will. Try to ignore the fact that we’re now up to a ridiculous four center-placed utility buttons and a sea of diagnostic LEDs-- Nintendo finally stepped away from their inherent quirkiness in controller design and in so doing perfected the compromised 360 pad. A useable d-pad! No silly octagonal gates around the thumbsticks! Standard wireless control and a built-in rechargable battery! Usable analog triggers! The lettering on the face buttons is still backwards, but that’s always been Nintendo’s design and any change in it now would no doubt lead to overturned cars and city blocks set ablaze.

Nintendo finally stopped trying to force their own vision of what developers should be doing with controls and what people should want with from interface and listened to 3rd party developers needed.

It’s a weird thing for me to admit, as I’ve always been a Sega guy and despised what Nintendo was trying to force upon the gaming community with the Wii interface. But they got this one right, and even the actual Wii U tablet doesn’t look godawful to use, even if the battery life vs weight ratio is still sketchy at this point.

Sony fanboys on GAF and elsewhere have already entrenched themselves into dismissing this simple but fundamental shift in controller design, and they’ll be rewarded with more of the same from Sony in 2013, but right now Nintendo’s saying and showing all the right things. 3rd party developers are slowly running out of excuses. Sooner or later the rest of us will have as well.