I’ve been playing video games for nearly 35 years now. And while typing that fills me with a deep depression and serves as a reminder of my impending doom, it also means that I’ve seen a lot in those years. I was there during gaming’s infancy and I’ve witnesses everything along the way. Many things have changed about video games in that time and perhaps none as drastically as the way in which we play our games.
Kids just getting into gaming these days would probably be surprised to learn that when I started playing all those years ago, I had nothing more to control my games than a joystick and single button. That’s it. I began playing on the Atari 2600 and the mechanics of those games were so simple that all you needed was a one button. There was also an alternative controller called a ‘paddle’ which had a large round knob to turn back and forth for more precise movement, but as far as input options went, it was just as simple as the standard joystick.
While that may seem primitive today, I believe I have that simplicity to thank for getting me into gaming at all. Would my mom and dad have gotten hooked on Pac-Man and Breakout if the controls weren’t so simple and intuitive? I doubt it. What if the first gaming consoles had launched with a controller like the current Dual Shock on Playstation 4? I’m guessing we probably wouldn’t have seen the gaming boom of the early 80’s. To get people that are unfamiliar with video games to give it a try you need to make it as easy and non-intimidating as possible. There’s a reason why the Wii was such a massive success with older people and phone and tablet games resonate so much with kids.
After the big video game crash of the early 80’s, Nintendo introduced the NES and reinvigorated the industry along with a reinvention of how we play. The introduction of the D-Pad on their controller offered a simpler, more compact and durable alternative to the joystick and has been used in pretty much every video game controller since. Plus the addition of a second button allowed more options in game design. The controller proved to be incredibly popular and the NES established Nintendo as the leader in home gaming for years to come.
With the release of the SNES & SEGA Genesis, controllers took another leap forward with a rounded and more comfortable design as well as the addition of even more buttons (including the now standard shoulder buttons). Game design became increasingly more ambitious as new controllers offered more and more options. The days of game control consisting of just move & shoot were long gone, now you could sprint, glide, strafe, spin and Hadoken your way through a video game. For me this was the golden age of gaming. It was the era in which console games really matured and showed the variety of experiences that were possible.
The 8 & 16 Bit eras were also prime time for weird and bizarre peripherals. Nintendo in particular came up with an assortment of wacky new ways for you to play your games. From the Power Glove and R.O.B. the Robot to the Super Scope (a light gun shaped like bazooka!). Nintendo, probably more than any other company has continued this attempt to reinvent the wheel with each new console cycle, each new controller being radically different than the one before it.
For the most part though, ever since the release of the DualShock controller for the Playstation we’ve settled into a comfort zone with our controllers. If you look at most controllers to have come out in the past 15 or 20 years (not counting Nintendo) they’ve all been fairly similar to one another. But I wonder if the marvel of today’s sophisticated controllers has come at the expense of accessibility. As I’ve introduced my kids to gaming I’ve noticed that they’ve gravitated more towards mobile gaming because holding a controller with over a dozen buttons on it overwhelms them.
As we wait for details on Nintendo’s next console (codenamed the NX) to be revealed, I hope that they’re able to recapture a little bit of that Wii magic and find a control mechanic that appeals to both the seasoned gamer and the newcomers alike. For the industry to continue to grow it needs to keep bringing in new players and make that introduction as easy as possible with controllers that gaming rookies won’t find threatening. Otherwise the next generation of gamers will be raised on nothing but free to play titles and endless runners.