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The Pressure To Create The Perfect Controller

Behind the scenes, Nintendo was busy preparing their next generation console codenamed “Dolphin” which would later be renamed to GameCube.  Part of that preparation included designing a brand new controller. Reactions to the Nintendo 64’s controller were mixed — it received praise for revolutionizing controls for 3D movement, but it was also criticized for being too large and uncomfortable.

Speaking to the press in 1999, Shigeru Miyamoto said, “The major problem is that the Japanese user says that the N64 controller is too big and the American user says it’s the appropriate size.”

Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s director of planning (at the time), spoke to Japanese magazine nDream about the GameCube.  According to the magazine’s interview with Iwata, “Nintendo is obsessed with controllers and constantly redesigns them, but thinks that’s why their controllers receive so much praise.”

In a separate interview, Iwata explained, “A lot of people think that the Japanese market is tough. One reason for this may be that Japanese gamers look very closely at play control. If they’re at all unhappy, they’ll put the game down. Perhaps that’s because Mr. Miyamoto has trained them to expect perfect play control.”

Nintendo’s Perrin Kaplan emphasized Nintendo’s philosophy on controllers.  “I will say, and I don’t want this to sound arrogant on behalf of Nintendo, but I think that we’re the only company — and really Miyamoto — that understands that the controller and the game are one big fluid thing,” said Kaplan.

The common belief was that Shigeru Miyamoto designed Nintendo 64’s controller around “Super Mario 64”, and many wondered if GameCube’s controller followed a similar development path.  Nintendo’s Jim Merrick shot down any speculation that Miyamoto designed GameCube’s controller around a single game.

“No, and I think that’s a misnomer to say that the N64 controller was designed around Super Mario 64. Yes, Mr. Miyamoto wanted analog control because he had a vision of how he wanted that game to work, but the controller wasn’t designed specifically for one game,” said Merrick.

As the GameCube controller went through various changes, Miyamoto had hinted at the possibility of dropping the D-Pad altogether.

“We had to fine tune many aspects of the controller, but the basic layout and design hasn’t changed. The real differences have been the sizes and placement of the buttons.” said Miyamoto. “We wanted the perfect design and I think we nearly achieved that.  In the future, perhaps we won’t need the cross button [D-Pad].”

IGN wrote an article claiming their sources had seen early prototypes of the controller without a D-Pad. After writing the article, they spoke to more developers working on Dolphin hardware, and one developer told the website, “I don’t know where [the D-Pad] is going to be, but they’re going to stick it on there somewhere now.”

“To this we say, “Buh?” Was the D-Pad a go all along or is this some new development?,” wrote IGN. “We’re not sure. One thing is for certain, though – as of last month, developers were still telling us that there was absolutely not going to be a D-Pad on the Dolphin controller, which leads us to believe that Nintendo decided to go ahead with one in the eleventh hour.”

It’s hard to imagine a Nintendo controller without a D-Pad, but this almost happened with the GameCube. Did Shigeru Miyamoto believe that the shift from 2D to 3D gaming would make D-Pads irrelevant? Unfortunately, when the D-Pad was added to the controller, it felt like an afterthought instead of a priority. Similar in size to Game Boy Advance’s tiny D-Pad, the D-Pad was awkwardly placed on the GameCube’s controller, and it seemed obvious that Nintendo ran out of ideas on where to put it.

GCN prototype

     One of the first GCN controller prototypes.  Notice that there isn’t any D-Pad.

Miyamoto devoted more time and energy into the GameCube’s controller than any of Nintendo’s previous controllers.  The NES controller was the first controller to add a D-Pad, the SNES controller would be the first to add shoulder buttons, and Nintendo 64’s controller introduced the analogue stick to 3D consoles.

How would Miyamoto be able to top his previous three achievements?  For starters, Shigeru Miyamoto’s new mission was to completely reinvent the shape and feel of the controller so anyone — young or old, with big or small hands — could comfortably hold it.

“This Gamecube controller is the one on which I spent the longest time on designing. As far as controller designs are concerned, I think that this is the fourth or fifth version since the original design,” says Miyamoto.  “Our target user for this controller is not very specific, it’s very general, as even a beginner who has never touched the controller can use it, your grandmother can use, or even children with small hands can use it. I think it’s already three years or so since I first started working on this controller design. I don’t know if any of you are a developer for the Gamecube, but if you are, you are going to receive the development tools pretty soon, and the controller included with the tools is already different from the one that shall be the final version that will go to market.”

Over the span of three years, the GameCube controller would dramatically evolve with ideas being added and removed on a monthly basis.  Miyamoto, like any artist, wanted to top himself by creating something better than his previous work.  For example, the ‘B’ button was originally kidney shaped like the ‘X’ and ‘Y’ buttons, but the shape would later change to being small and round.

Saturu Iwata says, “I’m frankly pretty surprised at the number of changes we’ve made to this controller [laughs]. I think that it really contains a lot of the DNA of Nintendo, if you will.  And I think that Nintendo puts a lot more emphasis and uses the controller more than any of the other companies.”

Miyamoto’s first idea was to reinvent the traditional placement of the A,B,X, Y buttons that had become standard in the industry.

“I don’t want to appear self-important, but I was the first to put four buttons on the right hand of the pad, when I designed the Super NES controller and Sega, Sony and now even Microsoft have followed that idea. I don’t want to state they copied from us, but it is obvious that the four buttons became a standard. Now I have decided to renounce this shape.  I invented it and I can afford to renounce it. (smiles),” says Miyamoto.

The GameCube’s controller would place a far greater emphasis on having a “main” button, a large green button surrounded by smaller buttons.  The sizes, shapes, and positions of each button would help players identify each button’s level of importance on the controller’s layout.

Miyamoto explains, “I wanted to focus on the immediate recognition of the main button on the joypad.  In SNES it was the “A” button, in the GameCube, it is the green one. It is pleasant to the touch and the player is immediately aware what button is the most important one, the main control between him and what permits him to interact, for example, with Mario. ”

It would be designed as a culmination of his past ideas from previous controllers, but instead of every single button being round, many of the buttons were kidney-shaped for more intuitive controls.

Well, the whole idea was to be able to feel them [kidney shaped buttons] with your eyes closed and have them more intuitive versus everything always being round,” said Perrin Kaplan, when asked about the controller’s unusual button layout.

Ashida Kenichiro, one of Nintendo’s hardware designers on the GameCube, says the controller was designed to make you forget that you are holding a controller.  But it was challenging to incorporate so many features into the controller while keeping it comfortable.

“In my opinion, the ideal controller is one which the player forgets he is even holding.  It was very difficult to accomplish this task with the Gamecube controller, because we wanted to incorporate so many features into it.  From the beginning to end of the project I kept asking myself, “How can I arrange the features comfortably?,” says Kenichiro.

Former Nintendo employee, Jim Merrick, explained why the GameCube controller’s layout feels natural in a person’s hands:

When you guys get your hands on it you’ll see that it really feels good. There are two systems of buttons centered around each thumb. The primary analog stick sits really easily where your thumb very naturally falls on the left side. The A button is intuitive because it’s right where your thumb would naturally be. And then it’s a simple arch down to either the analog or D-Pad,” said Merrick.

Miyamoto felt that he had succeeded in creating a controller that was superior to the Nintendo 64’s controller, but he also believed the GameCube controller would set a new standard for future game controllers from Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft.

“I had some confidence with the N64 controller, too. However, when I compare the two, I can tell that the GCN Controller is better designed for game play. What I really want to say is,Get accustomed to the GCN Controller because, 10 years from now, this controller will be the standard” said Miyamoto.

At E3 2001, months before launch, Iwata mentioned that Miyamoto still planned to tweak the controller’s C-stick before release. Nintendo’s engineers worked around the clock to sneak in Miyamoto’s final requests before Japan’s launch in September.

Satoru Iwata explains, “But [Miyamoto] mentioned earlier that he’s still not totally happy with the feel of the c-stick and he’s still working on it and it will probably change again. But the hardware team is intent that the one we’re showing at E3 (2001) is the final one.  But because Mr. Miyamoto has asked for this final change and we do want to get this in the final product, the hardware team is back at home working very hard to make sure that they get it done in time and from my opinion, it looks as though everything is going well. Obviously, when we make prototypes at Nintendo, we then pass those along for everybody to comment on and give their input on. And as Mr. Miyamoto is known to do, he likes to continue to make his changes and maximize all the functions of the controller, even up to the very last minute at which point we’ve got our hardware people scrambling to get his changes in [laughs].  I think it’s because of this perfectionist attitude that Mr. Miyamoto has and the kind of last minute changes he makes to improve the controller is part of the reason why people really feel that Nintendo controllers have the best feel and are very easy to use.”

 

SONY DSC

Years after the GameCube released, Shigeru Miyamoto viewed GameCube’s controller from a more critical perspective.  Although Miyamoto was happy with the controller’s final design, he didn’t believe it was absolutely perfect.

“Using the analog and the L and R shoulder buttons was maybe a little hard for the younger players. We were not able to use that functionality very well in games either. On this next one [Revolution], we’re really looking at solving some of those problems,” said Miyamoto.

The clickable L and R buttons seemed innovative at the time, but Miyamoto seemed disappointed that they didn’t use the functionality for more unique ideas.

 “With the GameCube, we originally thought we’d be able to use the functionality of the L and R buttons to create some really unique things. In the end we just made basic games and didn’t really utilize the full potential, but with the Revolution we’re hoping to do is utilize the interface to create more interesting and unique games…,” said Miyamoto.

Miyamoto was asked if any specific game stuck with him after all of these years.  Miyamoto replied, “It’s not a game, but maybe the GameCube’s controller. We made it as a culmination of everything leading up to it, but it really underwhelmed. ‘This line of thinking doesn’t give us anything else to shoot for, does it?’ That’s how I felt.”

When asked for more specifics, Miyamoto admitted that the Gamecube controller lead to the creation of the Wii remote. “The GameCube controller is a product of us feeling that, without this or that, people wouldn’t be able to play the games we make. But then we realized that was a problem, that we were thinking based on that controller as the premise.”

It wasn’t just Miyamoto who would look back at the GameCube’s controller with a different perspective.  Kenichiro Ashida, who helped design the GameCube’s controller, said he felt incompatible with the GameCube controller over the years.

“I personally felt that the GameCube controller was the culmination of all controllers that had come before it, and that it couldn’t be improved via the traditional concept of simply adding to it. More than anything else, I felt as though the controller and I were incompatible. Having a family, the time I had to play hard games decreased, and a gap between my “creator self” and my “player self” was born,” said Ashida.

 

wavebird

 

Today, the perception toward GameCube, at least from the gaming community, seems more positive than during the years it was actually released.  In April, I asked different game developers and gaming journalists for their opinions on the GameCube’s controller.  What did they like about it?  What did they dislike about it?  Would they have changed anything?  How do they rank it in comparison to Nintendo’s other controllers?

Brian Davis from Next Level Games (Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon)

“I purchased the GameCube at launch (Luigi’s Mansion!) and was overly excited by the new controller design. The controller was very comfortable, even in my relatively large hands!  Although unconventional-looking, the innovative button layout felt very natural. You could easily roll your right thumb to transition from awesomely-giant A button to the nearby X,Y,B buttons. Due to the Analog pressing and eventual Digital click combo, the L+R triggers allowed for different usage than other standard shoulder buttons. Super Mario Sunshine shows this functionality off best when using F.L.U.D.D. to shoot water while moving with the R trigger, and then fully clicking down on the R trigger to do stationary water shooting.

Control Pad (D-Pad)-only games (Game Boy Player, intense 2D fighters, etc.) weren’t the best on this controller — Hori later released its own SNES-looking Digital Controller dedicated to help with these types of games. Games that were designed with the D-Pad supporting functionality off the main analog Control Stick (inventory systems, item selection, etc), worked well.

When the WaveBird was released, I was amazed at its range, input response, and battery life. It was the first wireless controller that I felt worked just as well as a wired one. It’s still one my favourite wireless controllers, for both performance and comfort.

Aesthetically, the GameCube controller looks like a fun toy that you just want to pick up and play with. To this day, when I use the GameCube controller, I’m always surprised how great it feels in my hands. Orange Spice and Indigo colours are my favourites!”

 

Daniel Vuckovic, founder of Vooks.net, and contributor at Kotaku Australia

“The GameCube controller still remains one of my favourite Nintendo controllers, mostly because its different. The kidney face buttons work better than you would expect and the A and B buttons are oddly sized, but they work well. The analogue triggers are still some of the most useful triggers, you can wrap your whole finger on them and feel how much you’re pressing better than anything. The whole controller just melds into your hands too, it’s a perfect fit and no wonder it lasted longer than the console.   It wasn’t perfect though, the D-Pad is tiny and not suited for any sort of action, the C-Stick is just odd but the hexagonal gateway on it helped somewhat. That Z trigger could have been done so much better as well.  The Wavebird though is the best and pure version of the GameCube controller, lag free, long lasting and all the benefits of the standard Cube controller.

The GameCube controller has only been made outdated thanks to modern game design, it just doesn’t have enough buttons.

My overall ranking:  GameCube > N64 > Wii U > NES > SNES > Wii “

 

Chris Seavor, creator of Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Founder of Gory Details

“Oh! The Gamecube controller, hmmm….. I’m holding one now in fact.. It was to hand actually, nestled snugly on top of the Wii. Yep, surprisingly i still use it from time to time, and even more suprisingly (which i’ll come to in a moment) , it still works !!  But what’s so delightfully innovative and glorious about this classical beauty? Could it be the different shaped buttons so you don’t need to look to see where your thumb sits? Maybe… Could it be the little ‘clicky’ feedback moment when those giant, luscious trigger buttons bottom out…? Certainly….Even the delicately balanced position it adopts in the hands, sitting ergonomically, caressing even, the fingers and inner palm? Once again, it could be..Or perhaps it’s those wedges that allow you to lock out positions making infuriating fighting game combo’s that bit easier and satisfying… Erm, probably not…The giant A button then ?  Oh don’t get me started on that beast of a hunk of green plastic.. With THIS controller A was king and boy didn’t you know it …..

No, no… for me the single best delight of this nugget of design glory is simple: No matter how many times I smashed it, bit it, hurled it at the wall, stomped on it or threw it out of the window….. It still works !!!”

 

Jools Watsham, founder of Renegade Kid  (Mutant Mudds, Treasurenauts, Moon)

1. The overall feeling of how the GameCube controller sits in your hands is very comfortable.

2. I like how your index fingers and thumbs naturally land on the analog stick, A button, and shoulder buttons.

3. The huge A Button is epic, brash, and wonderful. The subsequent Y and X buttons hug the A button perfectly.

4. The rubber-like resistance of the C analog stick feels great.

5. The D-Pad is not located in a comfortable location.

6. The octagon of notches that encase the main analog stick provide great assistance for nailing a precise direction.

 

Marcello Apostolico, founder of GamersXtreme.org

“I still won’t forget the first time I came across an image of Nintendo’s GameCube controller back when it was prepping for release. Like any innovation Nintendo brings to the table with their controllers, I initially thought “wow, that’s an odd looking controller”. However, upon getting my hands on the controller on Christmas 2001, it just felt natural. The analog stick and C-Stick felt smooth, the small offset D-Pad was pretty comfortable, and the different buttons based on shape and size were as inventive as they were responsive. Additionally, the L and R analog triggers felt great and are by far, my favorite trigger buttons ever on a controller. Whether I was clocking in countless hours playing Soul Calibur II and Super Smash Bros Melee, the 250+ hours with TimeSplitters 2, to the phenomenal Resident Evil Remake and Resident Evil 4 (just to name a few favorites), the GameCube controller always seemed incredibly comfortable and intuitive to use.”

 

Jonathan Holmes from Destructoid.com

“The Gamecube represents Nintendo at their least confident, at their most desperate to conform. In 2001, Nintendo was no longer leading the industry forward. The were playing catch up with Sony, who had taken the SNES pad and the analog stick of the N64 controller and put them together to create the Dual Shock, the controller that had quickly become the industry standard.

The Gamecube controller is Paul McCartney and Paul Simon doing a dubstep cover of Offspring’s “Why Don’t You Get a Job?”. It tries to give the kids what they think they want while jamming on surface level differences to give the illusion of “innovation” which only come off as sloppy and insincere. There is no player benefit for that yellow, painful C stick or asymmetrical Z button. Nintendo was just running scared, outsmarting themselves into a embarrassing mess.

It’s sad that it took a dismal failure like the Gamecube controller for Nintendo to re-learn that they’re strongest when they go their own way. The Gamecube controller is the Wii remote’s failure of an older sibling that worked as a highly effective anti-role model. As for the Wii U Gamepad, it’s an even younger sibling that takes after both of it’s predecessors simultaneously, but that’s a story for another article….”

 

Menashe Kestenbaum, founder of Nintendoenthusiast.com

“I don’t know if I can even be trusted to give a proper judgement of the Gamecube, because believe it or not, it isn’t just the games that get glazed with a sugary coating of nostalgia. It happens with the controllers too. I mean, when I try to hold the N64 controller right now, it boggles my mind how I ever managed to make it through a full game with this deformed mass of plastic in my hand. But generally when I’m asked how I liked the N64 controller, I’ll tell you it’s a wonderfully comfortable controller – because all I can remember is how it introduced me to the world of 3D in Super Mario 64 and was my personal companion through Hyrule in Ocarina of Time. So, me and the N64 controller have had great times together. Similarly, when someone brings up the “Gamecube controller” I’m instantly reminded of my “experiences” with it: Metroid Prime, Eternal Darkness, Wind Waker, Super Mario Sunshine.

But, if I had to take a dry, detached look at it I think I would still consider the Gamecube to be the most comfortable controller to ever have been made. Even when I hold the Xbox 360 controller, which is almost an industry “template” nowadays, I can notice how the curvature of its contour in the back- where your fingers are meant to rest- pulls in its concave arc a bit too acutely. It ends up feeling like you’re holding the controller, rather than the controller holding you. The best way I can express the feel of the Gamecube controller is that the controller holds you- it creates a natural place for your fingers to become one with the controller. Yeah, I’m getting a bit too zen right now, so I’ll wrap it up here by saying, if not for the A + B buttons, which felt a little too shallow, I’d say the Gamecube controller was perfect.”

 

Brian Allanson, founder of AckkStudios  (Two Brothers, Project Y2K)

“I remember the first time I played the GameCube. It was Christmas morning in 2001. The first thing that struct me about the tiny little cube was the controller. Having gone from the N64 to the Gamecube, at first I felt like I was missing an extra limb without the strange M shaped controller of the N64. But as soon as I booted up Super Smash Brothers Melee and got to run the controller through it’s paces, I really appreciated the new design. I enjoyed how thick and substantial the controller felt. Many times I would be disappointed by technology when it felt too light and thin, but the comfortable weight and bulk of the controller felt real in my hands. The octagonal channels on the joystick initially threw me off, as it felt strange not having full rotation that wasn’t guided, but after spending a few minutes with it I started to understand why they did. During the era of the Gamecube the PS2 and XBOX controllers also laid around my living room. I remember feeling the XBOX controller was nice, but felt a little bit sluggish. And the PS2 controller was just as uncomfortable as the PS1, but only with better analogue button support. I don’t know if I would say if the Gamecube reached Miyamotos dream of making the perfect controller, but it definitely served its purpose as a solid, comfortable, and uniquely designed input device…. looking back, I’d say it remains my favorite of that era of gaming. ”

 

James Saito, founder of Fuzzy Wuzzy Games  (Armillo for the Wii U eShop)

“Ahhh, yes…  The GameCube controller.  I remember watching Nintendo’s press conference when they revealed it.  I thought that it was really awesome that they went back to the traditional design compared to the N64, but was a bit disappointed that they didn’t have dual shoulder buttons during the reveal.  They did eventually add the Z button but it still would have helped if they’ve created an extra button on the left analog trigger for easier porting from other platforms.  The one thing that stuck out to me was the clicky analog trigger, which felt nice to click down, but also felt a bit flat when being used in games as it takes more effort to click that button as opposed to pressing any other button such as the Z button.  This issue stood out especially when reaction times were important. On the positive side, one thing that I love about Nintendo’s analog sticks is its hexagonal base, which acts as a digital and analog hybrid stick so I know that I’m holding straight up or down.  The button layout also felt Nintendo-ish with the A button sticking out, but I loved it as it screams “Primary Action!”.  Its shape is very comfortable to hold, at least for my asian sized hands.  If I were to rank the Nintendo controllers, I would personally say: SNES, Wii U, GCN, NES, Wii, then N64.”

Justin Sharp, PureNintendo.com

“The GameCube controller still stands as one of the most well designed, comfortable, and forward-thinking controllers to date.  The controller itself was the first controller from Nintendo to feature dual analog sticks, built-in rumble, and analog triggers.  While some controllers took some getting used to, the GameCube controller fit my hands perfectly the minute I started playing.  It’s a fairly small controller but the grips make it fit more comfortably than other controllers at the time.  When looking at the Playstation series of controllers, there is a gradual tapering of the grips on the controller.  With the GameCube controller, the grips are about the same length as the PS2’s controller but the curvature of each grip/handle is much more pronounced.  This added thickness allowed the controller to still have a small form factor yet provide a snug fit.  The analog triggers with the digital click were also a first for Nintendo and the curved design of the trigger buttons made my index fingers feel right at home.  For racing games, analog triggers are almost essential and oddly aren’t even built-in to the Wii U Pro controller we have today.  To be clear, not everything with the GameCube controller is perfect.  The Z-button positioning seems like an after-thought and the D-pad is almost too small to be of any real use.  However, as far as comfort and design, the GameCube controller is still tops for me.

Embarrassing/fun fanboy-ish fact: Several months before the launch of the GameCube, I made a 1:1 scale replica of the GameCube controller out of modeling clay just to see what the controller would feel like when the system launched later that year.  Over-the-top?  Perhaps.  Worth it?  Definitely :)”

Daniel Switzer, WiiandMii.com

“The GameCube controller? That was MY controller, the first one I was properly familiar with. I had used the N64 controller  before but as a young child, it was about the size of my head, so I never got to grips with it (nor appreciate what it gave the industry). The GameCube controller is absolutely my favourite controller not just from Nintendo, but from everyone. It’s the perfect size, fits so smoothly into your hands so that the rumble feature really feels great and it saddens me still that Nintendo dropped it and went for the Wii remote the generation after. Its wireless cousin, The Wavebird was the greatest thing to ever grace the GameCube and Super Smash Bros. Melee would not have been the same game without it. If Nintendo were to ever return to a “normal/standard” controller, I hope they realise that the GameCube controller is the model they should be thinking about. ”

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When Miyamoto created the GameCube controller, he was quoted as saying it would set the standard for controllers for the next ten years.  But years later, he had regrets about certain aspects of the controller.

We want to hear what readers think of the GameCube’s controller!  Where would you rank the GameCube controller in comparison with Nintendo’s other controllers?  Feel free to post your comment in the comments section below.

 

 

9 Replies to “The Pressure To Create The Perfect Controller”

  1. Still the best controller I own! Button placement was superb, you could easily feet the shapes with your thumb and the added visual cues on screen made memorization that much more easier. Wind Waker being the best example of this of your items in the top right corner of the screen.
    Chris Seavor sums up the ergonomics perfectly “delicately balanced position it adopts in the hands , sitting ergonomically, caressing even, the fingers and inner palm”
    It was luscious.

  2. IMO the Wii U Pro Controller is the perfect controller.  Trumps the GCN controller by far.  I mean seriously, what was up with the lack of a left Z button?

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