🎮 Much ado about accepted controls

This article was previously published in Dutch at games blog Bashers. What follows is the English translation and edited version of said article.

How you control a game defines the entire experience. Control is the only thing you can rely upon with the game world, so it would be rather efficient if the controls matched your expectations exactly. PixelJunk Eden (PS3) for PlayStation Network presents itself as a simple platform-title. But it doesn’t exactly have the controls to match that ‘simple’ approach…

Genesis

Eden‘s controls aren’t difficult, it’s just unorthodox. De object of the game is to traverse 2D-gardens looking for spectra. To reach these spectra you need to collect pollen to burst the nearby seeds open and climb alongside the plants growing from them. Doesn’t sound too complex, not?

But once you start jumping you bump into Eden‘s problem. Jumping from the ground is just as you’d expect. But jump from a plant and you suddenly have a silk thread trailing you. You can use the thread to swing around like some kind of wannabe Spider-Man, but press the jump-button again and the thread breaks.

It’s a train wreck waiting to happen. To ‘normally’ jump off a plant, you need to ‘double jump’: press jump once and the thread will keep you from moving further, press jump twice and you’ll jump like in any other platform game. It’s a subtle difference, but especially during the start of the game, a seasoned gamer can become hugely frustrated because of it.

Luckily, PixelJunk Eden is a brilliant platform game. Eventually you’ll succumb to its strange whims and the game will turn from frustrating title to must-have. But it did remind me of other games with unorthodox controls; games with strange controller layouts colliding head-on with common sense.

Old School

As a child I came in contact with Joe & Mac: Caveman Ninja in the arcades. A nice platform/action title not entirely dissimilar to Metal Slugin terms of feel. After spending too much money on it, I couldn’t wait until the game would hit my trusty NES. And a year later it finally did, but… The game turned out to be completely unplayable. Why? Because the functions of the A and B buttons were ‘reversed’.

Ever since Super Mario Bros., every platform game on the NES used A to jump and B to shoot (or run) by default. Except Joe & Mac evidently; in this game B was used to jump and A was used to shoot. My little children’s brain couldn’t cope with the switch and I rather quickly traded the game back for another game

But if you only suspect the lesser-known developers from fumbling by makings such choices, you’re wrong. Nintendo itself is no stranger to fly in the face of common sense and they did so with full conviction with the Nintendo DS. Where the SNES games ‘emulated’ the B-A pattern from the NES on the Y-B buttons, the Nintendo DS did this with (again) the B-A buttons, on the SNES controller’s layout.

SNES veterans playing Mario Kart DS were unpleasantly surprised by this: the ‘new old’ layout proved to induce cramps in hands trying to hopelessly adapt to the far less intuitive layout, while the Y-B layout would’ve been so much more comfortable.

It’s even worse if you play GBA games on a Nintendo DS. The B-A buttons from the GBA layout are instantly transplanted unto the Nintendo DS’s B-A buttons, leading to the same kinds of cramp. Ironically, New Super Mario Bros. (in itself a Nintendo DS game) allowed for players to choose between the comfortable SNES-alike Y-B control scheme or the cramp-worthy B-A one, instead of forcing the latter.

Default

Though these days I’m not nearly as horrified by strange controller layouts as during Joe & Mac, I do find myself annoyed by the need to ‘learn’ the controller layout when a developer decides to ‘reinvent the wheel’. Imported games only worsen the problem. For their Dual Shock controllers Sony uses the Circle and Cross buttons for OK and Cancel respectively. But in the West this is exactly the other way around, with Cross used for acknowledging and Circle used to Cancel.

Then there’s the difference between console controllers and their default controller configurations. For instance, while playing most first person shooters on the Xbox, the games uses the triggers extensively for shooting. But switch to the PlayStation 2 and suddenly the top shoulder buttons (L1 and R1) were used for the same functions. This difference remained in use even as the Xbox 360 finally gained the final pair of shoulder buttons, the result being a mental and physical switch of controlling first person shooters as one switches consoles.

Microsoft seems to the be the first (and so far only) manufacturer to understand the importance of certain default settings and control layouts. The Xbox 360 features a collection of system wide settings that keeps preferences like an inverted Y-axis consistent over various games. Next to that, the functions of the A and B buttons on the Xbox 360 are set in stone and even colour coded (green and red).

Nintendo is definitely the worst manufacturer in this respect. If you encounter the rare instance of being able to reassign functions or to customize your controller-layout in a Nintendo game, you can be almost certain that there was some kind of sacrificial ceremony involved to get it in there.

Though it might not be fair to blame Nintendo in this instance. The stubbornness of gamers to cling to a ‘perceived’ perfect controller-layout is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing for it allows you to quickly capture the essence of a game’s controls when you stick to the commonly used functions. A curse for it forces your game to be immediately the same as all those other games. Never before was this topic so under discussion as during the introduction of Metroid Prime‘s control scheme and how it should have been that of a ‘normal’ FPS.

But despite the fact that gamers should be more open to new controller-layouts, it’s a rather indecent thing to disallow players to modify the layout outright. Or even worse: only go half the way. If you have ever tried to modify the controller-layout of Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, you might have ran into some severe limitations of what function was allowed to move to which button. Quite strange.

Hardware Limitations

But even if the software cooperates, you might find the hardware being the way. Just try to play a 2D-fighter through any Xbox or Xbox 360 controller and it becomes clear why people have been clamouring for a better d-pad right from the start. The only option for them seems to be to buy an extra arcade stick.

Or consider the ridiculous approach by Nintendo to outfit their Nintendo 64 controller with an analog stick at such a ridiculous position that the d-pad became the red-headed stepchild of the controller. Even menu’s needed to be navigated through use of the stick. An even more ridiculous decision as the d-pad was often turned off for proper menu-navigation. Nintendo keeps this little FUBAR alive until this very day. Even the Wii Remote’s pointing functionality is often infuriatingly ditched for in comparison cumbersome d-pad control, or even worse, Nunchuk control.

To add even another layer of complexity, your taste for a good control layout may change over time. Personally, I’ve played Super Metroid many more times on an emulator than my Super Nintendo. The reason? A PlayStation-to-PC converter that allowed me to use a Dual Shock controller for the game instead of the holy SNES controller.

Using the Dual Shock in Super Metroid allowed me to have the run-button mapped to R2 and the item-select to R1, while the diagonal aims could be moved to L1 and L2. The game works so much better due to this configuration, it’s becoming default for playing the game on a SNES or Classic Controller as well. At least, the R button is then getting the run-button mapped, while the diagonals are reduced to just one mapped to L.

(That said, Super Metroid is one of the rare Nintendo games that allow you to completely remap the controls. Not entirely without reason. Its default controls are slightly bizarre: X is used to shoot, A for jumping and B for running. Insane…)

Control Solution

Control layouts can sometimes completely miss the point yet be absolutely logical. Guitar Hero predecessor Frequency uses three action buttons on the controller instead of the five on a plastic guitar. Those three buttons were Square, X and Circle on the Dual Shock 2 controller. That sounds quite logical, but every Frequency-player worth its salt knows that using those buttons won’t get you anywhere.

Instead, to properly play the game you will need to use the Dual Shock 2’s shoulder buttons, leaving one of them unused and the button configuration strangely unbalanced. The imbalance does allow you to use two hands and three fingers in harmony and the result is so much more direct control that after a few minutes you can’t imagine switching back to just the action buttons.

So what can solve these control troubles? The Wii? I don’t think so. Its movements and direct actions should make controls more transparent, but currently those extra possibilities seem to be straitjacketed into shaking the controller to use a function usually assigned to a button anyway.

Games that do demand actual movements are nine out of ten times too frustrating as the leeway for performing such movements can be criminally tight misinterpreting your wishes. The Wii experience is far too analog, while its strengths can be found in controls that seem to emulate the old ‘press button, something happens’ mechanic that works for normal controllers.

Maybe that’s why the far more digital ‘double jump’ out of PixelJunk Eden manages to fascinate me. It’s the developer’s choice to include it, you’ll get used to it pretty quickly, it’s entirely logical to include from the game’s point of view and yet… I do miss the accepted control scheme for a platformer.

Couldn’t jump and leaving a silk thread been mapped to two separate buttons? Would’ve saved me a lot typing.