The humble “Joy Pad” has its origins in the even more humble “Joystick.” Those of us who are so old we think of the Neolithic Era as “the good old days” will pretend to remember the very moment of creation, the stage of gaming evolution which was the equivalent of when the fish crawled out of the water and life took to the land, a magical time known only as 1977 (or as it is known to the gameratii”Atari Time”). However as we are so old our memories are easily confused, so we get the internet on the case and make a cup of tea.
With the advent of the Atari 2600 suddenly there was a physical instrument designed to link you to your game. Many philosophers regard this as the defining moment in our evolution, as glorious as man’s first steps on the moon, as important as creating fire, more important than the wheel, our imaginations were about to be unleashed.
Not that many knew it at the time.
A simple yet robust black square fitted perfectly into the hands of anybody who could contort their palms at ninety-degree angles and hook a thumb over onto the single orangey-red fire button. Not content with a singular button Atari also incorporated an 8-way directional stick into the design and decided that “bang in the middle” was the best place for it.
Humankind now had the ability to move in eight different directions AND fire (or jump). Some wondered if the human brain could comprehend such complexity and secret laboritories across the world leapt to investigate.
What Atari started, Nintendo perfected.
Just as the British invented golf, tennis and motorsport and watched as Americans perfected and dominated, Atari’s masterpiece was soon to be surpassed by the irresistable march of technology. Despite independent joystick makers creating multiple button joysticks for systems such as the Commodore 64, these were soon discovered to be simply joysticks with lots buttons that all do the same thing, e.g fire, Nintendo were creating a masterpiece of epoch making proportions (probably in a very secret and very dark underground laboratory with vials of chemicals frothing and lighting arcs fizzing). Even the hi-tech “Auto-Fire” of recent joysticks would soon be overshadowed.
The year is 1985… Mike Tyson makes his boxing debut (and wins in a first round knock-out), Marty McFly is traveling back in time and Nintendo unleash the Nintendo Entertainment System from the heavens; borne on the wings of angels and presented on a cloud of pure gaming nirvana. Humans could interface with Nintendo’s box of joy by grasping a revolutionary control “pad” in their sweaty palms. Nintendo’s control pad was the first great step in two handed gaming control, utilising both hands and employing mans greatest asset; opposable thumbs.
No-one is quite sure why the directional pad was allocated to the left thumb, and the buttons to the right, however legend has it that both thumbs desired the directional pad (d-pad) but after a vote (which ended all-square) it eventually was allocated on an alphabetical basis.
More buttons than Mir.
A simple evolution followed whereby more buttons were added to controllers in what is sometimes remembered as “The Buttons Race.” During this time two major world factions endeavoured to out-do one another by adding ever increasing number of buttons to their pads until Mutually Assured Destruction loomed and several landmark “anti-button proliferation” treaties were signed and disaster averted.
The NES controller employed two buttons in total (not including the menu buttons) and Sega responded with a two-button Master System control pad. Realizing that they needed more buttons SEGA produced the three-button Mega-Drive/Genesis control pad to take the lead in the buttons arms race. Nintendo however, unveiled their magnificent six-buttoned controller prompting SEGA to release the Mega-Drive/Genesis six-button controller.
Taking the initiative SEGA then released the Saturn system with eight buttons and were quickly matched by a new competitor, SONY with their Playstation controller. Nintendo, masters of one-upmanship took the bull by the horns and released the N64 with it’s tremendous nine-button controller (still not including the Start “menu” button).
Luckily, just as button overload was becoming a reality, common sense prevailed and the buttons race appears to have been consigned to history. It was proclaimed that adding buttons was not necessarily a way to improve gaming and it was suggested by some radicals in the industry that “imagination” would be used by the dark and arcane magicians at Nintendo for their forthcoming Dolphin System.
Proving that they are singularly mad Nintendo not only changed the name of their System to something that sounded quite ridiculous; but they also departed entirely from the traditional joypad design.
“Ah, Mr Innovation… what a pleasant surprise, please come in, long time no see”
Nintendo’s Wii has given us a true revolution in gaming history. Suddenly gaming has been quite literally placed into the hands of a new audience. A new audience who revel in the swinging, pointing and general swishing of physically interactive entertainment. The wireless Wii controller set-up, with it’s “Nunchuk and Wii-mote” design has some very significant, if subtle features. Boasting infra-red aiming via the “Wii-mote” for pointing and shooting, motion sensitivity for acceleration and movement in both handsets, lights to tell you which player you are and even built-in mini speakers for hand-set related effects (gun discharges, tennis rackets and so on). The “Wii-mote” even knows which way up you are holding it.
Many gaming prophets laud the coming of the Wii as the dawning of Total Immersion Gaming, others hold their wired controllers close to their chests and complain at the rise of “Casual gaming.” What is clear however, is that in the gaming ascent of man, we might not yet be standing upright… but we have come a very long way.
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