Under the Thumb: the Evolution of Buttons

By Kotaku on at

By Alan Wen

I’ve been delighted with Nintendo Switch, not just because Breath of the Wild is probably now my favourite game ever, but because the Joy-Cons really make the hardware feel special. Even more so if you were fortunate to get hold of the neon red and blue version. It may be because no other controller has ever had so much versatility, either for a single player or for the instant sideways turn into two stand-alone controllers.

It shakes up a lot of other controller preconceptions, too, and in doing so made me think about all the controllers I have used. How over time that knowledge of where to move your thumb is accumulated, learning the minor language of game controllers and how different platform-holders speak through their work.

In their January presentation, Nintendo described Switch as a culmination of their whole history of hardware. It is, but even more than that it's worth seeing in the history of game controllers as a whole - Nintendo has very often been an innovator, but many other great minds lie behind the kind of controllers we use today.

Before Buttons

Movement was all that mattered for the very first video games.

Released in 1972, the Magnavox Odyssey was the world’s first home gaming console, which came with a variety of game cards all set up to play different kinds of games: in execution, however, gameplay for each involved moving a white square on the TV vertically or horizontally to play. image09

The Odyssey had knobs on the side of its box-like controller, with one to move horizontally and the other vertically. Atari's later Pong (which bears no real relation to the Odyssey's Tennis for Two) simplified this further, because you only had to move the paddle up or down. The real importance of this was that two control knobs could then be used for multiplayer.

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Buttons appeared with the second generation of consoles, albeit deriving from other existing technologies such as keyboards and keypads. The most popular controller of the time was Atari’s joystick created for the 2600 console in 1977. Of course, the phallic joystick wasn’t a new idea, but adopted from the principal method of control in aviation since the early 20th century.

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More irksome was be that the 2600 joystick only had one game input button (it had four other control buttons which only affected the console), which meant that the only solution to play a game requiring anything more complex was to use two joysticks.

Joy has a Face

Enter Nintendo in 1983 with the Famicom in Japan, later making its way to the West in 1985 as the NES. With the East injecting new life into the console landscape after the Atari crash, the NES also marked the start of gaming controllers as we know them, including the patented d-pad on the left (even though the NES wasn’t the first Nintendo product to use the d-pad, nor was the d-pad necessarily the first example of this idea - see Entex's 'Selecte A Game' cartridge system).

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Farewell knobs and joysticks, gaming finally had its own voice to communicate - face buttons. They also got unofficially coined as joypads for some time, a portmanteau of joystick and keypad.

Nintendo’s competitors would follow this same kind of layout for their 8-bit consoles, including Sega’s Master System and NEC’s PC Engine, released in the West as the TurboGrafx-16.

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However, because of Nintendo’s patent, you’ll notice how each company had a different design for their own directional buttons. Naming the face buttons on the right with numbers instead of letters was a way to try and differentiate for SEGA, which TurboGrafx followed in its own manner by using roman numerals.

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Not that differentiation did much for their fortunes. Nintendo didn’t just completely dominate the 8-bit era, but letters for face buttons would become its own trend. Not much of a surprise once you look at the competition, perhaps - sometimes there’s a reason why things are best forgotten.

A Numbers Game

Numbers would take priority in other ways, namely in increasing hardware power, from 8-bit to 16-bit to 32-bit, with the number of buttons of each controller increasing in parallel. Following from the NES’s two buttons, Sega added a third for the Mega Drive, somewhat ironic when you consider its killer title Sonic the Hedgehog used all three for the exact same action. One easily-missed detail that has become the norm is that this pad was the first time the name of the button was actually imprinted on the object itself, previous buttons being either blank like the 2600’s single red button or labelled above or below it.

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Nevertheless, this three-button configuration suddenly looked inadequate when the SNES released with not just four face buttons but introduced shoulder buttons. This came to matter once Street Fighter II arrived on the scene. Any Mega Drive owners who couldn’t afford the six-button pad had to make do with pressing the start button to alternate punches and kicks, and over two decades later I still feel their pain.

By the time Sega launched the Saturn they'd made six face buttons their new standard, perhaps in the belief that more 2D fighting games were the future. That would just be one of its many mistakes in the 32-bit era.

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Diamond in the rough

But let’s pause for a moment on the SNES pad. Apart from injecting colour into its buttons (which the poor folks Stateside didn't get, for some reason), the arrangement of the four face buttons in a diamond formation would become the console standard we’re familiar with today.

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Though not for Nintendo. Ever the innovators, Nintendo would continue to rework their controller design and layouts with each new hardware entry, from the three-pronged N64 controller and its analogue thumb stick to the Wii’s motion controls.

The diamond formation is beautiful visual design: the buttons are grouped into pairs, and the 'main' button positions parallel the central pair of start and select buttons. Also noticeable is how the 'new' buttons do not carry on the NES alphabet but start at the back with X and Y, something that Sega also copied with its later six-button designs for the Mega Drive and the Saturn. No idea why it's X & Y rather than Y & Z though.

Although the abysmal performance of the Saturn left SEGA in dire straits, the Dreamcast was a colourful and optimistic affair and took its visual cues from the SNES: four face buttons distinguished with primary colours, although it goes one further and actually arranges the buttons in the square diamond formation that is just ever-so-slightly avoided on the SNES pad.

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The dream may died, but this design would live on in surprising ways - more on which later.

The New Language of Play

Of course, we can’t forget the console that revolutionised the image of video games. First released in 1994, Sony’s Playstation wasn’t just about bringing cutting-edge 3D graphics to home consoles, but it arrived boldly with its own unique, abstract language. No more numerals, and letters were relegated to the shoulder buttons: now we were playing with symbols.

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Square, Triangle, Cross and Circle were an inspired idea: shapes everyone already knows and will therefore find easy to remember. And unlike the alphabet, no one would think to do the same - they remain unique to Playstation.

The actual meaning behind the symbols is somewhat irrelevant - for the many millions whose first experience of gaming was a Playstation and perhaps never moved to another platform, this was simply the new lingua franca.

Not that it stopped Microsoft entering the console market with the Xbox in 2001. It wouldn’t try to reinvent anything but just do what Americans do best - make it bigger.

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Nicknamed the Duke, the original Xbox controller still resembles nothing so much as a Dreamcast controller on steroids, its hulking logo dominating the centre where the VMU would’ve been, its left analogue stick positioned in the top left and everything topped-off by those analogue triggers. The big difference was the inclusion of a right analog stick, which it took from the original Dualshock, but its more original attempts to differentiate had mixed results: the uncomfortable oval shells for face buttons, with an equally awkward parallel slant to the right. The less said about those ivory and ebony buttons, horrific to use, the better.

Heeding the criticism, a smaller controller was released - this was initially just for the Japanese market, but eventually became the standard in the West. While moving the ivory and ebony to another location was hardly an improvement, one thing you’ll notice is the return of the diamond formation for the principal face buttons, which Microsoft were wise to retain over their later hardware generations.

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You might have noticed that the Playstation controller, even in its early pre-DualShock iteration already had the symmetrical design set in stone, a diamond formation for its symbol face buttons but also for the individual directional buttons. While the buttons sizes are different, if you look closely, the Greek cross-shaped indent for the buttons is exactly the same size, so you could in theory swap them around and they’d still fit perfectly on either side. In fact, these indents lasted in the controller design all the way until the PS3 iteration.

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In any case, third party developers working on both platforms could now rest easy. Multi-format games could now to a large extent share the same control setup without compromise, unlike in previous generations. Say goodbye to the Street Fighter dilemma that three-button Mega Drive owners faced, adios to Dreamcast owners playing Quake 3 Arena with one analogue stick. Twin sticks, twin triggers and - when Microsoft ditched ebony and ivory in time for the 360 - twin bumpers would all become the standard, and for understandable reasons. The diamond formed by face buttons comes to symbolise this new commonality between platforms.

Even wacky Nintendo would eventually come around to re-embracing their own design, albeit initially only on handhelds. The unique selling point of the DS was the touchscreen play delivered via its second screen, not on traditional buttons. But you can’t miss that diamond on the right.

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By the time Nintendo was trying to win back its core gaming audience, you can see they adopted a button configuration that had now been established as an industry standard.

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Laying the three controllers side by side shows obvious differences in layout and aesthetics, with the Wii U’s bulky gamepad standing out for all the wrong reasons, but there’s no missing that repeating diamond pattern. Developers were now working with three consoles that more or less shared controller inputs.

Language Barriers

That’s only in theory, however. Let’s start with the problem of the X button.

The Xbox controller has a button with the letter 'X' while the Playstation controller has a 'Cross' button, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking the two - unbelievably, both are also coloured blue. What makes this a problem is they're located on a different side of the diamond, with Cross being the bottom button of the Playstation controller, while on Xbox it’s on the left. Cue a lot of mental realigning when prompted by onscreen commands (or worse, a QTE) to press X and trying to remember which console you’re playing on.

The Playstation symbols also have their own unique cultural differences with the cross and circle buttons. In East Asian countries the O mark (known as Marujurishu in Japan) is used to represent affirmation, equivalent to checkmarks used in the West, while X is used to indicate something is wrong. This is why for Playstation games released in Japan the confirmation or action button is always Circle, while Cross is always for cancelling or going back.

Problem is, this is the complete reverse for games released in the West, where we’re used to being told to press X (or A for Xbox owners) to interact and Circle to cancel.

See this menu for Nier: Automata, which also features multi-language support regardless of region. Despite everything appearing in English, how can you tell that it’s taken from the Japanese copy?

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Western gamers are more used to using the bottom button for confirmation (X marks the spot!) although you’ll find it’s also often the same button mapped for jumping, which explains why many Western players of Final Fantasy XV encountered this problem whereas Japanese players didn’t.

Then of course there’s Nintendo, who since introducing the NES controller, have always alphabetised their face buttons from right-to-left, a nightmare for any Xbox owner where face buttons are alphabetised left-to-right in the ‘correct’ way.

There’s no official reason for this but there are two theories: first, that having the letters right-to-left are due to Nintendo being a Japanese company, since Japanese is conventionally read from right to left. When you look at the Japanese-made PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 with their roman numerals also right to left, it might make sense. That however doesn’t explain how American company Atari, with their final console effort the Jaguar, had also arranged their ABC buttons in this same fashion. There’s also the fact that Japanese text may be read right-to-left but the text is written vertically.

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More likely is that it made sense when the NES only had two face buttons, where A is considered the primary button because it’s nearest to the edge of the controller, therefore easiest to reach for the player’s right thumb, making B the secondary button. When there was a need for controllers with more buttons, Nintendo just stuck with the order for consistency's sake.

It would also explain why Nintendo didn’t simply move onto the letter C, because rather than creating tertiary (or quaternary) buttons, it would make more sense to refer to them as two pairs of primary and secondary buttons.

Yet regardless of the order of the letters, whether you’re playing on a Nintendo or Xbox system, A has always been the button for interacting and confirming, whilst B is always for cancelling. It’s here that Nintendo players share a surprising affinity with Japanese Playstation owners, as their A and B buttons are mapped on the same sides of the diamond as Circle and Cross.

The Joy Returns

We've seen how console controllers have been standardised, although sadly there's no room to go over the vast array of thirdparty controllers and less-successful console offerings that, in some cases, have made their own minor contributions. The success of the current configurations is perhaps best-seen in the fact that the Xbox controller has essentially become the default PC gamepad. Let’s come full circle with the release of the Switch.

Those of us who were following the rumours closely when it was still known as the NX would have already been aware of the plans for the console to have detachable controllers, which could then be turned into two controllers for multiplayer. It sounded like a neat idea, but the speculative diagrams raised questions of just how could that be executed. After all, how could you make the d-pad work like normal buttons?

image19Dubbed Joy-Con - a callback to the joysticks and joypads of old, and perhaps with the same suggestiveness, especially for anyone who’s experienced 1-2 Switch - having instant local multiplayer action, or ‘sharing the Joy’, is as simple as just turning each controller on its side and then passing one along.

The d-pad, so iconic of Nintendo’s past, is no more but in its place are four individual face buttons, much like the Playstation’s directional buttons. Is that such a loss? Probably not, as most gamers will already be familiar with using their directional buttons for a variety of other uses in games that don’t involve movement, so why not?

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You do however have to contend with the fact that once turned horizontal, the order of the buttons have changed. How exactly do you get around the fact that the lettered buttons have to have the same actions as the directional buttons or that ABXY aren’t where they normally are anymore? You don't, because something has remained constant. The diamond.

Just take a look at Switch launch games Shovel Knight, Snipperclips and Super Bomberman R. Instead of prompting a button name, they simply use a diamond graphic and highlight one of the sides.

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It may alarm players used to seeing a letter, but in that sense, it’s not so much different than when people wondered how to articulate which symbol to press on the Playstation controller.

It’s true that the above examples are games that are likely to be played for multiplayer but even for a single-player adventure like Breath of the Wild, it’s worth noting that your command prompts show you the whole diamond formation, highlighting which button you need to press.

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It may seem alien to gamers who have learned the place of buttons over the years but, for the new player, doesn't it make a lot more sense?

It's a funny place to end up. We've gone through how all these designs have influenced one another, differentiated from one another, and advanced alongside one another. Now, Nintendo refines even further - playing on simple pattern recognition, rather than any assumed knowledge.

That's Nintendo, of course, and Switch doesn't mean we’re likely to see Scorpio arriving with nameless buttons. Nor can I see Sony retiring their trademark Playstation symbols anytime soon. But whatever the future holds, there is one language every platform-holder and game developer now agrees on: diamonds are forever.

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