Nigh Unplayable: A Brief History of Unwieldy Controls

By Alexander Chatziioannou on at

As far back as the dawn of video games in the early 1960s, when Steve Russell and the rest of the Tech Model Railroad Club at MIT were tinkering away on Spacewar!, the earliest game developers knew that simply firing missiles at a moving target was not a sufficiently compelling premise. The legendary proto-shooter's most interesting design decision emanated from a splotch of white light, the pulsating star at the centre of the PDP-1's archaic display. Vessels caught in that celestial body's gravity well would stop responding predictably to the game's already complex Newtonian controls – and could veer wildly off course, crash into its surface, or even, if handled by a particularly skilful or lucky captain, ride the well's crest for a boost of speed.

We tend to regard the controller, whatever form individual pieces of hardware take, as a transparent interface facilitating our communication with the machine, an uninterrupted means of translating our will into an avatar's movement on-screen. Which is fair enough: after all, it's quite hard to enjoy a game plagued by input delays, one that's overly sensitive or unresponsive, and those where basic actions seem mapped to the wrong buttons. Crisp, accurate controls are the cornerstone of companies like Platinum and Team Ninja, whose reputation rests primarily on their ability to eliminate the gap between player thought and character action and then, having granted you a perfectly calibrated arsenal and deprived you of all possible excuses, crank the difficulty up to 11. The further a game strays from these lofty ideals, the likelier it becomes that it will be criticised for being inaccurate, sloppy, or inconsistent. But what about those titles where imprecision and inconsistency are not the unhappy byproducts of a design failure, but deliberately implemented? What if unwieldy controls are what the game is about?

Lunar Lander

Most of us are aware of the coin-op version of Lunar Lander, but that was not the game's first iteration. In fact, as Benj Edwards convincingly demonstrates in his excellent retrospective, Lunar Lander was not really a game, it was a whole genre inspired by the minor July 1969 news piece about two guys taking a stroll on the Moon's surface. Starting out a few months later (in what is probably the oddest twist in the history of unwieldy controls) as a text-based fuel management game, Atari eventually spruced up the concept with swanky vector graphics and substituted physical controls for numbers: two buttons to rotate the ship and a lever to control thrust. Spacewar! messed around with its physics but was still a shooter at heart – in Lunar Lander there were no enemy ships to destroy or oncoming missiles to avoid, its core gameplay loop just a constant struggle with a nuanced control system against the forces of inertia and gravity that threatened to smash your fragile vessel onto the satellite's jagged crust.

Despite being warmly received, Lunar Lander was quickly superseded by Asteroids in a familiar industry narrative. Atari's management decided that an already awesome idea would be vastly improved by removing some of the complexity and adding a handful of space rocks for the player to blow up. Still, its influence remained in a number of physics based games, most prominently in Gravitar's sequel-of-sorts, Firebird's obvious homage in Thrust, and the staggeringly ambitious space adventure Exile, a forerunner of the metroidvania genre.


The inertia of the cosmic void was a relatively easy choice for designers seeking to experiment with realistic physics, but the trend wouldn't remain confined to a space setting. Driving games, hoping to convey more than just speed, began adopting advanced control systems to simulate a rider's precarious balance and the effects of terrain. Shaun Southern's Kikstart was arguably the first of the bunch in 1984, requiring the player to angle their vehicle and adjust their speed in order to navigate its cluttered stages, hopping between phone booth roofs, jumping over puddles, and tottering on wooden fences. Martech went a step further with Eddie Kidd's Jump Challenge which allowed you to control the rider's positioning independently of their bike, your weight affecting speed and handling as you attempted to jump over increasing numbers of cars and land safely on the opposite site of a ramp. Though it took more than two decades (and the advent of the twin stick controller) for the rider/vehicle controls to be perfected with RedLynx's brilliant Trials HD, the ideas of those early attempts were subsequently incorporated in various driving games like Codemasters' ATV Simulator and Konami's Motocross Maniacs.


Added realism and difficulty proved compelling for a certain subset of players but, naturally, there was a particular breed of sadistic developers that cared little for the former but relished the opportunity to inflict the latter. The specifics of broom-flying may still be the subject of intense scientific debate, but it's pretty safe to assume that Cauldron's extraordinary control scheme wasn't conceived with the aim of verisimilitude in mind. The witch's weirdly arched jump unfolded almost in slow motion, tending to plunge you into the abyss inside the game's various cave complexes, and was the least of the game's hurdles. Outside, flying was an even more treacherous process: taking off and landing required the player to stop all other movement and slowly descend or ascend vertically, lest they be propelled to oblivion by brushing against a neighbouring twig or grazing a small pebble. Though mercifully lacking from other versions, the smoother scrolling of the C64 turned inertia into a nightmare, painfully prolonging the time it took to turn around while in flight, all while hungry bats and grinning ghosts ate away at your energy.

The sequel was even 'worse', handing you control of its former antagonist, a sentient pumpkin whose barely controllable bounce was your only means of traversing a massive castle filled with enemies and inconveniently positioned obstacles. The nigh-uncontrollable bounce, seen also in Ultimate's Underwurlde, was another 80s idea whose aim was to score points for originality at the expense of accessibility (and player sanity). That particular trope reached its apogee with Wizball, an effort unique for its quality, which alleviated the movement woes by allowing gradual control of your strange archmage-cum-orb and framing it all as a psychedelic quest to restore colour to a black and white world.


Subsequent generations saw the impetus for experimentation significantly curtailed as conventions started to calcify. Risk-averse developers homed in on proven ideas and tried to offer increasingly improved iterations of more clearly delineated genres. While there were exceptions – like the visually impressive but maddening Zarch which preposterously tasked you with controlling your doorstop-shaped spaceship in a fully three-dimensional environment using the era's entirely unsuitable input methods – the overflow of originality, creativity, and sheer wackiness of the 8-bit generation was missing.

Things, however, started changing with a younger breed of bedroom coders and a newfound fascination with physics. The difference, however, between Lunar Lander and more recent oddities like Sexy Hiking or QWOP was that the latter aimed no longer at realism but at some sort of commentary. QWOP's impossible running has you control an athlete's calves and thighs separately, resulting in some hilarious contortions – adding insult to injury when, with every inch excruciatingly gained, Vangelis's triumphant Chariots of Fire theme starts to play. Jazzuo's Sexy Hiking, as well as the recent indie hit it inspired, Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, features a character trying to hurdle near-impassable obstacles, using a hammer to propel his body and grab onto awkwardly angled ledges. There are common underlying themes in all these efforts: the arbitrariness of videogame tasks, difficulty, repetition, and an exaggerated artificiality which exposes the notion of realistic physics as a sham.QWOP

Which is not to say that other developers have stopped trying to approximate real world movements and actions in increasingly creative and complex ways. Landing a spacefaring vessel is fairly worn-out as a premise by now, but one need not look at something as grand as interstellar travel for inspiration. Receiver takes the medium's most ubiquitous prop, a gun, and complicates its use to the point of requiring a reference card to perform basic functions like firing and reloading. With dedicated buttons for pulling back the hammer and extracting casings from the chamber, Receiver obsesses over the minutiae of shooting, dramatising the types of micro-actions that have been rendered invisible via automation throughout gaming history. It may be the product of a design philosophy that's radically different to the work of Jazzuo and Foddy, but there's a similar insight on offer here: in terms of video games, 'realism' should always come with inverted commas.


There is one last category of unwieldy games that, while not particularly interested in providing industry commentary, is happy to take the humour inherent in QWOP's absurd control scheme and transpose it onto more conventional structures. Octodad's domestic armageddon comes about as a result of having to control each of the cephalopod character's limbs (charitably reduced to four) via a different button or trigger. The fleshy spires in Mount Your Friends are built through a similarly awkward system. And Surgeon Simulator's grisly botches are almost inevitable, and the whole fun of it, because you're holding a scalpel in fingers that are each controlled individually.

Which all adds up to an intriguing turn for unwieldy controls. From Lunar Lander to Trials HD, the aim of unusual control schemes was traditionally to test your skill in environments where only near-perfect execution could avert catastrophe – basically, the video game equivalent of a disaster movie. This new breed retains the awkwardness but either eradicates or re-frames the risk, creating a new type of fun through unintended player action – whether that means whacking your doe-eyed daughter with a clumsy tentacle, or dropping an alarm clock inside a patient's gaping chest – that can only be called slapstick.