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Member since May 2011 · 2485 posts · Location: Brisbane
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Subject: Video Game Controllers
So I'm starting a new website.  It will deal exlusively with video game controllers and other interfaces.  This is something that's very important to anyone who plays games, and I think there's been a definite lack of useful analysis of these things we rely on to control our avatars in their virtual world.

They've been through a fascinating evolution, from the first prototypes until now.  The first arcade game, Computer Space, used only buttons.  The second, Magnavox's Odyssey, used a complicated 3-dial analogue 'paddle' controller.

We've come a long way: the Xbox 360 controller has no fewer than 15 digital buttons, six analogue controls, four lights, a keyboard module, headphone connector and cordless RF connectivity.

Between the extremes we've had all kinds of designs in our sweaty hands, and the trials of time have not been kind to them all.  Some of them were awesome, some of them sucked, and some of them were simply weird.

And I've used just about all of them!  First up: a review of the Atari 7800 Proline stick, and the Xbox 360 controller.

    So, look forward to my new madness, please.
BLEARGH
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Subject: Atari 7800 ProLine controller review
The Atari 7800 had, when designed, an unusually powerful graphics chip.  Or something, it doesn't matter anymore.  Atari, in a state of ownership flux as Warner sought to dump it and the ex-Commodore Tramiels tried to wring every penny from it, sat on the 7800 console for years before finally releasing it, outdated and outgunned against the NES. 

Along with this new-and-antiquated system they released the ProLine joystick.  A definite improvement over the Atari 5200 floppy analogue abomination, the ProLine was comfortable and accurate.  Comfortable, that is, if you liked hand cramps.  The base of the stick is long and narrow, far too narrow for most adult hands, and after a few minutes of playing your hand will cramp up crab-claw style.

[Image: http://nfggames.com/grafx/_cache/Controls/_thumbnails/Atari-ProLine.jpg]

Despite this, it's very accurate, with a subtle tactile response and a very short throw.  It feels comfortable for both left- and right-handed players, though both will need time to become acclimated to the crab-claw grip.  It's a great joystick for retro gaming Pac Man and other maze games like Dig Dug and Mr. Do, as it's one of the very few sticks with which you can play at full speed and never feel like the stick is causing more failure than your own lack of skill.  It sucks  at tap-tap motions however, as required in games like Flip and Flop or Frogger: it's too stiff. 

The fire buttons are also garbage: they wobble in their socket, have very little movement when pressed, and have almost no tactile response.  You mash and you mash and your thumb gets sore and your hand starts to cramp and you start thinking "Fuck, why do I like this stick again?"  And then you play PacMan, and it all becomes clear.

They should have called it the Atari Maze Game Stick.

--  Technical

The second fire button uses the same connector pin as the first, but uses a resistor so the console can tell which is pressed.  This is ignored on other Atari systems, and it responds like a one-button controller on the 2600, 800-series and the ST.  It completely freaks out the MegaST however, which suffers all kinds of weird, intermittent keyboard failures.

The mechanism is surprisingly solid, and it suffers an incredible amount of abuse.  It uses a metal shaft, and a metal half-sphere fulcrum in a plastic cup.  Interestingly, it uses the same switch mechanisms as the Atari 2600 stick: little metal mushrooms taped to a PCB.  Also strangely, the mushrooms are upside down, on the bottom of the PCB when the stick is held normally.

-- Strengths and Weaknesses

It's durable, you can bash the shit out of it and never worry.  It's light and, most of the time, comfortable.  It's not expensive, not rare, and with no encoder, very moddable.

pinout
BLEARGH
This post was edited on 2008-06-29, 21:32 by NFG.
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Member since May 2011 · 2485 posts · Location: Brisbane
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Subject: Microsoft Xbox 360 pad
The Xbox 360 pad is beautiful, with smooth curved lines and a gorgeous texture.  It feels awesome, it is instantly comfortable and does not promote any long term suffering: you're as happy four hours later as you were the instant you picked it up.  It's the most complicated, feature-packed and expandable controller ever bundled with a console.

What can't you do with this pad?  It has the world already, or you can add it later.  Fifteen buttons including the D-pad, six analogue axes, cordless RF as standard, battery operated with a plug-n-play corded option, a plug-in headset and even a tiny keyboard option.  It's got four lights, translucent buttons, knives, sharp sticks...  Sonic, electronic ball breakers!

[Image: http://nfggames.com/grafx/_cache/Controls/_thumbnails/360-pad%201.jpg]

But it's a flawed beauty.

It's like buying a car that's perfect in every way.  Reasonably priced, the perfect colour, fast, comfortable, but every time you turn left the steering wheel falls off.  That fatal flaw, the thing that will see you killed every damned time you use it, is the Xbox 360 D-pad.

That little circular thing, that four-button directional device that everyone else has been getting right for over fifteen years, that simple piece of plastic, is terrible. 

[Image: http://nfggames.com/grafx/_cache/Controls/_thumbnails/360-pad%202.jpg]

It's not as if Microsoft had to invent the damned thing on their own.  We've been using d-pads since Nintendo invented them for their Game & Watch portables in 1980.  No one misunderstands their use or their manufacture, and after 18 years of history, it's unforgivable that Microsoft got this one so wrong.  The failure is more egregious because the rest of the pad is so good.

The rest of the pad is a perfect culmination of some forty years of console gaming.  The d-pad is the worst pack-in controller since the 3DO, which was so bad people used to remove the screws halfway just to make it kind of playable.

The Xbox 360 d-pad is execrable.  It ruins everything.  It's not as if it's uncomfortable, it just plain doesn't work!  Try and play a game of PacMan CE with it, and you'll soon be re-plastering the Xbox 360 pad-shaped holes in your wall.

I've had four of these and they all sucked, it's just a shitty design: sloppy and inaccurate.  The first one I had, which I admit may have been defective (moreso, I mean), wouldn't go up if you pressed down first, or down if you pressed up first.  The rest of them have at least gotten this right, but you still can't accurately hit a compass point to save your life: There's no appreciable tactile difference between left, left and up, or left and down.  You're as likely to hit one as the other, and you can't tell the difference except that some smug-looking ghost has eaten your fucking Pac Man when you pressed ZIG and he fucking ZAGGED.

Fuck this thing, it's worthless for 2D gaming.  It's not even good for menus, and I can't imagine a less demanding thing in the world. If you try to move quickly through the Xbox 360 dash you never know where your cursor will go.

If you don't need the D-pad, the rest of the 360 pad is brilliant.  Fucking thumbs up.

[Image: http://nfggames.com/grafx/_cache/Controls/_thumbnails/360-buttons%201.jpg]

-- Technical

There's a hidden screw under the barcode sticker.  The cordless unit uses a security-torx screw, but the corded unit has regular Philips screws. 

While hacking the pad to skip around the d-pad problem I found that the cordless pad has a very moddable d-pad, with a single common for the whole pad.  The corded pad does not have this luxury.

The corded pad is a regular USB pad, mostly.  It's not HID compliant so Windows will want a special driver, but these are freely available.  There's a dongle to use the RF pads on the PC.
BLEARGH
This post was edited on 2008-06-25, 23:06 by NFG.
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Member since May 2011 · 2485 posts · Location: Brisbane
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Here's a little something I whipped up a while back that'll probably find a home on the new controller site.

Anatomy of a Joystick
BLEARGH
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Some interesting patents I found today:

Nintendo Wii Nunchuk
Nintendo Wii gun attachment
Nintendo portable touch-screen system - the DS, obviously.  Interesting image.
rotation-sensing cartridge for GBA - used in Yoshi Topsy Turvy, and others I think.
Too much detail on the Wiimote expansion plug
The Wiimote

While not strictly a controller, these are interesting:
UV-sensing GBA cartridge, likely used for Konami's Boktai RPG.
The GameBoy Micro
BLEARGH
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Member since May 2011 · 2485 posts · Location: Brisbane
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Three things:

1. This post is mostly a holding area for new site content, hence the randomness of it all.

2. I re-worked the ProLine review above to be a little less positive, and it now includes the following paragraph that I'm really proud of:

The fire buttons are also garbage: they wobble in their socket, have very little movement when pressed, and have almost no tactile response.  You mash and you mash and your thumb gets sore and your hand starts to cramp and you start thinking "Fuck, why do I like this stick again?"  And then you play PacMan, and it all becomes clear.

3. I just had an interesting discussion about controller cords and I figured it'd be the next topic of discussion. =)

Controller Cords
Nintendo's Classic Controller for the Wii is a remarkable little thing, with oodles of buttons jammed into a very small pad, and shockingly, a controller cord that comes out the bottom instead of the top.  That's right, Nintendo's committed the grievous sin of having a cord that isn't where it should be!

Shockingly there has been none of the outcry that met Sega's Dreamcast controller when it was released with the same configuration.  I had always suspected it was Sony or Nintendo fanboys who cried the loudest when Sega's pad moved the cord, but now - long after those passions have cooled - some people still maintain it was a terrible decision for Sega.  And yet these same people are either unaware or apathetic about Nintendo's identical design choice.  Those who have it pointed out to them suddenly think it's a bad idea, but not as bad as when Sega did it.  It's weird, but I have a theory:

It seems to me that the cord is a security blanket for gamers.  Since day one the cord has been coming out of the top centre, or near enough to it, that having it appear somewhere else is jarring.  It's just not right.

Except that it's not really that new either.  At least two mainstream console systems had cords that came out of different places: Nintendo's Famicom (the Japanese NES) and Sega's SG-1000 ][, a precursor to the Master System. 

Nintendo's Famicom pads had a cord coming out of both sides: the left on the 1P pad, the right on 2P.  This allowed both pads to be slotted into the sides of the system with the cord coming out the back.  Sega's solution was simpler: both cords came out the right side, and when slotted, one was placed upside down.

I wonder if the haters whinged about the issue then as now.

Note: make some pics!
BLEARGH
This post was edited on 2008-06-29, 23:11 by NFG.
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Subject: Speaking of D-pads...
Two controllers that do not get enough love are the Dreamcast and Gamecube.  While very few people would argue the Dreamcast pad is much better than 'functional', the Gamecube pad is - in my opinion - sublime.  It's very well constructed, has a unique and thoughtful layout, and fantastic tactile response.

Most of the complaints focus on the d-pad, which is very tiny.  It is identical, however, to the GameBoy Advance pad, and only about 0.3mm smaller than the DS pad.  Neither of these garners the same range of complaint as the GameCube pad...  I wonder if the whingers realize this?

[Image: http://nfggames.com/grafx/Controls/dpads-GBA-GC-DS.jpg]
BLEARGH
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I concur on the Gamecube pad - particularly the face buttons are a supreme stroke of ergonomy, what with being not only recognisable by position but also by shape and size. This makes the pad extremely easy to use even for someone who's never held a gamepad. They see the icon on the screen, and instead of having to search for the matching button on the pad they just glance at it and can see where it is.

The reason the dpad gets flak, I think, is that while its size is more than adequate for a portable, it is tiny compared to most other fullsize gamepad d-pads. On the other hand, it is in a secondary position, and as such was likely never intended as a primary input device. It works perfectly fine for secondary functions such as switching visors in Metroid Prime or switching weapons in other FPSes.

As for the Dreamcast pad, while I like the analog stick, the gamepad and the triggers in general, my hands are completely the wrong size for it. Not a single one of the elements is in a position that's comfortable for me, and the springs on the triggers are too strong for my comfort as well. As superior as the DC version of Crazy Taxi is to the PS2 port, I am unable to play it for more than a half hour without my hands starting to hurt. :(

[edit] I should also note that the official Gamecube pad is just barely big enough for my hands, much like the Xbox S controller is just barely not too big. The Wavebird's slight extra bulk makes it perfect, aside from Sixaxis Syndrome :( [/edit]
"Hell is a pretty rotten place. Not only is it damn hot, but its inhabitants also have a rather deranged sense of humour." (R. Karsmakers)
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You're absolutely right:  The GC d-pad is a secondary input device.  I never really minded it 'cause I was smart enough to buy a frickin' Hori pad, wasn't I?  When I needed a decent d-pad, I bought the right tool for the job!  I've little sympathy for people who bash a great controller with blanket statements when they mean to say 'the d-pad is crap'.

Besides, keeping it in perspective, the GC dpad isn't crap, it's just small.  The 360 d-pad is crap.

The GC pad is too much like the virtual boy, with narrow handles, but I have no problems using it with my massive slab hands.  The triggers are great, the buttons very well done (as you noted), and I love the 8-way gate on the analogue sticks.  I think the only thing I don't like about it is the superfluous, asymmetrical Z button.  WTF is that about?
BLEARGH
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Ultra-secondary input. Works great for e.g. in-game maps or as a Menu button (Zelda, Metroid). And having only one of them on the pad again means that it's easy to find from any reference in the game.
"Hell is a pretty rotten place. Not only is it damn hot, but its inhabitants also have a rather deranged sense of humour." (R. Karsmakers)
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As part of the site I've been thinking about a way to codify the types of motions a controller might be expected to perform.  While one controller might be awesome for Street Fighter, it might completely suck at a game like PacMan.  Can the set of motions be reduced to a small enough number to be useful?  Let's try:

TapTap
Like Boulder Dash or Magical Drop or Flip n Flip: rapid tap/release motions require speed, accuracy and a specific amount of movement and release response.

Maze
PacMan or DigDug or Mr. Do: very precise 4-way directional control.  Exceptional precision is required, lest the compass points drift into diagonals and cost you a life.

Fighter
Fighting games.  Lots of accurate quarter- and half-circles.  Generally a lot of movement is required, so sticks or larger pads are beneficial.

Shooter
Shooting games (not the 3D type) like Raiden.  Accuracy and release-response are critical.  I find a large amount of movement helps: sticks are better than pads. 

Are there other types of note?  Maybe fighters and shooters are the same in this respect...  Or am I coming at this the wrong way?  How about the components:

release response - how fast a controller returns to center
accuracy under pressure - likelihood undesired input

Actually, that second is really the whole thing, isn't it?  I think that's too narrowly defined.

Thoughts?
BLEARGH
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Did you want to cover ease of combo buttons? It's no good to make A+B+C a special attack if you can't hit them all at the same time no matter how many fingers you have resting on the pad surface.
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You're right, kendrick.  I was thinking of the directional inputs only, but buttons are important.

Accessibility:
Can you reach all the buttons easily, or do you have to stretch for them?

Response:
Are the buttons punchy, or sluggish?  The Jaguar had terribly unresponsive buttons, the Saturn aced this criteria.

Or am I describing the physical characteristics, not the suitability like I was above?  I think with buttons there are no buttons that are unsuitable to a game-type, except for things like fighting games on a pad with four face buttons...
BLEARGH
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