switching up the controls, from atari to nintendo switch


I sat down with a self-professed “retro gamer” one rainy evening, and we played Pac-Man and Frogger on an Atari connected to an old TV. The difference was that this Atari was set up a little differently, connected to aluminum foil wrapped around a brick in a makeshift d-pad and around a tennis ball for the shooting buttons, all of which you controlled with foil-tipped gloves.

These DIY controls made the familiar games challenging, and I felt like I was using a different part of my brain altogether to figure out how to play a game that I already knew. What was the best way to tap the direction on the brick, with two hands or with one, using which fingers? Do you hold the brick, set it in your lap, or leave it on the table? How would you rotate the tennis ball while controlling movement?

Changing up the controls to something unfamiliar gave Pac-Man and Frogger new life, and made them into new games because of the new challenge of the modified interface. By re-configuring the controls, we had taken something familiar and just changed one variable to make it exciting. It wasn’t overwhelmingly difficult because we understood the game, and didn’t have to figure anything out besides the new controls. And yet, it was remarkably fun because of the change.

This made me wonder why there aren’t constantly alternative controllers on the market. Certainly on one extreme are the games found at alt.ctrl.GDC1 featuring different control schemes, such as a cardboard box you sit in that serves as the spaceship in SpaceBox, or the sand box used in Sand Garden to pile layers of sand to affect heights of terrain in a game map.

Most of these weird games are made in small teams, in game jams or at game design college, where commercialisation of the game itself is not a focus. While these are cool to play with once, two obvious reasons innovative controls do not make it to the mass market, is that they are:

  1. Impractical and therefore costly – Most of these controls were large, like the bookshelf in Cryptogram in which you pulled on actual books to unlock doors. Controls like these, while fun, are impractical and expensive to create, and not suited for mass production.
  2. Unique specifically to one game – The customisation of the controls made them only usable for one game, such as Close the Leaks, where you had to work with friends to stop air leaks and steer a ship by placing your hands over tubes blowing actual air. Most wacky controllers are suited to one game, or at most, one genre of games, giving them limited scope.

Arcades and museums of the future need to feature alternative controllers.

Based on these observations, it’s clear to me that alternative controls belong in location-based entertainment. Think about using the sand box from Sand Garden to learn about wind patterns and physics in a museum setting, or going to an arcade with friends to play multiplayer cooperative games like Close the Leaks. Developing more polished alternative control games and experiences can bring back interest and drive renewed attendance at museums, and usher in a whole new type of arcade more suited to our technological landscape.

Innovation and the Nintendo Switch

The newly released Nintendo Switch features both docked and portable gaming capabilities.

As for the future of innovative control systems that are available for purchase, I would be amiss if I didn’t talk about the Nintendo Switch. Commercially available at the beginning of March, it had my friends scrambling to get one along with a copy of the new Zelda game, Breath of the Wild (pairing a familiar game with a new console, changing only one variable, seems to be a good strategy). The successor to the Wii U, which was released more than four years ago, the Switch’s biggest selling point is that it can be used as a home console system while docked or as a handheld portable system while undocked. This sounds like a unique new feature for a control system, but I would argue that it is not. Allowing the Switch to be used both at home and on the go is not the development of a new system, but an augmentation of an old one, simply adding functionality instead of coming up with a new way of interaction.

Don’t get me wrong, Nintendo has never been one to shy away from innovation in game controls. Just take a look at the variety in its progression of home console systems, compared to other competitors like Sony and its PlayStation:

Nintendo controllers through the years show variety and experimentation.

Sony PlayStation controllers through the years are all remarkably similar.

The success of the Wii, released in 2006, is evidence that there is room for controller innovation, and when done well, this can pioneer new forms of gameplay. Compare it to any previous controller, and the Wii looks unlike it, works differently, and changes how games are played, which in turn allowed for innovation in game design for the controller. It opened up video gaming to a wide audience of gamers and non-gamers alike, allowing fathers to teach their sons how to play golf with actual golf moves in a virtual environment, wannabe teen bands to jam together on mimic instruments, and kids at slumber parties to show off their dance moves or drive using physical steering wheels in a game environment. With the Wii U, released in 2012, however, Nintendo reverted to a standard home console with the added feature of a screen on the controls, and sales flopped.

The Switch is repeating this pattern, adding a feature (portability) instead of innovating on what is important: the controls themselves. And the truth is, we’d rather have more new games than more new controllers, unless these controllers are vastly different (like the Wii) from previous ones. Innovating in gameplay, after all, is far more versatile and interesting, easier to test, and cheaper than creating new hardware with which to play the game. That said, the reason that having the major selling point of a system be its capabilities to work well at home and on the go is inadequate, is that Nintendo is trying to do too much with the Switch.

Nintendo’s Switch claims to do everything: home console gaming, portable handheld gaming, multiplayer by removing the “Joy-Cons” for separate players2, and upcoming virtual reality plans (for which Nintendo is still studying long-term VR usage)3. While the idea of versatility and one-size-fits-all with our controllers is appealing, it seldom works in real life, especially with appliances. Consider your kitchen: there are multiple ways to toast a piece of bread, and yet we don’t have one device that is a combined toaster, oven and stove. Similarly, one console for everything does not work because it will not be equally good at everything, and not equally well-suited to every player’s preferences.

I’d much rather have multiple devices that are exceptionally good at what they do, than one that is the catch-all for all kinds of gaming. While the Switch does not have me jumping for Joy-Cons, I have faith that Nintendo will innovate again like it did with the Wii and create a novel controller in the future that will open up gaming to new genres and new audiences. Until then, I’ll be over here making my own control systems with aluminum foil, and breathing new life into games I already know and love.

References Cited

  1. Philippa Warr. “Alt.Ctrl.GDC: a joyful celebration of brilliant controllers.” National Endowment for the Arts. National Endowment for the Arts, 8 March 2017. Web. 29 March 2017.
  2. Chaim Gartenberg. “The Nintendo Switch embraces local multiplayer, while competitors live online.” TL;DR. The Verge, 20 October 2016. Web. 29 March 2017.
  3. Samit Sarkar. “Nintendo ‘studying’ Switch VR support.” Polygon. Polygon, 1 February 2017. Web. 29 March 2017.

Additional References

  1. Dave Thier. “4 things the Nintendo Switch absolutely needs before it’s ready to sell.” Forbes. Forbes, 9 March 2017. Web. 29 March 2017.
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