Monday, November 10, 2008

Gunpei Yokoi's Super Wonder Cross! Part 1

Alas, this section of this long blog, article, thing, does not actually so much as MENTION Gunpei Yokoi.  But the subsequent section (I think I can keep this down to two posts) does.  So...

If you were an uncoordinated youngster in the early 1980s, and if, despite being so young and so uncoordinated, you happened to be playing an Atari 2600 in those days, you may very well remember the following logic problem:

What was a poor child to do?  When you're three, there's no obviously correct angle at which to hold that joystick.  In retrospect, I am aware of the fact that (these days) almost every video game controller has a wire coming out from the top, and I can also appreciate Atari's effort in putting the "top" marking at the controller's "top," but that lettering was never recognizable as text to me as a young child; it just looked to me like all the other non-text markings around the joystick's circumference.  And regardless, at three, I was still pre-literate.  It wasn't until a year or two later that I would sort things out once and for all and realize how clear it all was.  Combat made so much more sense when you never lost track of which direction was up.

A year or so after that, though, I was through with Atari for a while.  That Christmas (we're talking about 1987, now) was the Christmas of Nintendo.  At least for me.  And it was just the right Christmas to receive a Nintendo:  The Legend of Zelda had been released in America, and so for the first time I was able to play Zelda and Super Mario Bros., the two games that would form the backbone of my gaming life.

But this isn't about that.  This is about the D-pad:  its earliest history, its implementation in the third generation of home video game consoles, and its nearly 13-year reign (quite long in video game years) as the standard in console controllers.  I will discuss the D-pad ... wait, I see you're confused.  The D-pad is the plus sign-shaped thing.  Yeah.  Okay, then.  Anyway, I will discuss the D-pad, and you will wonder, "Why are you wasting my time with this, Gaj?  And yet, how is it this is so ... mesmerizing?  I can't seem to pull myself away ..."  I will have no response.  It is what it is.

The original forerunner of the D-pad, as far as I can tell, is the controller for the never-released Atari Game Brain (1976-1976, RIP).  As seen in the picture,

this didn't feature a joystick; it had a set of four cross-oriented buttons with a symbol in the middle telling you that these buttons controlled direction.  Well, hopefully that would be the message you'd get; I could also imagine someone understanding that marking to mean, "There are buttons here, here, here, and here."

Anyway, the system was never released.  Boo hoo.  It would have had a grand total of ten games, seven of which were slated to be, according to Wikipedia, Pong, Super Pong, Ultra Pong, Super Pong Pro-Am, Super Pong Pro-Am 10, Super Pong 10, and Ultra Pong Doubles.  The console was a "clever" way of pawning off the CPUs from unsold dedicated consoles, which is to say, consoles that were built for a single glorious purpose:  running Pong.  Or Ultra Pong.  And so on.


You'd take these CPUs -- the same goddamn boards that comprised all the circuitry of other more (shall we say) specific consoles -- and you'd stick them in the proper place on the console, and you'd be off!

Yes, this means that the Game Brain was no more than a couple of (immovable) controllers and a slot.  Yes, this means that "Game Brain" was a horrendously inaccurate name for the thing.

And yes, it DID take them that long (one more year, to be precise) to realize that the wave of the future was to put the processing unit in the console itself rather than in the games.  It seems so obvious now!  Of course, every Metal Gear Solid 4 disc is infested with nanomachines, each of which has its own tiny CPU, but this is not the norm.  Only games designed by the la li lu le lo are like that.

Buying this system would probably have been the same bittersweet sort of experience you've had if you've ever bought an iPod.  I theorize that every iPod owner ever has bought his or her iPod approximately five days before Apple's rolled out the next generation.  It's wonderful to know that we're making progress, and iPods can now play music for an additional four hours on a single battery charge, or they now come with a touch-screen or whatever, but it does suck to be one of the last poor schmucks ever to pay for the (just now) last-gen model.  Ugh.

But enough about the Lame Brain (zing!).  Another obscure system, this one a portable, did something similar.  This was the Microvision by Milton Bradley (1979).  Because the Microvision was basically a screen with a set of buttons that would be used a different way for each individual game, this one included little inserts that, when placed into the system with the corresponding game, would show the player what buttons to push to accomplish game actions.  Look at this picture:

See the arrows?  Those are directional controls.  So here we have a diamond-shaped collection of four buttons (a la Game Brain) made to look like a single unit through the magic of controller overlays.  Controller overlays are basically thin plastic sheets that fit over the buttons that control the game, and you push down (usually HARD) on the command you want to use.  Sounds clever, I guess, BUT, if you've ever played old games with one of these controller overlays...let's see, one of the tragic misfires of this sort that I remember was the Atari Kids' Controller:

Twelve buttons of kid-confusing mayhem.  Seriously, can you imagine being a small child and trying to play video games designed for a controller as complex as a telephone?  The big difference being that telephones dial the number you press; video games translate your button-pressing into commands, most of which have a pretty obscure connection to the button you've pressed.  The overlay was there to help you along, but this was still a bit much to process for a little kid, who was, after all, presumably the target audience for the Atari Kids' Controller.

But that's not really to do with the Microvision.  The OTHER problem with these plastic overlay things is that they usually make button-pushing a sluggish, unresponsive process.  This isn't such a big deal if you're pressing an action button (perhaps), but when you're talking about moving around in a game?  Forget it.  Which brings me back (sorry) to the Atari Kids' Controller:  this controller was designed specifically to go with games based on Sesame Street characters, one of which was Big Bird's Egg Catch.  This particular title was sort of a Breakout ripoff, the problem being that Breakout itself used a dial-based paddle controller that allowed for far quicker and more precise control than the 2600 joystick (see first picture) could provide.  I used to take the overlays off altogether and try to memorize the right buttons.

I hated Big Bird's Egg Catch so much, and since I was three or four at the time, I didn't realize that some games were just poorly designed--I thought the problem was me.

In short, overlays were absolute bullshit that sucked all the fun out of video games.  These early directional button designs were something of a step forward, I'll allow that.  Joysticks were somewhat excessive in a home system.  Granted, joysticks were sort of the standard, since they'd been adapted from airplane cockpits and, OMG, Nazi missile guidance controls (I really am not making this up).  They made sense in an arcade cabinet, where there was, after all, a whole arcade cabinet to keep the base of the joystick from moving around, but there was something distinctly awkward about going home and holding this square base in one hand and sort of making an awkward thumb-reach to push the orange button while tilting a stick in various directions with the other hand.  It was a little like using a handheld mortar and pestle, really.  But that's for cooking or chemistry, not video games.

The next major evolution in directional controls came in the form of Mattel's Intellivision (1979).  Intellivision controllers were, unlike the Atari Game Brain's but like the Atari 2600's, separated from the console and connected to it by a thin cable.

The difference between the 2600 and the Intellivision was that the latter had an innovative disc-shaped thumbpad (the "Directional Disk", as it was officially designated).  

The pad tilted in the desired direction when the user pressed on it, and it provided a total of sixteen possible directions of input.  This allowed for much better control precision than previous game controllers, including, especially, the 2600's joystick (which allowed for, I think, eight directions of movement).

However, the Directional Disk was not, perhaps, the ideal controller for the second generation of consoles, nor was it flawlessly designed.  Remember that we're talking about a time when Space Invaders was huge:  games like, say, Super Mario 64—games that actually needed precision radial control—were still about 15 years away, and so, while appreciated, the sixteen possible directions of control were a little excessive.  Some of the most popular games of the era were Space Invaders, which needed two directions of movement, Asteroids and Combat, which needed four directions each, and the as-yet unreleased (!) Pac-Man, which also needed four.  Games with cursors/avatars that were more free-roaming, like Centipede or Missile Command, benefited from the trackballs built into their arcade versions, but whether home console controllers offered eight or sixteen directions of movement, the real problem was the loss of speed that came with the switch from the trackball design.

Aside from the fact that the sixteen-direction control was unnecessary, the Intellivision's disc was, frankly, crap.  A user's expertise with the disc was the product of practice, practice, practice.  Without any way to tell by feel which way your thumb was pressing the disc, you had to work up a kind of muscle memory that would allow you accurately to press up, down, left, right, up/right, up/left, up/more left, more up/right, etc.  Even then, the disc was not particularly responsive and seemed, mysteriously, to misunderstand your disc-presses quite frequently.  The technology wasn't just unnecessary for the time, it was also kind of useless.

What made things even worse was the overall design of the controller:  the Intellivision controller was another overlay design with twelve buttons, much like the Atari Kids' Controller, except that these buttons were tiny.  This made them harder to press, more prone to stick, and more difficult to locate when you were trying to keep your eye on the screen and not the keypad.  Worst of all, the primary action buttons, only just visible in the picture above, were located on the sides of the controller!  Using the controller was an uninituitive, painful, arthritis-inducing, carpal-tunnel-wrecking experience.

But our liberation was only one year away...

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