Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Gunpei Yokoi's Super Wonder Cross! Part 3

When I posted Part 2 of this series about a month ago, I blithely announced that in this post, I would be discussing "what the D-pad means." That's turned out to be kind of a tall order, or a weird thing to try to think about, but I think I was right to put it that way, because that's exactly what this post is about.

When video games became popular in arcades, there was an appeal to them that I think stemmed from two aspects of the experience: the communal and the visceral.

Cabinet versions of Pong were frequent fixtures in bars and restaurants before the concept of a video arcade ever really occurred to anyone; the game's huge success was largely a result of its emphasis on competition between live opponents. The game's minimalism, which I admit was not as hilarious in 1972 as it is now, left lots of cognitive space for players to focus on other tasks, like drinking or talking (see this SNL transcript) or yelling or betting or some other tomfoolery. We see the same thing now with games played over XBox Live Arcade, where the simplicity has been replaced with at least some sophistication, but the competition is enhanced with features like live voice chat (so that humanity can achieve its highest potential, shouting racial epithets at strangers halfway across the country). We may no longer have as many live opponents squaring off in bars, but we do have an analogue. And now we tend to think of home consoles as enabling and perhaps encouraging individual play, but it's true that in its first iterations, the home version of Pong was designed strictly for two players; there was no computer player to be found on those circuit boards.

I think it's fair to say that later on, arcades provided the perfect context for entire genres of games that just don't play as well without a second human player. I'm thinking particularly of beat-em-ups, the games where oversized characters walk through urban settings and hit mohawked individuals with lengths of pipe, and fighting games, where ninjas pull each others' spines out and then hold them up like giant fish. You know these games. They're fun in their way, but anyone who's played much of them at home knows that they are much better in a social context, and presumably they're designed that way.

Even games that were for one player, like Pac-Man, benefited from the presence of an actual arcade cabinet. As Jeremy Parish recently remarked on an episode of Retronauts, a game like Pac-Man is a lot more fun when you're able to play it standing up and leaning into the turns you're having Pac-Man make. The tactile experience of manipulating the joystick not just with your hand but with your whole body was enhanced, again, by the presence of spectators and competitors, particularly as Pac-Man, like most early games, isn't designed with a great deal of variation from level to level. Instead, it has an initial input screen where you can give yourself clever names like SEX and ASS and try to beat your friends' high scores. High scores became almost completely meaningless in single-player home games, which is why Super Mario Bros. still keeps score and, for instance, Super Mario Bros. 2 (the American version) doesn't. Some games, including subsequent SMBs, would continue to keep score into the late 80s and early 90s, but that vestige of the arcade was definitely falling away. There just wasn't as much point to high scores when they couldn't be used as recruiting tools for fresh starfighters.

Though I've seen a lot of players who still treat their game controllers like those arcade joysticks, rocking back and forth with their on-screen movements as if this would help matters; and though a lot of home games, particularly with online connectivity, are multiplayer, the communal and visceral aspects were toned down a bit, if they were not mostly scrapped, for the home experience. I think part of the problem with the second generation of home consoles (which includes things like Atari 2600/VCS, Intellivision, and Colecovision) was that the idea of what a home video game should be wasn't made clear. These systems all relied on input devices that were, and I think I'm justified in saying this categorically, either quite similar to arcade joysticks or basically dysfunctional, so there wasn't an effective dividing line that was drawn between the arcade experience and the home experience. Without much reason to think the home experience was anything different or special, gamers were left to decide for themselves what the difference was. By and large, the difference was better graphics and sound and more interesting gameplay in the arcade, because the second generation was an age of arcade ports and clones. Original games for the home consoles, like Atari's Haunted House or E.T., were often obtuse and strange.

I don't mean to say that the second generation was a dark time; it wasn't. But the third generation, which was led and, for about two years, carried almost exclusively by Nintendo, eventually emphasized a different sort of experience, one that set home gaming apart from arcade gaming in obvious ways. The crucial difference was a move toward a more complete, longer-lasting experience. As I've said, Pac-Man didn't have a real goal that meant anything in terms of gameplay; you could play until the game ran out of memory or numbers to count with (!) on level 256 and restarted itself. Donkey Kong did the same thing on its 117th screen. These were called "kill screens," and they were infamous among knowledgeable players because they were ridiculously hard to reach. The Donkey Kong kill screen is such a difficult goal to reach that there are only (I think) four documented instances of players reaching it, and I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure these four instances are divided between two players. Anyway, it's famous enough to warrant a t-shirt:

When the third generation really kicked in, however, home games began to have obvious goals. Super Mario Bros. had exactly 32 stages, and the game ended conclusively after the 32nd. There wasn't much of a narrative, but Mario began the game with the goal of rescuing the Princess, and he did exactly that in "World" 8-4. The Zelda games, Kid Icarus, Metroid, The Goonies (Japan) and The Goonies II, Castlevania, most of the games people who experienced the third generation associate with it, all had clear endings. The third generation was also the point where a lot of previously computer-based genres jumped to consoles, sometimes with crucial alterations. Adventure games like Maniac Mansion and Shadowgate crossed over from PCs and Macs and became Nintendo games; the RPG genre, previously almost exclusively filled with computer games, became a dominant console genre with ridiculously popular games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, and it's important to note that the most popular console RPGs focused more on complete narratives with beginnings and endings than on continuous dungeon-crawling.

It's not apparent how that connects to play control, but it does. Just as the new home games shifted to game play meant to last for an hour or more at a time and meant to move, for the most part, towards some final goal, I'd also say they shifted to game play that was more inherently challenging from the get-go. An older game like Pac-Man or Donkey Kong or Space Invaders starts off reasonably easy and gets progressively harder, and while games on the NES also had a learning curve, I'd say they also started at a higher level. From the first moment, a game like Super Mario Bros. required more precise control from the player; just landing a successful hit on the first goomba in the game was a feat far more difficult, I really do think, than anything required of the player in the first level or two of almost any older arcade game. And when the difficulty ratcheted up, it ratcheted up quickly. The term "platformer," which we use to describe the genre to which the Mario games belong, means a game that requires constant precision from the player, because there is a constant need to jump on top of and over obstacles and to avoid holes in the ground. Some levels in Super Mario Bros. present absolutely vertiginous environments, like World 4-3:

I think there's a strong psychological force at work when we play a level like this that makes it more difficult than it should be to navigate the narrow, apparently high platforms that are scattered throughout. Imagine tackling World 4-3 with an Atari 2600 joystick, having to try to stabilize that unwieldy square base with one hand and push the jump button with your thumb while controlling Mario's movements with the other hand via the joystick! I don't know if you've ever played on an Atari 2600, but those joysticks are hard to hold, and it is a constant challenge to keep them from wobbling in your grasp. Not the best thing for Super Mario Bros. A game like Metroid or Kid Icarus, where vertically-scrolling environments are just as common as horizontally-scrolling ones, would probably be even worse. Check out this video of the first world of Kid Icarus if you want to see what I mean. These games just have this precarious feeling to them, and when you're learning the ropes, it's not good to have a controller that's too slippery.

Fortunately, designers at Nintendo had the brilliant idea of adopting the cross-shaped design from the Game & Watch series for the controllers for the new Famicom console.

And two years later, the same design would be incorporated into the NES Control Pad (see picture at top).

These compact blocks were completely stable, since the thumb pressing on the cross pad braced the back of the controller against the player's fingers. Speaking of which, it probably seems unremarkable now, but Nintendo had transferred the work of controlling games from the fingers, used for pressing buttons and grasping the joystick in arcade games, to the thumbs exclusively.

Since the +Control Pad, as it's called in the early NES game manuals, or the D-pad, as we're going to call it, only had four arms, it only provided eight directions of control. This sounds miserly compared to the Intellivision's sixteen directions of control, but the simplicity it provided was far more appropriate to almost all of the games of the 8- and 16-bit eras, most of which called for simple directional commands. Furthermore, it was far easier to tell by feel whether you were pressing left or right as opposed to up-left or down-right than it had been with joysticks. The process of sweeping your thumb across the D-pad to move down rather than up is also swifter and more economical than the process of pulling a joystick downward from the up position; there's also no need ever to adjust your grip on an NES controller the way some people do with joysticks.

This was important for games that required expert timing, and maybe no game demanded that more from a player than Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (sic). RedHedgehog at Gamespite has done an excellent job of summing up the way it feels to play Punch-Out!!, and as he says, the game is very much a rhythm game. More to the point, by the game's end, the player needs to have an expert sense of rhythm, because Mike Tyson (or, sigh, Mr. Dream) relies on complex and fast (fast!!) movements to traumatize children of the 80s. This is nearly impossible with any controller, but I believe that it would be far more difficult with a joystick than with the quick, compact D-pad.

Finally, I'll return to the longer-format games I mentioned earlier like RPGs and The Legend of Zelda. The best of these games were played during the 8- and 16-bit eras from a top-down perspective, meaning that your character never jumped around like in a platformer; instead, up and down were directions your character could actually travel. These games presented worlds that played out like 2-dimensional maps, with the possibility of movement in a northerly, southerly, easterly, or westerly direction, or anything in between. RPGs tended to use a sort of tiled arrangement where characters moved from invisible square to invisible square on the map, allowing them easily to line up with shopkeepers and villagers for conversation or to negotiate environments; this mechanic worked wonderfully with the grid-friendly D-pad. As in the case of Zelda, some top-down games used a more complex system where the player could move seamlessly to any location on the screen not blocked by trees or rocks. Zelda used this top-down system for exploration and combat, so the player needed to be able to make precise movements in order to line up sword attacks, avoid fireballs, and so on. If you've ever tried to play the original Zelda with an analog stick or a joystick, you may feel as I do that it's far easier to keep Link where you need him with the D-pad than it is with a less precise control device.

In short, the release of the Famicom and later the NES, with their strange new controllers, sent a particular message: video gaming at home was a different thing from video gaming at the arcade. Games were going to be longer, more significant experiences, and they were going to offer a higher degree of challenge than arcade games; stacks of quarters wouldn't do the trick. These would be games that would demand a lot from the player, but the controllers packed with the systems you played these games on would be just the right tool for this new play style. It was a rejection of older, muddle-headed approaches to home video games and an embrace of a totally new mechanic.


  1. If anyone else had told me they planned to pull off a three-part treatise on the D-pad, I probably would've given them little more than a raised eyebrow and a hearty chuckle. This, however, delivered far beyond my expectations-- a stirring social commentary revolving around a humble, overlooked building block of technological scaffolding.

    What more can I say but, bravo.

  2. Oh, and I forgot to say, I really think you should submit this to Game Informer, EGM, et al. I bet they'd pick this up as a guest writer feature.

  3. Thanks! Maybe I should do a freelance thing sometime; this really is fun! Anyway, Wonder Cross was the reason I started this thing up, so if it turned out well, I really am happy! Thanks again, Brock!