Points: 5
Cover Story: 35 Years of Atari

...continued, (page 4 of 5)

Put Your Button on my Shoulder

As the 16-bit wars geared up, Nintendo and Sega both realized that the next generation meant more buttons. Sega's Genesis controller added two more buttons back onto the actual pad and not the console: one of them was a Start button, but the other was an additional button to be used in gameplay. Not to be outdone, Nintendo added four buttons to the SNES controller: two extra face buttons, arranged in the now-familiar diamond shape, and "shoulder" buttons labeled L and R that sat atop the controller and could be pressed by the index fingers.

As it turns out, neither of these standard controllers were the optimum solution for what turned out to be the hit game of the generation: Street Fighter II. While the Super Nintendo controller had exactly enough buttons for the game's array of martial arts moves, the buttons weren't in the right three-by-two configuration. Meanwhile, the Genesis controller didn't have enough. Sega responded by releasing a six-button pad with a three-by-two button layout on the controller's face, which became quite popular.

Analog Jam

Years later, as Sega and Sony unveiled the controller designs for their 32-bit systems, everything seemed pretty much status quo. Sony's PlayStation pad, as befitted a machine that was originally conceived as an add-on for the SNES, was laid out exactly like the SNES pad but with two extra shoulder buttons. Sega's Saturn pad was precisely like its six-button midseason replacement for the Genesis, but with... two shoulder buttons. Everything was calm.

Then came Spaceworld 1995.

Nintendo had long shrouded the controller for its upcoming Nintendo 64 hardware in secrecy. Developers working on games told stories of having to put the controller

The original Sega Saturn pad lives on as the best 2D fighting game pad ever made.
into a cardboard box while they were playing games so that passersby wouldn't be able to see what they were holding. Some joked that the controller was a pile of goo that sensed your brain waves.

As is now widely known, the controller that Nintendo revealed at its Japanese trade show featured an analog thumbstick. After the failure of the Atari 5200 controller, analog joysticks were basically taboo in the video game industry. But Nintendo's thumbstick differed from previous designs in two important ways. First, it wasn't actually analog. Analog joysticks like the 5200's had too many moving parts and were prone to breaking. Nintendo's stick was digital, but provided enough levels of sensitivity that the distinction was moot. Second, Nintendo's stick worked just like a D-pad: you weren't gripping the handle but pushing it with your thumb.

And by showing off the new controller with a polished (but not complete) version of Mario 64, Nintendo showed the killer app that made the thumbstick more than a gimmick. Sony and Sega saw the writing on the wall: next generation meant 3D, and 3D meant analog. They immediately set out to create analog joysticks for their consoles. Sega actually moved so quickly on their design that they beat Nintendo to market in the US (though not worldwide).

Nintendo's controller also featured an expansion port on the back of the pad into which new hardware could be inserted. At launch, the only accessory made for the slot was a memory card, for saving those games in which the publishers were too cheap to include backup RAM. But a year after the console launched in the US, Nintendo

The innovative analog thumbstick was the N64 controller's greatest achievement.
had another announcement -- the anticipated game Star Fox 64 would include a Rumble Pak that fit into the controller and made it shake with every explosion, vibrate with every rocket launch.

By the time the Rumble Pak was announced, Sony had launched an analog controller in Japan but not the US. They held off on the US launch of the controller in order to build rumble functionality into each and every unit, dubbing the pad the Dual Shock. This name came from the fact that not only were there two rumble motors, but there were two analog sticks on each side of the pad.

On the original PlayStation, the second stick was seen as a useless gimmick. On the PlayStation 2, as first-person shooters became a more important genre, it became indispensable. But then, we're getting ahead of ourselves by mentioning the PS2... first, there's one more console and its controller to slander discuss.



Of course, by jumping from the Genesis to the PlayStation, I'm skipping quite a few also-ran consoles that tried to get the next generation started a bit too early. Sure, they got a few ideas right (except for the Jaguar), but the market wasn't ready to pay seven hundred bucks just to watch bad actors run around in grainy full-motion video. Oh, and just to keep things on topic: the controllers were invariably awful.

Panasonic, 1993

The 3D0's standard controller was a bizarre cross between the SNES and Genesis pads. It lifted the general look of the Super Nintendo's dogbone-shaped controller, but featured the Genesis' original three-button layout. Oh, and the D-pad was terrible, which was a shame inasmuch as the only worthwhile game on the system was, at that time, the only home port of Super Street Fighter II Turbo.

Atari, 1993

Okay, so Atari didn't get out of the hardware business entirely after the XE. With the PlayStation and Saturn launches two years away, Atari took another stab at the US market with the ill-conceived Jaguar, which was 64-bit in the same way that the TurboGrafx-16 was 16-bit (it wasn't). Flush with nostalgia for the old days when Atari ruled, somebody made the unfathomable decision to bring back the numeric keypad and overlays for the Jaguar. Once again, it failed to fool parents into thinking that the system was a high-tech educational device.

Philips, 1992

The four Mario and Zelda games that Nintendo inexplicably allowed Philips to create for the CD-i would be terrible no matter what controller you used to play them. But the pad that shipped with the CD-i hardware defies all reason. Held in one hand, it's basically like a television remote -- the directional pad surrounded by two tiny, thin buttons. Perfect for browsing through the menus of Shelley Duvall's It's A Bird's Life. Awful for gaming.

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