Tuesday, 17 November 2015

A to Z - evolution under the right thumb

When we discuss the development of the standard video game console controller we tend to concentrate on significant additions to the basic pad. Things like shoulder buttons and analogue sticks and rumble. We less often talk about the arrangement of the buttons that have come to be standard. Why A, B, X and Y? What’s wrong with 1, 2, 3 and 4? Here, I'll take a brief look at the evolution of the buttons under your right thumb…

Before the arrival of the NES, the success of Pong and its associated clones meant dials were prevalent on home console controllers. Number pads were also common. The Atari 2600’s joystick controller had a single red button on it. The Vectrex was one of the first consoles to feature a layout resembling a pad as we now know it, with a micro joystick on the left and four circular buttons in a horizontal line on the right (labelled 1-2-3-4). The 1983 release of the Famicom in Japan introduced the home console audience to the D-pad, a cardinal direction input borrowed from Nintendo’s Game & Watch line of portable LCD games. It also introduced Select and Start, and labelled its two primary input buttons (initially square, though quickly replaced with circular versions) B and A. The outer button was where the player’s right thumb would naturally fall and therefore became A. Primary actions like jumping would usually be mapped to this, with B assuming secondary duties such as firing. Returning to games from this period often throws up anomalies for modern players. It feels peculiar to use Select to toggle between menu options now that we’re all accustomed to using the D-pad and hitting A to confirm, B to cancel. The NES kept the Famicom’s basic design, though changing the B and A buttons from black to red. Sega’s Master System used an 8-directional input on the left and two buttons on the right, labelled 1 and 2. Nintendo and Sega’s handheld consoles would ape the control schemes of their home-based brethren, though positioned at a more natural and comfortable angle. The Turbografx/PC Engine would reverse Sega’s numbers and make them Roman numerals.

The Vectrex and its pad
(Source: Evan Amos)
With the increased processing power of fourth generation home consoles, devs needed more inputs for more complex games. The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive ditched numbers in favour of A-B-C slanted on a chunky pad with a pellet-shaped Start hovering above. The SNES, while also gaining shoulder buttons (L=Left, R=Right), took B and A from the NES and added two buttons above in a diamond formation. D and C would seem the most natural choice (the Neo Geo went with these) but Nintendo chose instead Y and X. Perhaps it helped separate the pair in function from B and A, as evidenced by the lozenge-shaped border surrounding each pair, though why they didn’t choose Y and Z is puzzling. Nintendo also gave these buttons colours. A retained the glossy red from the NES, while B turned yellow. X picked up the third primary colour, blue, leaving Y with green. The curved shape of the pad coupled with the new diamond formation meant that B became the default position for the right thumb and Mario’s jump moved there. The US version of the SNES received a makeover that removed the primary colours (presumably a marketing strategy to make the console appear less toy-like), making B-A purple and Y-X lilac.

While the Mega Drive pad would grow to accommodate three extra X-Y-Z buttons above A-B-C, the Saturn had six buttons as standard at the start of the fifth generation. The three-pronged N64 pad was perplexing until you realised you only held two of them. Nintendo moved the diamond buttons further up the pad, made them yellow and rechristened them C-buttons (Cardinal buttons, perhaps?) above B and A (now occupying the spaces left by Y and B respectively). Once again, A became the principal input, now blue, while the central Start button inherited the glossy red colour from before. B was, obviously…, erm, green.

As confusing as this may seem, Sony were about to turn everything on its head with the PlayStation. Letters, numbers – who needs ‘em? Sony’s shapes became icons, surpassing even the SNES’ colourful diamond formation. Triangle pointed upwards so it took the top of the diamond. The SNES’ A button became Circle (which Japanese players use to confirm) and primary B became Cross (which Westerners use to confirm). Square took the remaining space, originally intended as a 'page' button for sub-menus or inventory functions. The design was slick, easily identifiable and it endures (as does the East/West confirm/cancel confusion). Less durable examples include: SNK’s Neo Geo CD, which borrowed the SNES’ colours and diamond formation with (clockwise from the top) D-B-A-C labelling from the AES’ joystick controller; Philip’s CD-i, which used the familiar diamond with an array of ‘dots’ (·, ··, ·, and, of course, ·/··); and Atari’s Jaguar, which took Sega’s layout and flipped it horizontally.
Press  ·  to delete save file  (Source: Evan Amos)

Following 'A' around Nintendo's pads.
Following the addition of dual analogue sticks, Sony’s pad changed little for the sixth generation. The DualShock 2 featured pressure-sensitive face buttons but nobody really noticed. The organic GameCube controller continued Nintendo’s esoteric journey by transforming the C-buttons into a C-stick, returning B (now red) to its alignment from the SNES days and rotating Y and X (now kidney-shaped and grey) almost 90° around a big green A button. Sega took their six button layout and lopped off Z and C for the broad Dreamcast pad, leaving Y-B-A-X. They borrowed the primary SNES colours, reassigning them seemingly at random.

Following Sony's shapes...
But a new challenger approached - and a big’un, too. Microsoft constructed their monstrous Duke by carefully examining the competition. They borrowed the Saturn/Dreamcast letter configuration, though with smaller White and Black buttons in place of the now-deceased Z and C (these would shift below the diamond on the smaller ‘S’ revision and disappear entirely next generation). Xbox borrowed the colours but once again they were reassigned: Y=yellow, B=red, A=green, X=blue. ‘Green for go, red for no’ makes sense seeing how these buttons had evolved with use and Microsoft have stuck with them ever since.

Both Sony and Microsoft kept the same basic configurations for the seventh generation. Nintendo, however, unveiled a TV remote. After initial confusion, it became clear that they’d simply split the standard pad in two and augmented it with some accelerometers and an IR pointer, providing a non-threatening and familiar form factor for wary non-gamers put off by increasingly complex conventional pads. It retained the GameCube’s chunky, satisfying A button, planted the D-pad above it and added '-' and '+' (playing the roles of Select and Start respectively) and a Home menu button. Relegating B to the underside, it brought back numbers for ancillary functions at the bottom (1 and 2) which served as ‘B and A’ when the pad was rotated and assumed the ‘classic’ NES-like configuration. The whole thing, buttons and all, was finished in a benign glossy white. While continually trying new things in the home, Nintendo finally bid farewell to the trusty Select-Start-B-A combo of the Game Boy and dusted off the classic SNES X-A-B-Y diamond for their new portable, the DS (sans the sexy colours).

And thus we arrive at current-gen (eighth if you’re still counting). Nintendo threw the kitchen sink at the Wii U Gamepad, including the SNES diamond (again, without the sexy colours, although they have reappeared on the beautiful New 3DS). Sony and Microsoft have refined their pads but retain the same basic layout they’ve had for a decade. Those face buttons under your hovering right thumb have settled down in their middle age into something comforting and familiar, with little inherited idiosyncrasies from the past. Valve's Steam controller sticks with Microsoft's colours/labelling. Configurable touchscreen buttons with individual haptic feedback have yet to appear beyond fantastical artists' imaginings. VR's particular requirements deny players a view of their hands, let alone their gamepad, but although motion controls often augment the experience, traditional analogue inputs continue to play a crucial role in the interface. With NX on the horizon, it’ll be fascinating to see where buttons go next.

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