You know the deal. You’ve fought trash mobs for the past hour and hesitantly approach a vast, circular arena, fully expecting a cutscene to trigger and introduce the next target on your hit list. It may be an immensely powerful beast, ready to stomp you into the ground, or perhaps a diminutive but intimidating humanoid, brimming with killer intent in their eyes. Either way, once that music switches up and starts pulsing with energy, you put on your dancing shoes and get ready to tango with death. Dodging, feinting, pressing a few test blows to see what sticks, you begin to understand what you’re up against, and knowing is supposed to be half the battle… right? Suddenly, the boss leaps in the air in a way you’d not yet seen or expected and sends a mighty axe/sword/tentacle/rock arm your way. There is no escape. You stare on helplessly, hoping your remaining HP can absorb the blow. Alas, your character model topples to the ground, lifeless. The screen’s color drains, giving way to black and white, and those fateful, grim words appear once more on the screen.
Without a moment’s delay, you jump back in, restarting to a point before the boss took your confidence and dashed it against the wall. But before restarting that sequence, you take a moment to think: “What was it that killed me? Did I take too much damage early in the fight? Is my equipment up to snuff? Or did I just not know the attack patterns well enough?” In reality, it was likely a combination of all these factors and more, but what you may not realize is that there is another enemy in the room. No, it’s not located in the virtual boss arena, but in YOUR real, meatspace room. This foe has no feelings. It feels no remorse. It will not change its tactics based on how you’re performing. The true boss that exists beyond the digital realm is an unassuming one, but one you must still consider at all times: Your controller.
My recent experience relearning exactly how your controller can affect a gaming experience comes from having played the legendary, universally-acclaimed GameCube title Metroid Prime. In it you control renowned galactic bounty hunter Samus Aran and battle nefarious space pirates while slowly learning all the nooks and crannies of an ever-changing environment. You can go through an area at the beginning of the game and have a totally different experience when you return hours later with special powers in hand. It’s a fabulous game and, just like its predecessor Super Metroid (SNES) is praised for, a masterclass in game design. However, of note is my method of playing the game: the original GameCube controller.
If there is anything I can ding Metroid Prime on, it is not the aged graphics (which look pretty damn good, almost 2 decades after release). It’s not the relatively by-the-numbers story. It’s that darn control scheme. See, the GameCube controller doesn’t have the two fully-functional joysticks used in a typical first-person shooter (FPS). Whereas you’d usually use the left joystick to move your character left, right, forward, and reverse, the right joystick is used to aim your head in all directions. The GameCube controller can easily deliver the former required characteristic of an FPS, but the latter is unfortunately missing since all the controller has is the “C-stick”. A tiny little nub of a stick not meant for constant use. Thus, the way we’re taught to aim in Metroid Prime is by holding down the right trigger, thereby enabling the left joystick to have the dual function of aiming while simultaneously shutting off our ability to move Samus around. It’s not a both-at-the-same-time sort of deal like in typical FPS games. It’s an either-or. On top of this, when engaging the aim mode, you have inverted controls, meaning you move the left joystick down and Samus looks above her, and vice-versa. Lastly, this is completely set in stone with no room for customization whatsoever. Games released ages prior had usually offered some degree of flexibility, particularly FPS titles, so this design decision continues to baffle me. Let’s take a look at some examples via a VERY abbreviated run through of the FPS genre.
Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, both from id Software, are typically credited as the origins of the FPS genre, at least in the mainstream. They were developed for the PC and therefore assumed the user would use a keyboard-only or keyboard-mouse combo to play. The mouse acted as the means of firing the gun/using the melee weapon, strafing, and opening doors, but would not be used to aim up or down. Instead the games had auto-targeting systems that would help the player shoot something slightly above the ground level they were walking on. A second joystick wasn’t needed, let alone a first joystick! Even when these games were ported to consoles at the time, the SNES and Sega 32X specifically, they had to make due with just a single D-pad. This was certainly not the preferred route, but not the end of the world either.
Jumping forward to 1997, Sony developed and produced the Dual Analog Controller, the predecessor to their DualShock series still used today. The second joystick on this was intended to provide more accuracy and fine-tuning when playing fighting games like Bushido Blade and Tobal 2. In quite the twist, of course that second joystick is rarely if ever used in modern fighting games, whereas it is now viewed as normal and required in an FPS title. A positive side effect to this innovation, for sure.
You may now be asking, “What about Nintendo?” It’s only with 2012’s Wii U did we see a dedicated second joystick on a Nintendo product (specifically the Gamepad). Before that, we had the Wiimote (no joystick and optional Nunchuk attachment to add one), the GameCube controller (joystick + C-stick nub), the N64 controller (D-pad on the left, joystick in the middle), and then of course the NES/SNES controllers with solid D-pads but sans joysticks. The way in which fan-favorite Goldeneye 64 for the N64 got around this limitation was actually quite complex and innovative. Released in 1997, Goldeneye came wedged between major FPS titles Quake (1996) and Half-Life (1998). Its solution to the wonky N64 triple-handle setup? Use the D-pad for movement/aiming, the joystick as the other needed axis of movement, and the A/B/L/R buttons as some combination of weapon use or action. Or for the truly enterprising sorts, utilize a dual-controller setup, hands on the center grip of both. Again, not the best option, but a possible fix for its needs.
Even Metroid Prime has essentially admitted to the issues of the control scheme by being rereleased as a Wii port and utilizing the MUCH improved motion controls to aim where you desire without any button holding whatsoever. Perhaps it acted as an obvious cash grab and advertisement for why the Wii was superior to the aging GameCube. At the very least, the port offered a way to experience Metroid Prime in a way closer to how an FPS ought to be played. That is, without having to choose between moving or aiming at any given time.
It’s important to note that there are some games that have intentionally restrictive controller schemes. It’s not always a bad design choice to be so difficult to control your player. The Silent Hill franchise and early Resident Evil games are solid examples of how battling your controller to even move properly can aid the fear, paranoia, and anxiety of fighting for your life against horrific creatures. Horror games with fluid, functional control schemes like Dead Space have to try and balance the horror and action elements, which is a fine line to walk. Yes you have these terrible moments of shock and terror, but you also have the capability to dispatch the creatures with relative ease, removing some of the fear element beyond the initial jolt. The bottom-line: sometimes your struggle against the controller can be beneficial to the overall experience, but game designers must tread carefully when deciding how to let players navigate and battle.
In the end, we may not even have to think about control schemes for too much longer. We’ve had a solid 4 or 5 decades of controller-oriented gameplay with brief bouts in some alternative setups, but the recent advent of VR headsets brings up a compelling argument. Why not make your body the controller and find the game even more engrossing, intuitive, and overall enjoyable? Early VR setups included multiple cameras set atop “lighthouse” stands to track where your body is in relation to the virtual world. In the past year, we’ve seen more headsets like the Oculus Quest that offer a completely wireless and camera-less setup, meaning you can play games on the go without the gaming PC hardware or intrusive camera lighthouses. Yes we still have controllers, but they are simpler with fewer mappable buttons. And we may soon have less of a need for them, as individual finger tracking technology improves. Even further down the pipeline, we may even have brain wave pattern recognition software to eventually transform science fiction into science fact, making what we think happen before our very eyes.
For now, I’ll settle back down and struggle through Metroid Prime. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a fantastic experience from top to bottom. However, I can’t help but imagine how a rerelease on the Nintendo Sight VR in 2028 might look…