Consoles come and go and so do the controllers we use with them - but sometimes they leave a legacy.
Even the mightiest fall. Late last month, cult author Neal Stephenson announced that his ambitious sword-fighting Kickstarter Clang, one of the highest profile game projects in the crowdfunding site’s history, had been put on hold.
The reason? Though Clang raised more than $500,000 (£310,000) from fans, the team still required more - and traditional investors shied away from the idea of a game that required its own new controller to simulate accurate sword-fighting.
“Coupling the success of Clang to concurrent developments in hardware adds an additional element of perceived risk that is off-putting to the small number of people who are still willing to even consider funding games,” the team said in a statement. If even publishing giant Activision couldn’t shift extra controllers any more, how could a start-up hope to?
Sometimes though, a game achieves the critical mass to usher in a new input, a whole new controller - and its impact changes how we play forever. Even if Stephenson’s virtual lightsaber will never see the light of day, these peripherals have already shaped gaming for good.
We’ve got Sega and one of the world’s first arcade games, Missile, to thank for the humble joystick. The 1969 arcade cabinet was one of the first to use a control input drawn from real life fighter planes and put it to use in video games, letting you aim at and shoot down jets on the radar above it. The innovation - controlling a character or object on multiple axes - helped pave the way for the next two decades of top down military games and 2D side scrollers. More than forty years later, it’s still going strong too: you’ll still find joysticks on most of the latest arcade releases, and of course they helped shape the thumbsticks we take for granted on consoles today. But more on that shortly.
Although the legendary Pong was not the first home video game - or even the first table tennis game - Atari’s classic hit helped usher in the era of the home video game console that plugs into your TV. The two dials players used to slide their paddles up and down made for an experience that could be easily replicated in the home, with easy to manufacture parts. A series of home versions in partnership with US department stores followed the 1972 original, helping video games move from niche to mainstream. Ralph Baer may have invented the first home console, the Magnavox Odyssey, and the original table tennis game - but with its clever branding and addictive gameplay, Pong made Atari, and Atari moved games from bars to living rooms, paving the way for longer adventures alongside repetitive titles designed for coin-operation.
Nintendo’s 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong isn’t just notable for mascot Mario’s first appearance - it’s also the first game to allow the player to jump. That requirement would help shape the design of the Nintendo Entertainment System gamepad, and its successors for generations to come. Donkey Kong was a launch title for Nintendo’s first console, helping to establish the concept of a controller with a D-pad and two control buttons, A and B, and those extra buttons gave developers opportunity to branch out, creating more complex games and of course paving the way for Shigeru Miyamoto’s 1985 classic, Super Mario Bros, along with beat’em ups and even the faux-3D top down RPGs starting with Final Fantasy. Nintendo’s rivals fell over themselves to imitate the set up, and even in 2013, the Xbox One’s A,B,X,Y controller lay out owes Ninty a debt.
Lylat Wars, the sequel to SNES hit Star Fox, helped usher in a feature we now take for granted in console games: force feedback. It was the first game to support Nintendo’s Rumble Pak, which came with the N64 cartridge in the game box. Slotted into the back of the trident shaped controller, its vibrations in time to events on screen ratcheted up the level of immersion in the space shooter, and the tech was quickly copied by Nintendo’s rivals. Force feedback is still standard in modern game controllers today - in Grand Theft Auto V on PS3 and Xbox 360 for instance, driving over a rumble strip on a road will cause your DualShock or Xbox controller to vibrate, just like a real car’s suspension would.
More than the NES controller or the Rumble Pak, the way we play today was transformed by Ape Escape: you see, Sony’s platformer starring an adorable chimp was the first to support its new DualShock controller. While the N64 boasted a D-pad and an analog joystick, the DualShock PlayStation controller had two thumbsticks, which allowed developers to create more ambitious 3D worlds that players could accurately move and look around in seamlessly, one thumbstick for the camera, one for moving. It was a revelation at the time, and though we haven’t had a proper Ape Escape platformer since 2004, the set-up is still the standard on almost all 3D adventure games today, from Call of Duty to Assassin’s Creed.
Nintendo struck gold with the motion-controlled Wii in 2006, and changed the game again with the Balance Board, a pressure sensitive controller you stood on which came bundled with Wii Fit. The Balance Board wasn’t just for weighing yourself, doing yoga and playing exercise sims however. Developers soon found new ways to make use of the little white plank plugged into the console: snowboarders and skiers could take to the slopes indoors with We Ski and Shaun White Snowboarding. Wii Fit Plus followed, and a sequel on the Wii U is on the way, which supports the accessory.
While Angry Birds has proved to be the iPhone’s biggest hit, it wasn’t the first success on Apple’s smartphone. Launched in early 2009, Doodle Jump was the first hit game on the App Store that could only exist on the iPhone. Instead of relying on an unreliable glass D-pad, it made full use of both the touchscreen for firing at hand drawn enemies, and the iPhone’s accelerometer to tilt Doodle across the level as he jumps. With its finger friendly catapulting gestures, Rovio soon figured out the secret too, and the rest is history.
And the future?
Meet the next breakthrough in gaming, Valve’s Steam Controller, revealed late last month. The company is aiming to bring PC games and power to the living room with its new Steam Machines, and this is the input it’s come up with to do so: instead of thumbsticks, it features two much more precise and programmable circular trackpads, which promise to be as accurate as a mouse - and from the comfort of your sofa. We don’t know what games will help take this gamepad mainstream, but with hits under its belt including Half-Life, Portal and Left 4 Dead, if anyone can can change controllers again, it’ll be Valve.