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volume 1, issue 29

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Pad Happy:
Out of Control





By Nick Ferguson

Aside from bringing up some old memories, Nick Fís recent weekend of retro-gaming has forced him to reassess the view that bigger and more complicated necessarily means better...

his may be the best advice I ever give you: donít sell or junk your old consoles! Something Iíve always wanted to do is have a collection of old console machines. Although Iíve actually owned just about every major platform at one time or another, assorted misfortunes (my mother gave away my NES!) and stupidities (swapping a Genesis with fifteen games for a Super Nintendo) mean that my current console library is, sadly, bereft of anything pre-dating the SNES. My memories of Super Mario Bros., Ninja Gaiden and Contra are just that Ė memories. Iím insanely jealous of all those people whose parents were sufficiently far-sighted to keep their games machines (or Star Wars figures) locked up in the attic, preserved in mint condition while they made the slow and dignified transition from "junk" to "retro".

This situation was partly rectified when I bought a very second-hand Genesis this weekend, and a bunch of incredibly cheap games. I spent the next few days playing through some of my old favorites Ė Strider (the music in that game is amazing), Desert Strike (great fun Ė alas, still topical) and Segaís dodgy port of the Amiga classic, Another World. If only I can get hold of Earthworm Jim and Flashback, my life will be complete! Anyone in the UK looking to offload their collection of Genesis (or Mega Drive, as it was known to PAL and Japanese gamers) carts, get in touch!

Playing through these titles, I was struck by the relative simplicity of the gaming experience. Although the shape of the Genesis pad in my hand was familiar after so many years, it was slightly bizarre getting used to only three-buttons (and many games didnít even use all of them). It made me realize how complicated console games are getting. Letís think about this Ė the Atari 2600 had, primarily, one game button. The NES two buttons, the Genesis three. The Super Nintendo gave us a mammoth 6 buttons, the Saturn and PlayStation 8, and Nintendo raised the stakes to 9 (although some N64 titles treat the D-pad as 4 buttons, creating a staggering 13) have been raising the stakes with each new generation of hardware (we wonít count the Jaguarís attractive Ďtelephoneí keypad). And letís not forget the slow profusion of analogue control, often accommodated on the controller in conjunction with a traditional D-pad! As hardware companies clone each othersí ideas with each new generation of hardware (memory cards, "rumble" feedback, analogue control, VMS-style add-ons) itís easy to imagine controllers becoming very complex. Still, maybe thereís hope: I was glad to see Segaís Dreamcast doesnít try and "out-button" the N64, and the news that PlayStation 2 will use original PlayStation pads was refreshing (think about how much you have to spend on controllers for these new 4-port systems)Ö

Of course, this increase in control complexity has risen in tandem with the level of complexity and sophistication displayed in console titles. Street Fighter 2 required 6 buttons (when played with a three button pad, the Genesis version was a farce), but the ability to go for light, medium or strong moves was a key element of the gameís strategy; it was this angle - demanding tactical but instinctive play - that elevated the SF2 series above the "dumb fighters" of the time. Now, the Tekken series and the Virtua Fighter series made do with four and three buttons, respectively. On the surface, this seems a more simple method of control but in reality the vast array of moves and tactics available make mastering these games a much more difficult proposition than learning the comparatively "simple" strategies of SF2. Aside from the small minority of die-hard Capcom fighter fans, who would say the seriesí progression into increasingly complex and slightly differentiated versions of the original is a good thing?

A lot of this has to do with the move into 3D. Whereas "left", "right" and "jump" were sufficient in the old arcade-style titles, gamers now have a whole extra dimension to contend with. The difficulty in implementing a viable control method for true 3D navigation cannot be overestimated, nor the importance of presenting gamers with a relatively clean and simple control interface. Nearly three years on, the niggling remarks that haunted Mario 64ís camera pale into insignificance when compared to the erroneous systems of many subsequent 3D platform and adventure games (Gex, Spyro). Zelda 64ís simple, intuitive control and camera method is probably the most successful, but then thatís to be expected from a game over three years in development. Far too often, the first hour of a new game is spent learning how to use the controls; in Mario 64 it was an enjoyable innovation, but now itís annoying having to retread the same ground, no matter how rewarding the game that follows (i.e. Banjo-Kazooie Ė although having to "earn" the moves was a neat touch). Playing my Genesis (and subsequently, my SNES and Gameboy Color) this weekend, I was transported back to a time when it was possible to pick up the controls for a game in less than a minute. This "pick up and play" factor is a major part of the appeal of the console format in the first place Ė it canít help but worry me when arcade-style gaming stalwarts Sega talk of keyboard, hard drive and mouse add-ons for the Dreamcast.

(Continued on Next Page)


Credits: Pad Happy logo illustrated and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Pad Happy is © 1999 Nick Ferguson. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it, or you'll get some real force feedback.