An Ode to the GameCube Controller

Nothing like it before or since.

Nothing like it before or since.

People naturally break down into factions when they are a part of large groups. Even the most level-headed geek has a subject near and dear to them worth going to verbal war over. Star Wars or Star Trek? Kirk or Picard? Edison or Tesla? The minutiae of nerd hobbies can be debated into eternity and never be resolved.

At some point, anyone who grew up playing video games probably argued over which hardware was best. There is a never-ending war raging between fanboys, and even the platform-neutral tend to still have a favorite. Through the eighties and early nineties, Nintendo and Sega fought an unending battle. When Sony entered the fray in 1994, the battle became no less contentious. As Sega bowed out, Microsoft rushed in to fill the gap.

Sometimes, console wars aren't about the system itself, but the games it plays. One of the more interesting points to compare between consoles is the controllers used by the player to interface with their games. PC gamers will defend the mouse-and-keyboard combination with their lives. Fans of the original Xbox will often declare its massive controller, affectionately referred to as "The Duke," to be superior to anything that has come since. Players who experienced the 16-bit era will often look back fondly on the Super Nintendo's well-loved game pad.

My favorite controller isn't necessarily the best one. It isn't the most versatile, and I can see why it rarely makes anyone's best-of lists. It is, however, one that was thoughtfully designed, if a bit myopically. I'm referring to, as the title has already declared, the GameCube controller.

The GameCube controller's faults are easily noticed by veteran gamers: it appears to have two fewer buttons than its competitors, its directional pad is tiny, and the massive amount of travel on the left and right triggers makes them slow to respond to quick presses.

The problem is that the GameCube controller was designed to play Nintendo's games, and no one else's. It's a common issue with Nintendo hardware. Though their consoles are open to third parties, it is hardly a secret that people buy Nintendo's hardware for their flagship titles. A game that sells millions on a competitor's platform will be handily eclipsed by secondary Mario titles on the Wii. Everything Nintendo does addresses their needs first, and third party needs second.

Outside of being quite comfortable, there are two unique aspects of the GameCube controller that make it stand out to me. Neither has been repeated since, with good reason. Still, they are clever design decisions that allow GameCube games to stand out hand and have original, memorable control schemes.

A close-up of the GameCube button layout.

A close-up of the GameCube button layout.

The first, and most obvious, is the abnormal action button layout. Every controller made since the NES has had buttons laid out in a line or simple grid. The most common layout by far is a diamond shape. The GameCube controller completely eschews this standard, and instead lays them out in an irregular triangle. The "A" button is at the center, and significantly larger than the three buttons that surround it. The "X" and "Y" buttons are ovals that wrap around the top and right side of "A", and the "B" button, smaller than any of the others, is a circle to the lower-left of "A."

This unnatural scheme makes the buttons seem awkward at first, but this layout also makes each game's input, when designed properly, feel natural and obvious. The "A" button is always the main button, and "B" is the least-used. "X" and "Y" are often support buttons. The GameCube's buttons are designed around priority, rather than rote memorization.

More often than not, developers outside of Nintendo did not use this design philosophy to create their control schemes. One of the biggest mistakes, in my opinion, came in the incredibly popular Soul Calibur II. It made "A" one of the attack buttons(Horizontal Attack), and "Y," which rested above "A," the second attack button(Vertical Attack). "X," to the right of "A," was the kick button, and "B" blocked. Even for an aggressive player that did not block, this is a bad layout.

I changed the layout right away. I made "Y" Vertical Attack, and "X" Horizontal Attack. I made "A" block, and "B" kick. There are two reasons for these changes:

1. The button above A(vertically) initiates a vertical attack. The button to the right of A(horizontally) initiates a horizontal attack. The symmetry of this seems obvious to me.

2. The block button is used in conjunction with the attack buttons to initiate holds and throws. By placing the action buttons around block, pressing two of them simultaneously becomes incredibly simple. Doing the same with the default control scheme would be difficult, as block was tucked away from the other buttons and would require contorting one's hand into a claw shape to press both “B” and “Y” at once.

When designed around the layout, game controls can take on a form of logic that other controllers can't match. It doesn't work for every game, though. Fighting games like Capcom vs. SNK 2, which often use a set of two or three punches and the same number of kicks, suffer with the GameCube's layout.

The GameCube's left trigger.

The GameCube's left trigger.

The other interesting facet of the controller is its triggers. Designed to be sensitive to pressure, the left and right triggers also hide a secondary button within them. The easiest way to describe it is to compare it to the shutter button on an SLR or higher-end camera. There is a natural stopping point when the trigger is pressed relatively lightly, and a second button clicks when the trigger is pressed a little harder. This is a clever way to hide a secondary action in a button. For example, in a driving game pressing the left trigger to its natural stopping point could function as a brake, while the secondary click could shift the car into reverse.

The obvious problem with these triggers, however, is that secondary button can only be used when the trigger is already pressed, meaning these actions will always require another one to be triggered. This greatly limits the use of this function.

There are a number of games that could benefit from the GameCube’s peculiar controller design. As much as I understand why it has never been repeated, it should not be entirely forgotten.

Hori's classically-styled GameCube controller.

Hori's classically-styled GameCube controller.

As an aside: HORI released an interesting version of this controller. It was designed for use with the GameCube's GameBoy Advance Player, and was also used by fighting game fans who wanted a larger D-Pad. It was also great for controlling Wii Virtual Console games. Although it lacked the standard controller's analog joysticks, it handily evoked the feel of the classic Super Nintendo controller.

Posted on May 5, 2013 .