Nine of the Weirdest, Wackiest Controllers Ever
As the lone conduit between our brain-tanks and our consoles (or computers), controllers need to be able to do a lot of different things for a lot of different games, and do them all well enough that they’re effectively invisible. The best designs do just that. Great controllers from our childhood are recalled with the same fondness as a first kiss, or a favourite pair of slippers. Conversely, while it was certainly ground-breaking, we remember the ‘analogue’ stick on the N64 controller like that time we had pneumonia.
So, to celebrate the shocking announcement that the DualShock 4 will look much the same as the last three, we’ve delved into the archives to bring you nine of the weirdest and wackiest controllers in gaming history. Some are genuinely innovative, and hold ideas that would be well worth revisiting, and others should probably have been left on the shelf. (Hell, two of them could actually be used for shelves, in a pinch.)
Here we go, in no particular order:
“The Twist” – Namco’s neGcon
We’ll start with a good one, and it’s meant to be pronounced neh-gee-con, for the pedants out there. Everyone else, continue as you were.
While it may look like a standard third-party plastic-fantastic PlayStation controller you’d find in a bargain bin, it’s worth bearing in mind that this thing dropped before Sony’s own Dual Analog existed, providing that glorious analogue smoothness that we now find indispensable (particularly in racing games) before Sony had gotten its act together and released an official analogue pad.
The neGcon differed in that instead of analogue sticks, the entire controller could twist around that central pivoty-bit (try to stay with us here, it could get technical), providing a surprisingly intuitive control-feel that was perfectly suited to driving games.
Sadly, it didn’t perform commercially, no doubt in part because it was a little too strange for mainstream acceptance. Just goes to show where genuine innovation will get you.
“Screw it, we’ll do it live” – Sammy’s ‘Keyboard’ Gamecube controller
By all accounts, Phantasy Star Online was a very good game. One of its more forward-thinking aspects was the ability to communicate with your fellow players (regardless of whether they spoke your language or not) through two experimental systems – Word Select and Symbol Chat.
Both of the systems were quite clever; Word Select had you select words or phrases from an available pool, and they were then translated into the language of the person at the other end. Symbol Chat used pictograms in what we can only assume felt like a game of multi-lingual Pictionary, which actually sounds pretty awful and frustrating, now that it comes to it. Trying to express “I’m gonna prawn u so hard” or “NO DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR YET” using pictograms would have been hard, which is why there was also the option to use a keyboard.
Which – we guess – is the only reason for Sammy’s disasterpiece keyboard thing. Although we do have to admire the company’s chutzpah. “Make it smaller? Hell no. What’s the point in that? We should add some more keys. You can never have too many keys.”
“You can never have too many buttons” – The Steel Battalion Controller
Steel Battalion was also a good game. Tooling around in colossal mechs is a pretty righteous way to spend your time, but Steel Battalion took immersion to the next level by shipping with a controller that put you right in the mech-driver’s seat. With other games, you see the cool looking racks of buttons and switches and fancy-pants joysticks in your cockpit, but you’re really just sitting on the couch with your lame twin analogue sticks and a paltry dozen buttons.
With this puppy, you could set yourself up in a small foil-lined room, throw on your orange onesie and bike helmet, and believe. Right up until you failed to eject from your mech before it blew up and lost your save-game forever, of course. But seriously, look at it. Imagine playing Forza with it. Imaging playing anything with it. With that many buttons and toggles, fun is not optional.
“Fun is optional” – Konami’s LaserScope
Many of the controllers on this list are examples of what happens when good ideas go bad. The LaserScope is a true classic of the genre. You have the original idea – a head-wearable-peripheral that you can use to interact with your NES. This is a good idea. Around this kernel of wisdom, various unspeakable accretions then somehow form and build upon one other until you have a sort of turd-pearl that completely obscures that once-noble intention.
The LaserScope’s pearl was formed largely through that kind of inexplicable breathtaking foolishness that sometimes afflicts companies. Looking at the finished product, you have to ask “Why didn’t anyone notice how bad this was?”
It was essentially a head-mounted light gun that you aimed by looking (presumably inducing neck injuries in excitable players), then fired by saying “fire”. Except you could also fire by saying “vase” or “plum brandy.” Or by breathing too loudly. Or shutting a door across the room. Pretty much any noise set it off. So it sucked.
Although it did make you look like a bad-ass, and for that we think headwear peripherals deserve another chance. Just so long as Konami isn’t involved.
“Konami isn’t involved (but it should be)” – Innovation’s Kontrol Pad
We feel like Midway missed a trick here. There was a chance to have a Konami-Kreated-Kontroller, and it didn’t happen. (Although that would have created quite an uncomfortable acronym.) Instead, Innovation had a go, and it actually did a tolerable job of it.
The premise was that you bought Mortal Kombat II or III on Mega Drive/Genesis, and if you sucked enough to be unable to do a character’s harder moves or combos, you also bought a Kontrol Pad, which came bundled with a few cartridges – sorry, kartridges – that you could plug in to the back of the, erm, kontroller. You could then use the four shoulder buttons to instantly do ultra-facekicking moves with the greatest of ease.
While this does seem a bit cheesy, and also a bit of a rip-off (the controllers only came with three different cartridges each, so you either had to deal with only having your cheatboxes for a few characters, or buy a boatload of controllers), the idea itself is another cool one.
“The Shelf” – Skywriter’s Stick Station
While not strictly speaking a controller, this makes the list for sheer audacity. Aimed – ostensibly – at those among us who don’t have four arms, but still wanted their Atari controller to be held in a vice-like grip that your lone non-joystick hand just couldn’t provide, the Stick Station was a piece of wood with a hole cut in it, and could be yours for fifteen bucks.
We hope it was at least well varnished, otherwise you’d be getting splinters as well as ripped off.
“Ripped off” – The Wiimote Attachment Scourge
We won’t dwell on the Wiimote Attachment Scourge for too long, but we can’t continue without mentioning the worst attachment getting around. Others were cheaper, others were less practical, but nothing came quite this far in terms of just being really dangerous to be swinging around in your lounge room. Yes, it has a little safety strap, but who’s really going to put it on, huh?
Sure. As a general rule, everyone is a responsible (Wiisponsible? No?) person for their first ten minutes on a Wii, then they throw caution – and wrist-straps – to the wind, and an enormous plastic bowling ball through their plasma.
But that aside – and staying on the bowling motif – think about how weird the Wiimote itself is. If someone had told you in late 2004 that in a couple of years you’d be able to play a deeply satisfying game of ten pin bowling using a thing that looked like an obese TV remote, you’d have punched them right in the throat and then gone back to playingBurnout 3. The Wiimote is weird. It is also wonderful. And yeah, it’s spawned the Move, and the Kinect, and more awful gimmicky cash-ins than any sane person could list, and your significant other still can’t look you in the eye since you hyperventilated and passed out crying at the end of a Wii Sports Resort kayaking-race, but it was a bold move in an area of development that has a history of bold moves going really badly (see: the rest of this list), and it kinda came off.
And for that, we salute you, Nintendo. Now, how about you pull off a similar upset with the Wii U?
“What might have been” – Honeywell Wheel Mice
Remember the days of the ball mouse? It often felt like you spent more time scraping gunk off those little internal wheels than you did blasting people in the face with rockets. It wasn’t until we entered the age of lazor-future-tech and their magical red lights that the ball was banished to the bin.
Of course, it didn’t have to be that way. There was a company with the technology to provide a genuine alternative to the ball mouse.
Thanks to a boffin by the name of Jack Hawley, Honeywell had that technology, and they made mice that worked really well, on pretty much any surface, and didn’t gunk up. They used two little wheels on the base of the mouse instead of a ball, and while they weren’t necessarily a commercial failure, they definitely didn’t get the recognition they deserved. (Of course, that could have something to do with the fact that they had the ergonomic value of a housebrick, but what mouse didn’t in those days?) It just goes to show – the best idea in the world is always going to come up second best when you put it up against lasers.
“Power on” – The Captain Power Game
Let’s finish up on a truly sucky product. The Captain Power game barely qualified as such, and it was based on a TV show that was aimed somewhere between children and adults and managed to miss both completely.
The ‘game’ itself involved a video tape and a light-gun-type situation and was – by all accounts – rubbish.
But if we pick and choose what we take away from Captain Power – mostly the concept of an interactive TV show – we could learn a bit and maybe end up somewhere better (no, not Night Trap).
Imagine you’re watching a show. It’s a show about a war. At the end of every episode there is a battle of some sort (we don’t imagine it’d be very highbrow viewing, but we’re open to surprises). That battle takes place in real time, and you – the watcher – get to take part in it, along with anyone else who watched it and wants a go. And then the battle forms the beginning of the next episode! Your heroics in holding the Yo Gamma Nu outpost could be immortalised forever! You’d need about a million scriptwriters, and the victorious squad tea-bagging their enemies corpses probably wouldn’t make the final cut, but come on. That’d be cool. And kinda what Defiance is attempting right now. Here’s hoping it doesn’t make it into a similarly sarcastic feature in 25 years time.
What controllers do you think should have made the list? Let us know in the comments.
Michael Blake is an Aussie freelancer based in Tasmania – the birthplace of Young Einstein. You can follow him on IGN here, or take part in the Aussie team’s antics on Facebook or Twitter.