Rick's import controller comes in, and he puts it to the feel test ... and a thorough one at that!
My import GCN controller has finally graced my mailbox, and it is truly a wonder to behold … and to hold!
Despite being smaller than the N64 controller, it’s heavier by virtue of the built-in “Rumble Pak.” The cord is ever so slightly longer (by about an inch) than the N64 controller cord. Surely extension cables will be available from third-parties at launch for folks that like to game from the comfort of their couch. The controller is constructed well, with textured plastic and a quality look and feel. There is a reason why first-party controllers are widely regarded as better than the cheaper knockoffs, and it always comes down to construction. Nintendo knows that the controller is an extension of your hand when you’re playing, and a cheap controller can ruin a great game. Nintendo cuts few corners in the manufacturing and parts of its controllers.
The Control Stick and Directional Pad is on an oblong “platform” as are the button unit and C-Stick. This raises them slightly off the surface of the main controller, helping your thumb remain in a slightly curled and natural position while holding the controller. The controller isn’t overly small for my medium-sized hands, but people with larger hands might find a third-party controller more comfortable. The handles seem to be shorter than the N64 handles at first glance, but it’s actually the middle section on the N64 controller that’s larger … the handles on both controllers are roughly the same length. It’s that middle section that changes the way you grip the controller, bringing the handles further into your palms. The N64 controller’s handles are wider, but taper to a point, while the GCN controller’s handles taper more smoothly and are more rounded at the end. The trick to a comfortable grip on the controller seems to be to avoid gripping too hard. A light grip rests everything right where it ought to be, comfortably.
The Control Stick and the C-Stick both have octagonal cutouts in the controller, to help you hit those eight classic directions easier. Of course, they are fully analog, supporting 256 degrees of motion. The tops of both are rubberized to improve grip, with the Control Stick having concentric ridges to further aid in grip. They feel good, move very smoothly, and the textured tops should help counteract “Nintendo Thumb.” Other than the tops and the color, the sticks are identical in construction.
It should be noted that the rubber tops of these sticks could eventually lose some of that texture after frequent use (possibly needing years of use before this happens). Considering the size of the post supporting the tops, Nintendo could have made these tops screw-in type accessories … user replaceable in the event that the gamer can no longer grip them properly. Perhaps a third-party manufacturer could keep this in mind.
The Directional Pad (or D-Pad) is identical in size, shape, and indentation as the D-Pad on the Game Boy Advance … no doubt to help defray costs. The plastic is textured and not smooth, however, like on the GBA or even the other controller buttons. While many will argue that the pad is too small, it will likely increase response time since your thumb won’t have as far to travel. Add to this the fact that Nintendo will likely be pressuring people to use the analog stick, and this could be a non-issue. Still, the small D-Pad must be seen as a minor flaw.
The button unit (A, B, X, Y) are raised above the surface of the controller a great deal, a likely remnant of the former analog nature of the buttons. The A button is roughly 50% larger than on the N64, while the B button is 50% smaller. Nintendo is clearly putting focus on simplifying control, while at the same time adding functionality to the rest of the controller. The X and Y buttons are positioned to the right and above the A-Button, respectively. Their unique “kidney bean” shape helps differentiate them from the other two buttons.
The thumb has easy travel to each button, and additionally, can press combinations to two buttons with ease. Pressing between any button and the A button results in a simple “double button press”. Also, whether by design or accident, it is also possible to press X, Y and A at the same time with little effort. This could be a very exciting addition to fighting games that are used to the four triggers on the PS2 controller, but it is certainly up to the developers to discover this and find innovative ways to use it.
The Start/Pause button is very small, half again as small as the diminutive B button, and with this button being recessed between the aforementioned oblong “platforms”, it’s very cumbersome to press. This seems intentional, as very few games use the “Start” button any more, preferring to allow the A or B button to serve double duty. Still, when the phone rings and you need to quickly pause the game, this difficult placement of the Pause button is sure to cost gamers a life or two.
The Z-Button is an odd one indeed. It’s the only button that pivots, by pressing the edge closest to the handle the button depresses by pivoting on the end near the middle of the controller. There is a small raised nub to indicate when your finger is on it and where to press it. Awkward is the only word to describe the effort you must go to in order to engage this button. You have to crank your index finger back and press the nub with the tip of your finger in order to ensure a good button press. Alternatively, you could attempt to press the button with the middle of your index finger, but this feels no better, and it’s harder to get a good button press out of it.
Add to this the lack of a matching button on the other side of the controller, and you end up with a button that feels and operates like an afterthought. The Z-Button on the N64 controller was in a natural position when holding the controller to use the analog stick, functioning like the L button which was no longer reachable. On the GameCube controller, the button is simply ill-advised. It’s out of place and feels merely a concession to developers that wanted another button for their games.
Of course, the true beauty of the GameCube controller lies in the precision engineered shoulder buttons. The buttons are fairly long and wide, accommodating index fingers of all shapes and sizes. (Those of you without index fingers will probably not find these buttons as comfortable). They’re concave, allowing your finger to rest in the crevice naturally, rounded to match the underside of the first joint of your finger. In this position, my index finger falls over the edge a bit to hang free on the other side of the button.
The shoulder buttons (L and R) are analog like the Control Stick and C-Stick. Supporting as wide a range of motion as the analog sticks, the shoulder buttons have a great deal of travel, sure to please fans of the racing genre (they make perfect throttle and brake buttons). Additionally, they have another feature which we’ve dubbed “Click-Action”. When the shoulder buttons are depressed, there’s a natural stopping position, right about where my hanging index finger touches the controller. However, if you continue to press the shoulder button down, there is a digital click that takes place. This new and innovative feature already has developers foaming at the mouth with possibilities. Gamers are going to have to learn control, just like they did with the analog stick on the N64, when it comes to pressing this button in order to avoid activating an unwanted feature. For example, your vacuum cleaner in Luigi’s mansion will overheat faster if you click the shoulder button than it will if you simple press it down to right before the click.
All in all, the Nintendo GameCube controller is by far the most comfortable controller I’ve ever held, and is winning gamers over everywhere. Too many buttons can be confusing, and not enough can be limiting. Nintendo seems to have struck a nice balance in button quantity and placement (with the odd Z-Button exception), and the innovative “Click-Action” of the analog shoulder buttons is going to revolutionize gaming in the new millennium in much the same way that the analog stick on the N64 did in the mid 90’s. Expect to see knockoffs for other systems soon.