Confessions of a Control(ler) Freak

I recently listened to Episode 5 of the Ready Up podcast and its great Martin’s Musing, where he pondered EA’s decision to not allow players to start their games by pushing the A button on their Xbox 360 controller. While I worry a little about my highly esteemed Ready Up colleague, (after all, covering such an epic distance to push a different button doesn’t seem that bothersome in the grand scheme of things), Martin’s thoughts on the matter have got me thinking about control pads.

The distance between those buttons, as the thumb flies; also known as over an inch for those less metrically minded

Looking at current console control pads, I can’t help but feel that it’s about time someone was daring enough to rethink the ‘Start’ and ‘Select’ buttons, or ‘Start’ and ‘Back’ for the Xbox 360, or indeed ‘+’ and ‘-’ for the Wii. Generally speaking, what is the point of these buttons?

Now I’m not literally asking what is their function; as we all know, when in-game ‘Start’ is almost always used to pause a game and its sibling, whether you call it ‘Select’, ‘Back’ or ‘-‘, is often used to bring up secondary menus or maps or suchlike. What I mean is, isn’t it time we either got rid of these buttons or called them something else?

The more pedantic people out there will argue that the Wii’s ‘+’ and ‘-’ buttons are not the same as ‘Start’ or ‘Select’; the Wii’s Classic Controller would beg to differ.

As noted by Martin, we gamers more often press something else on the controller when we begin a game, to the point that, for him at least, it feels a bit odd to actually have to push ‘Start’ to do so. Obviously the button’s inclusion and its label is a throwback to our console gaming roots, tipping the hat to the NES and SNES controllers specifically; the N64 and Gamecube each opted out of the ‘Select’ button conundrum, while Sega’s consoles wouldn’t touch ‘Select’ with a barge pole. But really, how often is ‘Start’ used to literally start anything? (Apart from EA’s games, anyway.)

Likewise with the ‘Select’ button; what is it we’re actually selecting? Back in the NES days the button was sometimes used to select different modes on a game’s title screen, but even in that console generation such a thing quickly became the exception rather than the rule. As we all know, we tend to select or confirm a selection by pushing a different button on a controller altogether. Its Xbox 360 equivalent, ‘Back’, is something I personally never push to actually ‘go back’, since when navigating the Xbox 360’s dashboard and most in-game menus, the B button is more than capable of fulfilling that need.

Is it any wonder then that, with something as fundamental as a control pad having its own design peculiarities, we gamers would often find it hard to get our non-gaming friends interested in our hobby?1 Passing a control pad to a non-gamer, and without their reading of an instruction manual, who would know that to pause the on-screen action you counter-intuitively press a button labelled ‘Start’?2

Now I’m not clever enough to propose a universally accepted solution to this, and let’s face it, it’s not exactly a pressing problem (no pun intended). But why not rename the ‘Start’ button to become the ‘Play/Pause’ button? After all, it isn’t going to change a gamer’s experience one bit, but it could help more literal minded people with any apprehension they may have towards modern controllers. And, as right as it seems to see ‘Press Start’ on a game’s title screen, ‘Press Play’ wouldn’t be all that jarring. Sony’s PlayStation pads have always had their ‘Start’ button shaped like the familiar triangle we associate with the ‘Play’ button on remotes for your CD or DVD players, so perhaps it’s not such a daft suggestion after all.

Or so I thought. In doing a bit of research for this blog I had a look at various old school controllers and noticed something of a trend. This observation arose from seeking out pads of the past that were designed with this more logical approach to their ‘Start’ and ‘Select’ equivalents with three pads rearing their heads; the controllers for the Amiga CD32, the Atari Jaguar and the Panasonic 3DO. Each controller featured a button labelled either ‘Pause’ or ‘Play/Pause’ and each of their respective consoles were an unmitigated disaster.

Three consoles dared to buck the trend; subsequently the trends bucked them right back.

In fact, if you think back to more or less every games console released since the NES, if a console controller did not feature a button labelled ‘Start’ and a button labelled ‘Select’ (or a renamed ‘Select’ equivalent along the lines of the original Xbox, Wii and Xbox 360) it came decisively last in its respective console generation, with the Mega Drive the solely successful ‘Select’-free exception in the hotly contested 16-bit days.

And the moral of this story? While we may not know what the future of console gaming may bring, the past tells us much; console history is written by the victors, folks, and only the winners sport the all-important partnership that is ‘Start’ and ‘Select’… or its equivalent.

1__Well, prior to the Wii, Kinect and Move at least.
2__Having said that, resuming play by pushing ‘Start’ makes sense.





3 responses to “Confessions of a Control(ler) Freak”

  1. Martin avatar

    Glad it made you think. The main reason for the inclusion of these buttons, I think, is primarily down to the arcade heritage of games. All cabinets always had a start and sometimes select button.
    As I was driving to work I tried to count how many functioning buttons there were on a 360 controller and came up with 17! Overkill surely.

  2. The Rook avatar
    The Rook

    What if… (now stick with me here) but what if instead of renaming the start button they renamed the onscreen instruction; maybe instead of ‘Press Start’ it could say ‘Press any button’ and that takes you into the game menu.

    17 Martin? Did you count the two analogs sticks as directional buttons and then again for clicking them in, would bring it up to 19. 🙂

  3. Martin avatar

    I didn’t count them as directional buttons, i only counted the buttons that can be “clicked” or “pressed”.
    I think the fact that all controllers have a “guide” button should mean that the need for select and start is redundant. That also ensures there are no accidental presses of the buttons.

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