From software mechanics to hardware processes, we take for granted the many precepts that rule gaming,. Yokoi Gunpei's House of Gaming (横井軍平ゲーム館) expounds upon his role in institutionalizing many of the features we instinctively know today.
Consider the controller, that cold hunk of plastic we hold in our hands that provides a visceral link to virtual worlds. Why is it designed the way it is? Who decided to put the directional input on the left, with face buttons on the right, and that it should be operated with our thumbs? Out of all possible configurations, how did we end up where we are? To understand its evolution, we need to first observe it in its primordial state.
Flash back to 1978 and the release of Space Invaders. Taito’s runaway hit becomes an international phenomenon that inadvertently sets a number of industry standards. The cabinets were built with the joystick on the left side and the fire button on the right. Logically, you’d expect to control the fickle directional input with your dominant, right hand, but it was not to be. Perhaps the designers felt that the firing button demanded more finesse than scooting back and forth. Or that conventional controls would cut into profits by flattening the learning curve. In any case, the setup stuck, and going against their better judgment, future developers felt obliged to give consumers what they were accustomed to.
The industry’s next killer app was the Game & Watch. Released in 1980, it attempted to transplant the arcade experience, control scheme and all, into to a slim, portable body. Yokoi and his team tried every trick in the book to squeeze the jutting joystick into a finite space, even entertaining the idea of a breast-shaped flick-stick, which unfortunately proved too round and firm to fit into the casing. Plus the teats lacked finger feedback—it was difficult to tell where your thumb was in relation to the center.
Through trial and error, Yokoi’s team at R & D1 created a laundry list of everything a controller should be, based on what it wasn’t. Their resulting D-Pad solved every problem they had created for themselves. Press down on one side and the opposite rises, giving you immediate physical feedback and sense of direction. The workaround was sublime, its design transparent.
Here’s another point that seems obvious in hindsight—why do we operate the controller with our thumbs? What stopped the buttons from turning into a mini-keyboard, or, even worse, a calculator, the very device that inspired the Game & Watch? Like Japan’s burgeoning economic growth of the 80’s, the Game & Watch’s design was built upon the back of the salary man.
The term "salary man" has taken on an odious connotation, calling up caricatures of mealy-mouthed oyaji with as much self-respect and self-control as an incontinent uncle. But this wasn’t always the case! During the bubble, these oafish suits upheld the social contract they were bound to, one whose Samurai pride kept them from doing frivolous things in public, such as playing video games. In secret they all pined for a way to kill time on the commute without losing face.
Yokoi’s design gave top priority to these needs. The rectangular body fit neatly into the user’s hands, fingers cupped to keep the unit safe from view. This clandestine arrangement left the thumbs of the user open to maneuver little men around the screen, free of embarrassment.
Every subsequent controller has evolved from the Game & Watch model, which in turn is a byproduct of a culture of shame. What we take for granted as brilliant, simplistic design, wasn’t designed at all. Rather, it was born from the need to create a socially acceptable means to expand gaming to a previously untapped market. That last comment should have your shovelware-sense tingling. Nintendo has always been focused on appealing to the non-gamer. Yokoi would likely be loath to the concept of a "gamer," as it turns a harmless diversion into a demanding hobby. In fact, it was the bloated technological needs of the gamer that eventually ran Yokoi out of Nintendo towards the end of his career.
On to part 3!