Ebony And Ivory: The Xbox's Black And White Buttons, In Imperfect Harmony

Dusting off some old friends on the original Xbox I was given back in January reacquainted me with several happy memories — and the two worst features in the history of console video gaming controllers: The black and white buttons.

I realise we're more than five years removed from their reign of terror, but as the long memory of the Internet continually demonstrates, there is no statute of limitations on crimes against video gaming. Sitting there, tapping uselessly on the controller's shoulders with my index fingers, the recollection Oh, that command's on the black — and I truly did stop and facepalm — was like being reminded of some embarrassing thing you'd done and long forgotten.

Black button, you were reload in Hitman, which is why I always fired to the end of the clip. You were the pitch to the halfback on the option in NCAA Football 2004. White button, you were one of the most used controls in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic not because you really added any value, but because you paused and resumed combat. And combat always started out paused.

Does this bring back memories for anyone? The Xbox controller was, on the whole, a good controller. Yes, its directional pad was a monstrosity and it continues to be. But the controller's dual analogs were more ergonomically placed. And the inclusion of true variable triggers was inspired (one reason I just couldn't get into Vice City Stories on the PS2 is because I had no driving touch with acceleration on a face button.) But god damn, much more than the D-Pad, did they fuck it up with the black and white buttons, which were supposed to perform the functions of the PS2's L1 and R1, commonly known as the bumpers or shoulders today.

To refresh your memory, the black and white buttons were placed in locations where no one would think to find them. They were tough to reach with your thumb and their placement was basically disruptive to the mental map you made of the available commands, critical for fast-twitch gaming. On the first Xbox controller, the beloved Duke (pictured above), black and white were set above and right of the face buttons. The Duke already required really large hands for comfortable gaming — you could tell this thing was made for a North American market, not Japan. You had to shift your entire right palm off the controller to key the black or white, as straining up over the X/Y buttons to hit the buttons — which were smaller for some stupid reason — was physically impossible for many.

One the "Controller S" redesign, Microsoft put Black and White in an even worse spot — about east-by-southeast of the right analogue stick. Playing on this unit required me to bend my right thumb inwards to hit either button. I ran the option a lot in NCAA 2004.

And even then, their naming had absolutely no correspondence to their position. Left trigger, right trigger, everyone understands that. It takes a second to figure out X/Y and A/B the first time you pick up the controller (and really, when's the last time you thought about the first time you held an Xbox controller) but still, their positioning goes left to right and bottom to top. Though most people say it "black and white," white was left of black. And the puppeteering they offered didn't make much sense either. They were completely throwaway buttons, maybe because Microsoft felt that putting true shoulder buttons on this — which it did, obviously, for the Xbox 360 controller — gave too much credit to Sony's design or conceded its superiority.

Nowhere was the atrocity of the black/white buttons more apparent than in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. After giving them noncritical functions in GTA III and Vice City (change the radio, change the camera) Rockstar did something that still is unforgivable in my mind. It made them the look left/look right command in a car. Look left equals white ... how? Look right corresponds to black ... why? But the worst aspect is that firing a gun from the car was now on the A button. Better than being a stick click in the previous two games, but utterly impossible considering your right thumb had to key two buttons at once. If you had a Duke, you would have to use two hands on that side of the controller, meaning you couldn't steer, accelerate or brake. PlayStation 2 partisans, here is where you should be cackling with delight.

I suppose someone at Rockstar figured the buttons were in close enough proximity that your entire digit could hit both in one gesture but, no. The smaller black/white button size, the angle of their placement and even the fact they protruded out of the controller face less made this unworkable. It made the Vigilante missions, which were required for 100 per cent completion, impossible from a squad car. You had to do it from a police bike firing straight ahead, or wait until you got into the attack helicopter. Or, do like I did, buy a goddamn $US25 third-party controller that actually had shoulder buttons. But the rubber always shredded and wore off their thumbsticks, which is another bitch session altogether.

Things are different today. Today, the Xbox 360 has proper shoulder buttons, and the eye-rolling you get from PS3 gamers when you call their L1 the "left bumper" and the R2 the "right trigger" underlines the fact this is a natural naming convention in addition to a natural alignment. Many PS3 games controls (mostly third-party, with some notable exceptions) feature the triggers as the dominant index-finger controls. I'm sure there are plenty of new or casual gamers out there who mistakenly believe the PlayStation 3's controller copied the Xbox 360's.

In the end, we have as close to standardised controls across the two dominant platforms as we ever have, something for which gamers and, no doubt, developers are grateful. But man, revisiting that six-month love affair with a game on the previous generation makes for some painful driveby shootings down memory lane.


Comments

    "To refresh your memory, the black and white buttons were placed in locations where no one would think to find them."

    Unless you owned a sega console and a six button controller....

      my thoughts exactly

        Glad I'm not the only one.

      What if I told you that the Xbox controller is actually a distant descendant of the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis control pad? Seriously, look at it in comparison to the Sega Dreamcast Controller. See a few similarities? Now, consider that the Dreamcast controller was essentially a refinement of the idea they had with the Sega Saturn's 3d control pad. Then consider that the face buttons on the 3d control pad essentially followed the design of the Saturn's original 6-Button pad, which itself was an evolution of the Genesis 6-Button pad...

    Ahhhhhhh KOTOR why did they make gou into an MMO not just a third game.

      Because SWTOR isn't KOTOR?

        He is saying why did they make the old republic instead of a third knights of the old republic... It's the same storyline just a couple hundred years after also by the same developer...

          It's done by the same developer in name sure, but BioWare Edmonton (or back when KOTOR was made just BioWare) developed KOTOR, SWTOR is a product of BioWare Austin, it's a little bit more acceptable because Edmonton helped on development too, but that's not my point and this is getting too sidetrack-y but if we start just acknowledging everything that comes out with the BioWare logo on it to be done by the same devs then we're in dangerous territory. Next you'll be trying to tell me that C&C Generals 2 is done by the same people as KOTOR because BioWare Victory are developing.

          Anyway, to use a recent example to help try and the get the point I'm trying to make across, Metal Gear Rising is part of the same storyline as Metal Gear Solid, it takes place several years after MGS4 and involves characters and plot elements established in MGS games, however it is NOT MGS5.

          So with that established we can advance to the ultimate point, SWTOR was developed by a studio that was started up to make SWTOR (BW Austin) while the Edmonton studio worked on whatever Dragon Age/Mass Effect content was relevant at the time, on top of this it was developed as a seperate entry to the Old Republic storyline, yes it is a sequel to KOTOR but is isn't meant as a replacement to KOTOR3.

          tl;dr With or without SWTOR, KOTOR3 still wouldn't be happening because BW Austin was created to work on SWTOR and if they didn't have SWTOR it would have been to work on some other MMO because BW wanted to make an MMO. Edmonton would still have their hands completely full with DA/ME and thus wouldn't have time to work on KOTOR3, so no matter what we would still be sitting here today with no KOTOR3. I guess I just don't understand why everyone believes that if this game wasn't developed we would instead have KOTOR3.

          Also why does BW have to be the one to develop it anyway? Shouldn't all the bad will built up through ME3 DLC+Ending and just DA2 in general have people HOPING they don't do it? Why not get Obsidian on it?

    I didn't actually find them that bad on the S controller - and the problem of not knowing which is which disappears as soon as you actually get familiar with any game. I used to be able to press them with the inside of my thumb knuckle, so I didn't have to take my thumb off the face buttons at all.

    Good for SF or 6 button fighting games. Much better than having my right hand at a 90 degree anglee everytime I want a hard punch or kick.
    Wish the new controller had them... if they did I might not have spent the money on a fight stick.

    You guys must have tiny hands, i never had any issue reaching the black and white buttons, i actually loved them, they made 6 button fighters actually playable. God i miss 6button controllers...

      keyboards are better

        keyboards are not better for third person games.

        The analog sticks give greater fidelity and you can control movement and camera at the same time.
        How many platformers get released for PC?

    original xbox controller was fantastic for one game... HALO. Every other game was horrible.

      Every other game? Only if you had the hands and dexterity of a really small and simple 5 year old, then yeah, it was horrible.

    Microsoft released the S controller coz chicks started playing it. The Duke was the MAN'S controller.

      If your definition of 'Man' was King Kong.

        My younger sister and brother handled the original xbox controller just fine. Both were under the age of 10 when we got it.

      Actually I prefer the "man's" controller.
      Also the reason they made the smaller controller was because in Japan they had smaller hands and required a smaller controller

    Glad to see I'm not the only one who liked the big Xbox controller. As for worst features on a gaming controller, I can think of several that Nintendo has released over the last 2-3 generations.

    While the black and white buttons weren't the best, I fail to see what all the fuss is about. If Rockstar chose to use some stupid config in their game, then that's not MS's fault. Their positioning for the Controller S was fine as well. For the most part, they functioned as utility buttons and did a good job as such because they were out of the way. That's not an hardware design flaw, it's a poor programming choice.

    Wait shoulder buttons were Sony's thing? I would like to point towards the snes and others

    >Using the tip of your thumb to hit black/white
    Doing it wrong.
    Admittedly, placement sucked on the Duke, but they were fine on the S

    I'd say the worst feature on a console controller had to be the side buttons on he Intellivision's control pad. Those things made your fingers sore after 10 minutes.

    "And the inclusion of true variable triggers was inspired (one reason I just couldn’t get into Vice City Stories on the PS2 is because I had no driving touch with acceleration on a face button.)"
    Because Vice City Stories is a PSP port?
    As far as I remember, the PS2 HAS Variable input on its face buttons.. at least, I know it DOES in Ridge Racer V, but I guess not everyone took advantage of it.

      PS2 had digital face buttons. They were either on or off. The only analogue (ie, variable) buttons on the controller were L2 and R2.

        You're wrong , dude. Every button on it was analog other than start, select, L3, R3 and the "analog" button. Even the D-pad was analog.

          That's the feature which made the PS2 controller amazing - playing Tony Hawk with an analog D-Pad was incredible. It also worked brilliantly for firing in Metal Gear Solid. In my mind the only controller which beats out Sony's design is the Gamecube pad.

        Incorrect. As has been pointed out by others, all of the main face buttons on the Dualshock 2 controller were analog. Playing Metal Gear Solid 3 without that added level of control (the 3DS version) is proving to be quite challenging to me.

    I remember in the original Topspin game that if you won or lost a game you can choose your reaction, if you lost and pressed the black button you see your player looking sad and stressed, but if you mashed the black button like crazy you go into a fit and throw your racket or your hat and basically lose your shit, if you mashed the white button you were a little more understanding and you withhold your rage, sometimes even congratulating the opponent.

    There was something similar with winning, i think the black button you taunt the opponent and the white button you go into a happy dance or something. I thought that was the only time the little black and white buttons were useful for anything, that and grenades in the Halo games. You were right about the San Andreas thing though.

    Strangely enough, I don't really remember hating the black and white buttons. Granted I played most of my games on either PS2 or Gamecube, reserving XBox for a couple of unbeatable exclusives, so I may not have come up against them much.
    AS mentioned in the article, I don't think Microsoft could have made a worse D-pad. To this day they can't get it right. The 360's D-pad is just as horrendous.

    I actually use the original XBOX controller as my pc control pad for 3rd person games. Sure I have to use a few hacks to make the pc think it's actually a 360 controller but I just love the size of it. It fits to your hands properly.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now