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.