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Orpheus.

 

 

1) Nintendo Wii U Gamepad

 

The gamepad is bloated plastic.

It is expansive.

Even with all its technology (touchscreen, console streaming) it feels empty. It feels like a pastry puff.

The face buttons have a deep, low click when pressed and a higher-pitched, muted release.

There is stiffness to them that both speaks to the solid build of the device and of over-engineering.

Everything on the device presses like a face button except the analog sticks.

The D-pad is enormous, making it difficult to use, and clicks hard on presses, tiring the thumb.

It is nice to have triggers that snap rather than melt against your finger, but the ability to gauge force is gone.

The gamepad is not a subtle device.

It is gaudy, heavy, and tight.

It is empty, but with the right amount of friction.

A friction born from Nintendo’s first-party games.

It lacks subtlety, it lacks the hidden finesse Nintendo games demand from the players.

It’s almost as if the gamepad is a reaction to the Wii controller’s light weight.

But there wasn’t any subtlety there either since the Wii depended on inaccurate motion-control.

Nintendo gave up the sword to build the tank.

 

2) SNK Neo-Geo X

 

The Neo-Geo X is a gorgeous machine to look at.

It is a contender for the most beautiful handheld ever made.

Everything about it is understated: A black and gold color scheme and a layering of texture.

The face buttons are tighter than the Wii U gamepad, but not as audible. The buttons make the same noise being pressed as they do being released.

This lack of noise from the face buttons is offset by one of the few innovations the Neo-Geo X possesses: The joystick.

Catering to arcade/action games, Tommo built the Neo-Geo X with a microswitch joystick.

Any tap in any direction creates a loud, audible click.

The NGX has great density, but lacks the puffiness of the Wii U gamepad.

It doesn’t sit comfortably in hand.

One of the best features of the system is the split shoulder buttons.

Rather than have two long shoulder buttons at the top of the console, Tommo cut each shoulder button into two, making the NGX the only portable console with four shoulder buttons.

The PS Vita could have benefited from this feature with PS4 remote play.

The downside to Tommo/SNK’s approach to the shoulders is the difficulty in curling fingers to tap L1/R1 since they are stunted to make room for L2/R2.

The NGX has a soft rubber back that feels sticky and decadent.

This is a texture more hardware manufacturers ought to use.

In spite of its problems, this is one of the best handheld gaming devices ever made.

Even better than the Neo-Geo Pocket Color.

 

3) Xbox 360 Controller

 

The Xbox 360 controller is pretty. Its lines are both direct and subtle.

It has a better silhouette than the Sixaxis.

Between the travesty of the original Xbox controller and the success of the 360, Microsoft learned quick.

Borrowing design elements from the Sega Dreamcast, the 360 controller has one of the most unique faces of any modern console.

One analog stick positioned high on the left, bottom left sits a rolling D-pad, and further to the right the second analog stick.

The setup does seem obtuse at first, but the obviousness of its design begins to show when moving around three-dimensional spaces.

The controller itself has a nice heft and sticks in the hands.

By far the 360 controller is the most stable to hold.

It just fits.

Though the buttons are not exceptional.

Even the NGX has better face and shoulder buttons than the 360.

Its face buttons require quite a bit more force than the PS3 or the Wii U and stick out much higher than they need to.

The face buttons are too stiff.

This is strange to me when combined with the presence of a well-made rolling D-pad.

The rolling D-pad is part of what made the Sega Genesis controllers so wonderful, perfect for fast-paced action games.

Why combine a tool used for quick, fluid movement with slow, stiff buttons designed for something like inventory management?

The shoulder buttons are also difficult to press.

They are both small and require exceptional force at strange angles.

They feel almost as stunted and difficult as the NGX, but where SNK/Tommo made their decision based on space conservation and utility, Microsoft has no excuse.

The trigger buttons are actual triggers and have a strange arc to them that doesn’t work on a controller.

They are uncomfortable.

The 360 controller is an elegant, confused piece of hardware that is trying too hard to be too many things.

 

4) Sony PlayStation Vita

 

While the NGX is a product of subtle, layered design, the Vita is a powerhouse of interaction.

It has an enticing weight.

It is a very dense machine and that density is justified by the overwhelming amount of technology within.

An OLED touchscreen on the front, a touchpad on the back, two analog sticks, and front/rear cameras.

The D-pad is near perfect. It feels like a flat, rolling D-pad. Each directional press has a very subdued click that is felt more than heard.

The analog sticks are short, but responsive. They have a balanced tension that sits somewhere between the 360’s tightness and the Sixaxis’ give.

I enjoy the NGX because of its combination of textures.

Its joystick is a matte, rough plastic. Its face buttons are a clear, smooth plastic. Its case is all gloss on the front. Its back is a sticky-smooth rubber.

The Vita would have benefited from more experimentation with texture.

It would have been better without any of the gloss, like the 3DS XL.

Sony already used matte plastic around the D-pad and beneath the face buttons, they should have extended it to the whole system.

It is slippery.

It is too thin to hold comfortably and manipulate all input options.

It puts enormous strain on the wrists and hands.

While making the system larger would have been questionable, it would work better with some grips built into the back of the system rather than the two large dimples it does have.

The Vita’s highlight is its face buttons.

They are tight and responsive. They don’t feel cheap.

They have two clicks each when pressed and released, felt deep in the bones.

Pressing buttons on the Vita is a joy.

The face buttons alone are enough to make someone find reasons to play with it.

It draws you in with its innate experience.

 

5) Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP

 

The Game Boy Advance SP is one of my favorite handheld consoles of all time.

A console that drips with intimacy.

When closed, the SP is appealing and understated.

It feels good to hold and to look at: A slight rectangle with rounded corners.

It has an appealing thickness as well. It doesn’t suffer from the hyper-driven thinness of most handhelds today.

On opening the console, the proportions are less appealing.

When open, the SP looks worse than the Game Boy Pocket.

It does maintain the intimacy: The screen is small and bright and the controls are simple and obvious.

On its face the SP has only two buttons, D-pad, backlight adjustment, and Start/Select.

The whole console is matte plastic, which gives it the right amount of friction.

Nintendo positioned the Start/Select buttons near the bottom, making pausing awkward.

The SP D-pad feels similar to the Vita D-pad.

There is more space between the directions on the SP, but it has a great rolling effect. Otherwise, the SP D-pad has the same tight click as the Vita’s, without feeling difficult like the Wii U gamepad.

What’s amazing about this is that the SP predates the Vita by almost a decade.

Not only is the D-pad ascendant, but the A/B face buttons are also as good as the Vita: Dense, heavy clicks that reverberate in the thumb.

The GBA SP does have two shoulder buttons as well and while they are tight and loud, they are just as awkward to press as the NGX and the 360.

This doesn’t affect the SP as much as the other two since the shoulder buttons are not utilized in critical situations.

It’s inspiring to see what Nintendo is capable of when they get things right.

The SP came out on the back of one of the worst-designed handheld systems in history: The Game Boy Advance.

Much like with the PSV, the SP is so satisfying to interact with, it makes you find reasons to play it.

In 2014 it still doesn’t feel dated.

This is a portable device that continues to hold its own, almost 10 years later.

 

 

 

 

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