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Game Design Essentials: 20 Unusual Control Schemes

December 6, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 12 Next


Unusual Interpretations for Standard Controls

Most of these games are older titles. Although there are a few more recent games that use a strange control method for the sake of challenging the player, these days they tend to be niche titles like Donkey Kong: King of Swing, which only uses shoulder buttons.

1. Dual Joystick (Shooting)

Representative games: Robotron: 2084, Inferno, Smash TV, Total Carnage (Williams, arcade), Space Dungeon (Taito America, arcade), Front Line (Taito, arcade), Geometry Wars and sequels (Bizarre Creations, Xbox 360, DS and Wii)

Control description:

There are two joysticks on the control panel. The left stick moves the player around, and the right one determines the direction of fire. That means there is no fire button; the act of pushing the right stick signifies intent to shoot, if the game doesn't actually have automatic fire.


Moderate to high. Most controllers these days have two analog sticks. Best of all, mind, would be two digital sticks, especially for Robotron.

The scheme in use:

In creating the dual joystick control style, Eugene Jarvis solved a problem with 2D run-and-gun shooting games that has since become so ingrained into the genre that it seems strange to think it was fixed so early. Since Robotron: 2084, there's been Commando, Ikari Warriors, Gauntlet, Alien Syndrome, Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Gain Ground, Mercs, and Gauntlet Legends, along with scores more. All of these games support player facing only because of the need to specify what direction shots will go, so in all of them, in order to shoot in a direction the player must first move in that direction, unless (like Gauntlet), the player can't shoot while moving at all.

This might seem at first to be a control style for ambidextrous people, and there is a certain head pat/tummy rub aspect to it at first, but it's not hard to get the hang of. Most importantly, it makes the act of shooting at enemies while running from them much easier. All of these games feature hordes of monsters following the player constantly. In a game with the more common scheme, where the player must move the joystick to change facing, fire, then resume running, shooting behind always slows the player down.

Design lesson:

It is going against the grain of current design trends to recognize that all player ability is ultimately granted. It is not always true that the player should be able to do everything he'd expect he could in real life. For more modern games this must usually be explained, but for older, more abstract games this is not as important.

This said, I know of no game on the list of button-shooters above that gains much from forcing the player to jerk the joystick backwards to fire at approaching opponents, and some (especially Commando) would be greatly improved with Robotron controls.

2. Joystick and Dial

Representative game: Aztarac (Centuri, arcade)

Control description:

The control panel contains a dial and an analog joystick. Moving the joystick controls position. A trigger on the joystick controls firing, a little unintuitively, since it's the dial that aims the gun in any direction.


Poor. Attempts to map the dial to an analog stick could work, but would turn the control scheme into Robotron redux. It's a little more difficult to aim with a dial, but it could potentially allow for far more precise shooting than a joystick, digital or analog, could provide.

The scheme in use:

This one's a bit obscure. Aztarac is a very rare Centuri vector arcade game that Wikipedia tells us saw production in that fateful year, 1983. It's got extra-sharp graphics for a vector game, and is a tremendous challenge to play. KLOV states that only 500 machines were made, making playing Aztarac as its designer, the late Tim Stryker, intended nearly impossible for most people.

The player's spaceship can fly freely in eight directions with the joystick, and can aim in many more directions using a dial to control aiming. The object of the game is to roam around a huge area of space looking for enemy ships to destroy before they can fly in close enough to destroy a star base, destroying it. Contact is all that's required to destroy a base, and after the first couple of levels enemy ships begin flying in very rapidly and in ever-wider formations.

Although the player has infinite ships, losing all four bases means the end of the game, and before too long it becomes very challenging to get even one base through the attacks. After three or four levels, enemy formations become so large that they won't entirely fit on the screen at once, forcing the player to both fly around to find the ships and use the dial to shoot them when they show up.

Unlike Robotron, which is more-or-less constant shooting, Aztarac has long periods of silence while the player either flies out to meet the aliens or waits for them to arrive. When found, the player must take care of large groups of them very rapidly. The act of "hosing them down" is fairly well-suited by the dial aiming control. One thing Aztarac -- and for that matter Geometry Wars, which uses an analog stick to handle aiming -- have above Robotron is that the player can shoot freely in all directions.

Design lesson:

Aztarac does have a couple of problems with its control. In addition to a stick and a dial there are two buttons: the fire button, which would be impossible to use effectively if it wasn't on the joystick, and a radar button. The game's pace is fast enough later on that taking a hand off the dial and pressing the radar button can be fairly disruptive, especially since it doesn't seem to pause the game while it's held.


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Frank Cifaldi
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pfff, Aztarac? Everyone knows the definitive joystick and dial game is Mad Planets.

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Special mention for the PC Mechwarrior games. Operating a mech was like learning how to fly a jet, used the entire keyboard, and were still fun enough to be worth dealing with all the complexity.

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is this THE john harris? of Activision and RetardFuel fame?

Tony Dormanesh
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I hate to be a total nerd by pointing this out, but Front Line was listed as a dual joystick game, but it actually used a joystick dial control. You had to push down on the actual dial to shoot.

Jason Pineo
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Thank you for another interesting article. I've enjoyed the exposure to different aspects of videogaming in each of the '20 of' articles.

In the section "5. Dual Joystick (movement)" you make this comment:

"For more mundane tasks this might not be such a good idea; no one wants to play a game in which he must manipulate a soldier's legs independently step by step."

Actually, in Robot Alchemic Drive you control a giant robot's arms and legs individually using the analog and shoulder controls. Combined with the visual perspective (that of a young human standing outside of the robot), the control scheme does a very good job of conveying the experience of 'controlling a giant robot'. And to be honest, sometimes it's fun to mess up and accidentally backhand a civic building in combat. I suspect it is a fairly niche experience, but it's done consistently and well.

Brian Burwell
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Has anyone else ever played Hyper Bowling? That one can be quite tiring depending on which "alley" you're on. The streets of San Francisco are the worst with dodging traffic and all the hills.

John Harris
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Anonymous #2: Nope, I'm not that John Harris. (Not the first time I've been asked, the guys seems to have dropped off the face of the earth.)

Jason Pineo: I stand corrected, thanks.

Tony Dormanesh: Front Line's an oversight, meant to remove but apparently forgot.

Leaving out two-stick mech games is an oversight, but they could be considered a variant of tank controls.

Note, by the way, that the title says 20 games but there's actually 21. That's because Progress Quest could be considered to be not a game at all....

Billy Bissette
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When talking about dual sticks, Ikari Warriors is described as a "move to aim"-style game, which is not true of the arcade versions. They (and other games like Heavy Barrel) used a special joystick that could be rotated for aiming. For a game like Ikari Warriors, this worked better than dual sticks, as you had separate fire and grenade buttons. And it worked better than "stick and dial" as the fire button was separate from the stick.

The biggest detriment to the rotating stick was probably that it was more expensive to replace when broken.

The discussion for adapting Trackball One-to-One motion deserves mention of Super Monkey Ball's analog stick tilt-the-stage approach.

The design lesson discussion for Motion Wand calls Wii Sports gold swing as an obfuscated version of Golden Tee's trackball. I think the opposite is more accurate. When it comes to swinging a golf club, spinning Golden Tee's trackball is more an abstraction than swinging the Wii remote like a golf club.

The weakness of Wii Golf may mostly be that Wii detection just seems shoddy in general, for both hardware and software reasons. This will remain an issue for the Wii in the long run, which from all accounts simply cannot match or even compare to more dedicated motion detection and aiming hardware, whether it be the Guncon 3 or some cheap plug-straight-into-the-TV plastic sword swinging game.

John Harris
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These are all fair assessments Billy, thanks for responding!

I'm afraid I have more experience with the NES Ikari Warriors (which I -hated-) than the arcade.

Super Monkey Ball's (and the original Monkey Ball's) analog stick is known of and greatly appreciated, but unfortunately there's only 20 (or 21) slots. And more and more games are using that kind of motion.

My description of Wii Sports as a version of Golden Tee's system is due to chronology (Golden Tee has been around for a while now) and rather a lot of experience with Wii Sports Golf. The fact that the game ultimately resorts to a power bar is a little bit of a cheat. From different perspectives, though, each is closer to real golf.

And I disagree about motion wand detection being shoddy on the Wii. There are a number of games (like Wii Monkey Ball) that use it quite precisely. For example, people have built machines into which a Wiimote can be inserted that are capable of bowling a strike every time. I expect it's how- the data is used that is the problem, that the reason it seems inaccurate has to do with data averaging and discarding done in order to avoid picking unintentional motions.

Billy Bissette
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For Monkey Ball's control, I mean that it might be a viable approach to adapting Trackball One-to-One motion to the now common analog stick. No, it is not a perfect emulation. But it certainly could be closer to D-Pad attempts, and might even add some variability back into player results, if still not reaching trackball slipperiness.

I cannot speak to Wii Monkey Ball's performance, as I've not played it. To me, the design of the series has only gone downhill, so SMB2 was my last purchase. I have certainly read a fair share of complaint about Wii Monkey Ball control though, mostly in the form of people who find it sloppy compared to what was done for analog sticks.

John Harris
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I played a bit of Wii Monkey Ball and found its control was precise, but that it didn't overcome the game's other flaws. I agree completely that the series has gone downhill.

Seth Isenberg
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For Guitar Hero: "The game may not have originated in arcades, but it's popular for many of the same reasons as Dance Dance Revolution."

Actually, the guitar controller originated in arcades in Japan- Guitar Freaks was a Konami Bemani game in the same series as DDR, there were 4 or 5 versions as well. I played the game in Japanese arcades in 2000. The only difference in the controller was the lack of whammy bar and perhaps one less fret button. It also had a lift in the air component for bonus points. There might have been a home controller for the Japanese PS as well.

Ethan Larson
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I don't agree with his assessment of Toobin at home... You can map R1/R2/L1/L2 to the movement buttons and X to throw. Feels very much like the arcade machine. And while it may be "purposely made more difficult by its controls," it is learning those controls that makes it fun.

Glad someone said the DDR proves twich games still sell. :)

Interesting article, dude.

Christopher Drum
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Semi-important oversights on the "Dial and Joystick" controller as Tron and Discs of Tron are classics. Wondering a little how a "rotary joystick" fits into this list, ala Ikari Warriors. The "Dial Movement" section leaves out some incredibly notable games: Omega Race, Major Havoc and Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator (Arcade).

A fine article, as usual. (really enjoyed your RPG/JRPG write-up, in particular).