Sticky Controls and Tight Turns: Retro Games that Control Perfectly
Controls in video games are a tough subject. I could explain to you how all the platformers in Action 52 require you to jump and then press a direction button to move in the air, but that doesn’t really illustrate just how wrong that feels. Likewise, I could tell you that all the skaters in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater accelerate like something just exploded behind them, but what does that tell you? Is that good? Bad?
In my years of debating and discussing the hobby, I’ve come up with strategies to describe controls; you really have to use broad strokes. The minutiae of how controls work and don’t work are vast: button layout, gravity, speed, acceleration, momentum, environmental responses, collision detection, even camera control. It’s a lot to dive into when someone just wants to know whether a game is as smooth as butter or as sticky as molasses.
To illustrate this, we’re going to dive into a few classic examples of games that nailed their controls, sometimes without any previous game to show them how it was done.
While Super Mario Bros. may hold the crown as the most ubiquitous platformer, its controls were less than perfect. Inventive, yes, definitely. They incorporated momentum based movement that asked you to trade between precision controls and speed. Personally, I don’t think I ever let go of the B button. I might have an indent on my thumb.
I’d consider Mega Man to be the gold standard of platformer controls. In terms of speed, jump precision, and gravity, it just felt amazing. The games are notorious for their instant death and treacherous platforming, but the blue bomber’s movements were more than up to the task. This movement system would be expanded upon to great effect in the Mega Man X series, which added the dash jump into the mix and made magic.
STREET FIGHTER II
While it may not have invented the fighting genre, Street Fighter II was definitely responsible for popularizing it. Moreover, its special move system, which incorporated circular movement on the stick as well as “charging” in a direction, would be duplicated to this day by others in the genre.
The series didn’t nail this method on the first try -- the original Street Fighter controlled like a one-wheeled shopping cart -- but Street Fighter II was able to refine and perfect it. There’s a good reason why no fighting game since could escape comparison to this venerable title.
SUPER MARIO 64
The early days of 3D graphics were a nightmarish hellscape. While flight sims and driving games were able to make use of the new dimension to some effect, the platformer -- a cornerstone of the 8 and 16-bit eras -- struggled to adapt. Then Super Mario 64 came along and laid the groundwork for how things should be done. Not everyone listened, however, that’s how we ended up with Superman on the N64.
Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the Mario series, had a vision, and Nintendo backed him fully. He knew that for 3D to work, the camera had to be completely in the hands of players. The Nintendo 64’s somewhat unusual controller was designed completely around this philosophy, with one analogue stick and a quartet of “C-buttons.”
The analogue stick allowed players to move Mario in any way they could imagine: he could tip-toe, sprint, or even just walk. He was also given a full arsenal of jumps to get him places. He could bounce off walls, flip, and triple jump. He was even given a suite of novel powerups that allowed him to fly or made him as heavy as a statue. It’s amazing how deep the controls are in a game of this vintage.
GEARS OF WAR
I can’t profess to being a fan of Gears of War; something about steering around a giant walking fridge with subwoofers on its pecks kind of does nothing for me. However, I am at least reverent for what it did for its console generation. The “stop-and-pop” shooter would become a hallmark, supplanting the Half-Life formula and Halo formula as the go-to for shooters.
It didn’t congeal in a vacuum, however. Its cover-based and over-the-shoulder shooting would be pioneered by Winback in 1999. Even Resident Evil 4 can claim a greater contribution to the third-person shooter in 2005. However, I’d argue that none hit the mark as well as Gears of War did in 2006. It refined an popularized cover-based shooting, introduced the “roadie run,” and made over-the-shoulder the default camera angle for years. And who can forget that chainsaw rifle?
These are, no doubt, not the only titles that nailed their controls, but they’re certainly some of the more high-profile examples. Additionally, you’d have a tough time convincing me that any racing game controlled better than Mario Kart 8. And to answer a hypothetical question from earlier, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater’s controls were complete magic.
So what games have made your hands feel good? Is there a racing game with physics so real they blow your mind? Did Robotron’s twin sticks delight your palms? Was NBA Jam capture the sport better than any other game? Was WWF No Mercy the pinnacle of pro wrestling games (it was). Let us know!