I was thinking, the other day, about how a parent tries to get kids in to video games. What started me on this was actually quite the opposite: I had seen a photograph of a woman’s hand holding a Playstation controller – but in that awkward way that someone who has never played a video game before holds controllers… one thumb on the buttons, the left hand doing nothing at all, no where near the D-Pad or Analog stick. And that got me thinking: how did I learn to play games?
There are kids who are about to get their driver’s license who obviously didn’t grow up with the Atari and the Nintendo. Their brains fascinate me – they must me more advanced than I will ever be. I graduated from one face button, to four, to shoulder buttons and triggers, to Analog Sticks. And if I were going to take someone who had NEVER played a game before, I would teach them the same way I had learned.
I would be fascinated to watch someone jump right in to gaming and have the Xbox 360 be their first console, but I have no kids of my own, and I’ve grown up gaming, so I have no idea how to wrap my head around that. How could you pick up a controller that has a total of 9 digital buttons, two analog sticks, two analog triggers, and a directional pad with somewhere between 4 and 24 directional sensors and know what to do? The complexities of video games should be gradually introduced. This being my firm belief, I have developed a training regimen to get someone comfortable with a game controller.
It begins where many people began: the Atari 2600. I would begin with Pac-Man. It’s a sad excuse for an arcade-port, it’s true, but the game involves no button presses, you merely need to master the joystick. We then move on to using the button by going to Defender. For extra credit, try Asteroids to reinforce on the player the concept of “screen warping” which they should have experienced in Pac-Man.
Our user then graduates to the Nintendo Entertainment System. Now we have a slightly more complex controller – to get used to the multiple buttons, I would use a simple game that easily demonstrates the difference, such as Excite Bike, before moving on to to something else. I would save Super Mario Bros. until the user is familiar with the controller. Thinking about it as a pack-in game fascinates me, because it does have fairly advanced controls. The user needs to be able to handle simultaneous button presses, such as holding the “B” button to run, while moving in the direction they want and pressing “A” to jump, in order to cross large pits. It is critical to future game play to learn the complexities of multiple simultaneous button presses.
The super Nintendo may have introduced more buttons, but the gameplay mechanics didn’t change until the Nintendo 64 was released and introduced the analog stick to the main stream. You could use a Saturn, here, but… why would you? Super Mario 64 is a great tutorial on the Analog stick and I would stick with this before sending someone off to the Sonic Adventure games on the Dreamcast – the control always seemed a little less rigid in Super Mario 64.
Now it’s time to move up to the Xbox, Xbox 360, PS2, or PS3. I’d jump right to the 360, but it is my console of choice. I missed out on the PS2 era, never owning one and opting for PC gaming at the time. So although I’m sure there are excellent games to get the user familiar with multiple analog sticks, I would go right up to the Xbox 360. And the game that really helped me get comfortable with dual-analog sticks was the twin stick shooter Geometry Wars Evolved. Once you have that down, work in to the player’s most likely favorite genre… racing games, FPS, 3rd person action, RPG – or some hybrid titles like Skyrim or Bioshock.
Successful grooming of a new gamer can take time and patience. Players jumping right in to more modern consoles and controllers can skip everything I’ve mentioned here, but I would advise finding games that will slowly familiarize the new player with a controller. They’re not likely to dive head first into Gears of War with much luck, but you could use a Sonic the Hedgehog game from the arcade (or a clone like Fancy Pants Adventures), and on to games which introduce more complex game mechanics, such as Braid.
There are lots of ways to get someone in to gaming who hasn’t been onboard before – but if the controller is the most overwhelming obstacle, at least there are some options to ramp up to the more modern controllers!