Just fix your controller layout already – A history of... where the heck is the X button?

I’d like to share with you an actual conversation that happened between me and a friend while playing Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 with a pair of JoyCons turned to their side.

“So how do you select a character?”

“It says it on screen. Press the A button.”

“I’m pressing the A button, it’s not working.”

“Oh no wait, don’t press the A button, press the button that would be the A button if you were playing with a full controller.”

“…. That’s stupid. Which one is that?”

“Right face button.”

“I thought A was the bottom button.”

“No that’s on an Xbox Controller. On a Nintendo controller it’s reversed but the selection button is also reversed so it’s OK.”

“I repeat… that’s stupid.”

The layout problem

And you know what, it was stupid. I don’t know how in the long history of game development we have still managed to create a game that doesn’t adequately tell you what buttons to press. Apparently all game designers just assume that you’ve memorized one of three major controller layouts these days.

If you are a PC gamer, you are used to this song and dance. You might all have your controller of choice but it’s always going to show up at an Xbox controller. Get to memorizing.

The thing is, it’s hard to memorize button layouts, especially when the Nintendo Switch and Xbox One controller seem to be deliberately confusing. For those of you who haven’t experienced this, both of these controllers use the buttons A, B, X, and Y, but not in the same place. Their locations are flipped. The B button on an Xbox controller is the A button on a Switch controller and vice versa, and the same goes for X and Y.

This should be fine if all games used the same controller map, but they don’t! Why? Well let’s take a trip down stupid memory lane to find out.

A history of buttons and letters

Way back in the day, Nintendo had a simple two button controller. On this controller, the A button was usually mapped to whatever was the most important game function. It was the first letter of the alphabet so it was the most important button. It rested right about where your thumb rested, and the B button for every other function was located to its left.

However, technology evolved and Nintendo, like many after them, would adopt four face buttons in a + formation. They decided that they would leave the A button where it was so people could remember its location. They then paired the B button with it, slightly to the left and down, and then mirrored that position with X and Y. Thus, people could still remember that the A button was the main button, the B button was an auxiliary button, and then there were yet more buttons that provided yet more functions and this would have worked…

If they didn’t screw it all up by making the main button on their first breakout SNES game, Super Mario World, B! B was normal jump and A was spin jump. So the position of the “main” button changed. This confused many a child playing Super Mario World for the first time, seeing Mario spin like a madman.

Now we had a sticky situation. Platformers mapped their “main” button to B while other games, like RPGs, mapped their main button to A. The evolution of further platformers, like run-n-guns, action games, and fighting games further muddied the waters. Many action games would map “attack” to the Y button.

This was a further consequence of mapping jump to B since you could comfortably lay your thumb over the B button and Y button at the same time, giving you access to both actions without cramping your hand. Still, “shoot” could be considered the main function in games like this, and that gave us three buttons all with “main” functions mapped to them, all different.

The only button that we all could agree wasn’t a main button was the very top button, the X button. It took effort to press that button, so it was usually relegated to menu functions, weapon switching, or whatever the least used function of a game was.

Sony’s take on pictorial buttons

For a while it was the wild west of controller mapping, but it was also the wild west of game design so no one really cared. Games were young and so it was natural to fiddle around with the way they controlled. Lots of other consoles, like the Sega Saturn, wouldn’t even adopt the standard + formation face buttons, and thus had their own controller mapping problems to deal with.

Then the PlayStation came around and made the biggest stride into codifying controller design. It’s double handled + formation controller would be emulated pretty much up to current day. Designer Teiyu Goto also decided to make its buttons pictorial.

The “main” button was still the right most face button, the “A” button for the SNES. Goto made this a circle to represent “yes” or “ok” when making choices on a menu. The “back” button was the lowermost button for the same reason, the former “B” button on the SNES. Goto made this an X to represent “no” or “cancel.” The triangle button was supposed to represent a viewpoint, for camera or menu control and the square button was supposed to represent a box, or inventory, to show using items or whatnot.

Cool. Now we have button functions hard coded into the actual design of the controller itself. Surely there is no way this can be confused.

Welp… Sony of America screwed everything up. It’s not entirely clear why but they decided to make the X button the main button for the PlayStation in American territories. One prevailing theory is that Goto made the circle button red and the X button blue, and that American gamers would notice color before shape and take red as a “no” or “cancel” signal and blue as a “yes” or “ok” signal.

Whatever the reason, game developers had an issue. Did they design their game with the Japanese layout or the American layout in mind? This too was never codified. Major games from Japan, like Final Fantasy VII, would default to a Japanese layout while major games from America, like Twisted Metal would use the American layout. Many of these games would include the ability to remap buttons so you could play in whatever style made most sense. It was a great way to sidestep the whole button mapping issue.

When the X button meant nothing

Enter Microsoft and their original Xbox. They too adopted the standard button layout (though skewed a bit on their big bulky “Duke” controller.) However, as an American company they emulated the PlayStation in America. Thus, the button that was lowest on the controller would become the “confirm” button for them, and what would they name this button? “A.”

Oooooh boy.

Once again it’s not entirely clear why but Microsoft decided to make their button layout the exact reverse of the SNES layout. A and B were swapped and X and Y were swapped. There are a few theories. First of all, we read right to left in America, and this situated buttons in alphabetical order, A on the left and B on the right. It also conveniently lined up A, the first letter of the alphabet, with the button designed to see the most use, the bottom button.

At the time, Nintendo released the Gamecube and the Gamecube controller. Instead of following the standard + formation, they decided to fiddle around with their buttons a bit. They put the A button front and center and made it clear that “this is the main button” by making it huge. The problem? They then laid out all the rest of their buttons in relation to the A button, which once again screwed around with controller design and gamer muscle memory.

The B button was to the left of the A button, as it always had been, but since the A button occupied the center of the controller the B button now occupied the far left, where the Y button had been. This put the Y button at the top of the controller where the X button had been and the X button at the right side where the A button had been.

Then Nintendo further confused gamers by releasing the DS, which followed the SNES button layout again!

I just want to note that in this time in gaming, the point in which the PS2, Xbox, Dreamcast (which was identical to the Xbox layout), Gamecube, and DS were all out on the market, if you told someone to press the “X Button” and didn’t tell them what console they were on, it could refer to literally ANY of the four main face buttons of a controller. Good luck forming muscle memory.

Things got a little less wacky from here on out. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft all had their button layouts of choice and would stick to them. Nintendo had its SNES layout, Microsoft had the reverse SNES layout, and Sony had their pictorial buttons. However, at the time the function of these buttons didn’t agree with each other. Nintendo still treated it’s “confirm” button as the right most “A” button, Microsoft still treated it’s confirm button as the down most “A” button and Sony would flip flop back and forth between X and O depending on what territory the game was made in.

And we dealt with this. We dealt with there being basically two major controller layouts, one with the confirm button on the right, one with the confirm button on the bottom.

Along the way Xinput became standardized for PC controllers which, threw another wrench into the works. Now, regardless of the controller you were using, you needed to memorize an Xbox controller’s buttons to control most games. The layout itself could be customized because, you know, PC gaming has always been chummy with button remapping, but if you didn’t know that the X button on a PlayStation controller was the A button on an Xbox controller, then it was gonna suck to control any PC game with a PlayStation controller.

JoyCons: The best and worst thing to happen to controller design

This brings us to current day and the biggest controller blunder yet made by Nintendo: the JoyCons. These are fantastic little controllers that have the amazing dual purpose of being able to be detached from the console in order to be used as their own singular micro controllers.

And this confuses everyone! If a game, like the aforementioned Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 tells you to press the A button, it doesn’t ACTUALLY mean the A button. It means “whatever button would correspond to where the A button usually would be.” On one rotate JoyCon, this means the X button. On another rotated JoyCon this means the down arrow, which at this point is rotated to look like the right arrow.

It is impossible to explain this to anyone who hasn’t held a JoyCon before, or that hasn’t memorized the SNES button layout, or just… people… normal people.

So I say, it’s time to stop fooling around. Video games have been around long enough that we shouldn’t have to deal with stuff like this. We should standardize controller layout, and here’s how in three easy steps.

Step 1) Include a button remapping function in every game.

PC games already figured this one out, but console games need to catch up. Every game, regardless of genre, should allow you to remap your buttons. None of this “scroll through a menu to choose a button” crap. The process should be simple. The game should tell you a function and you should press the button you want that corresponds to it. It’s that simple. Now, regardless of what buttons are named, everyone can play with the layout they want.

Step 2) Pick and choose a default “confirm” button and stick with it

Look, I don’t care if it’s the bottom button, the right button, the X button, the A button, or the B button, just choose a button already. Having to flip flop back and forth between layouts is murder on muscle memory. There’s no particular reason to stick to an old tradition just because you are trying to be “unique” when compared to other game consoles.

Step 3) Follow Nintendo’s example and show buttons as diagrams.

Nintendo’s most accessible Switch games don’t even use letters when referring to buttons. They just show the four face button layout and color one in. This is GENIUS and should be done in every game, Switch or not. No one will mistake their buttons when they know the exact button to push by location!

Step 2 might be the hardest because it will have to convince Nintendo to abandon their traditional layout, but even if we just got Step 1 or 3 it would go a huge way into making controllers less confusing.

And controllers shouldn’t be confusing. It’s 2019! We’ve been around this block. There’s no reason why I should have to say something like “press the button where you think the A button on a normal controller should be” in this day and age. The game should do that for me. This is basic accessibility people. Can we please spend some effort on solving this before Nintendo puts the X button on a trigger or something.