Gaming Literacy: Nintendo Game & Watch and the invention of the D-Pad

In our Gaming Literacy series we're taking a look at relics and moments from gaming past. These are the artifacts and events all gamers should know, whether they be glorious highlights or frightening failures. 

The d-pad is an instantly recognizable piece of gaming culture. We see d-pads on shirts, flags, and logos. Mobile games build virtual d-pads into their control interfaces. It seems as if this small piece of cross-shaped plastic has become synonymous with the concept of video games. But where did it come from? Who created it? And why is it still being used today?

The Origin of the Handheld Game

Let’s take a trip back to the early days of gaming, before Nintendo even had a console to their name. Fresh off the success of some of their first arcade games in the early seventies, Nintendo saw potential in bringing these games to your home in small and manageable ways.

Enter Gunpei Yokoi, eventual father of the Game Boy, who was struck by inspiration one day when he saw someone playing with a calculator on a train. Yokoi figured he could use the same LCD technology in the calculator to create a miniature game that could kill time and also double as a watch. His idea was further developed into the Nintendo Game & Watch, a series of LCD games that boosted Nintendo’s popularity before the NES was even a twinkle in Masayuki Uemura’s eye.

One Simple Axis

Early Game & Watch titles were primitive. The first, simply named Ball, featured a cartoonish man attempting to juggle balls. The player character only had three positions, one to the far left, one in the middle, and one to the far right. Each position moves the character’s right and left arms at the same time. To catch a ball on the left side of the player character you had to counter-intuitively move him all the way to the right.

You may remember Ball from its reinterpretations in games such as Warioware. Many other Game & Watch titles had similar reinterpretations, such as Fire, which had you catching people who jumped out of a burning building with a trampoline, or Chef, which had you flipping pancakes. Notice how, in all of these titles, the “Mr. Game & Watch” character was only ever moved left or right. This simple one dimensional movement axis made the Game & Watch control scheme easy to design. Players would have one button on the left, which moved their character left, and one button on the right, which moved their character right.

The Second Dimension

As the Game & Watch series became more and more popular, two key innovations came about. The first was a more complex movement system. Some later Game & Watch titles from the early eighties, such as Manhole and Fire Attack, allowed the player to move their character not only left and right, but up and down. This was originally an attempt to give the games a sense of depth, allowing the player character to move into the foreground and background. Technologically, the player needed an input scheme that allowed them to move along the Y-Axis, instead of just the X-Axis.

The input scheme that was eventually adopted was a four button scheme, two on the left and two on the right, arranged in a vertical formation. The buttons would still move your character left and right, but would also move your character up and down at the same time.

Unfortunately, this control scheme had some limitations. For example, there was no way to move your character up or down without moving them left or right in the first place. The games themselves compensated for this limitation by restricting the number of positions your character could be in. Manhole, for example, only allowed your character to be in four positions, up-left, up-right, down-left, and down-right. Pressing up-right when your character was in the down-right position would make them move up, simply because there was no further space to move right.

Despite the limitations of this control scheme, this was how all two dimensional movement was handled in the Game & Watch series until 1982.

The First Nintendo DS

The second big innovation allowed Nintendo to increase the complexity of their LCD games. LCD games could only ever be as complicated as their liquid crystal display allowed. Think about how a LCD calculator works. Numbers are formed by lighting up discrete line segments in the digit "8." Those line segments cannot be moved, they can only be lit or un-lit. LCD games worked the same way. Every possible state of every possible character, item, or piece of the environment had to be pre-drawn into the screen. These elements could only be lit or un-lit, but never moved. So when your LCD was completely full of characters and objects, your game was complete.  It could not get more complex.

Nintendo circumvented this limitation by simply adding on a second LCD screen. However, Nintendo needed a way to keep this new dual screen setup portable. Inspired by pocket mirrors and other portable gadgets, Gunpei Yokoi settled on a “clamshell” design. One screen would be situated on top of the other, separated by a hinge. Spaces were cut out of the top half of the clamshell to allow the unit to close easily without accidentally pressing any buttons. The unit would power off when closed and power on when opened, making operation simple. This design would later be revisited for the Nintendo DS and 3DS.

Oil Panic was the very first Game & Watch game in this “multi-screen” series, but it still only had characters moving on a single axis. The goal was to catch oil leaking from a pipe on the top screen and then deliver it to customers on the bottom screen. While significantly more complex than other Game & Watch titles at the time, it still only required two buttons, one to move left and one to move right.

Donkey Kong Changed Everything

Things became even more complicated when Nintendo wanted to convert their hit arcade game, Donkey Kong, into the Game & Watch format. It needed to combine both of these innovations together in order to work properly. It needed two screens to show the entirety of a single Donkey Kong stage and Mario needed to be able to move in four directions, left, right, up, and down, to allow him to climb ladders. Ladders were frequently found in the middle of stages, so the old four-button control scheme used in Manhole wouldn’t work. Finally, yet another button was needed, a fifth button that would allow Mario to jump, as that was the core mechanic of Donkey Kong.

At first glance it appeared as if there simply wouldn’t be enough space for all these buttons. Only two buttons could reliably fit on either side of a Game & Watch. Nintendo had experimented with using smaller buttons in the past, however that made it difficult to tell which button you were pressing. They attempted to design a unit with four buttons laid out on a cross formation, but the buttons were so small players would accidentally hit multiple buttons at the same time. Another possible solution was to include a mini-joystick, but that wouldn’t allow the clamshell to comfortably close.

One Button Design

It was Gunpei Yokoi who once again figured out a genius solution. If there was only space for one button, why not make all-directional control one button? This was when the d-pad as we know it was first formed. A cross shape was fashioned out of plastic and a ball pivot was placed underneath. Then, this whole assembly was placed on top of the previous four-button design.

Since this cross-shaped piece was held in place by the frame of the Game & Watch, it effectively guided the force of the player’s thumbs in the four cardinal directions. A thumb press that would originally hit multiple buttons would now rock the d-pad in only one direction, registering only one input.

In addition, the d-pad’s single piece construction provided a kind of rudimentary force feedback. Pressing it down in any direction made the other side raise up, and you could feel this without actually looking at buttons. This made it easier for players to operate the unit using muscle memory.

Finally, the d-pad had a low profile, no bigger than a button itself. This allowed the Game & Watch to comfortably close, and took up no more button space than a normal two button Game & Watch unit.

Oddly enough, Yokoi originally wanted to place the d-pad on the right side of the unit, since most people were right handed and movement was a more complex operating than the one-button jump. However, this felt odd to many, since arcade joysticks were situated to the left of their action buttons. Yokoi eventually moved the d-pad to the left side of the unit in order to more closely mimic the Donkey Kong arcade cabinet.

Understanding Your Own Genius

At first Nintendo wasn’t convinced that the d-pad was the best way to implement two axis control. The initital run of the Donkey Kong Jr. Game & Watch unit abandoned the d-pad for four tiny directional buttons, the original design that the d-pad was meant to fix. Nintendo would keep experimenting with this design until Balloon Fight’s Game & Watch release in 1988.

Another experimental design included two buttons (or, in some cases, half of a d-pad) which controlled vertical movement on the left side of the unit, and two buttons that controlled horizontal movement on the right side of the unit. This became popular for games that required you to control two characters at once, such as the Disney-themed Mickey & Donald or the Game & Watch version of the original Mario Bros., which had you control Mario and Luigi at the same time. Nintendo even made some Game & Watch units into mini-arcade cabinets, complete with mini-joysticks.

These units were a success, but only because of the nature of the Game & Watch. Each Game & Watch unit had the advantage of being designed specifically for one game. However, Nintendo’s next challenge would require something far more flexible.

A Controller for Everyone

When designing the NES (or Famicom if you are a purist), Nintendo struggled with figuring out how the unit would be controlled. It needed a control scheme that could fit nearly any game idea. This was very unlike the Game & Watch line, which could implement a new control scheme for each game. In addition, the control scheme needed to be easy to use and easy to design for if Nintendo ever hoped to have third party developers create software for their system. Nintendo once again toyed with the idea of joysticks, since similar units like the Atari line of home computers/entertainment systems made use of them as their primary interface device.

However, it was Takao Sawano who eventually convinced Nintendo to use Yokoi’s d-pad design. He connected a Game & Watch unit directly with the prototype Famicom to show how well it controlled, and the design stuck. Sawano continues on at Nintendo to this day, and was one of the key architects of the Wii Balance Board.

Meanwhile, the d-pad has continued on through Nintendo history, featuring prominently in every subsequent Nintendo console and handheld. In fact, it even found its way back to Yokoi when he included it in the design for the immensely popular Game Boy.

Patent Problems

Gunpei Yokoi didn’t originally think to patent his d-pad design, specifically because he never intended it to be a generalized control scheme. It was Ichiro Shirai, a fellow Nintendo employee, who eventually filed a patent for the device in 1983. The patent was granted in 1987, and to this day it is Shirai’s name that is listed as the inventor of Nintendo’s “Multi-Directional Switch” on their patent documentation.

Owning a patent meant that other game companies could not include a d-pad on their gaming console, but any avid gamer knows that just isn’t what happened during the early console wars. Sega‘s system had a d-pad, as did Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox. In order to do this, these companies had to prove that their d-pad designs were legally distinct from Nintendo’s.

This was one of the earliest examples of legal gymnastics in the gaming world. The Nintendo d-pad was known by many names, including the aforementioned Multi-Direction Switch, as well as “directional pad” and “+ control pad.” Sega called the d-pad on their Genesis controller the “directional button” to differentiate it from Nintendo’s design. Instead of having the cross itself held in place by the frame of the controller, Sega’s d-pad was a circular piece of plastic that rocked freely, and even had recessed diagonal sections for eight-way movement. While Nintendo’s d-pad had a ball pivot attached to the plastic cross piece, Sega had a metal ball bearing placed in between the input buttons that the entire piece rocked on.

And that was a particularly smart way to dodge legal problems. Earlier Sega products were not so lucky. The Sega Master System’s d-pad, for example, wasn’t even a raised cross. It was just a flat square that rocked on a pivot underneath.

Every other company’s d-pads had similar design differences that made them legally distinct from Nintendo’s original design. The PlayStation d-pad was totally recessed into the controller shell and its pivot was built out of multiple parts. The Xbox 360 d-pad was mounted on a joystick-like shaft rather than a ball pivot. This, by the way, is part of why the Xbox 360’s d-pad design was so inaccurate.

The Direction of the Future

Nintendo’s patent expired in 2005, allowing anyone to use their design without legal ramifications, and while you might have seen several copy-cat d-pads on non-gaming devices such as set-top boxes and DVD players, you might notice that Sony and Microsoft haven’t suddenly jumped at the opportunity to use Nintendo’s design. This is because they understand something that Yokoi understood so many years ago: the advantage of any d-pad is the way it feels.

The d-pad succeeded because it felt natural. It allowed gamers to use muscle memory instead of visual memory to control their games. Each d-pad derivation carried with it its own feel, and that feel actually affected what games became popular on each platform. Sony’s d-pad feels stiff but accurate. This makes it perfect for discrete quick button presses, and as a result we saw the rise of RPGs, which make use of heavy menu-based gameplay, and fighting games, which require incredibly accurate directional inputs, on Sony consoles. The lack of accuracy of the Xbox 360’s d-pad made it more suitable for secondary actions, and so it became used for item and perk usage in first-person shooters, which more heavily relied on analog sticks and triggers to control.

And Nintendo? Well Nintendo’s d-pad was always built for one simple purpose: movement. That’s where this journey began. So obviously Nintendo’s d-pad would be best used for platformers and other movement-heavy games. And for a long time it was.

However, Nintendo eventually outgrew their own d-pad design. With the creation of the N64 and the development of the analog stick, a new movement device was created. The N64’s d-pad was largely ignored, as was the Gamecube’s, and the Wii and Wii U d-pads were only secondary control devices, if they were used at all.

Which brings us to the Nintendo Switch, a console that has brought Nintendo full circle. Unlike every other Nintendo console to date, the Nintendo Switch does not have a d-pad, instead relying on the four directional button setup that was originally abandoned in the Game & Watch era.

What does this mean for the d-pad? Is it obsolete? Has Nintendo accurately predicted that the analog stick has taken the place of the d-pad for practically every function?

Or has the d-pad taken on a life of its own outside of Nintendo’s original design? Is it still the preferred method of input for platformers, menus, and even fighting games if you don’t own a joystick? Does the d-pad still have a purpose?

The very fact that we can still ask that question is proof that Gunpei Yokoi’s design has had an incredible effect on the world of video game design as we know it. It has been 35 years since Yokoi first made a single-button plastic design to allow an LCD clamshell game to close comfortably, and that simple bit of problem solving has become the most well known symbol of video-game culture. If it weren’t for that one single problem, the world of gaming as we know it might look entirely different.

In fact, if the d-pad never hit it big, it's likely that our modern day consoles would be operated with a keyboard and mouse, similar to older home computer systems like the Commodore 64.