Wednesday, November 26, 2008

For Miyamoto and Company

Yesterday's session of the class I teach started bizarrely. Before the passing period ended, I overheard several of my students talking about, of all things, Mario Kart 64, with one student speaking passionately about the game's sublimity. I never can stay out of these things, so I said, "Wait. I thought Mario Kart DS was the best one! That seems to be the consensus..."

One student responded that in fact, Mario Kart is best experienced in front of a large TV with a small crowd of jostling friends and lots of noise--not huddled over a DS. I was impressed with if not totally convinced by this answer, because I do think that context is important for the way we experience video games, and maybe it's a topic for another time, but I would go so far as to say that the way we experience games can exert a strong influence on our understanding of their meaning. One of my other students suggested that the best possible experience is playing with Nintendo 64 controllers, and I said that I absolutely disagreed, though I admitted to having a soft spot for those awful things.

Most of the participants in this ridiculous conversation had a firm opinion on which game in the series was the best (though none of my nineteen-year-old charges has experienced the original Super Mario Kart), and it was while things were being shouted across the room about whether Double Dash or 64 was the better game that I said, "Hey, it's been ten years since Ocarina of Time came out. Ten years this week--ten years almost to the day since I played that for the first time."

This didn't shift the conversation; it still wasn't time to start class, so I didn't have everyone's attention, and there was too much momentum on the Mario Kart question, and the all-important issue of how much Mario Kart Wii let humanity down was under discussion. But one student did turn to me and say, "Happy anniversary." I said I appreciated the sentiment, but it wasn't really my anniversary.

Then again, it sort of is. Tomorrow marks ten years to the very day since I boughtThe Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and that game meant so much to me that it would be a little sad to let the occasion slip by unremarked. Tomorrow's Thanksgiving, and I'll have a lot going on, so I thought I'd better get this off my chest today.

Black Friday 1998. Against my better judgment, I started the engine of my maroon 1988 Mazda 626 and drove up Amarillo's interminable western edge from the southern end of "town" to the northern end. "Town" here no longer calls for scare quotes, because Amarillo has expanded outwards a great deal in the decade since I left home, and those southern wastes are now booming residential developments. Still, I can see that flat, featureless stretch as clearly in my mind as if I were driving along it right now. It looks like Antarctica, only instead of being white with snow and ice, it's yellow with dead grass. And just incidentally, if I were driving along it now, I'd be doing seventy-five, tacking on the extra five MPH that an old high school friend once asserted was the sweet spot for driving in Amarillo.

My destination was Target, and even as I write this, it's immediately obvious why. Target was the lucky store for Black Fridays, because two years before my mom had miraculously pulled off a late-evening purchase of a rare Nintendo 64 console there. So no Toys 'R Us or Best Buy for me, thanks, even though they were within a few hundred feet each of Target. Nope, Target it was.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released on November 23, 1998, a Monday, and by the end of 1998 it had sold more copies than any other game released that year. To this day, it's one of the high points, or maybe the very acme, of the Legend of Zelda series. One of its distinguishing characteristics was its incorporation of different songs as an integral part of the game. Musical instruments had been useful items in every previous Zelda game, but Ocarina of Time, as its title suggests, had an expanded focus on music. A magical ocarina allowed the player to alter the game world significantly by changing night to day or summoning storms, and one song the player learned gave Link, the game character, special access to some areas in his "official" capacity as an emissary of the game world's royal family. Each dungeon in the latter half of the game also had a particular tune associated with it that would allow the player to teleport around the game world quickly. One song even opened the inner sanctum of a temple and allowed Link to travel ahead seven years in time.

What seems pertinent right now is the way memories of playing through Ocarina of Time are woven into my memories of other experiences from that late fall/early winter. So I remember driving home from Target and playing straight through the Deku Tree level. By the end of the weekend I'd gotten through the Goron Mines. Two weekends later--and here you'll have to give me a break, because I was taking four AP classes and working afternoons--I was competing in Domestic Extemporaneous Speaking and Impromptu at an Amarillo High speech tournament, and I was also learning to hate Jabu-Jabu's Belly.

Two weeks after that my mom, grandmother, grandfather and I were in Lubbock with my aunt/uncle/cousins, and I'd packed along my N64 in hopes of getting a bit further, and that weekend, with some help from my then eight-year-old cousin, I polished off the Forest Temple, the Fire Temple, and, through the magic of online walkthroughs, the god-forsaken Water Temple.

I really did hate the chore of working through the Water Temple, but one of the few times a game has really sucked me in came in that level. There's a brief encounter in the middle of the Water Temple where Link enters a room that seems to be an outdoor oasis, a serene shallow lake with a small island and a lone, leafless tree. It's impossible to appreciate now that video game graphics are so much more detailed, but at the time it was a striking and beautiful sight, and what a contrast to the dismal, dank blue walls of the Water Temple! It was magical. But the moment's enchantment is dashed when Link approaches the island, because out of nowhere appears a shadowy doppelganger of himself that begins attacking relentlessly. The fight with "Dark Link," as he's usually called, is a tough one, because Dark Link anticipates most of the moves Link makes, but when it's over, perhaps the strangest event in the game transpires. The bright sunlight fades, and the endless view is cut off, and the oasis fades away, replaced by, yes, the ugly blue walls of any other Water Temple chamber. To this day I can't quite parse what Shigeru Miyamoto or Eiji Aonuma intended with this strange section. Was it supposed to be a dream? An illusion? In retrospect, I've tried to look at it as a gift. The illusion of unlimited space, and the beauty of that oasis, still stick in my mind--in a game with an amazingly rendered world, this was the high point for me, this quiet area. It's one of the few truly beautiful passages in video games.

Click and see for yourself.

Without getting too sentimental about it, I have to say that that school year was a magical time for me. I'd only just begun dating my (now) wife, and I guess the whole experience opened my heart. It helps that I'm a hopeless romantic, and I have a predilection for reminiscence and foolish nostalgia, but being in the first really significant romantic relationship of my life, really falling in love for the first time, altered my view of everything.

Obviously my relationship with Carrie was the really important thing at the time, but I think that relationship really affected my experience of Ocarina, or maybe Ocarina was just the perfect game to play at a time like that.

I shouldn't spoil the ending, but I'm assuming that ten years on, you've either played the game already, or perhaps my testimony may persuade you to try it. It's downloadable on the Wii nowadays, incidentally :) The ending of the game has Princess Zelda making the difficult choice of sending Link back to his own time, seven years in the past, where the childhood he's passed over awaits. Once he's back, that's it. It's never made clear whether the eight- or nine-year-old Princess Zelda has any mystical connection to her future self that makes her aware of the events that have transpired, and we never learn how Link copes with the experience of living in two different times, of having seen his world in a darker, dystopian version of itself. The genius of several of the last few Zelda games is their emphasis on central dichotomies, so that Link to the Past has a "Light" World and its dark, twisted alternate version, and Twilight Princess has a physical realm and a spirit realm. But no other Zelda game created such a moving scenario as Ocarina, where Link finds himself living what amounts to two separate lives in two different versions of the same world. The game ends with the child Link traveling back to Princess Zelda's castle and meeting her "again" for "the first time," and she responds with surprise. This last image of the two small children shoehorned into the bizarre situation the game's events have created remains a poignant one for me, and I guess finishing up Ocarina and seeing the way emotion and intellect are stimulated and challenged in the game made me realize for the first time that some video games are works of art.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Alexandrian Theatre Installment 1: Scott Pilgrim/Ninja Gaiden

"Alexandrian Theatre?"  It's kind of a pretentious title, yes, but hopefully the "re" spelling of theater/theatre, in this context (my blog), kind of defuses the snootiness and makes everything seem a little more absurd.  Basically, the point of this "series," which I'll update as necessary, is to keep an index of the more impressive references I notice in different media.  Today's particular reference is one that sort of jumped into my mind about a week or so ago; I ended up having to spend quite a bit of time thinking about it before I could remember its source.  But remember I did!  Hopefully with this little series, though, I won't have to remember--I can just check my blog.  YOU, on the other hand, get to find out about great books/movies/video games/TV shows you should be experiencing and (perhaps) aren't.

One more thing, then I'll get right to the reference, and it is a great one.  What about this "Alexandrian" thing?  Well, Alexandria was the site of the famed library in antiquity, and the city's name was eventually pulled into a term used to denote those pieces of Hellenistic-era literature that are generally learned and particularly hyper-referential:  anything by Callimachus, Theocritus' Idylls, or Apollonius' Argonautica, to name a few.  So here I'm concerned with modern artistic (well, more or less so; I tend to think of "art" as broadly applicable) creations that reference other works and so situate themselves within a cultural or chronological context.

So.  Scott Pilgrim and Ninja Gaiden.

Bryan Lee O'Malley, the author of the Scott Pilgrim books (Canadamanga?), is kind of a modern Callimachus in his own right.  Each of the Scott Pilgrim books places itself within a culture of which the books' protagonist is a part, with references to movies, rock music, video games, and other pop culture items.  One persistent gag has Scott Pilgrim, said protagonist (obviously!), gaining experience points (XP) for various accomplishments in the narrative, creating the conceit that Pilgrim is a character in a role-playing game, though O'Malley deploys this gag at his convenience and not as an integral feature of the books.  Or maybe it is an integral feature, as conflict is incorporated into the narrative in a very strange way.  You should read the books and see for yourself.

Anyway, this creates a strange setting for the story, where the boundaries between the books' "real" world and the sort of "interior" world of Scott's emotional responses to events overlap.  It's basically a Walter Mitty scenario, except that the products of Scott's imagination are constantly appearing in the real world.  So it's kind of like Walter Mitty + Sphere, except Scott's imagination is not the cataclysmic tool than the imaginations of the characters in that novel/movie are.  I'd be concerned here about spoiling Scott Pilgrim for you, except this is a constant feature in the books, and I don't think my telling you about it outright can have any real negative effect.  MAYBE my mentioning this will encourage you to buy and read the books, which you absolutely should do.

Okay, now the real meat of this post.  Let me shift gears, okay?  Did you ever play Nintendo?  Say, in the 80s?  There was this great game for the Nintendo--by which I mean the old NES/Famicom--called Ninja Gaiden.  As a game in the 80s was likely to do, it featured a ninja as its protagonist.  This particular ninja, Ryu Hayabusa, was out to avenge his father's death and eventually found himself embroiled in a conspiracy to summon a terrible demon and bring about the apocalypse.  Something along those lines.  

Now, this is of course a preposterous (and, alas, awfully cliche) plot, but it's also pretty substantial for a game from the 80s.  Remember that console games of the era were largely cast in the Donkey Kong/Super Mario Bros. mold:  rescue the princess/girlfriend/whatever.  Point A to Point B, in terms of narrative.  Ninja Gaiden distinguished itself not only by having a much stranger overarching plot but also by employing short cutscenes in between chunks of gameplay that explained why Ryu was, say, fighting his way through a mine.  This wasn't anything new in the world of video games, but for a console game, and particularly for a console action game, this was pretty novel.

The game's first cutscene, which ran before the player began the first level, established the revenge element of the plot:

This was quite a step forward for video games.  Granted, Donkey Kong had already done the whole "games can have narrative, too" thing, and The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Kid Icarus had sort of perfunctory text-based intros, but Ninja Gaiden went the extra mile and created an almost comic bookish mixture of text and static image.  And of course there was the fight between the two ninjas, which was actually animated and quite dramatic, even by today's standards.

Bryan O'Malley obviously thought so, because the intro from Ninja Gaiden provides the inspiration for an important sequence in the fourth volume of Scott Pilgrim.  I'll warn you now:  I've tried to strip this sequence down enough to avoid spoilers, but if you ever end up reading Scott Pilgrim, you'll probably see what's coming (which I've concealed) quite clearly.  I'll just say that it involves a Sonic The Hedgehog (the "The" is officially capitalized) reference.  Here it is; I'll let it speak for itself:

Beautiful, isn't it?  Now what are you waiting for?  Go read Scott Pilgrim!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Gunpei Yokoi's Super Wonder Cross! Part 2

If you'll remember (or flip back to the last post), I left off with 1979 and the horrendously painful Intellivision controller.  Then I somewhat misleadingly said, "our liberation was only a year away."

That's kind of true.  The seeds of our liberation had been sown, and the first tender shoot was poking out of the ground.  This is what it looked like:
Behold!  Ball.  What is really important about Ball is, like so much else in history, not so much what it was in its own right as the shift in direction it portended.  The Game & Watch line of portable video games was a first entry into the video game industry by an old manufacturer of Japanese hanafuda cards, Nintendo Company, Ltd. (NCL).  Nintendo had recently expanded to sales of novelty items in hopes of diversifying and growing.  Nintendo's best designer at the time was Gunpei Yokoi, an electronics major and maintenance engineer who'd drawn the attention of the company's president with an extending-arm toy he'd designed in his free time.  When it turned out the arm toy (sold as the Ultra Hand) was ridiculously marketable, Yokoi was promoted to the product development team.

Yokoi spent the next few years coming up with quite a few toy designs, but probably the most significant of his ideas came to him one day on a train.  He saw a businessman fiddling with a calculator in the never-ending battle to stave off boredom and realized that there might be potential in a pocket-sized electronic device that was actually designed to entertain.  While this story's been told a million times, thanks to the strange synergy between internet and nerddom, I don't think the exact thought process Yokoi was experiencing at the time has ever been explored.  I think I can shed some light on this, though, so let me set the scene:

A quiet, observant man sits in one of a few tightly-grouped seats on a train.  Nearby, another man, his jacket off and flung over the arm of his seat, his sleeves rolled up, his tie loosened, pokes impatiently at a pocket calculator.  Occasionally he raises his head to look through the window nearest his seat, then, with a sigh, he turns his attention back to his calculator.  The other man watches this drama unfold several times, and it is obvious that he is quite interested in what is happening, though just why is not immediately clear.  Through the train windows, we see the Japanese countryside flashing by quickly as the train heads towards its destination, though it is plain that the destination cannot be reached soon enough for the second man.

Time stops.  The second businessman is motionless, his hand poised to strike one of the calculator's keys.  His gaze is intense even in its frozen state.  There is silence:  the sound of the train is no longer present.  The train windows now present still landscapes, images of interurban Japan.  The train is entirely stationary.

The one thing that remains in motion is the first man.  He looks around in surprise.  Why isn't the landscape still moving?  Why is everything so still, so quiet?  Suddenly, the man splits in two as a perfect doppelgänger of himself leaps away from him and turns to face him.

YOKOI 1:  Who are you?

YOKOI 2:  I am yourself.  We are ourself.

YOKOI 1:  What's happened?  Why isn't the train moving?

YOKOI 2:  Snap out of it, Yokoi.  This is an important moment for you--don't mess it up!

YOKOI 1:  What do you mean?

YOKOI 2:  Yokoi, what have you been doing since you got aboard this train?

YOKOI 1:  Well, nothing, I suppose.  I mean, I brought this newspaper--

YOKOI 2:  Forget the newspaper.  You haven't actually opened it, have you?  You've just been frittering away the whole trip.  You could have begun design work for your new toy for Nintendo; you could have read a book, but what have you actually done?

YOKOI 1:  Well, to be quite honest, I've really only been watching that man with the calculator.

YOKOI 2:  Right, and what have you learned?

YOKOI 1:  Learned?

YOKOI 2:  What does the man with the calculator show you?

YOKOI 1:  Well, I was thinking that it's strange he should find so much pleasure in doing sums repeatedly.  But then, I wondered if he's really just been doing sums this whole time.

YOKOI 2:  You're right--he hasn't.  What is he doing, then?  Why don't you have a look?

YOKOI 1 walks toward the man and leans down to take a closer look at the calculator.

YOKOI 1:  I don't think he's doing sums at all!  The calculator's display says ゲーム&ウオッチ.  Gemu-and-uotchi...Game and Watch?

YOKOI 2:  Game and Watch.

YOKOI 1:  Games?  Electronic games?

YOKOI 2:  And watches.

YOKOI 1:  Right, at least with the watch you could always tell what time it is.  Wait a minute!  Do you mean to tell me that people will play games on trains?

YOKOI 2:  Yes.  You should see trains in twenty-five years.  All iPods and iPhones and DSes and PSPs.

YOKOI 1:  What?

YOKOI 2:  Never mind.  You know what to do?

YOKOI 1:  I think so, but what game should I make?

YOKOI 2:  I leave that up to you.  Tama.

YOKOI 1:  What?

YOKOI 2:  Nothing!  Have fun!

YOKOI 2 vanishes, and YOKOI 1 walks back to his seat, sits down, and takes a small pad of paper and a pencil out of his briefcase.  He furiously begins a sketch of something.  He is so caught up in his work that he seems not to notice when the world around him lurches back to life.  The businessman with the calculator returns to his button-punching, the view of the world through the windows blurs again, and the sound of the train's passage once more pervades the scene.  In the midst of all of this, Gunpei Yokoi is an oasis of concentration, lost in his drawings.

Whatever happened on the train that day, Gunpei Yokoi realized that there was potential in the portable digital games market.  The market of digital games shifted from its previous emphasis on LEDs towards the use of LCD displays, primitive versions of what we now, believe it or not, use for watching TV or checking the internet.  The first Game & Watch game, Ball (1980), took a page (probably not deliberately) from the Game Brain design.  It used two buttons:  one that made the player's on-screen avatar move left, and another that made it move right.  This was not much of a change from previous forms of game control, but Game & Watch titles became quite a bit more complex with Donkey Kong (1982), a design that required four directional inputs and a jump button.  Yokoi knew that the solution would not be to integrate joysticks into the design:  they would be too difficult to use in a game of this size and would limit portability (is that a Game & Watch with a joystick in your pocket, or...?).  Yokoi invented a new control mechanism, surely unaware that this innovation would remain the standard for years to come.  This new mechanism is what we now call the D-pad, and you can see not only its implementation in the picture below of the Donkey Kong Game & Watch but also the forerunner of the design of the Nintendo DS, which was still more than twenty years away...
Next:  the Famicom/NES, the Game Boy, and, most importantly, what the D-pad means.

(Game and Watch:  Ball photo by Wikipedia user momopy; Game and Watch:  Donkey Kong photo by Flickr user Frenkieb)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Gunpei Yokoi's Super Wonder Cross! Part 1

Alas, this section of this long blog, article, thing, does not actually so much as MENTION Gunpei Yokoi.  But the subsequent section (I think I can keep this down to two posts) does.  So...

If you were an uncoordinated youngster in the early 1980s, and if, despite being so young and so uncoordinated, you happened to be playing an Atari 2600 in those days, you may very well remember the following logic problem:

What was a poor child to do?  When you're three, there's no obviously correct angle at which to hold that joystick.  In retrospect, I am aware of the fact that (these days) almost every video game controller has a wire coming out from the top, and I can also appreciate Atari's effort in putting the "top" marking at the controller's "top," but that lettering was never recognizable as text to me as a young child; it just looked to me like all the other non-text markings around the joystick's circumference.  And regardless, at three, I was still pre-literate.  It wasn't until a year or two later that I would sort things out once and for all and realize how clear it all was.  Combat made so much more sense when you never lost track of which direction was up.

A year or so after that, though, I was through with Atari for a while.  That Christmas (we're talking about 1987, now) was the Christmas of Nintendo.  At least for me.  And it was just the right Christmas to receive a Nintendo:  The Legend of Zelda had been released in America, and so for the first time I was able to play Zelda and Super Mario Bros., the two games that would form the backbone of my gaming life.

But this isn't about that.  This is about the D-pad:  its earliest history, its implementation in the third generation of home video game consoles, and its nearly 13-year reign (quite long in video game years) as the standard in console controllers.  I will discuss the D-pad ... wait, I see you're confused.  The D-pad is the plus sign-shaped thing.  Yeah.  Okay, then.  Anyway, I will discuss the D-pad, and you will wonder, "Why are you wasting my time with this, Gaj?  And yet, how is it this is so ... mesmerizing?  I can't seem to pull myself away ..."  I will have no response.  It is what it is.

The original forerunner of the D-pad, as far as I can tell, is the controller for the never-released Atari Game Brain (1976-1976, RIP).  As seen in the picture,

this didn't feature a joystick; it had a set of four cross-oriented buttons with a symbol in the middle telling you that these buttons controlled direction.  Well, hopefully that would be the message you'd get; I could also imagine someone understanding that marking to mean, "There are buttons here, here, here, and here."

Anyway, the system was never released.  Boo hoo.  It would have had a grand total of ten games, seven of which were slated to be, according to Wikipedia, Pong, Super Pong, Ultra Pong, Super Pong Pro-Am, Super Pong Pro-Am 10, Super Pong 10, and Ultra Pong Doubles.  The console was a "clever" way of pawning off the CPUs from unsold dedicated consoles, which is to say, consoles that were built for a single glorious purpose:  running Pong.  Or Ultra Pong.  And so on.


You'd take these CPUs -- the same goddamn boards that comprised all the circuitry of other more (shall we say) specific consoles -- and you'd stick them in the proper place on the console, and you'd be off!

Yes, this means that the Game Brain was no more than a couple of (immovable) controllers and a slot.  Yes, this means that "Game Brain" was a horrendously inaccurate name for the thing.

And yes, it DID take them that long (one more year, to be precise) to realize that the wave of the future was to put the processing unit in the console itself rather than in the games.  It seems so obvious now!  Of course, every Metal Gear Solid 4 disc is infested with nanomachines, each of which has its own tiny CPU, but this is not the norm.  Only games designed by the la li lu le lo are like that.

Buying this system would probably have been the same bittersweet sort of experience you've had if you've ever bought an iPod.  I theorize that every iPod owner ever has bought his or her iPod approximately five days before Apple's rolled out the next generation.  It's wonderful to know that we're making progress, and iPods can now play music for an additional four hours on a single battery charge, or they now come with a touch-screen or whatever, but it does suck to be one of the last poor schmucks ever to pay for the (just now) last-gen model.  Ugh.

But enough about the Lame Brain (zing!).  Another obscure system, this one a portable, did something similar.  This was the Microvision by Milton Bradley (1979).  Because the Microvision was basically a screen with a set of buttons that would be used a different way for each individual game, this one included little inserts that, when placed into the system with the corresponding game, would show the player what buttons to push to accomplish game actions.  Look at this picture:

See the arrows?  Those are directional controls.  So here we have a diamond-shaped collection of four buttons (a la Game Brain) made to look like a single unit through the magic of controller overlays.  Controller overlays are basically thin plastic sheets that fit over the buttons that control the game, and you push down (usually HARD) on the command you want to use.  Sounds clever, I guess, BUT, if you've ever played old games with one of these controller overlays...let's see, one of the tragic misfires of this sort that I remember was the Atari Kids' Controller:

Twelve buttons of kid-confusing mayhem.  Seriously, can you imagine being a small child and trying to play video games designed for a controller as complex as a telephone?  The big difference being that telephones dial the number you press; video games translate your button-pressing into commands, most of which have a pretty obscure connection to the button you've pressed.  The overlay was there to help you along, but this was still a bit much to process for a little kid, who was, after all, presumably the target audience for the Atari Kids' Controller.

But that's not really to do with the Microvision.  The OTHER problem with these plastic overlay things is that they usually make button-pushing a sluggish, unresponsive process.  This isn't such a big deal if you're pressing an action button (perhaps), but when you're talking about moving around in a game?  Forget it.  Which brings me back (sorry) to the Atari Kids' Controller:  this controller was designed specifically to go with games based on Sesame Street characters, one of which was Big Bird's Egg Catch.  This particular title was sort of a Breakout ripoff, the problem being that Breakout itself used a dial-based paddle controller that allowed for far quicker and more precise control than the 2600 joystick (see first picture) could provide.  I used to take the overlays off altogether and try to memorize the right buttons.

I hated Big Bird's Egg Catch so much, and since I was three or four at the time, I didn't realize that some games were just poorly designed--I thought the problem was me.

In short, overlays were absolute bullshit that sucked all the fun out of video games.  These early directional button designs were something of a step forward, I'll allow that.  Joysticks were somewhat excessive in a home system.  Granted, joysticks were sort of the standard, since they'd been adapted from airplane cockpits and, OMG, Nazi missile guidance controls (I really am not making this up).  They made sense in an arcade cabinet, where there was, after all, a whole arcade cabinet to keep the base of the joystick from moving around, but there was something distinctly awkward about going home and holding this square base in one hand and sort of making an awkward thumb-reach to push the orange button while tilting a stick in various directions with the other hand.  It was a little like using a handheld mortar and pestle, really.  But that's for cooking or chemistry, not video games.

The next major evolution in directional controls came in the form of Mattel's Intellivision (1979).  Intellivision controllers were, unlike the Atari Game Brain's but like the Atari 2600's, separated from the console and connected to it by a thin cable.

The difference between the 2600 and the Intellivision was that the latter had an innovative disc-shaped thumbpad (the "Directional Disk", as it was officially designated).  

The pad tilted in the desired direction when the user pressed on it, and it provided a total of sixteen possible directions of input.  This allowed for much better control precision than previous game controllers, including, especially, the 2600's joystick (which allowed for, I think, eight directions of movement).

However, the Directional Disk was not, perhaps, the ideal controller for the second generation of consoles, nor was it flawlessly designed.  Remember that we're talking about a time when Space Invaders was huge:  games like, say, Super Mario 64—games that actually needed precision radial control—were still about 15 years away, and so, while appreciated, the sixteen possible directions of control were a little excessive.  Some of the most popular games of the era were Space Invaders, which needed two directions of movement, Asteroids and Combat, which needed four directions each, and the as-yet unreleased (!) Pac-Man, which also needed four.  Games with cursors/avatars that were more free-roaming, like Centipede or Missile Command, benefited from the trackballs built into their arcade versions, but whether home console controllers offered eight or sixteen directions of movement, the real problem was the loss of speed that came with the switch from the trackball design.

Aside from the fact that the sixteen-direction control was unnecessary, the Intellivision's disc was, frankly, crap.  A user's expertise with the disc was the product of practice, practice, practice.  Without any way to tell by feel which way your thumb was pressing the disc, you had to work up a kind of muscle memory that would allow you accurately to press up, down, left, right, up/right, up/left, up/more left, more up/right, etc.  Even then, the disc was not particularly responsive and seemed, mysteriously, to misunderstand your disc-presses quite frequently.  The technology wasn't just unnecessary for the time, it was also kind of useless.

What made things even worse was the overall design of the controller:  the Intellivision controller was another overlay design with twelve buttons, much like the Atari Kids' Controller, except that these buttons were tiny.  This made them harder to press, more prone to stick, and more difficult to locate when you were trying to keep your eye on the screen and not the keypad.  Worst of all, the primary action buttons, only just visible in the picture above, were located on the sides of the controller!  Using the controller was an uninituitive, painful, arthritis-inducing, carpal-tunnel-wrecking experience.

But our liberation was only one year away...