Bad Console Design 101:
The Worst Console Design Blunders
of All Time
By The Video Game Critic
So let me guess this straight. A system marketed for its ability to support up to five players at a time comes with a single piddly controller port? You need to purchase an extra multi-tap peripheral just to play a two-player game?! Heck even consoles dating back to the 1970's came equipped with two ports standard. Somebody dropped the ball!
The first time you pick up a Dreamcast controller can be a disorienting experience. What is this wire hanging off the bottom? Am I holding this thing wrong? No, it's not you. There was a just point in time when Sega forgot how to make a controller. Hard to believe! As if they recognized their mistake early on, Sega incorporated a "notch" in the back, allowing the wire to be clamped in and guided away from the player.
The Intellivision designers seemed intent on creating a self-contained unit. It's the only rational explanation for connecting their hard-wired controllers with telephone-style curly wires which extended a good two feet or so. Was Mattel expecting people to play the system with it on their lap? To this day it's such a hassle trying to play the Intellivision with friends while retaining the requisite heterosexual distance.
From 1984 through 1996 Nintendo cartridges were intelligently designed with colorful labels with the name clearly displayed along the edge. This came in handy for arranging them on a shelf. Then the Nintendo 64 came along and Nintendo forgot how cartridges work. Why is there no label?! Was it so Nintendo could shave three cents off the cost of each cartridge? Or did they just assume kids were actually going to keep their cartridges neatly stored in those flimsy cardboard boxes they came in? Not only is it difficult to organize loose N64 games, but used game stores got into the habit of writing their names on the edge using magic marker. It's not a pretty sight.
Atari's line of 8-bit computers had been a long-running success since 1979, but the kids of the mid-80's wanted game consoles. So Atari attempted to morph their computer into some kind of weird avant-garde console with smooth edges and round pastel-colored buttons. The problem is, a keyboard was necessary for backwards compatibility, so Atari threw one in with a wire that stretched a meager one-and-a-half feet (if that). I sure hope Atari saved a ton of dough by keeping that wire so short, because their system looks like a complete joke.
The Atari 2600 is a fairly ergonomic beast with a prominent cartridge slot and fun-to-click switches running across the front. So why in the heck did they feel it was necessary to tuck the joystick ports way back in the rear of the system? Not only are they are hard to reach but they waste a lot of wire. The situation was addressed with the introduction of the Atari 5200 (1982) with ports situated along the front as God intended. Of course, that system had other issues we will address in short order...
Perhaps to retain that sleek, ultra-modern 70's look, the Intellivision designers opted to hide that unsightly cartridge slot off to the right side. Really, who wants to look at that [expletive] eyesore? The problem is, getting the carts in and out is quite a hassle. You practically need to brace the system on its side so you can ram the cartridge in. Removing it requires such a good yank you might actually hurt somebody! Not the most ergonomic design but check out that handsome wood trim!
Let's face it - much like Bernie Sanders the Atari 7800 system never had much of a chance. Not only was it released years after its inception, but it was saddled with the leftover "Proline" controllers of the Atari 2600 era. I'm sure it made sense to the Atari executives, considering it was an existing controller with the proper number of buttons required for the system (two). Unfortunately, nobody at Atari ever bothered to play one of these things for an extended period of time. If they had, they would have experienced perhaps the most uncomfortable, hand-cramping torture devices ever devised.
In the late 1990's DVD was a BIG deal, representing a major upgrade from still-popular VHS video tape format. The initial price tag of a DVD player however was far out of range of most electronics customers. Sony seized upon this opportunity by equipping their new Playstation 2 with a DVD player, which proved to be a huge selling point. The Dreamcast was released a year prior, but Sega should have seen the writing on the wall. Despite pleas from fans they opted to save a few bucks instead, which probably played a pivotal role in them exiting the hardware business. Dreamcast fans can only sit back and ponder what could have been!
My Philips CD-i system resembles a stereo component from the late 80's. It's a wide black box with various inputs running across the back. There's only one port on the front. That must be the controller port, right? Well, not exactly. It's actually the player two controller port. The player one controller port is on the back mixed in with a hodgepodge of other connectors. Adding to the confusion, the CD-i controller jack looks exactly like an S-Video plug! I might have overlooked this gross design flaw in an early system, but the CD-i was released in 1991 for Pete's sake! C'mon now.
During the early 90's fighting games were all the rage, resulting in new systems shipping with six-button controllers and older systems being retrofitted with six-button controllers. So why in the hell did the Jaguar ship with a lame three-button controller?! And sorry Jaguar fans, the keypad does not count! Atari tried to quickly remedy the situation with an eight-button model but they should have anticipated this much earlier in its development.
For their new Dreamcast system Sega decided to reinvent the concept of memory cards. Unlike the small, slim storage cards of the Playstation, Sega would sell fat little devices with screens called VMUs (Visual Memory Units). In addition to holding data they provided the player with a second screen and could even run rudimentary mini-games - in theory. Unfortunately the concept never took hold and Dreamcast gamers had to break their piggy banks for these overpriced memory cards which ate through CR2032 batteries like mad. Their only saving grace was how they do not require working batteries to save games.
For a system that supported many types of controllers (including a steering wheel and Super Action controllers), why did Coleco make it so hard for you to plug the damn things in? Not only are the ports tucked into the controller "wells", but they're in recessed holes to boot. Adding insult to injury, the "player one" port is actually the one located further away from the player. Wow.
Most consoles have two main wires, one for power and one to connect to a TV. I don't think anybody really had a problem with that, but apparently someone at Atari thought it was a very serious problem. Therefore the original Atari 5200 system was designed to have a single heavy-duty cord coming out of it, which connects to an oversized switch box on the back of the TV. You then need to plug in the power supply to a hole in the switch box hanging off the TV. Oh yes - this is much, much simpler. NOT. I should also mention the switchbox is extremely unreliable, resulting in loss of signal and/or power if a person should sneeze anywhere in the vicinity. Look - I had to wrap mine with electrical tape just to get it to work!
The NES system is such an enduring classic people don't tend to question its unique "breadbox" design. Instead of inserting a cartridge directly, you open a door, insert the cartridge into a holder, and press the whole thing down to plug it in. Would you believe this weird, indirect method of loading a cartridge is unreliable too? So much so that it gave birth to the whole "blowing into the cartridge" phenomenon. Later Nintendo would release a NES top loader, and the fact that it's become a high-priced collector's item speaks volumes.
Sega wasn't very creative when it came to the Saturn's memory management system. They just built in a skimpy amount of internal memory and called it a day. This proved problematic on several fronts. Since the memory was fixed size and unexpandable, players would soon have to pony up a separate (and expensive) memory cartridge. Next, the internal memory was retained via a 2032CR battery accessible via a semi-hidden compartment in the back. That battery only lasts about a year. So how do you know when it's dead? When all your game data goes away, that's how!
The Sega Genesis came with a power adapter that plugged directly into a strip. It was big and bulky brick, but hey - it was just one. Then the Sega CD and Sega 32x attachments came along - each with their own power-sucking bricks. Houston, we have a problem! It's hard enough trying to plug all three into a single strip, but then there's the fact that you're consuming three times the power to run a game only marginally more advanced than a normal Genesis title. Not exactly environmentally friendly!
You might expect advanced iterations of a console to improve upon the previous designs, but that never happens. Console manufacturers will take form over function any day of the week. Upon setting up my brand new PS4, I was faced with a difficult dilemma. How do you turn this [expletive] thing ON?! After doing some internet research I discovered there are two narrow slivers of "buttons" on the front that almost completely blend in. What do they do? Well, the symbols printed on them might be helpful if they weren't microscopic. Adding insult to injury, the upper "power" button is one of those touch-sensitive types, so tapping it does something different than holding it in for 5.73 seconds (or whatever). I'm never met anyone who can explain to me exactly how this button works! Good job Sony!
The original Xbox 360 was a very elegant console with a sleek hourglass figure, a clutter-free exterior, and the ability to be situated like a tower or on its side. Its only apparent flaw was its tendency to run hot, causing its fan to kick and run LOUD. Hell, for certain games it sounded like I was playing in a freaking wind tunnel! Nobody gave it a second thought until three years later when every Xbox 360 began to go belly up. Microsoft quickly went into damage control mode to fix the "red ring of death" crisis, aggressively fixing and replacing systems as fast as people could return them. This had to be the most costly design flaw in the history of consoles.
You had to know this one was coming. When it comes to console design blunders the Atari 5200 joystick is the great-granddaddy of them all. Coming off the roaring success of the Atari 2600 the engineers at Atari decided to get creative with their next console. Instead of supporting separate joystick (digital) and paddle (analog) controllers, why not roll just them both into one? The result was a bastardized joystick with the ability to measure its movement by degrees. That's great for Super Breakout, but what about every other [expletive] game in the world? Ultimately Atari 5200 owners got stuck with mushy joysticks that couldn't even center themselves when you let go. When a controller won't let you play a proper game of Frogger, that should tell you something.
Next Up... BEST Console Design Decisions??
Thanks for reading!