I'm curious that most console controllers released these days - and all handheld consoles - contain four main buttons rather than two. Obviously increases in processing power, graphics engines etc, have allowed for more complex games, but is there an argument to be made that two buttons are really enough to create some great games? In other words, would someone releasing a new handheld console on the market today be foolish not to include four?

  • \$\begingroup\$ I can't imagine playing Mega Man X with 2 buttons or 6 (in the right-hand thumb location). My thumb is on Y at all times to charge the blaster, and resting on A or B in preparation to Dash or Jump. I don't think I can reliably push more buttons without having to move my thumb. \$\endgroup\$ – Casey Kuball Aug 7 '12 at 19:28

Two are enough for some really great games. For other really great games, two aren't enough. When designing a default control system, all other things being equal, you want it as inclusive as possible.

But then - if four are better, why wouldn't six be better still? (for example, the late-era Genesis and Saturn pads had six buttons). Four's a magic number because you can have your thumb resting between them and easily reach any button without having to consider absolute position, and reasonably comfortably hit most combinations of two (for example, holding X to run/shoot and pressing A to jump). Having six face buttons isn't just 50% more complex - it means a certain way of interacting comfortably and intuitively with the controller doesn't work any more. So, for face buttons, four turns out to be a soft limit for general usage.

Contrast this with the Neo-Geo, which also had four buttons - but there, unlike modern pads, they were arranged in a line. That's because it used an arcade stick, and each finger laid naturally on each button. Going down to three buttons wouldn't change the control paradigm: going up to five would. So, again, four buttons were a natural soft limit, but here for a different reason on a different design of controller.

Why four? Because, in this context, it's not much more than two, but six is a lot more than four.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Bump +1 I think this is the better answer so far. Good insight into 2v4v6 buttons. \$\endgroup\$ – chaosTechnician Aug 7 '12 at 16:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ In my opinion, the right analog stick on modern controllers takes up the spot the last 2 buttons on the Genesis would have been. So we're really talking about a convergence to 5 buttons. \$\endgroup\$ – Jimmy Aug 7 '12 at 16:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Jimmy - Not really, the right analog stick is one control mode, the buttons are another. You don't use them simultaneously - you use one or the other, maybe context switching between the modes quickly on the fly in a game. My post was about natural limits for a given control group: handling multiple control groups is a different issue. Simply totalling the number of buttons misses the point. \$\endgroup\$ – Tom Johnson Aug 7 '12 at 16:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think a great illustration of your explanation is the GameCube controller which goes the extra mile to really make the four button style comfortable, laying out the four buttons not in a generic square but in a more organic way suited to how you use your thumb. \$\endgroup\$ – Tinco Aug 7 '12 at 17:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ The Nintendo 64 had six buttons; A, B and four C(amera) buttons. That was on top of a D-pad and analog stick with an overall design that made it impossible to use both at once (or to use L and Z together). It was still a successful console, despite the controller design flaws, and the fact they missed a Christmas release causing Square and Capcom to move their extremely popular Final Fantasy and Mega Man series to the PlayStation. The GameCube, however, was a relative flop even though they "fixed" flaws with both the N64 and PS controllers. \$\endgroup\$ – KeithS Aug 7 '12 at 18:45

It's easier to use a button for one action than using a combination of buttons. Double Dragon for the NES made you hit A + B to jump. While A and B are also Kicking and Punching. Logically it's less intuitive if you use certain buttons for different unrelated actions. As a player you get accustomed to the layout, but it is certainly not better than having a third button to jump.

Of course this completely depends on the requirements of the game. Some games only need two buttons. But limiting game-designers to only two buttons is counter-intuitive.

If you take zelda : links awakening and link to the past for example. Link to the past had a third button to perform certain actions. While keeping sword mapped to 'B' and Item use to 'Y'. 'A' was used for various actions like pulling, talk, running etc. In links awakening you had to swap out items to 'A' and 'B'. You could even swap out your sword. Might be handy, but unnecessary if there were more buttons.

It really comes down to the gamedesign.


If a game developer chooses to use only two of the four available main press buttons, that is currently an option.

Other games may choose to utilize all four, that is also an option.

Limiting the game designer by only offering two main input buttons is simply bad design. Yes, a great game may only need a single input, but that does not mean all games should.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I Agree for live example What Button does Call Of Duty: MW2 not use? where as there are games that just use A and B, I like having the option :). \$\endgroup\$ – AbstractChaos Aug 7 '12 at 13:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ The same argument can be made for offering 100 buttons. \$\endgroup\$ – Kylotan Aug 7 '12 at 15:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kylotan No, the same can be said for offering up to 10 buttons. Your keyboard actually has 9 if you're typing blind. Four fingers on each hand on the home row (asdf jkl;) and one or two thumbs on space. All the other buttons are offsets from the home row. But since you also need to hold the controller in your hands, you are left with only a few possible locations for buttons. \$\endgroup\$ – knight666 Aug 7 '12 at 15:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ The only argument made in this answer so far is that limiting the game designer by limiting buttons is bad - there's nothing about how many buttons is 'good'. \$\endgroup\$ – Kylotan Aug 7 '12 at 15:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kylotan, I don't think the OP asked how many buttons is "good." He asked if two is reasonable and if including less than four would be a bad idea. You're looking for an answer to a different question. \$\endgroup\$ – chaosTechnician Aug 7 '12 at 15:58

but is there an argument to be made that two buttons are really enough to create some great games

A simple top X list of NES or Gameboy games would be argument enough that you can make great games with two buttons (plus directional control).

But there is also plenty of games that would be either impossible to make for 2 button input, or would be so cumbersome to play they would no longer be considered top X material.

In short, having few or many buttons does not mean your game will be a hit or a miss, the game itself and how well it works with the controls your target system has to offer is more important than the number of buttons the player has to use.


My gameboy micro (if that's an old enough console ^^) hasn't got two but six buttons (+ the 'cross')

They are : A,B,L,R, select and start


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