Panzer Paladin and NES controllers: the challenge of getting a literal ‘retro’ feel

By Neil Merrett

Panzer Paladin, released on Nintendo Switch in 2020, developed by Tribute Games

There can be real joy in plugging some beloved old controller or joystick into a modern console. But trying to give a modern game – with its multiple input and control options – a retro, tactile feel is not always easy when you only have half a dozen buttons at your disposal. 

What makes a game retro?  In the current videogame market, the term increasingly applies to titles that not only evoke the look and sound of a bygone era of 8-bit and 16-bit consoles, but that can also recreate the feel and touch of old games at the controller level.

Major, and indeed not so major companies have created a lucrative industry in repurposing and updating the scaled back, more simplistic controllers of yesteryear to help with this. These can come in the form of gamepads with barely a handful of ‘clicky’ buttons, or high-cost bespoke arcade sticks that painstakingly try to recreate the crunchy feedback of old school arcade fighting games for the era of professional e-sports.

Gamers very much want an authentic looking and sounding retro game – even when relying on modern hardware to create much more sophisticated fighters or platformers. Many of these games would be technically impossible to run on some beloved 30-year-old games machine.

But there is also something to be said in having the same tactile feedback that comes with playing with a blocky, angular piece of plastic that was almost glued into the hands of huge numbers of children in the 1980s and ’90s.  For many reasons, some people still want that sensation even with more complex controller options now available to them.

Granted these same modern gamers still want to experience these old peripherals with modern wireless technology and self-recharging batteries – they are not savages after all.

Compatibility issues

Going back to the beloved gamepads and joysticks of yore is not always viable for modern games.

Modern peripherals are more sophisticated, or perhaps complicated, by virtue of having to handle the mechanics of modern titles that ask players to master dozens of different controller inputs and options to navigate the game.

There are simply not always enough buttons on your old controller to react to modern games.  This is regardless of how much someone loves the Nintendo 64’s now somewhat incongruous three pronged trident controller – revolutionary in the 1990s for incorporating a thumb stick in the middle of the controller – or the ergonomic simplicity of the Sega Megadrive pad. 

As part of efforts to build a wide number of peripherals to be used for Nintendo’s latest console, the gaming giant has made wireless approximations of a number of its previous console controllers that are compatible – to varying degrees – with its Switch system.

Essentially any game can be played on them – even the original NES gamepad with its total of five buttons overall. The inclusion of mini shoulder buttons to the new NES pad does mean overall button numbers can go up to seven.

Thankfully, the selection of old NES titles provided via the Switch Online Service are directly compatible with these retro controllers for playing Super Mario Bros 3 or the original Legend of Zelda.  But the player will struggle to use them on Super Mario Bros 35.

In the more helpful corners of the internet, databases are being built of games that are possible to be played with retro controllers such as the NES gamepad.

A modern take on old fashioned

One such game that is almost fully compatible – albeit with a little tinkering of controls in the options menu – is the anime inspired action platformer Panzer Paladin.

Despite evoking the look and sound of the NES era that branched both the 1980 and 1990s, this is arguably a modern platformer with partially animated cut scenes and a mesh of fantasy and sci-fi  tropes such as mech combat. It is an adventure game that takes a little of many beloved games of the era.

This retro appeal is bolstered by a number of more modern gaming mechanics such as levelling up, inventory management and evasive manoeuvres, alongside ranged and melee attacks – while also offering speed play modes and online options for sharing bespoke weaponry.

What better title then is there to try and recreate that literal retro feel by using a five button gamepad to leap and fight your way through the game? It’s as if the player is lashing out consequence free at enemies from the safety and nostalgia of their youth?

The basic overall premise is not typical for your anime-inspired mech drama, seemingly throwing together fantasy, horror and science fiction to make a hodgepodge setting for the player to jump and hit things in. 

Andrew Brown, in a review for Play Critically, notes that the story is based around a female android protagonist that mostly spends the game in enchanted power armour that she uses to battle the Earth’s most nefarious mythical beasts. This is supported by finding and then forging powerful new weapons.

The character named Flame is required to mobilise a ‘sentient suit of powered Armour called Grit’. When in the armour, the player is better able to take a few punches and flame blasts and literally give them back.

This suitably bonkers premise involves the futuristic ship Avalon and stopping an interdimensional demon war by hoarding or breaking down weapons into spells and power buffs that grant health or extra defence.  Managing your inventory is a key part of the game.

Mr Brown said in his review, “Depth and complexity is added to Panzer Paladin through a vast weapon system that affects nearly everything I do. As I defeat demonic soldiers, they may drop melee weapons themed to each level; massive two-handed zweihanders are found in Switzerland, vicious macuahuitls drop in Mexico, and ornate scepters appear in Russia.” 

“Every weapon is statistically distinct. Each weapon has different range, damage, and durability, and I may ‘Break’ them to perform a spell. This consumes the weapon, but provides immediate effects like enhancing the durability of GRIT’s next weapon, restoring his health, or flooding the screen with lightning bolts.” 

Complex controls

From a control perspective, this should all be simple. You use your ‘B’ button to jump, the ‘A’ button for your standard attack and the ‘D-pad’ to move around your character and direct its attacks above, to your side, or below in the case of a plunging pogo stick-style attack. This attack can be used to bounce on enemies with a weapon in a way that mimics Capcom’s popular Ducktales games from the 1990s.

The pogo move is fun to use and effective, but seemingly knackers your weapon much quicker.  This limits your number of stored weapons that can be used at the level’s end to upgrade your mech and make it more powerful and durable.

But the additional tactical complexity of the game that Mr Brown writes about, something that is increasingly common with modern games that all seek to introduce unique play mechanics to well-trodden genres, needs a lot more than the five buttons on the NES Controller to perform succesfully. This is still the case, even with the addition of a single ‘L’ and ‘R’ shoulder button required by the Switch console to read a controller.

The player requires commands to leap in and out of your mech to reach otherwise inaccessible parts of a level, as well as a separate command to hurl your chosen weapon across the screen at a troublesome enemy.

Another requirement is the option to smash a weapon to gain a health boost or additional power ups, perhaps in a moment of desperation, or when a cherished sword or axe is near breaking point after fairly limited use.

Mercifully, the game allows players to combine button presses so that the ‘A’ and ‘B’ button can be pressed together to let the game know they wish to manually break a weapon to gain a buff or bonus. 

Were it not for the requirement to push a ‘Y’ button that simply does not exist on the NES controller to upgrade your sentient mech, Panzer Paladin would almost be entirely playable with modified controls on the half dozen or so buttons the NES gamepad has. There is a surprising amount of appeal it seems in making a game more accessible for a variety of controller needs.

PC gamers are much more well versed in setting bespoke controls for their fave games. This can be via a hybrid of keyboard and mouse controls, or simply plugging in an X-Box or Steam Controller to their machine.  It’s still relatively new and unique in the realm of consoles to map a game’s controls for the unique needs of a players.

But the growing appeal of videogames among individuals of all backgrounds, ages and disabilities means that creating more options for accessibility and control use will be increasingly important as a means of entertainment, escape and even education.

Abertay University in Scotland has over the last few years been involved in work to develop a game for Great Ormond Street Hospital that aids children with cystic fibrosis to do breathing exercises through the mechanics of a videogame.

Archipelayo is played via a specially developed peripheral that incorporates physiotherapy devices and sensors to allow a player’s breath to control the game itself.

Alongside the middle-class pursuit of plugging in a souped up retro controller for enjoyment and nostalgia, the Switch is a console at the forefront of offering multiple ways to enjoy a game. 

Whether this is the appeal and simplicity of using a single joy con, sticking it inside a steering wheel to offer more immersive motion controls for racing, or maybe allowing individuals with different levels of disabilities to engage in a cherished pastime – it offers a range of accessibility options.

Panzer Paladin is lovely to look at, sounds wonderful and has a satisfying crunch when smashing a weapon over some bad guy’s head or hurling a sword across the screen.  Its retro credentials are bolstered by adopting the mechanics of a range of beloved NES titles that includes Castlevania, Ducktales, the Adventure of Link and Mega Man.

However, perhaps its greatest innovation is understanding and allowing players to compress their control preferences into more simplified set ups that can address our individual needs either out of necessity or a nostalgic sense of touch and feel.

The complexity of the human experience can only be helped by more games following this example.

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