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Billions of Buttons

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Yes, every single one of those does something.
No, not a single one of them is labeled.
"The bubble-top canopy rose automatically and Tom dived inside, searching frantically amongst hundreds of levers, switches and analogue dials for the start button."
Attack of the 50-Ft. Half-Klingon

The Rule of Cool dictates that there should be lots of buttons on the fancy starship or new mech, often paired with rows of unlabeled indicator lights. It's a billion buttons, with no apparent purpose.

Usually, of all these buttons, a few will always be used, usually in different contexts. This can be justified by the fact that any vessel with standardized parts would have more than a few displays which look identical, and the fact that pressing various combinations of the return, tab, arrow, and escape keys while in a menu system can in fact get you radically different results- but this does not mean that the rest of the keys are unnecessary.note  Nevertheless, many shows just don't manage to make things look convincing, or to consider that the more 'advanced' something is, the fewer buttons it might have.

This is Truth in Television. Real Life aircraft, spacecraft, power stations, trains and so on have loads and loads of buttons — many of which are only used if one particular component (out of thousands) is misbehaving. The cockpit of the Space Shuttle, for example, had buttons covering every available surface (even the ceiling!). More advanced and reliable computing power has allowed designers to simplify control panels; the 'Glass Cockpit' with Electronic Flight Instrument System (EFIS) screen, for instance, is pretty much standard kit on most airliners. Even in an era when most or all functions can be routed through a single simple interface, having a cockpit full of hard-wired controls reduces the chances of a single circuit failure rendering an entire craft uncontrollable. The armada of buttons are on standby just in case you have to take full manual control of the craft, or make it do something outside the normal operational regime — say, when you suddenly need to land an airliner on a river. (In a delightful fulfillment of the trope, the Airbus A320 actually does have a button for precisely that situation; it seals several of the aircraft's external openings, to help slow the rate at which the fuselage floods and sinks. In the case of Flight 1549, though, it wasn't actually used, nor would it have helped, since the impact with the water tore holes much larger than those the "ditch switch" would have sealed. But the switch was there, and that's the point.)

Another design consideration underlies the trope: that of haptic feedback. The primary strength of a touchscreen interface is its ease of discoverability and configuration: instead of a bunch of single-purpose buttons and switches and so forth, you can have just a single touchscreen with modes providing all those controls and more, and the platform lends itself well to helping a novice user find her way around the interface. The trouble is, those controls are totally refractory to muscle memory and touch feedback, because no matter what control inputs you're making, what you are actually doing is wiggling your fingertips around on a sheet of glass. This makes it almost impossible to perform those control inputs without looking at what you're doing — a minor concern when you're flipping between apps on your iPad, but a potentially life-threatening requirement when you can't afford to divide your attention from trying to fly an aircraft or spacecraft back out of trouble.

Or, for that matter, even a plain old ordinary automobile: this consideration is why, even in the newest cars, touchscreen interfaces are relegated to cabin entertainment and other nonessential systems, with all the actual driving controls still implemented with mechanical switches and levers which the driver can reliably operate without needing to look away from the road. For the same reason, touchscreen controls are almost universally absent from the cockpits of fighter aircraft. The sole exception is the F-35, where a cockpit interface driven almost entirely via touchscreen and voice input is just one of many radical (and as yet unproven) departures from conventional fighter design.

Contrast alternate futuristic design styles Ascetic Aesthetic and Holographic Terminal.

See also Extreme Graphical Representation, and The Aesthetics of Technology for adding billions of buttons to something in an attempt to make it look complicated. In animation expect some Lazy Artist, with huge banks of cool but unlabeled controls.


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    Comic Books 
  • In Wolverine #75, the X-Men are re-entering the atmosphere after flying the Blackbird to Magneto's asteroid. Quicksilver must take the pilot seat because there are so many buttons that he is the only one fast enough to activate them all.
  • Wonder Woman:
    • Wonder Woman (1942): To Steve Trevor's horror Etta Candy once activated a spaceship, which then took off with them still aboard, on accident due to messing with two of the many buttons covering a wall and then trying to fix whatever that had activated when things started lighting up.
    • Wonder Woman (1987): Sebastian Ballesteros's nuclear silo-inspired base has every surface save the floor covered in buttons, screens, or both.
    • In The Legend of Wonder Woman (2016) the Holliday Girls are amazed that Diana can control the aircraft they "borrow" due to the overwhelming number of buttons and switches in the cockpit.

    Films — Animated 
  • Yellow Submarine had this in spades: the eponymous submarine had hundreds of buttons to choose from. None of them were labeled in any way, either, requiring the Beatles to press them all at random to do anything. Most of the time, though, it didn't matter, as the submarine had New Powers as the Plot Demands.
  • The bonus animation on the Ratatouille DVD, "Lifted", has a lot of fun with this. Suffice it to say it involves a young alien who's taking his spaceship-flying test, in a spaceship controlled by Billions Of Unmarked Buttons Switches... Word of God mentioned that the daunting panel of switches was influenced/inspired by a sound mixer's console.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Galaxy Quest had the same principle as above. Tommy knew how to drive the Thermian ship because he had made up in his mind what each button was supposed to do, acted accordingly in the Show Within a Show, and the Thermians based their design on that.
    Like most things in Galaxy Quest, this was a direct homage to Star Trek; Wil Wheaton developed a similar system for the helm panel on the bridge of the Enterprise.
  • Parodied in the movie Airplane! when Ted Striker first steps into the airplane's cockpit, and his POV slowly pans (and pans and pans) across an endless, well, panorama of buttons, knobs, and switches. To top it off, that's a pan across actual control panels from a contemporary four-engine jet, although much of what's included would actually be on the flight engineer's panels and not an immediate concern of the pilots themselves.
  • Parodied a second time in Airplane II: The Sequel, when Buck Murdoch (William Shatner hamming it up as always) has a nervous breakdown over the thousands of switches, lights, and knobs in the control tower on the Moon.
    Murdoch: They're blinking and they're beeping and they're flashing... and they're FLASHING and they're BEEPING. I can't stand it anymore! WHY DOESN'T SOMEBODY STOP THEM?!…
    • It doesn't help that no one knows what they actually do.
      Lieutenant Pervis: Sir, these lights keep blinking out of sequence. What should we do about it, sir?
      Commander Murdoch: Get them to blink in sequence!
  • The banks of billions of buttons in Alien were wired up such that actions on one console changed the configuration of lights on the other consoles, providing "work routines" for the actors to go through.
  • In Apollo 13, there are buttons all over the spacecraft, many were even behind the astronauts' shoulders and were meant to be reached without turning to look (the controls were labelled in reverse and mirrors were strategically placed around the CSM). The writers and actors made sure that the usage of such buttons was realistic — they had the commander of Apollo 15 there every day to make sure they did it right.
  • The cockpit of the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars. Harrison Ford has said that he had seen the construction of the set for A New Hope, and was looking forward to actually sitting in the cockpit. When he finally did, he asked how you "fly" the ship, and he was told by George Lucas that he didn't know, just to work it out.
    • In the prequels: "Retransmit this message to Coruscant." Accomplished with one button. Which is later seen doing something totally different. A subtle commentary on the differences in design between a fancy spaceborne limo and a Used Future freighter, or an example of lazy editing? You make the call.
    • The speeder bikes in Return of the Jedi have only three switches. The middle one apparently is used for jamming comm signals. Then again, if the comm system for the bikes is like a CB radio, then just keying the mike and holding it open can interfere with other talkers. So, it's possible.
  • In 2010: The Year We Make Contact, the bridge of the Leonov was filled with unlabeled buttons. This contrasted nicely with the Discovery, which has a very sensible layout. This was probably meant to suggest something about the difference between United States and Soviet engineering and interface design philosophies.
    • Of course, the Discovery had an advanced artificial intelligence to help run things. And the Leonov didn't end up drifting derelict in Jovian space, so maybe the Soviets were onto something.
  • The cockpit of any Batmobile, from the '66 TV show to The Dark Knight Trilogy.
  • A brilliant use in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when Khan realizes that the Enterprise has managed to remotely order Reliant to lower her shields, the camera quickly cuts to a rapidly-panning P.O.V. Cam shot of a control panel as Khan tries to find the override (the subtitle commentary on the Director's Cut wryly points out that Khan won't find it: He's staring at the helmsman's station).
  • In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Bennie the Cab's dashboard is covered in dozens of buttons, levers, and switches. During a chase scene, when he orders Roger and Eddie to "Pull the lever!", he has to produce a sign indicating which one he's talking about. ("This Lever, Stupid!")
  • Gravity plays this realistically, as all the areas in the film are real spacecraft and space stations. (Well, current and future space stations.) Dr. Stone has to read both Russian and Chinese on control panels for the ISS' Soyuz and the Tiangong station's Shenzhou, respectively, and there are manuals there to help. In an unusually thorough and realistic application of the trope, while Stone can't read the Chinese text labeling the controls of the Soyuz-derived Shenzhou, her training on the Russian platform enables her to successfully operate its close Chinese descendant through a series of educated, and correct, guesses.
  • The Delorean Time Machine in Back to the Future films has three rows of buttons along the roof of the car (well, the roof that isn't also part of the gull-wing doors) and more than a few on the board behind the seats. They're never touched in the movies, though the Delorean model in the video game labels the buttons such things as "Flux front", "Coolsys 1", and "Alt".
    • At the end of the first one (and beginning of the second), Doc audibly and visibly presses the buttons on the roof console, so they must now have something to do with activating the fusion reactor and/or engaging flight mode.
  • The Gadgetmobile in both Inspector Gadget (1999) and Inspector Gadget 2 takes this to absurd levels. Seriously, the thing is so over-crammed that it's an eyesore.
  • The Tartan Prancer in Vacation has more buttons than necessary on both its center console and key fob. Many of those buttons have ambiguous functions due to the non-standard iconography; one of the buttons on the fob blows up the car.
  • When Neil enters Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 in First Man, the camera lingers to show the countless buttons, switches, and displays both cockpits have.
  • In Top Gun: Maverick, Maverick and Rooster are both shot down and resort to stealing an F-14 from the enemy base they just destroyed. Rooster is put in the backseat and has no clue how to work the hundreds of analogue switches. Maverick dryly admits he doesn't know much more because that was the job of Goose, Rooster's late dad.
  • Night Ride: A tram arrives at a stop on a cold winter night. The woman waiting at the stop gets on early, while the driver is off using the toilet, because it's cold. She looks over the many mysterious buttons and levers, pushes the wrong one, and ends up starting the tram and accidentally stealing it.

  • Subverted in The Subtle Knife: after seeing a computer for the first time, Lyra describes the keyboard as "a board with at least one hundred buttons". She is right, mind...
  • In the original novels and both film adaptations of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the walls of Willy Wonka's Great Glass Elevator are covered floor to ceiling with buttons. At least this time it's clearly explained that there is a button for each room and there are a lot of rooms, as the factory is akin to an iceberg, with only a small fraction visible above-ground.
    • The sequel shows how Crazy-Prepared Wonka is. The elevator has a button that supplies oxygen to the elevator, four for rockets for directional movement, and one for orbital reentry rockets. (Exactly why he was expecting to take it into orbit when he built it isn't made clear. Then again, if you can build an elevator that can make orbit, why wouldn't you?)
  • In Danny, the Champion of the World: when discussing which electric oven to buy, Danny's father comments that one of them is so covered in dials and knobs, it looks like the cockpit of an aeroplane.
  • Venturus from Archer's Goon got carried away with the Rule of Cool and designed his spaceship like this. Operating it requires two people, stretched across the array of buttons so as to press four or more of them at a time.
    • This is lampshaded all to hell, if you can't tell.
  • Implied in The Dark Tower: Roland sees a 1980s-era jetliner cockpit and immediately understands why it takes four people to operate.
  • The computer room of the cruise ship Star of Empire, in Galaxy of Fear is just crowded with buttons, all colorful.
  • In the BattleTech Expanded Universe, the cockpit of a BattleMech has hundreds of buttons and switches to control fire suppression system, communications, ammo selection, and actuator calibration. In the Saga Of The Gray Death Legion, Grayson notes that while the basic movement and weapon control systems for a mech are almost universally a pair of joysticks, twin foot pedals, and a Brain/Computer Interface helmet for balance, all the other systems vary heavily by manufacturer. When he steals an enemy battlemech in the second novel, he can't find the loudspeaker button as a friendly mercenary is aiming at the "enemy" mech with a Fire-Breathing Weapon.
  • Lampshaded in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: cars and other Muggle technologies have too many buttons for a clever wizard.
    Dedalus: You know how to drive, I take it?
    Vernon Dursley: Of course I ruddy well know how to drive!
    Dedalus: Very clever of you, sir, I personally would be utterly bamboozled by all those buttons and knobs.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The 1978 BBC comedy Come Back Mrs. Noah had this on the space station Britannia Seven, being a wonder of British technology and all. Once an Episode there would be some futuristic device that after excessive button-pushing and accompanying sound effects would end up not doing what they wanted it to do.
  • Doctor Who:
    • The TARDIS console has tons of buttons and things because it's actually a 6-person console that the Doctor is using by themself. The ship also creates her own interfaces every time she takes on a new appearance, and the buttons change accordingly. The Doctor often needs to run around the console hitting buttons on all sides, even when it's not an emergency. (In an emergency, they sometimes have to tie levers down with rope...) Also, because of the effect of eleven centuries of amateur maintenance, the console possesses fewer actual buttons than it does loose wires, brass light switches, bicycle pumps...
    • For many years the BBC kept a plywood mockup console for rehearsals that had outlines of the various controls drawn on it. If you looked closely you'd find handwritten notes penciled in beside some of them. They were written by Jon Pertwee: every time he had to do something "new" on the console he'd pick an unlabelled control on the mockup and use it, then write in what he used it for in case it ever came up again. Basically, Schrödinger's Gun as applied to controls.
    • In "Day of the Daleks", the women "manning" the consoles in the Controller's headquarters are clearly just sliding their hands aimlessly over those same consoles. Perhaps it's meant to be a touch-sensitive interface, but how can they tell what they're doing without looking at the panels?
    • The Aesthetics of Technology is invoked in the sonic screwdriver, which has had very few buttons over the course of the show's run but lots of functionality (much of it from the newer series). The latest version has a thumb slide and specifically operates by reading the user's thoughts and extracting a relevant function.
    • In the new series, much as in the Pertwee days, the uselessness of the buttons is averted. Matt Smith was actually given a manual when he was cast as the Eleventh Doctor so he could learn to use the console properly.
    • If the dramatisation of the early days of the franchise An Adventure in Space and Time is accurate, this was in effect from the very start of the show. William Hartnell insisting that the same controls were used for the same TARDIS function, successfully arguing with the producers that it would violate viewers' suspension of disbelief if he used the same control to operate the door one week and activate the viewscreen the next.
    • One Big Finish radio episode hinted that the TARDIS spontaneously sprouted a new function and accompanying button just to save the Doctor's life with it.
  • In Firefly, Serenity's cockpit doesn't have massive amounts of buttons, but it does have a large number of them on the consoles and especially on the cockpit's ceiling.
    • Alan Tudyk, who played the ship's pilot Wash, said that every time he was directed to do something with the ship, he would always flip three switches above him as a sort of "start-up sequence".
  • In Knight Rider, K.I.T.T's control panel had a lot more buttons than were actually used. The handful that were used, like Turbo Boost and Eject R, were marked clearly, but most of them had obscure labels along the lines of 7DLX, 8PL1, or P AUX.
    Devon: Welcome on board the Knight 2000.
    Michael: Thank you. What's all this? (gestures at dashboard) Looks like Darth Vader's bathroom.
  • Out of this World (1962)'s "Little Lost Robot": The gallery, from where the characters conduct the experiment, has tape reels, buttons and levers, as well as whirring and flashing lights, which shows how complicated the machinery is in Hyperbase 7.
  • Inverted in Red Dwarf with Holly's ultra-sophisticated, universe traveling, faster-than-light "Holly Hop Drive". It only had two buttons a green one marked "start" and a red one marked "stop", you pressed the green one to start it...
    Holly: ...and you can work out the rest of the controls yourself.
    • In Back in the Red, Kryten manages to sway Rimmer into coming with them by promising him his own seat in the cockpit with as many as five buttons at his command.
  • The control consoles for starships in Star Trek. The original series had huge panels filled with unlabeled buttons and switches. The Next Generation had illuminated consoles that were touch-sensitive, and we always see crewmembers constantly pushing buttons even when nothing much is happening.
    • George Takei, playing helmsman Sulu in the original series, subverted the usual Context-Sensitive Button corollary; directed to push a particular button, he refused, saying that based on previous episodes it would blow up the ship.
    • In Star Trek: Voyager, Paris designs the Delta Flyer with buttons and other manual controls (modeled off a Buck Rogers-esque 1940s movie serial) specifically so he can have a more tactile experience when flying it. Plus Rule of Cool. Also lampshaded by quite a few characters they run into.
    • In "Message In A Bottle", the Doctor ends up in the middle of a battle on a Starfleet ship where the only other crew is another EMH who's never even seen bridge controls (and the Doctor himself is hardly an expert, not to mention the ship is a prototype with a new design). Hilarity Ensues.
      Doctor: What are you waiting for? Shoot! Shoot!
      EMH-2: There are so many controls...
      Doctor: Find the one that says "fire" and push it!
  • The vehicles in Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad were controlled by many flashing unlabelled buttons pushed by untrained teenagers (and on one occasion a high school lunch lady) - even weirder considering the said vehicles were actually antivirus software.
  • Stranger Things: The console in Hawkins Lab opposing the glassed-in portal to the Upside Down has a very high button count. They flash brightly and incoherently when an alarm condition occurs.
  • In The Twilight Zone (1959), any time a computer is used, it has not only numerous buttons but also panels full of lights that are not labeled, which blink, usually in a pattern. This is a simultaneously lazy and clever take on contemporaneous actual computers, which themselves had panels full of lights that were labeled, and which would blink, usually in a pattern. Since the lights and their labels had meaning only for those few closely familiar with the arcana of a particular machine's operation, the TV versions just show big panels full of blinking lights, since that's all a layman would notice in any case.
  • In UFO (1970), a montage of flashing lights, spinning tape drives, blocky letters on colored monitors, swaying female buttocks, and rows of large luminous buttons accompany every Red Alert.

  • Pipe organs, including theatre/cinema organs, often have large numbers of knobs and buttons, as well as pedals and multiple keyboards used during a performance. Knobs and buttons are often set before a performance; if settings are to be changed during a piece, the organist may call upon an assistant to make the changes while they continue to play.

    Tabletop Games 
  • BattleTech: The interior of a Battlemech's cockpit is depicted this way, due to the game being "the future of the 80s." In combat, however, most of the buttons and switches aren't used, they're there for non-combat functions or to support functions that that particular mech doesn't have due to cockpit controls being very nearly universal. Most of the time, the pilot just uses the control yoke (which has all the weapon firing studs attached to it), the foot pedals, and shutdown override button.
  • Dungeons & Dragons
    • The first edition featured an artifact known as the Machine of Lum the Mad, a device consisting of a large console powered by dozens of dials, plugs, levers, and buttons, none of which are labeled. A sourcebook for Second Edition AD&D introduced the Mighty Servant of Leuk-O, which was essentially a Humongous Mecha controlled by around 300 unlabelled levers.
    • This trope got used numerous times with Gary Gygax and his original gaming group, as they all liked to gamble on random lever pulls. Often Gary would keep two or three different lever or button rooms as Schmuck Bait for the players, who couldn't resist pulling them and hoping to get a magic item or a sizable boost in XP — though just as often they'd end up dooming the party instead... The infamous Deck of Many Things is based on the same concept.
    • The most button (and dial, and switchboard plug) heavy version of the Machine of Lum the Mad had 8.5x10^48 different combinations, each with the possibility to possess its own unique effect. (And the worst part is, it would have far more combination if many of its controls weren't broken.) Obviously, they were not enumerated, but the possibilities do give one the idea why Lum was called "the mad.")
    • A smaller-scale implementation of this is the Apparatus of Kwalish, a lobster-ish seagoing construct that is piloted by sitting inside its barrel-like body. It has ten different levers, each lever has two functions, and none are labeled. Spending some time getting to grips with it is mandatory.
  • Into the Outdoors with Gun and Camera, the introductory adventure to Paranoia 2nd ed, sends the hapless Troubleshooters into wacky adventures on a six-legged amphibious vehicle. The players are presented with a foldout of the vehicle's dashboard with unmarked buttons, gauges, and levers, and of course the instruction manual is not available at their security clearance, leaving What Does This Button Do? as their only option. Have a nice day-cycle!

    Video Games 
  • The Atari Jaguar's controller had seventeen buttons: a normal set of buttons consisting of a directional pad, Pause and Option buttons, and 3 face buttons, and a numerical keypad under them with pound sign and asterisk buttons. The intention was to include game-specific plastic faceplates to be attached on top of them as a reminder of what each button does in that game. Keep in mind that this is a game controller, where all the buttons have to be able to be accessed easily and quickly. This was one of many reasons why it flopped.
    • This is just the standard controller: The Pro Controller adds Z, Y, and X on another row as well as two shoulder buttons for a whopping 22 individual inputs.
    • Before the Atari Jaguar's controller came along, it was Intellivision's controllers, which sports a 12-key "touch tone phone" keypad, two trigger buttons, and a D-pad whose center is yet another button. Coming in close is the ColecoVision's, which has the same 12-key "touch tone phone" keypad, two trigger buttons, and a joystick (narrowly losing out to the Intellivision by one button). It's no surprise that both platforms did not catch on as well as the Atari 2600. Most of what doomed the "telephone keypad" controller designs was the combination of a lousy user interface and a lack of developer interest in actually making all those extra buttons do something; by contrast, in the entire Atari 2600 lineup there was only one game that actually had a use for a 12-button keypad, and that game came with one in the box.
    • Hilariously, modern gamepads are coming dangerously close to returning to this trope. The Xbox One Elite controller has two analog sticks that could also be pushed down as buttons, a four-way D-Pad, two shoulder buttons, two analog triggers that double as additional shoulder buttons when pushed, seven face buttons, and four more backhand buttons that are triggered by the third and fourth finger on each hand. The DualShock 4 and DualSense does not have the backhand buttons but instead has a multitouch pressure-sensitive trackpad, and the DualSense has an additional face button to activate streaming/sharing mode.
  • In Halo, the Chief usually seems to know just which button to press on any Forerunner control system he comes across. The novel adaptation of the first game lampshades this, with Chief and friends both being rather baffled about it. It's later revealed that the Forerunners encoded genetic instructions into ancient humanity which give some humans instinctual knowledge on how to use Forerunner tech.
  • Steel Battalion, a $200 Humongous Mecha game for the Xbox, has a controller approximating what might actually be used to pilot a mech, including an ejector switch housed in a plastic cover which had to be used if your mech was destroyed or you, the pilot, were blown up too... which deleted your saved game. Unlike the prior examples, this actually succeeded quite well in its admittedly rather narrow niche.
  • The Bonus Dungeon of Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal included a (toned down for simplicity of coding) version of the aforementioned Machine of Lum the Mad. The rest of the dungeon provided several notes giving valid combinations (yielding some very nice stat boosts and the key to the next level of the dungeon), but hitting switches at random produced random results in the usual range from 'brilliant' (the single largest XP reward in the game) to 'damn' (disintegrate the operator with no saving throw).
  • Battletech: Firestorm simulator pods have MFDs with many buttons that are labeled that control functions from targeting, selecting between group and chain fire, setting pilot mode, and even buttons to shout pre-recorded radio insults to another/all player(s).
    • And the pre-Firestorm version that ran in those same Virtual World pods adds power generator and coolant loop management to the mix via those same MFDs - features never seen in a home MechWarrior release, and likely removed from Firestorm because that game is literally MechWarrior 4 in an arcade cockpit.
  • Kerbal Space Program's "Raster Prop Monitor" Game Mod adds virtual cockpits to almost all control pods, with several multi-function displays that can flip between radar, status displays, orbital maps, etc. Each MFD has multiple buttons for controlling the display. Many cockpits also have additional controls such as flip switches (complete with a protective cover) for emergency boosters, parachutes, staging, fuel cut-off, and so on.
    • Inverted for comedic effect in the stock game. Kerbals have a joystick and a Big Red Button for commanding the modules, and... that's about it.
  • Ghostbusters: The Video Game demonstrates that, while ECTO-1's dashboard is mostly a normal dashboard, Egon's backwards-facing "control chair" is one of these.
  • Any Simulation Game that puts you in a cockpit will confront you with this by default - see the Real Life section below. Sometimes, it's simplified for ease of gameplay, as in VTOL VR. Other times, with Falcon 4.0 BMS and Digital Combat Simulator, you'll have to learn what each and every one of those switches actually does, even if you never touch 90% of them after a cold start.
    • And it's not even limited to real-world aircraft and spacecraft, either; Rogue System is described as "DCS IN SPACE!" for a reason, clearly designed by someone who thought that your typical space sim didn't have enough switches to flick in the cockpit. It makes the likes of Elite Dangerous and Independence War look like simple arcade games by comparison.
    • Taito's Landing Series of video games avert this trope, being simulators but designed to be playable by casual arcade customers. The first two games only have a yoke, throttle, and Context-Sensitive Button (used for menus and performing a go-around to retry the stage). Landing High Japan does add rudders and buttons for flaps, but it's still heavily simplified compared to the likes of many consumer flight simulators.
  • Rock Band 3's Fender Mustang Pro Guitar controller has 102 buttons on its neck, simulating 6 strings across 17 frets.

  • In Sluggy Freelance Riff and Mad Scientists in general love this trope. You'd think Riff would learn to cut down on the bright buttons since he has Kiki living with him.
  • The Adventures of Dr. McNinja: When Doc has to fly a spaceship, casually notes that it should be the same as or easier than flying a plane. When he actually gets into the cockpit, he stammers that he doesn't know what the buttons do.
  • Inverted in Bob and George. Dr. Light's time machine only has one button, but a number of complicated procedures built around pushing it to use the suit's various functions.

    Western Animation 
  • The eponymous giant robot in Megas XLR has buttons for every occasion. In one episode, he hits a series of buttons labeled, in this order, "Missiles," "More Missiles," and "All da Missiles." In another, after declaring he was going into Super Destructor Mode, Coop presses a button labeled, "You heard him kids Super Destructor Mode!" Once, when trapped in a cocoon with a giant alien insect queen bearing down on them, Coop and his pals look over all the hundreds of buttons on the console and find themselves having to decide between "Break Out of Cocoon" and "Kill Giant Insect." He also installed three buttons that could destroy the planet ("Destroy the World," "Smite the World," and "Destroy the World Worse"), but the "Save the World" button was out of order when he needed it the most. Heck, there's a button in the series finale for "Just Got Hit With A Giant Taser?" which zaps the guy with the taser by sending a charge along his own wires.
    • Megas XLR is the king of this trope when it comes to labels - in that same finale, the gearshift reads "P R N D Save Jamie". When Jamie is being trapped under a collapsing column in the dystopian alternate universe, guess into what gear Coop shifts? That's right.
    • In another episode, Coop retorts to the villain, "Maybe you'll like this better, then!" The button he presses is marked "THIS BETTER THEN", which makes no sense in any other context (What does THIS BETTER THEN do? It extends axe blades from Megas' forearm, and then the arm extends to perform the giant-robot equivalent of a heart-rip-out fatality).
    • And let's not forget the (in)famous "5 minutes to the end of the episode"-button
    • For a miniature version (who knew it was possible?) the ultimate controller used in Rearview Mirror Mirror. About the size of Coop's face covered in little buttons for an infinite number of combinations for battle moves, including one for interdimensional travel.
  • In a similar vein to the above example, Mike's New Car, the short attached to Monsters, Inc., had the titular automobile with an array of devices and doohickeys. Naturally, every single one of them is unlabeled.
  • Subverted in The Simpsons. Sideshow Bob enters a fighter jet to escape pursuit. The cockpit has two buttons: Stop and Fly. Bob remarks, "Thank god for the idiot-proof air force!"
    • It shows up again in "500 Keys" with the Duff blimp, which only has a stop and a go button. Homer still complains about how many buttons there are.
    • A similar gag was done in Family Guy, justified (sort of?) in that the people in the airplanes were babies. The three buttons were LIFT OFF, FIRE MISSILES, and... a clowny face. It doesn't do anything, just enjoy it.
    • Played straight when Lisa encounters a Chinese keyboard.note 
    • Played straight when you look at Homer's job. The show had fun with it when they forced him to demonstrate his knowledge in a simulator.
      • For reference, he manages to cause a nuclear meltdown in a simulator that's not connected to anything. The testers are as baffled as anyone else.
  • In the Looney Tunes short "Design For Leaving", Elmer Fudd's house is made over into an automated home with a panel of dozens of buttons that activate the various features. Includes one Big Red Button which he must never, ever push. (He does, of course.)
    • Another Looney Tunes example appears in the Bugs Bunny short "Hare Lift", which features a massive new plane with this kind of control panel.
  • Parodied in an episode of Sonic the Hedgehog (SatAM) when Sonic sabotages Robotnik's oil drilling operation, though he takes out the drilling probes with their emergency destruct button first. ("I wonder what'll happen if I punch all these buttons? Only one way to find out!") He proceeds to do just that while singing a slight remix of the song he sang earlier in the episode, thus causing the drilling platform's destruction.
  • Garfield and Friends had an episode where Orson and the chicks imagine they're in a spaceship. When they get in trouble they ask Orson which of the countless unlabeled buttons will save them, to which he replies the spaceship is imaginary and to just pick one.
  • Parodied during an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, while Shake pokes around the button-laden ship of the Plutonians.
    Ogelthorpe: Quit pushing the buttons!
    Shake: This whole ship's a bunch of buttons!
  • The Ghostbuggy in Filmation's Ghostbusters is supposed to have these, but its layout is never totally consistent.
  • One episode of American Dad! started with Stan having to show a new CIA-powered armor, which is a killing machine that can perform delicate tasks such as defusing a bomb or adjusting a pearl necklace. When Stan is perplexed with what to do, the camera pulls back three times to show all the buttons in the control console. It ends about as well as you'd expect.
  • Kaeloo: Olaf's Supervillain Lair has control boards full of buttons. In Episode 104, Stumpy has no idea how to operate anything, so he presses all the buttons. This releases Kaeloo, Quack Quack, and Mr. Cat, who had been trapped, but he presses the Big Red Button to destroy the lair too.
  • SpongeBob SquarePants: The episode "Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy IV" has SpongeBob "borrowing" Mermaid Man's belt and using its Shrink Ray on everything. When he uses it on Squidward to prevent him from phoning Mermaid Man about it, Squidward demands that SpongeBob turn him back to normal, but SpongeBob has difficulty trying to figure out how to put the ray in reverse. The camera zooms in on the belt showing it to be covered in several dozen buttons, levers, monitors, meters, dials, etc.
  • The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy spoofed the design of the Nintendo 64's controller with Grim trying to use one that had about 15 buttons, 6 lights, 3 control sticks, 2 steering wheels, and 4 handles with a gun trigger in one.
  • The Tex Avery cartoon "TV of Tomorrow" shows a television set with dozens of dials and knobs. The set of the future is then shown with only one knob, but a closeup shows that knob covered with dozens of tinier knobs.

    Real Life 
  • The Space Shuttle. The "glass cockpit", added later in the Orbiters' lives, added additional visual screens while reducing the number of buttons by a few dozen or so.
  • Many recent MIDI controllers have arrays of buttons, keys, and knobs that are completely programmable and thus unlabelled.
  • What analog audio mixing consoles lack in buttons they make up in knobs. A mid-size console with parametric EQ can have well over one thousand knobs.
  • Professional-grade electronics feature a myriad of buttons and switches placed in every available space while consumer-grade electronics are much simpler and rely on options accessed through a menu. Aside from the fact that professionals need more features, they also need to be able to quickly adjust settings on the fly and it's faster to simply flick a switch or press a button through feel instead of fiddling through menu options.
  • Concorde, the world-famous supersonic airliner. While the pilot controls aren't too different from the usual "Gauges EVERYWHERE" affair for a 1970s plane, behind the copilot there is an engineering station completely covered in buttons, switches, and gauges to monitor and control the jet engines.
  • Mozilla Firefox is arguably the virtual equivalent: go to about:config, click through the cutesy warning if need be, and let your mind boggle at the sheer number of options. Made even better by the fact that a number of settings aren't even there by default; luckily, there's a manual.
  • Have a look at a Formula One steering wheel.
  • Or better yet, the control panel of a Nuclear Power Plant.
  • The modern "glass cockpit" design trend, sort of an intermediary between this trope and outright touchscreens, condenses big panels full of mechanical controls and gauges into multi-mode computer displays and "soft buttons" which take on a variety of functions depending on which mode a given display is in at the moment. However, while a glass cockpit might duplicate critical functions, it cannot safely replace them, since the glass cockpit hardware requires electrical power and sensor integration which the old-fashioned mechanical instruments do not, and there are many kinds of emergency that can disable the former but not the latter.
  • QWERTY keyboards, by comparison with the chorded keyboard design which was once expected to supplant it. They're usually labelled, but there are blank keyboards and keycap sets available, for the benefit of touch-typists in training or people who already touch-type quite well and just want to fancy up their rig.
    • Exaggerated with the IBM 1397000 122-key (aka the IBM PS/2 Host Connected) keyboard[1]. It's intended for use with a conversion set that makes an IBM PS/2 microcomputer into a mainframe terminal emulator, and thus supplies a wide variety of keys that a micro doesn't need but a mainframe terminal does.
    • If that still isn't enough buttons for you, SteelSeries has the Apex- a keyboard for gamers with a whopping 138 keys[2], aping the layout of the 1397000 and then some. And that's just the US English version. The Japanese version has three extra keys for language specifics (kanji/latin, hiragana/katakana, and kanji conversion toggle), bringing the number of keys up to a mind-boggling 141.
    • Before the IBM 1397000, there was the MIT Space-cadet keyboard, used with special terminals called LISP machines at MIT. Although it had only exactly 100 keys (contemporary personal computers from the time had much fewer keys), it was also chorded, meaning occasionally you'll need to push several other keys alongside the letter key. There was even a joke RFC to add a set of foot pedals to the keyboard since the designers constantly complained that there were not enough modifier keys.
    • The Corsair K95 backlit gaming keyboard is no slouch. While it features only 18 programmable (and combinable) macro keys compared to the Apex's 26 squeezed partly over the function keys - they're all fully sized and located on their own left partition of the keyboard. Across three preset modes switchable on the fly, bringing the macro count up to 54, 18 at a time, not including (122^122)*3 theoretical combinations. On most keyboards, inputting large blocks of keys at once is impossible and indeed quite impractical. Still, almost all buttons on the K95, save for media/volume control and keyboard settings, are full-sized mechanical keys with your choice of Cherry MX switches. All 122 mechanical keys can be rolled over at once and register 122 valid inputs, compared to the Apex's puny limit of 6 simultaneous keypresses, imposed by a less expensive design that economizes on part count at the cost of capability. It's also loud, like a keyboard should be. If that isn't enough, Corsair offers a 16 Million RGB Color Per-Key Backlit Model for ~$200, capable of all manner of effects and animations.
    • And then there are gaming mice with up to 20 buttons. They're mostly only used by MMORPG and RTS fans who can actually put all those extra macro keys to good use for quick-casting spells, rapidly locating and issuing orders to lots of dispersed units while using the other hand only for screen scrolling.
  • Not technically physical buttons, but UNIX command line programs often have dozens of optional flags that may or may not combine, leading to a feeling of this trope. The UNIX philosophy is that simple, smaller programs with a single main function interact via I/O to form a larger operating system, but in practice, it's often much more straightforward from the developer's perspective to add functionality to an existing program than to write a whole new one just to do something that's only slightly different, so existing programs grow flags, often in astonishing profusion. All the possible input flags for a program are typically outlined on the man page - if you can understand the developers' own documentation. Most non-geeks just stick to Windows GUI and call it a day.
    • Two words: Gentoo Linux. Two more words: USE Flags. Every single package, every program down to the kernel, is compiled from source, tailored to your exact, explicit hardware and software specifications set beforehand. The next step in customization would be Linux from Scratch or creating your own personal forks of programs. Most people, even Linux geeks, see no need for this, or indeed for compiling everything from source Gentoo-style. Gentoo is used mostly for servers with a very specific hardware configuration, for a very small gain in performance to add up over longtime 24/7 operation. Desktop "ricers" and hobbyists tend to veer more toward the precompiled binaries of Arch Linux.
  • Sony's first range of Google TV-powered smart TVs and boxes from 2010 to 2012 used...this monstrosity; it even had shoulder buttons akin to Sony's DualShock 3. Fortunately, their next Google TV remote had the good sense to keep the keyboard on the other side of the remote; the top of this version had way fewer buttons, though it had a massive trackpad too (yay?).
  • Pilots of the famous A-10 Warthog (that would be the American attack plane giant rotary cannon with a plane wrapped around it) are expected to not only be able to use the many buttons, knobs, and switches in the cockpit (the design predates the glass-cockpit concept), but they are expected to be able to do so blindfolded during training in case they have a problem while flying at night.
    • The A-10A has a relatively simple stick and throttle alongside a very analog Stores Management System (the panel that controls everything mounted under the wings and fuselage), but the later A-10C variant, while similar on the outside, modernizes the cockpit inside to the point of adding an up-front controls panel for inputting data, two Multi-Function Displays on each side, replaces the analog Stores Management System with a digital one accessed through said MFDs and control panel, and most of all, overhauls the relatively simplistic flight stick and throttle to a modern Hands-On Throttle And Stick design (itself summed up as this trope) with the old B-8 grip replaced with one akin to the F-16C. The A-10C HOTAS implementation allows the pilot to manage the plane's weapons, countermeasures, and even the new support for targeting pods without having to let go of the controls but adds a steep enough learning curve that conversion training is required.
  • Analog or virtual-analog synthesizers. Even more so, modular synthesizers. Justified in that 1960s and 1970s tech level required one controller for each parameter, and that today this actually makes synths easier to tweak than more modern ones which require sifting through dozens of menus with either one knob for everything or none at all.
  • The EKO Computerhythm, the first programmable drum machine. Speaking of stuff used by Jean-Michel Jarre, the Geiss Digisequencer. Then again, how much more straightforward can sequence programming be than a hardware piano roll?
  • Modern roller coasters, such as El Toro, Top Thrill Dragster, and Kingda Ka have lots of buttons, but most of them are only used for maintenance.
  • In general, almost any complex piece of equipment, which needs to support detailed user control in real time, will either start out honoring this trope or grow into it over time.
  • Surprisingly subverted by some modern spacecraft. Behold, the mighty tablet-fu of SpaceX Dragon 2.


Video Example(s):



A slow pan across an endless array of buttons, knobs and switches, which is a control panel from a real four-engine jet.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (11 votes)

Example of:

Main / BillionsOfButtons

Media sources: