Game console controllers have developed beyond all recognition into a mass of thumbsticks, buttons and triggers. Great if you’re a gamer, but no so great for newbs. Handing a rookie a hunk of plastic that resembles the flight deck of the Space Shuttle can be a bit intimidating.
Game control design has not always been a simple matter of evolution down the years – more a case of thrashing about blindly and hoping something works. Or copying whatever Nintendo does. Let’s now take a look back at the (strange and often slightly inbred) history of video game controllers.
The Atari 2600
One button, one joystick — what more do you need? The Atari 2600 and its by-the-book controller were released in 1977 and have held a place in gamer’s hearts ever since. Even more awesome is its ability to provide endless sexual innuendos and euphemisms. Hands aren’t the only thing gripping this bad boy.
Released nationwide in 1980 the Intellivision game controller looked like a hybrid mobile phone/TV remote and featured a 12-button numeric keypad, 4 side-located action buttons, a directional disk capable of detecting 16 directions of movement and laminated overlays that would slide into place as an extra layer on the keypad to show game-specific key functions. It was ranked the fourth worst video game controller by IGN editor Craig Harris but inspired many knock-offs like ColecoVision and the Atari 5200 (see below).
The ColecoVision from 1982 illustrates how controller design was still very much in its infancy, resembling the bizarre offspring of a joystick and a TV remote. The numberpad was designed to accept individual plastic overlays for each game’s specific controls.
Atari saw the ColecoVision and went barking up the wrong tree completely with the controller for its 1984 5200. Widely reviled as one of the worst controller designs ever, not least because its joystick did not self-center, this controller did at least have the distinction of marking the first appearance of dedicated buttons for Start, Pause and Reset functions.
The Nintendo Entertainment System hit American shores in 1985 and was the first to introduce the now standard idea of holding a controller with both hands and operating it with your thumbs. A bit boxy, and a bit limiting with its two buttons and game-pad, it’s still the foundation upon which all other controllers are built.
There had been lightgun controllers before, of course, but none that looked as utterly cool as the Zapper. It helped that it came bundled in with the NES and the fantastic Duck Hunt. Thankfully, the mainstream media never found out about the Japan-only Magnum shaped version. Sadly, in the era of LCD TVs, the traditional Lightgun has gone the way of the Dodo.
The unprecedented global popularity of the NES saw a rash of new and innovative control methods developed to take advantage of an eager gaming public, but few would have the long-term impact of the Power Pad. Every Dance Mat ever since, along with every embarrassing drunken attempt at Dance Dance Revolution, can trace itself back to this piece of plastic.
Also for the original Nintendo, the NES Advantage was a bulky, sturdy, arcade-like controller with large buttons, a joystick and two turbo buttons. Perfect for games where you had to alternate hitting the A and B buttons to run (and couldn’t afford the Power Pad – see above). Also nice for gamers without fingers. Seriously. You ever lose to a kid without digits over and over and over again? Who’s handicapped now?
An alternate controller for the NES, the Nintendo MAX featured a 360 degree thumbstick and more ergonomic handles. It would take another decade but these “wings” would become a standard feature of all mainstream gamepads.
Near the end of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s lifespan came arguably its most mental controller, and the Japanese gaming giant’s first stab at the motion control that would resurrect its fortunes two decades later. With a full set of NES controls strapped to the player’s arm, the Power Glove was meant to accurately track your hand movements and register them in the game world. It didn’t. This minor flaw, along with the fact that only two games supporting it were ever released, consigned the Power Glove to the trashcan of gaming history.
A little known, and even less liked system (apart from in Brazil, where it was still in production into 1998), created by Sega to be their counterpart to the original Nintendo. The SMS controller, like the TurboGrafx controller below, was basically the same layout as the original NES controller. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, apparently, even if the idea belongs to your company’s main rival.
Around this time, 16-bit game systems began to appear, and the TurboGrafx-16 was one of the earliest. The controller itself was nothing new, however — basically, just a copy of the original NES controller, only with the addition of two turbo switches to create auto-fire.
Second time out, and Sega hit gold, both by beating the SNES to market and in the design of the Genesis controller. Its ergonomic design made it easy on the hands, and the D-Pad and extra buttons of the 6 button version won it a place in the heart of every Street Fighter II fan.
The Super Nintendo controller was almost as important to controller development as the original NES controller. The SNES controller featured four face buttons, two shoulder buttons and a pleasing, comfortable shape.
Atari re-entered the video game market with the Jaguar and its frankly bizarre controller. It had a direction pad, three main face buttons, and twelve (!) ancillary buttons. Unsurprisingly, the Jaguar met with limited success.
The 3D0 was an interesting experiment in which console technology was licensed out to several different manufacturers. The controller was the same across the board, however, with this simple three button-er. The most odd/interesting thing about this controller was that only one unit plugged into the console, while the second controller plugged into the first, and so on.
Sega’s 1995 Saturn may ultimately have failed against the all-conquering Sony Playstation in the marketplace, but the console and its controller remains the gold standard for 2D fighting games. Luckily, Saturn bounced back to produce one helluva car line. They’re bankrupt now? Shut up!
The first Playstation controller was, like many others, very similar to the SNES controller, only with shoulder buttons and the return of the NES Max “wings”. Kind of like when the first maxi pad came out – good, but not great. It was only Maxi with wings released that we realized the full potential of absorption. Same holds true for the PS controller… I think.
Sony’s next PS controller was massively influential, and its layout basically set the pattern for all controllers since. The Dual Analog thumbsticks finally allowed for a comfortable way of controlling both movement and the camera in the new breed of 3D games that were set to dominate console gaming from here on in.
Two main buttons, a trigger “Z” button, 4 yellow viewpoint buttons and an expansion bay underneath — every gamer knows and remembers the Nintendo 64 controller. But what was up with those three handles? It’s the Triceratops of controllers. Was that middle one of your lil’ special guy? Is this a size insecurity thing? Can chicks make use of that middle handle?
Sadly, the Dreamcast couldn’t prevent Sega’s post-Genesis slump, although the console continues to have one of the most fanatical followings in gaming even today. Its controller’s stand-out feature was the slot where the Dreamcast’s VMU – a memory card crossed with a primitive gaming handheld – could be placed to provide visual info. Visually, though, it seems to have had a big impact on the Xbox 360 designers – put the two controllers next to each other and you’ll see what we mean.
Featuring four shoulder buttons and dual joysticks, the PS2 controller was very lightweight and durable. Design-wise, it was little more than a new paintjob for the PS1’s DualShock. Maybe the PS1 controller had weight issues? Black IS slimming.
The original Xbox controller was a bulky, unwieldy affair seemingly designed for giants, and was quickly replaced by the sleeker “S” version, which featured two joysticks, a direction pad and 4 buttons. This also gave way the pick up line, “Can I play with your XBox?” or for the more aggressive female gamers, “Think you can handle my XBox?”
Although it looked like a Fisher Price toy, the GameCube controller was well regarded amongst gamers for its comfort and manageable complexity. Its successor, the GameCube WaveBird, re-introduced the wireless technology that would become standard in all controllers from now on.
The one most gamers know and love, the 360 controller has a multitude of shoulder buttons and trigger buttons. Arguably the culmination of “traditional” console controllers in its layout, ergonomics and usability, its D-Pad still sucks though.
The original Playstation 3 controller is very similar to the PS2 controller, except with the addition of a motion sensor inside the device, allowing for controller “tilt”. It’s not a feature that has proved particularly useful in the PS3’s lifespan.
Unable to compete in the technological arms race with Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo instead decided to take controllers into a whole new area. The original Wii features two separate units, held in each hand, combining with an infra-red sensor bar to allow for a wide range of motion control. The Wii “classic” is a more traditional controller, evolved from the original SNES design, and aimed for use with retro titles from Nintendo’s Virtual Console download service.
After the massive success of the Wii, both Sony and Microsoft are aiming to try and capture some of the new gaming market that Nintendo opened up. The Playstation Move operates in a similar fashion to the Wii controller, but with a far higher level of accuracy. With Move support being patched into “hardcore” games such as Heavy Rain, Gran Turismo 5 and Killzone 3, will Sony be able to keep everyone from “casuals” to devoted gamers happy with Move? Only time will tell.
Have traditional game controllers nowhere left to go? Microsoft certainly seem to believe so, as its forthcoming Kinect motion sensor for the Xbox 360 dispenses with any form of gamepad whatsoever, relying instead on tracking the player’s movements with a 3D camera. The player’s body is, in effect, the controller. The underlying idea is undoubtedly fantastic, but initial hands-on sessions with the system have garnered mixed reviews, suggesting that it may be some time yet before we’ll all be binning our beloved game controllers.
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