The evolution of gamepad controllers through history
While video game technology, whether for PC or gaming consoles, have certainly evolved over the years, little attention is paid to how gamepad controllers have evolved. In this article, we’re going to explore how the concept of the gamepad controller has been updated over the years, evolving right alongside things like stronger GPUs, more RAM, motion sensor technology, and everything else in the gaming industry.
The earliest years (70s - 80s)
The most iconic game controller in history is perhaps the Atari joystick. While not technically the very first game controller, previous designs were far more primitive, such as the Magnavox Odyssey in 1972. The Atari 2600 featured numerous popular games such as Pitfall!, Breakout, Pong, and more.
The Atari joystick could be moved in four directions, not like the 360-rotation joysticks of later design. However, it was perfect for the 2D games featured on the Atari 2600, but improvements could be made.
Thus Nintendo came along with the original Nintendo Entertainment System. However, the video game market was experiencing a crash in 1983, and retail stores were hesitant to stock the Nintendo Entertainment System, as the market was already flooded with low-quality games and consoles.
Thus, Nintendo engineered a genius marketing ploy, by designing R.O.B - the Robotic Operating Buddy. This was a robotic toy companion for the NES, and was promised to “interact” with the player during compatible games, even acting as a second player.
This positioned the Nintendo Entertainment System as a highly “futuristic” gaming console, and perhaps if not for the marketing plot of R.O.B, the NES would not have initially succeeded. In any case, along with bringing classic titles such as Excitebike, Kung Fu, and Mario, Nintendo revolutionized the gamepad industry with the classic NES controller.
Pretty much all modern game controllers are descended from the original NES gamepad. With its D-Pad, 2 buttons, and buttons for Start / Select, it allowed a whole new style of gameplay, especially for sidescrollers. Players could easily jump and attack at the same time, or other simultaneous separate actions that were simply not possible on the Atari joystick.
Nintendo soon met competition, however, as Sega released their home gaming console, the Sega Genesis. They weren’t able to improve much on the Nintendo gamepad’s design, so they added more buttons. The original Sega Genesis controller had 3 main buttons, but later added 3 more, for a total of 6 buttons.
This allowed Sega to give a “superior” gaming experience for certain fighting games like Mortal Kombat, with easier to perform attacks and combos, since each button could correspond to different kicks and punches.
The early to mid 90s: End of 2D, hello 3D
Nintendo fought back with the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), and introduced another revolutionary concept - the shoulder buttons.
While they didn’t go Sega’s route and add rows of buttons, only adding 2 more buttons to the original NES controller, they rounded the controller’s edges for a more comfortable grip, which are something used on controllers still today. The shoulder buttons, referred to typically as “L” and “R”, allows players to press them with their index finger, while the thumbs can still hit the D-Pad and face buttons, allowing for even greater freedom and complex gameplay.
Sega and Nintendo battled it out for a while, with Sega released the Sega Saturn, a console that could be considered as displaying some of the first hi-res 3D polygon graphics on gaming consoles, but limited titles doomed the console.
Nintendo then released the Nintendo 64, which saw yet another massive revolution in the gamepad controller.
The N64 controller had a strange trident shape, which forced players to hold only two of the three prongs at a time, depending on the game. It kept the original D-Pad on the left side, and on the right side, and the B/A buttons on the right, while adding the C-buttons, which could be used like the D-Pad on same games, or as regular game buttons in others.
They also added the “Z-Button” behind the joystick prong. As hideous and complicated as the N64 controller appeared, it actually turned out to be highly functional. At the time, playing first-person shooters like Goldeneye and Turok felt amazing with the joystick and C-button combination, with the joystick allowing players to move their character, and the C-buttons acting as camera controllers, as a pseudo D-Pad for the first-person perspective.
The original Sony Playstation had already launched by this point, but the original Sony Playstation gamepad was pretty similar in design to the SNES / Sega Genesis controllers, with a D-Pad, 4 game buttons, and shoulder pads. However, they soon released the DualShock controller, to try and improve on Nintendo’s concept of the N64’s joystick.
The DualShock controller contained built-in rumble motors, whereas the N64 controller needed an external Rumble Pak accessory. Sony also added a second joystick, and unlike N64’s joystick, Sony’s were actually analog sticks, with pressure sensitivity. This meant that in racing games, for example, the player’s would accelerate quickly or slowly, depending on how far they pushed the stick. Pushing the stick all the way up was analogous to “putting the pedal to the metal”, so to speak.
While the N64 controller perhaps introduced the concept of the joystick for modern gaming, Sony’s DualShock controller really revolutionized the industry at this point, and pretty much all gaming consoles now feature built-in rumble motors and dual thumbsticks.
The late 90s to early 00s
Sega released the Sega Dreamcast in 1998, and while the console itself was a commercial failure, they did experiment with controller design. The Sega Dreamcast featured a single thumbstick, D-Pad, and 4 buttons, but they introduced the VMU screen.
The VMU screen on the Dreamcast controller was simultaneously a memory card and LCD screen that could be plugged into the controller. The LCD screen would display additional game information, real-time clock, or graphics and logos depending on the game being played. The VMU could also be unplugged from the controller and function as a sort of pocket minigame device, sort of like a Tomagotchi (remember those?).
Sony released the Playstation 2 in 2000, along with the DualShock 2 controller. This really didn’t innovate much, because it kept the original DualShock design, but Sony also made their analog sticks function as buttons. Known as the “analog buttons”, the player simply clicks in the sticks. This was fairly innovative, as it allows the player to access an extra pair of buttons where the player’s thumbs are already resting!
Nintendo then released the Gamecube system in 2001, which again, showcased Nintendo’s preference for slightly bizarre controller design.
The Gamecube controller utilized the dual-stick layout of Sony’s DualShock controllers, yet swapped the position of the D-Pad and the left joystick. The secondary analog stick was slightly smaller, and referred to as the “C-Stick”, which replaced the C-buttons on the original N64 controller. It maintained the shoulder buttons, while moving the Z-button found on the middle prong of the original N64 controller to the right side of the Gamecube controller, next to the right shoulder pad.
Gamepad controllers in the modern era
In any case, Nintendo and Sony battled it out for a long time, until Microsoft arrived on the scene with the original Xbox console. The original Xbox controller was a massive behemoth, and was criticized for its sheer bulky size. It also didn’t introduce anything really “new” to gamepad design. For a long time, nobody knew exactly why Microsoft made the original Xbox controller, nicknamed “The Duke”, such a massive size.
However, just a few years ago, one of the co-creators of the original Xbox explained that their vendor couldn’t shrink the electronics inside the controller, so they had no choice but to go with such a massive design. Their solace was that the Sega Dreamcast controller was around the same size, because of the VMU screen.
Microsoft released a smaller version, called the “S Controller”, and for the Xbox 360 controller, they introduced the “Guide” button, which could be used to turn the Xbox console on or off, as well as accessing the Xbox 360 menu.
One awesome thing Microsoft did is make the Xbox 360 controller compatible with Windows through USB input, and many PC games can be played using the Xbox 360 controller. While previously, DirectInput was the standard for Microsoft API for gamepad devices on PC, it was replaced by XInput, and many game developers who port console games over to PC prefer using the XInput API.
While Sony and Xbox have pretty much stuck to their main controller concepts throughout the years, Nintendo has continued to experiment with shapes and button placement, even until today. For better or for worse, Nintendo enjoys being an “innovator” in gamepad controller design, with the release of the Nintendo Wii in 2005.
The Nintendo Wii introduced the “Wiimote”, which is literally shaped like a remote control. With a D-Pad and a trigger button, the Wii Remote has motion sensing capabilities, using accelerometer and optical sensor technology. A secondary “Nunchuk” controller can be plugged into the Wiimote for additional functions, or other peripherals such as the Wii Classic Controller, Wii Zapper (a light gun peripheral), and the Wii Wheel, for racing games.
While the Wii outsold every other console on the market, due to a lower price and a wider market appeal (focusing on a younger demographic), the motion sensor technology of the Wiimote did face some accuracy issues.
Xbox released their own motion sensor technology in 2010, known as Kinect for the Xbox 360. Sony also released Sony Move for the Playstation 3 in 2010, which utilized a motion controller very similar in design to the Wiimote, while Xbox Kinect requires no remote whatsoever, using infrared camera technology.
In any case, the evolution of the console gamepad controller really peaked in the late 90s, as modern controller design really follows the foundations laid out by Nintendo and Sony in that era.