playstation 5 controller
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A History of Controllers and How They Shaped Your Favorite Games

A video game controller is so much more than just the way you interface with your favorite games. The design of the controller directly impacts the kinds of games that developers can even make!
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The humble controller: It’s how you interact with the games you love! Without it, you couldn’t play. However, how often do you think about the ways that the controllers you use actively shaped the development of games you can play with them? Today, we’re looking back through the history of gaming to break down some of the biggest innovations to ever shape the video game controller.

Nintendo Entertainment System
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From the earliest home consoles, it was clear the controllers were leading the design. When games were simpler, so too were the gamepads we used to control them. Pac-Man is certainly fun, but you need little more than directional input to make the little guy move through the mazes. If you play a modern game like Spider-Man, though, you’re going to need a lot more than a joystick.

So, let’s take a look at the evolution of the video game controller by looking at some of the most innovative gamepads ever released. To start things off, we’ll look at the home console credited with popularizing many elements common to modern gaming: the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Nintendo Entertainment System

The original Nintendo Entertainment System was an extremely popular game console that introduced many Western gamers to Nintendo for the first time. Released in Japan in 1983 as the Famicom, the system sported a cartridge-based game-reading port, two controller ports, and a revolutionary game controller. 

The NES’s rectangular controller looked familiar in some ways. It sported an A and B button, start and select buttons, and a square shape that lined up with previous consoles like the Atari 2600. However, the most interesting thing about the controller was something that modern gamers would take for granted: the directional pad. That simple little cross-shaped button on the left side of the controller was revolutionary. 

The D-Pad was more than just a new way to input directions in a video game. Due to its unique design, it allowed players to input up to eight different directions, depending on the game, using diagonal directions and the D-Pad’s smooth actuation. This made fast-paced action games easier to play on Nintendo’s system. One such action game, the legendary platformer Super Mario Bros., took full advantage of this D-Pad to help make controlling Mario through the Mushroom Kingdom feel responsive and tight.

N64

The Nintendo 64 wasn’t half the commercial success its predecessors were. The NES and SNES were among the best-selling consoles of their respective generations, and both were considered revolutionary steps forward for the game industry as a whole. However, when the N64 hit the market, Nintendo made the odd decision to use game cartridges again instead of opting for optical discs like many of its competitors. 

This limited the amount of information developers could put on an N64 game cartridge, so franchises that had previously been Nintendo exclusives, like Final Fantasy, jumped ship to PlayStation so they could take advantage of the new optical disc technology. The N64 did have one major improvement over the PlayStation, though: an analog stick. The odd-looking trident-shaped N64 controller has a classic Nintendo D-Pad on the left side, but it also sports an analog stick in the center.

The N64’s analog stick used an octagonal gate to guide the control mechanism in one of eight directions. This proved pivotal for controlling characters in a 3D environment. Case in point: Super Mario 64, the first 3D Mario title, is still a blast to play even over 25 years after its initial release. The analog stick was so effective for moving in 3D environments that Sony even replicated the design for the PlayStation’s iconic second controller.

PlayStation

When the PlayStation first hit the market, its controller was essentially a glorified SNES controller with an extra pair of shoulder buttons. This was fine for early games on the system that were still 2D: there’s nothing wrong with playing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night with an old-school D-Pad and standard button layout.

However, 3D titles like Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot were a bit more demanding of the PlayStation’s controller. In 1997, Sony addressed this by rolling out a new controller option for the PlayStation, named the Dual Analog. This straightforward upgrade just bolted two analog sticks to the bottom of the gamepad, resulting in the classic PlayStation controller silhouette still in use to this day.

Sony followed up on the Dual Analog with the iconic DualShock controller, which featured haptic feedback in the form of rumble. Nintendo had pioneered this space with the N64’s optional add-on Rumble Pak, and Sony was eager to make it a standard feature with its future controllers. Notably, both the GameCube and PlayStation 2 shipped with controllers that supported haptic feedback out of the box.

GameCube

The GameCube controller is an odd beast. It’s shaped a bit like a PlayStation controller, with a dual-handle design that bucks the three-handle strangeness seen on the N64 controller. It has two analog sticks, but one is the tiny C-Stick, which almost feels like an afterthought. It has the four face buttons you’d expect from a modern console, but they’re laid out in an unusual pattern on the right side of the controller.

Most notably, the GameCube controller’s two main shoulder buttons have variable input: the console can detect when you’re partially pushing on the shoulder button and when you’re fully depressing it. This is a great feature for racing games and other titles where you need variable input. Nintendo put the tech to great use with the GameCube game Super Mario Sunshine, in which the protagonist can use a water pack with different presses of the right shoulder button.

The most revolutionary controller Nintendo released for the GameCube wasn’t even shipped with the console, though. The WaveBird, a wireless controller that used double-A batteries and radio signals, was released in 2002 as a separate add-on for the system. This was Nintendo’s first major foray into wireless controllers, and it would come to define the next console generation. The Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii would all ship with wireless controllers in the box.

Wii

The Nintendo Wii had a very unusual controller. Called the Wiimote, the slim white device was made with ease of use as the main design goal. Nintendo wanted the Wii to appeal to a more casual audience than its prior (underperforming) consoles. And it succeeded wildly, thanks in no small part to the unique, motion-sensing Wiimote. 

The Wii was shipped with a copy of a game called Wii Sports. This game allowed players to use their Wiimote’s motion controls to play minigames like tennis, boxing, and bowling. The ability to make on-screen characters mimic the Wiimote’s motions in the real world proved extremely popular among casual audiences and core gamers alike, so the console quickly became a phenomenon.

The Wii sold so well that Nintendo’s two main console competitors, Microsoft and Sony, quickly implemented their own motion controls into their then-current consoles. Microsoft used the camera-based Kinect software, eschewing physical controllers altogether in favor of full-body motion capture. Sony opted for a more Wii-like controller, the PlayStation Move. Notably, Sony and Microsoft’s outings were never quite as popular as the Wii.

Nintendo Switch

The Wii U, the successor to the Wii, largely used the same controller schemes as the original console. It also introduced a GamePad that sported a gigantic screen, allowing for asymmetrical multiplayer and off-screen gaming. The Nintendo Switch furthered this concept, ditching the Wii branding but maintaining some of the Wii’s trademark control features.

The Switch is a hybrid console that can be played as a handheld system or as a home console. Its Joy-Con controllers, which come packaged with the system, feature motion-sensing controls similar to the Wiimote, and are the most important facet of the console’s hybrid design. Since the Joy-Cons can be attached to the main unit or detached for tabletop and TV modes, the system is extremely versatile. 

Notably, the Switch comes packed with two Joy-Con controllers. This means that games that support single Joy-Con play can be used in a multiplayer mode right out of the box without needing to buy another controller. It also means that Switch owners who want to play pick-up games of Super Smash Bros or Mario Kart when they’re on the move don’t need to pack extra controllers in their bag–they can just detach their Joy-Cons, hand one to a buddy, and have a fun time.

PlayStation 5

The PS5’s DualSense controller is a culmination of the most innovative controller designs of the past 35 years. It’s got a D-Pad, analog sticks, pressure-sensitive trigger buttons, motion sensors, and even a touchpad for use in specialized games. It’s also a premium-feeling controller that makes playing PS5 games a delight.

The DualSense ups the haptics in a major way. Like Nintendo’s Joy-Cons, it sports “HD rumble,” a fine-tuned set of rumble motors that make games come to life with extremely precise controller vibrations. That HD rumble even extends to the shoulder buttons: when you fire a web line in Spider-Man, you can feel the tension in the webbing when it attaches to a building. This technology has encouraged developers to create games with incredibly realistic feedback, leading to ever-great immersion for the gamer.

Each new console’s controller builds on the successes of the past. When you hold a DualSense and an NES controller side-by-side, they look like they have nothing in common. However, when you track their history, you can see that there’s an unbroken line of evolving designs linking the two inextricably.