Controllers

This wasn’t going to be my first post in this blog but oh well, here we go…

Around 5 days ago (April 15th 2011) the internet went rumour mad as “multiple sources” (very important words…apparently) have started leaking information about a new Nintendo console, allegedly code-named “Project Café”.  However there isn’t much really I can think of that has been said about it, it’s fairly powerful, possibly uses the Blu-Ray format and has a nice new strange controller.  Now this is where things get interesting, for all the complaining that goes on about the Wii’s power (or lack thereof) it yet again is the controller that seems to be getting the most attention with “Project Café”, talk of controllers including 6″ touch screens or iPad’s with buttons and things like that I think it’s time to take a look at video game controllers and the evolution of them, basically trace where the current controllers come from.

Video games are old.  The first console available to buy was the Magnavox Odyssey released in 1972…but as there are next to no connections between the boxes with knobs on you used to play it with a PlayStation3 pad so we’re going to skip forward five years to the release of the Atari VCS (more commonly known as the 2600).

This controller is important for two reasons has 8-way digital control and it has a circular button.
Every decent controller since has featured 8 way digital controls and circular buttons and that’s what’s important about this controller, the lastability of it’s features.  However that is all this has so it’s time to move on to how this controller can be improved.


Nintendo’s ‘Donkey Kong’ Game & Watch.  As you may notice this features 8-way digital control and a circular button, but something’s different…something’s more familiar today.  The directional pad, or D-Pad.  The definitve 8-way digital control method which has been implemented on every good controller, not bad for 1982 technology.  Why has this stuck around where the Atari joystick didn’t?  Well it’s obvious, this requires a thumb, not a whole hand.

3 years later (or 1 if you’re Japanes and have a Famicom) and what do we find on the controller of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)?  D-Pads and circular buttons!  What else do we have though?  Well not much really, buttons named after letters and a ‘Start’ and ‘Select’ button, pretty unimportant really but these naming methods are still kicking around today.

Right, obviously these are not the only controllers to have come out in these mere eight years but there’s a reason that none are here…they’re crap, simply.  All you are missing out on here is a lot of numerical pads (like a phone…yeah, exactly) and circles that are not buttons.  There is the odd good idea that’s horribly executed, well maybe just one, but that will pop up later.  Now with the NES released gaming gets big again after that whole E.T. fiasco that Atari did so we’re starting to get interesting consoles, such as ones by Sega, but controller enhancement isn’t their speciality yet with the exception that the Mega Drive (or Genesis) pad is a lot more comfortable than the NES one.


Now in the 1990s and here comes the most important additions to controllers since the Game & Watch’s D-Pad eight years ago, it’s the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) (or Super Famicom if in Japan).  Basically what we have here is the NES pad with four additional buttons, but four very important additional buttons.  Firstly we have the first controller with four face buttons set up in the cross formation like this (the Vectrex has four in a row), also the colour scheme of these buttons and letter assignments (A, B, X and Y) are quite interesting as we will see later.  What else is important from this controller though is the shoulder buttons (L and R), always accessible with the index fingers this idea is has also made it’s way onto many a future pad.

Okay, consoles are getting very exciting about this time, companies are getting into heated competition, mainly Nintendo and Sega.  In order to improve the Mega Drive the Mega-CD (upping the storage capacity) and 32x (32-bit games opposed to 16-bit) are created, there is also a controller with six face buttons on it.  Atari appear to be taking notes on Sega’s plans at the moment and release the Atari Jaguar!  This console 64-bit processor, a controller with fifteen (15!!) buttons as well as a D-pad and ‘Pause’ and ‘Option’ buttons and also had a CD drive add-on.

This shouldn’t really be getting a mention in the evolution of controllers…but look at it, it’s a strange mutation of a Mega Drive controller and some obscure 1980s controller, this is a prime example of taking things too far.  The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 controllers feature five less buttons than this does and play far more complicated games, it really is a wonder what was going through the minds of the Atari design team at this point.  Needless to say, the Jaguar flopped big time.

So, new generation of consoles now and we have a good few examples of good controller additions and we’ll start with the new kid on the block, Sony’s PlayStation, released 1994 in Japan, 1995 everywhere else.

What this is, is basically a SNES with two additional shoulder buttons (Sony always have an eye on Nintendo controllers like the two is better than one approach as we will see soon).  There are also two handles each side which make the controller easier to hold, this is the most important feature of this controller, other than that it is nothing special other than being the original PlayStation controller.

Nintendo’s next console, the Nintendo 64, was released in 1996 and featured a strange stick poking out of the middle of the controller.  This is an analogue stick, capable of detecting varying levels of input (opposed to the on or off nature of D-Pads) and 360° directional input.  This isn’t the first controller to feature an analogue stick however, the Atari 5200 had one, but was awful, it couldn’t centre itself (as this one does) and was completely unnecessary for the time, the Nintendo 64 released with Super Mario 64, a game (as the Nintendo DS remake proved) does require this form of input.  Another new feature of this controller was an expansion port on the back that allowed the plugging in of accessories such as the ‘Controller Pak’ (memory card to you and me) and the ‘Rumble Pak’ (another interesting feature).

Remember how it was mentioned that Sony liked a two is better than one view over Nintendo?  Well nothing displays this better than their 1997 controller, the DualAnalog

However, they were right.  Two is better than one, all good controllers since have two sticks on them and this is where it first started, the Japanese version of this controller also featured built in vibrating motors for a rumble effect, rather than being an expansion to the controller like with the Nintendo 64.

Sega’s console for this generation launched in the same time frame as the PlayStation, 1994 in Japan and 1995 everywhere else, with a controller much like that of the PlayStation, the only changes being six face buttons, two shoulder buttons and no Select button…oh and it looked ridiculous, it was eventually redesigned.  However in 1997 for the NiGHTS Into Dreams… game a new controller was designed, known as the 3D controller.

The main appeal with this controller was the analogue thumb pad (it’s not really a stick is it?) but since we’ve already seen this feature on the Nintendo 64 it’s not this that we want to look at.  On the back of the controller the shoulder buttons had been replaced with two analogue triggers, able to measure the amount of pressure being applied on them.  This feature has become very important since, starting with the next generation of consoles and remains Sega’s only real contribution into the world of controllers.


Simply to finish up this generation we have Sony’s DualShock controller, also a 1997 release, much like the DualAnalog except these all have rumble (and was much improved over the original rumble) and the sticks could be pressed down as buttons, not as widely used as the idea of two sticks but interesting and note-worthy none the less.

Sony were fairly happy with the look of the DualShock controller and released their PlayStation2 with the DualShock2 in 2000.  It looks identical to the original DualShock with the exception of the colour, bundled ones matched the black of the console, but not one to try something new themselves they took the analogue button idea of Sega and applied it to almost every button, the four face buttons, four shoulder buttons and D-Pad are all capable of analog input.

The next console to be released was Microsoft’s Xbox, now this pad’s inclusion is much like the Jaguar’s…

Oh dear…this controller takes many features from past controllers, to use the mutated controllers idea again I see Sega 3D controller, DualShock, SNES controller, N64 controller,  and some unofficial controller for any console that is larger than the original.  One of the biggest problems with this controller is the face buttons, for starters they are not circular, they’re not in the SNES style positioning but more like two columns.  It is also not comfortable to hold and has one of the worst D-Pads ever made on it.  This is quite noteworthy though for being the last very poor official controller for a console, Microsoft were at least wise enough to see that there was a bad design here and redesigned it soonafter, before making an even better pad with the Xbox 360.

As bad as the previous controller was it could possibly have been surpassed by the PlayStation3’s if they had decided to keep with this…

Thankfull they didn’t and instead released a controller looking exactly like the DualShock again but with no wire or an ‘ANALOG’ button but instead a ‘PS’ button.  There was a few other changes but we’ll get to them later.


Based on previous controller innovations it should come as no surprise that the company responsible for this is Nintendo.  These are the controllers that came with their Wii console in 2006.  The main part is the ‘Wii Remote’ which features a D-Pad, A, B, 1, 2, + and – (Start and Select essentially) and a Home button.  Now these are fairly standard, if a bit limited but what it also features is a speaker and most importantly an IR receiver and accelerometer both of which are used to detect motion.  The other controller attached in the image is the Nunchuck attachment, this has an analogue stick, C button, Z button and accelerometer.  Now the Wii isn’t the first console to have a motion controller, even the NES had one (and it was bad…”so bad”) but much like the analogue stick on the Nintendo 64, this is the first good motion based controller.  The Wii also has a ‘Classic Controller’, modelled in a more traditional way, which is a lot like a SNES and DualAnalog mixed together.


Here we have the controller that released with the PlayStation3, the SIXAXIS, now as mentioned before this is basically a wireless DualShock2 with a few changes.  Change number one, no rumble, change number two, more trigger like L2 and R2 buttons and change number three…an accelerometer!  Yup, yet again Sony takes a new controller idea and slaps it in their’s!  Not too long after rumble is added and is rebranded the DualShock3.

And not too long after that the Wii has sold a lot more than anyone could have predicted so Microsoft and Sony decide to have a good long look at motion based controllers and both release their own in 2010, first up, Sony’s!

Oh…what a shock.  The ‘Move’ does work better than Nintendo’s four year old technology but still shows total lack of innovation.

Now Microsoft’s.

Nope, I’ve not forgotten to include an image of it, there is none.  Well that’s not strictly true, you are the controller.  An advanced set of cameras called ‘Kinect’ can accurately trace your movements.  This is simillar to a 1993 Sega failure called the ‘Activator’, but much like the Nintendo 64 analogue stick or Wii Remote, this is the first example of the technology being executed well.

Now I am aware that there are a lot of other controllers available out there, but the ones discussed (with a couple of exceptions) are the ones important to the modern controllers (for PlayStation3, Wii and Xbox 360) that have a wide range of games playable with them, maybe some of the more obscure ones will get a look at later on…

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