The Evolution of Game Controllers

Posted on February 26, 2012 - 7:00pm by Alpha Unit


 Plastic is fantastic. (Say that 5 times fast.) 

Editor’s Note: Wow. Controllers sure have come a long way haven’t they? Incidentally, have you ever played an NES with a paddle? Not fun. And was I the only one that thought the Genesis controller looked like a moustache? Maybe I was a weird kid, I dunno. Anyway… great job as usual Alpha!

What is vital to a game? Gameplay? Yep, most important part. Story? Optional, but great when done right. Music? Something to jam out to. How about...Your controller?  Yeah, that thing that you hold in your hand? That thing? Yeah, it's sorta like you forget you're holding it sometimes, huh? Come on, y'know I'm right when I say that a controller is that god damn important!

Just as the game industry, the game controller has morphed from company to company, age to age, just to fit the needs of the console and the ever growing maturity of the games business. Here, I'm going to talk about innovative shapes and inputs that contollers have earned from generation to generation in a simple blog. 

Generations 1 and 2

These two eras were among the most primitive of game generations. Besides the poor graphics, the beeping/farting sound effects, and the lack of marketable of franchises,  the first two generations in gaming made use of either Paddles, joysticks, or keyboards, which remain a standard for PC gaming. .

Pinch it and twist it. Wait...That's not sexual.

A paddle is a game controller with a round wheel and one or more fire buttons, where the wheel is typically used to control movement of the player object along one axis of the video screen. A paddle controller rotates through a fixed arc (usually about 330 degrees); it has a stop at each end.

Grab that stick and pull it around...That wasn't sexual either. 

A joystick is an input device consisting of a stick that pivots on a base and reports its angle or direction to the device it is controlling. Joysticks, also known as 'control columns', are the principal control in the cockpit of many civilian and military aircraft, either as a center stick or side-stick. They often have supplementary switches on them to control other aspects of the aircraft's flight. Many people use joysticks on computer games involving flight such as flight simulator.

After these two gens ended, the joystick and the paddle started sliding into obscurity. While they weren't bad control methods, they were uncomfortable for extremely large periods of time, and usually had a limited amount of buttons. Because PC gaming remains a permanant fixture for many, the keyboard still exists alive and well as a control method for games.

Controllers of the Eras

The Magnavox Odysee has the world's first console controller.

Nintendo's first console before they made it big.


Notice the weird lookin' paddle?

Atari's little schnookum.

You could high-five the Intellivision's controller.

Generation 3

This generation sort of changed the world of peripheral gaming forever. Before, controllers rested in one hand while the other hand focused on the input buttons. The Nintendo Entertainment System changed that. Before, controllers were the primitive cave paintings of gaming, but now,the gamepad was born. 

Nintendo invented the most important console controller ever....EVER.

After Atari over-saturated the game market in 1983, the gaming business soured for consoles. At the same time, Nintendo released it's Famicom console in Japan. In an instant, the system became a success, it was released world-wide in two years, and gaming had been revolutionized. A flood of games ranging from Mario to Zelda were on the market and in the homes of millions of children. At it's height, Nintendo had secured 97% of the entire gaming market. Among the NES's biggest contributions is probably the most iconic controller that ever existed.

Nintendo's controller was indeed different. Like I said before, controllers of the previous era required you to hold the controller in one hand while you pressed buttons with the other. It limited the amount of buttons and it lead to discomfort in short hours. Nintendo had created a controller type known as the game pad which was not only held differently, but played differently. 

The NES controller was ergonomically different. Of all the things on the gamepad,the most notable addition was: The directional pad. The D-pad was a smart and much more comfortable beast. All controllers before required the use of the your right hand for directional control, and as before (once again), they required pinching or jerking a knob or joystick, which grew so, so uncomfortable after a very long period of time. Now, movement is done with the left hand, or rather, left thumb, which was more accurate for primary direction and lead to longer gameplay sessions as hand cramps were no longer a case. Input buttons weren't a revolutionary idea, but Nintendo did the predictable thing and made them comfortable. One unconventional idea by Nintendo was the addition of marking their buttons with...Letters. Nonetheless, this was very useful, and every console to this day marks their buttons with letters, shapes, and/or numbers. The final addition by Nintendo was standardizing the Start/Pause button and the Select button. 

Here's one thing I'd like you to do with the Nintendo Entertainment System controller: Hold it. Look at how you grip the thing. Your back fingers are cradling it, your left thumb firmly planted with your right thumb on the input buttons. It's automatic. That's how everyone holds the controller, it's an instinct, and it's standardized with every controller to this day. Okay, now grab a more modern controller such as PS3 or Xbox 360. It's the same. Your back fingers are cradling the controller, your left thumb on directional movement and your right one on the input buttons! Like f*ck! It's the same! Okay, retro collectors, hold your Atari controllers. It's different. Your left hand holds the controller, the right hand holds the joystick and... It's just not as comfortable. And you know, that's sorta what Nintendo patended with their gamepads:COMFORT. While it's not such a big deal now, you have to realize that was an absolute god send to gamers of yesteryear. To this day, this much more flexible example set by Nintendo is still used by manufacturers to this day, and imitators took notice.

Controllers of the Era.

Love ya, baby.

*Shakes fist* Imitator!

*Roars like lion* IMITATOR!!1!!!!!1!!!!1!!!!!!!1111!!

Generation 4

In this generation, there weren't many meaningful additions, but they were thought out well and were useful to some. I'll just go through a run down.

Controllers of the Era

Turbo Grafx-16/ PC Engine

Heavily based on the NES controller. It was neat for being the "first" first party controller that came with turbo buttons. 

Genesis/Mega Drive

The classic black kidney bean of gaming's eye. It wasn't innovative, it's D-pad was inferior in comfort to the SNES and NES pads, but it included one feature that would prove useful for retro collectors: DE9 connection, which made it compatitable with the Master System, the Atari 2600, and all consoles that used a similar connection. Most of the controllers on this console have 3 input buttons, but late in it's life span, controllers sported 6 input buttons to be more friendly to fighting games. 

Super Nintendo Entertainment System/ Super Famicom

Once again, the largest innovation comes from the guys at the Big N. Look at the Xbox 360 or Playstation controller. Notice something similar? Look at the input buttons. It's arranged in a diamond shape! See? A diamond shape! What else do we got? Shoulder buttons! Yeah, easily the best controller hands down that generation. It was so good, later NES models began using controllers in the shape of a "dog bone" just as the SNES.

Generation 5

If I say that Nintendo revolutionized controllers again, would you hit me? Okay... You would. Hey, Sony did big things, too!

Controllers of the Era.



Largely the same as the Genesis/Mega Drive. A variant with a control stick was later added after the N64's release because the N64's controller was lauded for giving 360 degree control.

Virtual Boy

Believe it or not, this was the 2nd most innovative controller that generation. Why? Well, it came with grips/handles so you have something to grasp, just  as most controllers nowadays do. Another feature that remains big is "dual control". Notice how it has two D-pads? Notice how most controllers these days use two control sticks? Bada-boom.

Nintendo 64

The most innovative controller beating both the Virtual Boy and the Playstation. One thing that I gotta complain about this controller was that it was a bit awkward, but nonetheless, it brought things to the table. The biggest addition: The control stick. 360 degree control baby! It was such a neat idea, Sega and Sony themselves ripped a page out of this one. This was also the first controller to pioneer the concept of "Camera control". The yellow C buttons were used as control for the camera of course, and later on, the concept of "dual control" and "camera control" would be married by a rival. Probably the most unconventional thing brought by the N64 was the peripheral port, which allowed you to attach things such as memory cards, microphones, and the rumble pak. In fact, the rumble pak was such a good idea, almost all controllers contain the rumble feature now. Imagine that. A peripheral so good, it's no longer a peripheral. 

 Sony Playstation

The Playstation controllers were... Oddly enough, all of Nintendo's concepts bundeled into one controller but with and buttons. The first of these controllers was the control pad, which was basically the Super Nintendo controller with handles. Next up was the Dual Analog, which took the control stick from the N64 and the dual direction from the Virtual Boy. After that, the Dual Shock came out, setting the standard for PS controllers with it's new cosmetic design and "bumper" analog sticks, which allowed one to press down on the stick and use them as buttons.

Other Controllers...

Apple Pippen. Notably contains track ball.

Atari Jaguar ( Has a sexual fetish with buttons.)

Neo Geo CD. 

Generation 6

This generation barely changed jack. Here's a run down of what went down this time.

1. Dreamcast. This one had a small screen in it, which also acted as a memory card.

2. Same thing as the original Dual Shock, but with pressure sensitive buttons.

3. Another drastic change-up by Nintendo. It was designed to be user friendly and many feel that this is the most comfortable controller ever. The Wave Bird variant is also the first wireless controller made by a First Party, and it makes use of radio frequency signals.

4. The Xbox controller, which in reality, was a modified Dreamcast controller. The original, known as "The Duke", came out early in it's life span, but a  smaller revision known as "Controller S" was released after Japanese consumers claimed it was "too big". 

Generation 7


Pretty much.

If ain't broken don't fix it... But it makes you look lazy.

Nintendo...*Sigh* Revolutionized gaming again...With motion controls. Oh, and they brought back the peripheral port. Nice. Wait a minute...

Generation 8


Rumor has it that Sony and Microsoft are planning their own table controllers...Way to go Nintendo! Everybody is ripping pages from your book! Now go and sue you little Japanese scamp! Go!


Well kids, that was a nice ride, eh? Gaming has changed so much and so have the controllers with 'em. Nintendo was easily the biggest contributor to how modern games are now played, but every major company gave a little something. At this point, the pace of technology's rapid growth can be seen. Ain't it neat? Well, even if games and their inputs change, let's hope they remain fun and that those changes are for the better. 


I DON'T WANT YOUR DAMN LEMONS.... I WANT PICTURES OF SPIDERMAN!!!...Wait...I'm gonna get my engineers to create a combustible lemon that takes photos of Spiderman!

JK Simmons (Or Alpha Unit)


Guess what? Pandaraph is out of surgery and he's all better now! He won't be able to use his arm properly for a month, but hey, he's all right! Ain't it great, guys? Follow him on his twitter account @pandaraph. Congratulate the fella!

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