The controller: Nintendo’s greatest contribution to gaming

Nintendo controller Nintendo controllers innovation

The legacy of video games as an industry is sinuous with evolutionary achievements at every turn. Although arcade hits played a crucial role in the proliferation of home consoles, all the best and brightest advances occurred on the very machines we were placing next to our tube televisions. Since the first console, the Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972 with a small catalog of games, video game consoles have gone on to achieve advancements in graphics technology and 3D rendering. Eventually, we’d be capable of immersing ourselves in the true virtual reality technology that we have in the modern era. However, while exploring today’s beautiful virtual worlds is gratifying, graphics often overshadow another part of console design that has undergone great evolution: the controller.

Magnavox Odyssey / Atari 2600

When looking back on the history of games, the controllers we’ve used to play them are typically not the first thing we think of. And the irony lies in the simple fact that, without controllers, we couldn’t interact with video games. Our avatars would just sit there, and according to some scripted animations, get impatient with us. Just like how our brains send our muscles the signal telling them what we want them to do, controllers are the tools that help us charter the course in a virtual landscape. The import of a well-designed controller cannot be understated enough.

In the palms of your hands

Having owned every Nintendo platform (aside from Wii U) over the course of my life, it’s easy to see the evolution that has occurred. But it’s not an evolution that took place only within Nintendo’s ecosystem. Nintendo’s advances in controller designs have transcended the company’s platforms to all of home console gaming. Since Nintendo’s earliest controllers, others have come along and extracted the elements that were popularized for use in their own designs. Sega, Sony, and Microsoft all have Nintendo DNA within their controller designs — even to this day.

It all started in 1983 with the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), or the Famicom as it was known in Japan. Before the NES, controllers typically consisted of twist knobs to adjust direction or joysticks with a couple buttons on the pad. The NES controller introduced the design of a game pad that is held in the palms of both hands on either side. It was also the birthplace for the what we know as the D-pad, or directional pad. The famous D-pad was immediately put to use on the Sega platforms that followed. A D-pad became so mainstream and comfortable that the first PlayStation and Xbox consoles included it as well. And it hasn’t gone anywhere since.

A good head on its shoulders

Nintendo’s next console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), or Super Famicom in Japan, made the next big breakthroughs for gaming controllers. Because of the way in which players held the game pad established by the NES, the index fingers were in a completely organic position to press buttons on the shoulders of the controller. Additionally, the diamond-shaped layout of the four buttons — now adding X and Y to the A and B buttons originally present on the NES — contributed to the intentionally ergonomic comfort the company was going for.

The Sega Genesis, which launched prior to the SNES, had three buttons on its controller arranged in a linear fashion. Eventually, and after the SNES released, Sega released a six-button controller to combat all the additional control points of the SNES controller. But in the end, the L and R shoulder buttons and the diamond pattern of the four core buttons proved to become another standard in gaming set by Nintendo.

Stick it to ’em

In the mid ’90s, Nintendo upped the ante with its 64-bit console aptly named Nintendo 64. This time, Sega wasn’t Nintendo’s only rival with its CD-based console, Sega Saturn. Sony also entered the competition with the PlayStation console. Once again, Nintendo had something the other consoles did not. When Nintendo 64 launched in 1996, it intrigued everyone. This was not only because it was Nintendo’s first console with fully rendered 3D models to compete with the PlayStation and Sega Saturn that came out a year before, but also because of the unique design of its controller.

Granted, many still regard the N64 controller as slightly awkward by design. But what it did do was introduce a new level of accuracy to the directional control of games in three-dimensional planes. Nintendo 64 was the console to popularize the analog stick on a controller. In 1997, PlayStation launched its response to the N64 controller with an upgraded controller of its own. The Sony controller, called the DualShock, contained two analog sticks and is a design that Sony has stood by for four generations. Yet again, however, Nintendo’s innovation set the new standard in gaming.

Now Wii are moving!

Now, let’s jump forward to 2006 when Nintendo launched the Wii to critical and commercial success. Nintendo adapted its strategy to innovate again by challenging its players to be active while gaming. Motion controls were the central core of the Wii platform. From a blueprint standpoint, the controls became a bit more complex in order to accommodate this function. A sensor bar was required to track the motion of the controllers. The controllers themselves then consisted of the Wii Remote and Nunchuck, which we waved around in uncontrolled fits smacking people or objects next to us. Alright, maybe I speak for myself on that one.

The unique identity of the Wii being based on motion controls satisfied customers in the beginning. In its early years, the Wii sold like hotcakes. And as history repeated itself, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 wanted a slice of that success and received their own motion controls midway through the consoles’ life cycles. Unfortunately for Sony and Microsoft, the motion controls never stuck the landing with their more hardcore gaming audience. On the Nintendo side, Wii sports games and party games became a social activity that friends and families could enjoy together. However, the strong emphasis on motion controls eventually lost steam as gamers grew tired of what was seen as a gimmick.

But motion controls weren’t actually a gimmick, and they never disappeared. Game makers realized that the excitement of motion-controlled gaming quickly faded because most people simply want to relax when playing their favorite games. The takeaway here was that motion controls are more acceptable in smaller doses. The PlayStation 4 incorporated motion capabilities within its DualShock 4 controllers upon launch. Likewise, the Switch still utilizes motion controls to this day in the Joy-Con — but emphasizes them to a much smaller degree. Still, Nintendo set another precedent for the future of gaming controls.

A pioneering future

These advancements hardly scratch the surface when it comes to Nintendo’s contributions to gaming. I didn’t even cover the fact that Nintendo was the first to push the boundaries of using a touch screen in gaming, long before big smart phones and tablets came along. Nintendo is known for marching to the beat of its own drum. It’s easy to see how the company speaks to a different audience than Microsoft and Sony do. And many who do like hardcore games still tend to enjoy Nintendo’s first-party titles and more casual atmosphere. I know that I certainly don’t need both an Xbox One and a PlayStation 4. But even if I do own one of those consoles, I still need a Nintendo Switch because there isn’t anything else like it. And just like with the innovation of its controllers, Nintendo still seems dead set on blazing its own trails well into the future.

Chris Hinton
Accountant by day, video games enthusiast by night.  Somewhere in between all of that, I'm a husband, dad, and generally a giant man-child, too.  If a game is all about action, there's a safe bet I'm playing it.  I started laying waste to virtual worlds as a youngin' on the ol' Atari and haven't stopped since.