A short history of Nintendo controllers – Part 1

Nintendo 800 million consoles sold

With all the talk of next-gen consoles, there’s always the discussion of whether the new controllers are a revolution or evolution over their predecessors. Amidst all this talk, it might be easy to forget that Nintendo has always striven to try something new and radically different in each console generation. For better or worse, Nintendo controllers have been distinct enough in each generation to leave an impact on gaming as a whole. By taking a look back through each generation of Nintendo home consoles, we can see just why this is.

Nintendo Entertainment System – NES controller

It all began here. The small, rectangular shape of the NES controller was for most people their first entry point in console gaming, and the form fit the function perfectly. Start and select buttons, a D-pad, and two face buttons were all that was needed to convey that video games could be a medium for anyone to enjoy. Games of the 8-bit era themselves were not mechanically complex, so the number of buttons available on the NES controller was of no concern. The A button is the second button on the controller instead of B because the A button is easier for the thumb to reach and thus was granted more important functionality.

short history of Nintendo controllers NES controller SNES controller Nintendo 64 controller GameCube controller WaveBird Super Nintendo Entertainment System

For many fans, this controller was their gateway into experiencing Super Mario Bros. for the first time, and after doing so, it was hard to deny that console gaming had a viable future ahead. The simple design was a core part of this success, as Nintendo had invented the D-pad for Game and Watch devices and was a useful alternative to the somewhat clunky joysticks used by Atari systems earlier on, and it became a staple of controller design going forward.

Super Nintendo Entertainment System – SNES controller

Improving on what worked and discarding what didn’t is an important part of developing new technology, and controllers are no different. With the SNES controller, Nintendo didn’t reinvent the wheel, but it made a controller that was just as simple to understand as its predecessor while being more curved and comfortable to hold in the hand. (That curvature was then retroactively brought to NES with the redesigned NES-101.) It added just enough functionality to fit the needs of the gamers. Two new concave face buttons in X and Y made the SNES controller the first Nintendo controller to have four face buttons, while the additions of two shoulder buttons added some extra, easy-to-reach options for games that needed the inputs.

short history of Nintendo controllers NES controller SNES controller Nintendo 64 controller GameCube controller WaveBird Super Nintendo Entertainment System

Games were evolving into the 16-bit era between the already released Sega Genesis and what was coming to arcades, and the controls available had to match the complexity being offered by these new experiences. Shigeru Miyamoto has in fact stated that the extra buttons on the SNES controller were there to enable it to play trendy games like Street Fighter II. The influence of the SNES controller in history is obvious, serving as a foundation for the PlayStation controller, which over the years has iterated mostly only moderately from its original form.

Nintendo 64 – Nintendo 64 controller

To this day, the Nintendo 64 controller may still be one of the strangest-shaped controllers in console history, but it has an important place in that pantheon. It offered innovations of a prominent analog stick and the Z trigger that paved the way for 3D gaming on the console. Placing the new analog stick in the center was Nintendo’s way of showing players that this was the intended way to interact with a 3D environment, and there was no better game to demonstrate this than Super Mario 64.

short history of Nintendo controllers NES controller SNES controller Nintendo 64 controller GameCube controller WaveBird Super Nintendo Entertainment System

The landmark game was a showcase for what 3D gaming had in store for the industry, and the experience just wouldn’t have been the same without the Nintendo 64 controller. Yet, while the analog stick was a necessary step forward for the industry, there were still some refinements to be made as the stick did cause some minor injuries with games like Mario Party. Beyond the analog stick and Super Mario 64, the Z trigger proved its usefulness with the Z-targeting system in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and with first-person shooting in GoldenEye 007. In another first for console controllers, the Rumble Pak accessory also enabled the Nintendo 64 pad to feature vibration functionality based on in-game actions, which has since become an industry standard.

Due to its strange shape, there was no single correct way of holding the pad, instead depending on personal preference or the game you were playing. Its shape was divisive for some players, but as the controller that ultimately standardized how 3D movement could work on a console, it has a strong place in Nintendo’s history.

GameCube – GameCube controller

Out of all Nintendo controllers, the GameCube controller may be the closest to what we now consider a standard design. To this day, it is still considered to be Nintendo’s best controller by many fans, and this support has kept the controller going for far longer than anyone could have predicted. It’s been used, whether natively or via adapters, in every Nintendo console generation since the GameCube, was re-released again for use in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and was recently added as an option supported to play Super Mario Sunshine in Super Mario 3D All-Stars. The reasons behind its adoration likely come from how Nintendo nailed the fundamentals with this controller.

It has a simple twin-stick layout, complete with four face buttons and analog triggers that are within a comfortable distance from each other. The rounded ergonomic design was a comfortable fit for most players’ hands, and Shigeru Miyamoto was heavily involved in the years-long process of designing it. The intent with reshaping the face buttons yet again was to make it so that players knew where the buttons were without looking at them: A is the biggest and most important button, B is smaller and yielding, and X and Y take a distinct kidney shape surrounding A. It becomes intuitive in your hands.

Indentations surrounding the analog sticks meant that it’s as precise as any modern controller, and the pressure-sensitive shoulder buttons added extra functionality to games like Luigi’s Mansion. Nintendo would then follow up the standard GameCube controller with the WaveBird, the first wireless controller to be created by a console manufacturer and yet another example of Nintendo creating a new industry standard for controllers going forward.

The fundamental design of the GameCube controller was so beloved that it’s been the preferred way to play every Super Smash Bros. game since the GameCube, and I’d speculate that the success of Super Smash Bros. Melee might not have been the same without it (or maybe vice versa). When Nintendo fans look fondly over their favorite controllers from past generations, the GameCube controller is front and center.

Stay tuned for part 2!

Chirag Pattni
Psychologist and long time gamer. Has a love-hate relationship with technology and enjoys all things Japanese.