From the D-pad to the Duke: My History with Game Controllers

If you are a gamer then the humble controller is a big part of your life – how many hours have you spent with a DualShock in your hands? Scary thought, isn’t it. Considering how we might be controlling the PlayStation 5 brought back memories of the various controllers I have loved over the years… and the ones I have hated and been forced to endure. So, before we end up knee-deep in motion control and mind sensors, I decided it was time for a revenant retrospective on the best and worst controllers of my gaming history.

NES controller (1983)

My first experience with this great joypad was in the very late 80s, when I visited a school friend who owned a Nintendo Entertainment System. He pulled a blue box labeled Spy vs. Spy off a shelf and slipped the chunky grey cartridge from its sleeve, flipped the cover of the grey monolith, blew on the cartridge’s exposed edge, and then slid it into place. He then handed me the controller.

And I was awful at the game. I was particularly awful at Super Mario Bros. 3 – I mean truly horrific. The goombas laughed while the fire burned and the platforms were always just a pixel out of reach. I’m worse now, I reckon mainly because I no longer have a NES pad to hand. No matter how hard a NES game got, you could never blame that beautiful grey block of a controller, with its sharp lines, clean corners and crisp colors. It had heft and buttons that felt responsive, irrespective of the often shaky design of the game you were playing. The NES controller was a simple, austere masterpiece.

Genesis controller (1988)

But I never owned a NES. Instead, my first console was a Sega Genesis, bought by my parents. A Genesis – instead of a Super Nintendo. When you were playing Zelda and Mario, I was playing Sword of Vermillion and Bonanza Bros. I have never forgiven my parents.

My initial impressions of the controller were that it was bulky, unwieldy and cumbersome. Even so, over the years I’ve grown to love that monster. Within that black case laid the secret to perfect flights in Afterburner II, speed runs through the Green Hill Zone and glorious games of Streets of Rage 2. With hindsight and the occasional reminiscing session with a Genesis over the years, my initial impressions were absolutely correct – it’s still terrible. Nonetheless, I have never felt the same synergy with a controller since.

PlayStation control pad (1994)

Still the template Sony use now, the original PlayStation pad has stood the test of time. Featuring the iconic cross, square, triangle and circle as well as the four shoulder buttons we currently use on the PS3, the only key difference was the initial lack of analog sticks.

Yeah, the PlayStation founder Ken Kuturagi almost nailed the first time. Almost. The addition of the dual analog sticks in the DualShock just about made things perfect. Almost. The additional rumble packs were the icing on the cake. SixAxis control, Bluetooth and rechargeable battery pack were all cherries on the cake, the refinements and foundations of an iconic controller.

Nintendo 64 controller

While the NES and SNES may have been rather conventional, the N64 controller represented Nintendo’s first attempt to do things their own way. The M-style configuration allowed you to hold it in different ways, depending on the game or what felt most comfortable. It was also the first controller to feature a trigger on the back of the pad, ideal for those epic Goldeneye sessions.

The thing I loved most about the N64 controller was the amazing analog stick, the stick which completely removed the 8-way tyranny we had been institutionalized into thinking was the only way to control our movement. I love how it challenged by never quite sitting in the centre. Nintendo had obviously made it in mind of ensuring all games would remain as difficult as possible, all by using a stick that stayed as centered as Charles Manson. Genius.

Saturn Analog Controller (1996)

This is an interesting controller that the vast majority of you likely never laid hands upon. Narrowly beaten to the punch of being the first analog controller by the N64, the Saturn Analog was released well into the console’s lifespan to support the release of the stunning NiGHTs Into Dreams. And while that game may have been beautiful… the pad was not.

The Analog Controller continued Sega’s tradition of making controllers that looked ugly as sin but were comfortable to use. Also, once the Saturn finally gave up the ghost, the pad and console made for useful paperweights. Ugly paperweights, sure, but still useful. And rare. Sega were always good at making awesome hardware that no-one bought. Add this to the list.

Xbox ’Duke’ Controller (2001)

Sega didn’t have a monopoly on creating grotesque controllers. The original Xbox pad was a mammoth beast that made the PSOne look positively petite.

The Duke controller allowed for superb games of Halo, only as long as you were willing to put the required hours of weight training in beforehand to lift the thing. Japan received a much smaller variant named the Controller S from launch and this rapidly replaced the bulky original in all other territories. I was always curious about the marketing decision there. Imagine Bill Gates in a room with his Xbox team:

Bill: Us Westerners are man enough to handle a bigger pad. but we need a smaller pad for the Far East.

Xbox Team: But I thought the Japanese hated us. Won’t this make things worse?

Bill: No, we’ll totally market it like this is a good thing for them and the win the console war in Japan.

Despite buying a Controller S once it was made available in Europe, some perverse part of me always preferred using the original. It may have been less attractive and heavier than the Hulk, but with that came solid, responsive controls and a weight missing from some modern controllers – DualShock 3, anyone?

Xbox 360 Controller (2005)

Never let it be said that Microsoft aren’t at least sometimes occasionally maybe willing to learn from previous mistakes. Where they may have failed with operating systems, they pass with flying colors when it comes to controller revisions. The right size, the perfect layout and superb feeling in every aspect, the 360 controller is the best I have ever laid my mits on.

Simply, Microsoft managed to incorporate everything that made the original Xbox pad feel like a quality piece of equipment into a case that didn’t need a spare bedroom to accommodate it. And they expect me to move from this to waving my arms about and smiling at a camera?

Wii Remote (2006)

However, as good as the 360 joypad may be, it’s not the most advanced. That accolade lands squarely back at the feet of Nintendo and the Wiimote. The PS3 beat the Wii to retail by a few days and therefore can claim the right to the first motion-controlled joypad. That is, of course, if we ignore that other than for Flower the SixAxis is the biggest waste of time since Paris Hilton. Nintendo knew that the best way to get new people to play games was to give them a completely new control method – and the Wiimote was born.

Essentially a NES pad with a trigger in the back, a gyroscope and infrared sensors built in, the Wiimote stripped everything back to the bare minimum required for a fun controller. Of course, those requirements may need to be altered from time to time with the additions of some bolt-ons like the Nunchuck or MotionPlus. Yes, it may not be the most precise control method ever but it is fun. Casual fun fun fun. Never let it be said that Nintendo are only in it for the money, ignoring the hardcore market at any opportunity (wait, what? – Ed).

So the next time you sit down for a few hours of rampaging through Favela or artifact hunting in the Himalayas, stop and think about the humble controller resting in your hands and the years of development that have brought us to this bright and glorious age of pad perfection. Consider those old consoles and controllers you gave away to the car boot sale or left lying in your parent’s basement. Maybe even dust them off and take them for a spin next time you get the chance. If nothing else, it’ll give you a wee bit of perspective on how far we’ve come – or maybe just make you glad that we finally got there.

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