Ten Best Controller Innovations Since the Atari 2600

Interactivity: without it, video games would be little more than mediocre tech demos (or movies, Shirley – Ed). Which is why console designers have been working for decades trying to perfect the game controller, the interactive tool that forms the bridge between player and the game. While it’s not the first console of all existence, the Atari 2600 is where we’ll start marking off controller innovation, since 2600’s one-button joystick is the stereotypical, archaic controller, and serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come since then. Things started off rather simply…

Multiple Buttons

OK, it’s a bit of a boring no-brainer to start off with, but the introduction of multiple buttons was the foundation of all innovations that followed. One of the Atari joystick’s limitations was its sole, big orange button in the corner. Aesthetically pleasing as it was, it significantly limited gameplay options, usually to just moving and shooting. Then consoles like Intellivision and Colecovision came along, with their elaborate controllers featuring a plethora of buttons – maybe too many buttons, including the rarely-used number pad. Nonetheless, by the next console generation, all* controllers had two or more buttons, and gaming has never looked back. Thus, combo moves and cheat codes were born. Say it with me now: Up, down, up, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start…

*Except the Nintendo Zapper, the original point-and-clicker.

Directional Thumbpad, aka D-Pad

This innovation came along around the same time as multiple buttons, marking two significant changes. The first noteworthy version was the Intellivision controller’s thumbdisc, and its misleading impression of 360-degree movement, when it was more like 16. The more well-known D-pads arrived in the mid 80s with Sega and Nintendo systems, whose thumbpads were situated to the left of the buttons, setting a layout precedent that went unchallenged for years to come (not to mention the need for a reverse switch for lefties). Now instead of spraining their wrists, players could merely injure their thumbs, and that was progress. Meanwhile, the traditional joystick found itself new work in the flight simulator field, so everyone got a happy ending.

Turbo Button

Once upon a time, a significant part of video game prowess was the sacred art of button-mashing. The game Track and Field was a prime example: the faster you tapped the buttons, the faster/further/higher/shinier you went. Early fighting games often boiled down to how quickly you could fire a weapon or throw a punch. But only a few were capable of the inhuman button-mashing that dominated the arcade scene. Enter the turbo button! Sometimes a toggle switch, other times a separate button entirely, the turbo button let players hold down buttons rather than mash them, letting it do all the work. Of course, some considered this a cheat – usually those with the inhuman button-mashing capability. Nevertheless, turbo buttons saved countless sore fingers, and for that we are ever thankful.


Thumbstick (or Analog Stick)

The problem with switching from analog joystick to digital thumbpad was the loss of finesse. You can’t gently nudge a D-Pad; it’s either that direction or it’s not, period. To rectify this, some clever engineering types got together and came up with the thumbstick. And it was pretty much what it sounds like: a joystick for one’s thumb. Soon players were rediscovering the freedom of movement that joysticks had provided, along with some frustrations like characters spinning in circles – or maybe that was just me. Regardless, now the thumbstick is a mainstay of the modern video game controller.

Trigger Buttons

You may have noticed that many of these innovations are button-related. And while this is yet another one, it is no less
significant. Not to be confused with the all-or-nothing trigger button on a lasergun-style controller, the trigger buttons referred to here are perhaps better described as "analog buttons" – besides, calling them "triggers" just gives the "Video Games Kill Kids" whiners more fodder. Practically the antithesis of Turbo Buttons, these buttons are designed to be held down, but to varying degrees. This makes them ideal throttle/brake controls for racing games. Of course, they work just as well for straight-up weapon triggers, but mum’s the word on that. It also gives index fingers something to do while the thumbs are busy elsewhere, which segues nicely into the next innovation…


If broken down to its Latin and Greek roots, "ergo" and "nomics" equates to "the law of therefore." Which makes no sense, so we’ll just use Wikipedia’s definition of safe, comfortable, and easy-to-use equipment, such as with modern game controllers. While controller designers have presumably had players’ comfort and safety in mind from day one, sometime in the 90s this area of focus got a real boost, possibly thanks to the increase in lawsuits relating to repetitive strain and carpal tunnel. Different hand sizes require different controller sizes, and if buttons are spaced too far apart, fatigue can set in sooner than players might like, leading to less game playing than companies might like. all of which is why the large, boxy controllers is a rarity these days. This particular innovation is an ongoing process, the results of which are even seen in the WiiMote attachments that allow players to hold controllers like sporting or musical equipment*.

*Because if I didn’t mention them, people would be having a go.

In-Controller Memory

Back in the days of yore, gaming consoles had no memory, and games were a one-shot affair. Your only hope was for a password system, or better still, a tiny bit of memory within the game cartridge that saved high scores, or maybe as many as three whole saved games – imagine! But, whether due to video game rentals, exchanges, or just the movement to optical media, it was eventually decided to place that memory in the game controllers themselves. From the Nintendo 64’s controller packs to the built-in memory of the WiiMote, players have grown accustomed to being able to carry their game data with them to friends’ consoles, a method that will undoubtedly dwindle as consoles continue to gain broadband features. Regardless, it was still a significant leap from the days of gaming amnesia, and having to leave consoles on for months upon years.


Force Feedback

Let’s get ready-ready to RUMBLE! (Psych! – Ed). So, force feedback: it’s essentially when you push the controller and the controller pushes back, but it is most commonly known and used in the rumble form, whether via special rumble packs or permanently built-in to the controller. Its primary function is to alert players personally, particularly in multiplayer games, rather than on-screen or audibly (since everyone sees and hears that). A rumble might let a player know that their vehicle just hit a curb, or that their tank just got mortared from behind. Though sometimes it simply means they’ve selected a menu option, which is what I would call "by unnecessary force".

Wireless Controllers

Picture the scene: you’ve entered the final boss stage of your favorite game, knowing you’re going to win in mere moments, when suddenly the dog runs over the controller wire, yanking it from the console. You character becomes a sitting duck, and the end boss has his wicked way with you. The solution? Wireless controllers. Though they’ve existed in various forms and to varying degrees of success (even as far back as the Atari system), it wasn’t until modern wireless technology, and Bluetooth in particular, that wireless controllers have become an affordable, practical reality. Now the only concerns are battery life and keeping Fido from standing in front of the sensor.

Motion Control

Otherwise known as "The Holy Grail of Interactivity" by people who enjoy tired metaphors. Motion control and motion capture have been around for some time in numerous forms. From Nintendo’s problematic Power Glove to the PlayStation 2’s clever-but-limited EyeToy camera, motion-control gaming had mostly been hit-and-miss. That is until the WiiMote hit the scene, with its infra-red sensor and accelerometer – also known as "waggle sensor". Soon everyone and their grandmother were flailing their arms at the TV screen, and it truly was a beautiful sight. Of course, Xbox 360 and PS3 are wanting in on some of that flailing-grandmother-arms action, are now Microsoft and Sony are working on their own motion control setups. While some consider motion control to merely a gimmick, others see it as the future of gaming. But who’s right? Either way, there will always be an audience for the tactile feedback that handheld controllers provide.

Author: Troy Bond