A Look At Decades Of Nintendo Controller Innovation

The upcoming Wii U is hoping to change the way we think of controllers forever. Whether it does that or not is anybody's guess, but if it does, it won't be the first time Nintendo has pulled off that coup.

While Nintendo's franchises and consoles often get all the praise for the company's success, let's not forget the importance and history of the only thing between the player and the game: the control pad.

In this gallery you'll find some of Nintendo's greatest successes when it comes to control pad innovation, some of them obvious and long-lasting, others perhaps not quite getting the recognition they deserve.

Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.

The Game & Watch - Nintendo's first gaming success innovated with its use of a d-pad design pioneered by legendary Nintendo developer Gunpei Yokoi. Taking the idea of a directional pad and stripping it back to a compass-like form, it meant that playing Game & Watch titles was fast, responsive and, most important of all, comfortable.

The Famicom / NES - Its square shape was uncomfortable, and it only had a couple of primary buttons, but the Famicom / NES pad goes down in history as the first widespread success for the humble d-pad on a home console controller. The precision it affords means it's largely unchanged on Nintendo consoles (and handhelds) even today.

It was also, believe it or not, the first major system to lean left. Home consoles from the 1970's usually had the directional inputs to the right of a pad's buttons, whereas the Famicom / NES has the input to the left, where it remains (on all control pads) to this day.

The NES Satellite - Released in 1989, towards the end of the original NES' lifespan, the Satellite allowed four players to use wireless control pads on the system. Though seemingly a revolution, the infared technology used meant the pads had to be kept within line of sight of a receiver unit, making them unreliable.

The Super Nintendo - There doesn't appear much revolutionary about the humble SNES pad, seen by most as an improvement on the NES controller rather than an evolution, but it did quietly add shoulder buttons, another first for a major home console that has since been imitated by almost every competitor since.

The Nintendo 64 - It's strange shape and memory card expansion slot may not have been endearing legacies, but that little stick in the middle sure was. While it was "weak" and prone to breaking (just try and find a working one on a second-hand pad these days), the N64's analogue stick was the first seen on a home console controller since the demise of the Vectrex in 1983 (most other "thumbsticks" simply being sticks on top of a d-pad), and has been copied on every major controller ever since.

The Nintendo GameCube - While the regular Cube controller played it safe, using the same "two sticks, triggers and some face buttons" layout as its competitors the PS2 and Xbox, its fat, younger brother was a little more special. The Wavebird, first released in 2002, was the first official platform/branded controller to use radio frequency as a means of communication, making them far more reliable than the old Satellite pads. Again, this is now a standard feature across all consoles (albeit now with more advanced technology).

The Nintendo DS - It seemed crazy at the time, but the idea to put a giant touch screen in the middle of a handheld gaming device paid huge dividends for Nintendo, the DS becoming one of the most successful video game devices of all time. Allowing far greater (and often faster) interaction than scrolling with a d-pad, it's a feature that's been retained in the new 3DS and is now showing up on rival Sony's PlayStation Vita.

The Nintendo Wii - Doesn't need much of an introduction. The first major use of motion controls as a standard input device for a home console. Has been improved upon with Wii MotionPlus, and it's difficult thinking of a future in which game controllers don't feature at least some form of motion control.


    Article could have been titled too. How every other game company goes their controller ideas.

      Everyone in the industry builds on the ideas of others. Nintendo is no different.

      As an example, the analogue thumbstick in the N64 controller is a synthesis of existing analogue joysticks and digital thumbsticks. It is a good idea, but it didn't appear out of nothing.

    Nintendo: The OG of the console world. Much imitated, never exceeded.

    What, no Virtual Boy controller? :P

    Partially joking, but partly not. There was some significance to their creating a pad that had two d-pads on it, because of the need to be able to control things in three dimensions. Which led to the N64 controller having both the d-pad/control stick and c-pad, depending how you were holding it. Which in turn led to the dual-analogue setup.

    I never noticed how the DS is just a Game & Watch you can change the game inside it.

    However it made me remember that Nintendo has been giving us weird controllers under the gimmick of "innovation" and people are stupid enough to buy it.

      Or people are stupid enough NOT to see it until now. :)

      And imitate them, as it appears.

    I've always just liked the dual shock. Sony knew they were on a winning controller and they've stuck with it for three iterations.

      I thought so too back in the PS2 era. The dual shock was easily my favourite out of the GC and Xbox controller.

      However, IMO the 360 controller is the new controller king - I have never used a controller that has been more comfortable than a keyboard and mouse - but this one comes close! I'm a particular fan of the switching of the thumbstick and the d-pad - I really wish this would become the new standard (and i'm glad the 3DS followed suit.)

        Agreed, dual shock was the standard until the 360 came along, the d-pad is not perfect, but the triggers, the sticks and the grip are perfectly placed.

      Yes but, well it started out as a copy of the SNES controller, and then they basically just added two of the things Nintendo made to it.

      Nintendo introduced analog sticks, sony made a controller with two. Nintendo 64 got rumble. Sony made dual shock. Which they payed a lot for using.

      And don't forget that Sony actually wanted to change the controller for PS3, with the banana controller, but the fans didn't approve of it, and sony played it safe.
      That's where I think Nintendo differs. They make a plan and sticks to it. I like that.

      Oh you mean the controller that took all it's ideas from Nintendo and stuck them on a controller that is ergonomically terrible?

      Yeah, what a winning idea.

        Because Sony is the only company ever to take an idea from someone else and build upon it? Get a clue.

        There is no need to get all defensive about controller design considering what different people find comfortable and aesthetically pleasing differs.

        With regards to the xbox 360 controller the asymertrical design of the Xbox controller has always felt weird to me.

    Haha, I just found my old Donkey Kong II game and watch on the weekend, put in a new set of bateries and it fired right up. Played for about half an hour. Funny how awesome game play doesn't require much to still be great all these years later.

    Is that all? No mention of the powerglove, or any of their other awesome-but-never-quite-took-off-at-the-time ideas? Check out the NES Max, with wings like Sony's duelshock. Or the Power Pad, a 1980s dance mat, meant for fitness games. No mention of R.O.B. either, or the N64 Rumble Pak (were they first with that?).

      Yes they were - I still remember the day I git Star Fox 64 (Lylat Wars) which came with a rumble pak included!

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