Video games are immersive experiences that require inputs from the player in order to control gameplay. These input methods (usually in the form of video game controllers) have evolved over the last forty years, and input methods have, at times, become more complex. This has developed along with hardcore gamers wanting more story-driven experiences that have an emotional impact. However, there’s also been times when input methods have become simpler in order to attract people who don’t usually play games to this medium. In this article, I look over how input methods have evolved over the last forty years and follow most of the mainstream advancements in the industry.
NES and Game Boy: The D-Pad
The NES (1983) had an iconic square controller. The pad had a black, grey, and red color scheme with a d-pad and two buttons. The d-pad it used (and is still being used to this day in similar forms) originates with the Game & Watch handhelds. These were small LCD-based systems that used similar technology to old calculators. It turned out that this d-pad was ideal for use with 8-bit games, and back then, this with two responsive buttons was enough to have some great experiences. Games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda used this input method and it worked really well. Games were more simple back then (although they were relatively difficult) and the two-button pad was all you needed to have a great time.
In terms of input methods of handhelds of the time, the Game Boy (1989) used the same d-pad and two buttons as the NES controller. The original Game Boy had a grey ‘brick’ design, with two red/pink buttons and the now nostalgic green/grey, unbacklit screen. While the form factor would change with the Game Boy pocket, some of those people with big hands found the original comfortable. This button configuration and design were great to play many classics. These included Tetris, Super Mario Land 2: The Six Golden Coins, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, and many more.
Genesis/Megadrive vs SNES: 3 Buttons or 4 (or 6)?
The 16-bit generation brought with it an increase in the number of buttons on gamepads. Games were becoming more complex and story-driven. The main competing systems were the Super Nintendo (1990) and Sega Genesis/Megadrive (1988). Both had different button layouts, but which gamepad was the better one?
The Genesis/Megadrive gamepad originally had a three-button layout with a modified d-pad. This was for patent reasons, as Nintendo had patented the original d-pad. Unlike the SNES controller, the Genesis/Megadrive controller had no shoulder buttons, so overall, it was a much more simple gamepad than its Nintendo counterpart. The three-button pad worked well with games like Sonic The Hedgehog and Golden Axe. The Megadrive was released earlier than the SNES and was home to loads of arcade ports and sports games that didn’t need that many buttons. For the port of Street Fighter 2, you basically had to get the six-button pad to properly play the game. The availability of the six-button pad for the Genesis basically increased the potential of the console to play some more complicated titles.
It’s often argued the SNES pad is the peak of 16-bit gaming, and its iconic design has inspired many future layouts and console/handheld iterations. This includes the color scheme for the ‘New 3DS’, as well as the button/controller layout for the Wii Virtual Console Classic Controller. The buttons on the SNES pad were responsive and felt like they were in the right place. But the weirdest of Nintendo’s next console controller divided fans.
N64 and Sega Saturn: The Analog Stick
The N64 (1996) had a strange design. The three-prong format was intended to be ideal to control 3D games. For me, it mostly worked really well. The analog stick worked great to control early 3D pioneering games, like Super Mario 64 and Zelda: Ocarina of Time. However, the stick on the N64 pad became stiff after a while, as it was made of hard plastic. This was greatly improved on later, with the Gamecube and PS2 Dualshock controllers.
The Sega Saturn (1995) also had a controller with an analog stick. This was in the form of the gamepad that was released for the killer app for the system, Nights into Dreams. I’ve heard conflicting reports of whether Nintendo or Sega were the original creators of the analog stick. Nintendo definitely made it integral to more games than Sega, but I get the feeling this question remains unanswered.
So, with video games making the move into the third dimension in the mid-90, the analog stick became a key input method for these types of games. The N64 was more well placed to ‘do 3D’, and this is reflected in the fact that both the PS1 (1994) and the Sega Saturn had no analog stick on the original controller that came with the respective systems (unlike the N64). However, the three-pronged controller of the N64 was weird and people often criticized it by saying that the left prong with the d-pad was barely used (plus the d-pad itself was often stiff). Nintendo’s next console controller would change this though and is arguably the most comfortable controller ever.
GameCube: Ultimate Controller?
Both the Gamecube and PS2 Dualshock controllers have rubberized analog sticks that feel good and don’t wear down like analog sticks from the previous generation. This was such a massive improvement. My original Gamecube analog stick, which is over fifteen years old, still works really well, despite the circular contours on the surface being completely worn down.
The Gamecube controller also has only two prongs. They feel really comfortable for a moderately sized hand, and in my opinion, are more comfortable and fit the hand better than the PS2 or PS3 pad. The Gamecube also has shoulder triggers. They are not just simple buttons but are analog in that you press down (for example to accelerate in a driving game) until there’s a satisfying ‘click’, which would shoot a weapon in an FPS title. Even now with modern consoles, it’s hard to replicate the Gamecube’s shoulder triggers because modern console shoulder triggers have digital, not analog, shoulder triggers. This has been noted as a potential problem in porting some games over from the Gamecube to the Switch (2017).
Wii and Motion Controls
In the days of the NES, (the 1980s) games were simple and controllers had fewer buttons, as I’ve said in this article. This meant that compared to say the late 90s there was a lower barrier of entry because games were more simple in the 1980s. Partly because of this, and also because of the poor sales of the Gamecube, Nintendo decided to do something completely unexpected. They released a console based largely on motion controls, which we know as the Wii (obviously). The controller was shaped like a TV remote, used motion and pointer controls, and massively lowered the barrier to entry to Nintendo gaming. This is known as Nintendo’s ‘Blue Ocean’ strategy.
Wii motion controls were hit and miss in regards to what hardcore fans thought of them, but with people who didn’t usually play games, they were massively successful. The Wii console ended up selling over 100 million units. The console beat the sales of both the PS3 (2006) and the Xbox 360 (2005), and both Sony and Microsoft ended up releasing hardware that used some sort of motion control soon after (although none were as successful as the Wii). Wii Sports was sold as a pack-in game with the Wii, and again, is probably the game that is most iconic. Nintendo’s Blue Ocean strategy worked!
Touchscreens on Handhelds?
The Nintendo DS (2004) was revolutionary in its dual screens, and touchscreen, similar to the Wii. Rather than competing with Sony’s PSP (2005) in terms of power, the DS was moderately powerful. Its touch screen introduced new ways to play. Games like Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training and Nintendogs were experiences geared toward those that didn’t play games. Other titles, like The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, also used touch controls despite being mainly aimed at hardcore players. The DS sold over 150 million units. In 2011, its successor the 3DS arrived, which also used a touch screen and had a novel stereoscopic 3D effect.
Since the DS, we’ve seen touch screens widely incorporated into smartphones. As a result, they’ve become something that we take for granted. The DS was one of the first mainstream devices to use them, and it’s easy to underestimate what an impact the DS had. In terms of gaming, the Wii U (2012), used a touch screen similar to the DS. The Wii U was a failure and only sold around 13 million units, but the concept of the Wii U (a console with a tablet controller) would develop into the Switch, which is a dockable handheld system that is able to be used either as a handheld or a home console.
One element about most home console controllers that we’ve missed so far is the emergence of rumble. This feature is used to give the player a controller vibration when something happens in gameplay, such as a hit making contact with a target, or when the player takes damage. I remember the massive N64 ‘Rumble Pack’ which attached itself to the bottom of the controller. This add-on was interesting and I remember it being used in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the ‘Stone of Agony’, which let players know if they were near an in-game secret.
Since the days of the N64, most videogame controllers have had rumble built in. This includes the likes of the GameCube controller, the PS2 controller, and the Switch. The Switch Joy-Cons have something called ‘HD rumble’, which, as the name suggests, vibrates and changes depending on what kind of interaction the player is experiencing.
Rumble is a feature we’ve had for a while. It could be argued it does increase immersion, and now with ‘HD-rumble’ it looks like the feature is evolving. Rumble is probably here to stay and that’s a good thing.
Switch and the Combination of Buttons and Motion Controls
Now with the Nintendo Switch and PS5 controllers, it looks like motion control, button inputs, analog stick control, and rumble have all integrated themselves well into modern gaming. The way we play games today is still complex, but there are loads of options and ways to control games. There are also adaptive controllers on various systems and with various games, which help people with disabilities control games to a high level. As we reach the mid-2020s, there are sure to be new control innovations in the video game industry. Virtual reality devices seem to be something that might come into their own this decade. Nintendo has held off entering this space, maybe they’re waiting for the technology to be at a level where they can develop experiences that meet their standards. It is definitely an exciting time for video games, and I am excited to see what new features make their way over this decade.