Every gamer has a favorite controller, and in many ways, it is the controller that makes the console. This is never more clearly the case than for the Nintendo Wii, which has nowhere near the horsepower of either the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3, but has outsold both based on a revolutionary controller design.But I’m getting ahead of myself. My own first long-term experience with a console controller was with the original 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which was a Christmas present in 1987 or so. Looking back, it’s almost hard to imagine interacting with a video game based on nothing more than a direction pad and two buttons (three if you count the Start button’s almost universal “pause” function). In fact, Super Mario Brothers is nearly a one-button game, the B button only having a function when Mario has consumed a fire flower (or to make Mario run extra fast, point being that you can play the game without it). While I never owned a Super Nintendo (SNES), I remember being in awe of its controller. Even more than the Mode 7 almost-3D graphics, the X and Y buttons seemed to open new worlds of possibility. I shuddered to imagine the wonderous games that could make use of the additional possible functions. (The L and R shoulder buttons didn’t even register for me at the time.) Intriguingly, I have a hard time reconciling my fondness for the SNES controller to my reaction, much later, to the Sony PlayStation (PS1). For a long time, I avoided the PlayStation and other consoles of its generation because I found the PS1’s controller overwhelming, especially after it added the two analog direction sticks to the single digital direction pad. Taking a look at the PS1 controller now, it’s clearly a direct and not-particularly-distant descendant of the SNES controller. (There’s an enlightening developmental tree available here.) A, B, X, and Y have been replaced with shapes on the buttons, and there are two sets of shoulder buttons instead of one, but otherwise the layout is identical. This is not coincidental. Sony had been working with Nintendo on a new disc-drive console to replace the SNES, but when Nintendo decided to develop the N64 instead, Sony decided to recoup their investment by putting out their own machine. Which brings us to the N64, which was in all fairness probably more responsible than the PS1 for my feeling of inability to master the new generation of controllers. The N64 controller, especially compared to the original PS1 controller, is revolutionary. It has both a digital direction pad and an analog joystick. It has six (6!) buttons on its face, two shoulder buttons, and a trigger-style Z button underneath(!) the controller. It is also clearly designed for an alien. I do not now, nor have I ever known anyone with three hands, and so I have never been able to figure out why the controller has three handles. I spent many happy hours playing GoldenEye 007 with this cotroller, and almost nothing else. In 2004 I finally obtained my second video game console (after the NES back in 1987), a Nintendo GameCube. The GameCube was Nintendo’s follow-up to the N64, and whatever your complaints with the system itself, the controller took the N64’s innovations and perfected them. The third handle is gone. The four confusing C buttons have become a single analog stick. It’s comfortable in the hand, and most importantly every button feels different. I cannot overemphasize this. I still get lost from time to time on my PS3 controller, even though its layout is nearly identical to the PS2 and PS1’s DualShock controller. On the GameCube controller, there’s no mistaking the differently-sized A and B buttons, and the X and Y (still in roughly the same spot as they were on the SNES controller) are a different shape entirely. It’s not pretty, but if I may steal a phrase from an excellent visual history of the Nintendo controller: the negative space created by a human hand gripping something is ugly. Controllers designed to fit in this shape kick ass. The wireless version of the GameCube controller, the WaveBird, adds a bit of bulk for the batteries, but remains my all-time favorite controller. I still use it whenever I can with my Wii. This, of course, is the logical end of the evolution I want to trace, but it clearly isn’t the end of the story. While the WaveBird is my favorite controller, I spend far more time using my PS3’s DualShock 3, and I have strong opinions about its usability as opposed to the Xbox’s controller, which I find confusing. I think the analog sticks are in the wrong place on the Xbox, even though I’ve come to realize that the Xbox controller has basically the same layout as my beloved WaveBird. I still argue that the C stick on the WaveBird is almost never used the same way as the right analog stick on the Xbox controller, especially in Halo, where it’s critical to movement, but I’ll concede that it’s an argument based on personal feel and use much more than design.
So that’s the narrative in a nutshell: Nintendo innovates, even when it doesn’t make sense, Sony still uses a perfected version of the classic SNES controller whose design goes all the way back to 1990. (The Xbox, by the way, basically stole its controller design from SEGA’s long lost Dreamcast system. Impress your friends with that tidbit.) And now we have the Nintento Wii and Sony’s soon-to-be-released Move controller, which deserve a separate consideration of their own. Later. When I can afford to pick up a Move controller. (We’re talking $100 for a starter bundle. Even a Wii remote with Motion Plus and a Nunchuck attachment will set you back $70, and a DualShock 3 is more than $50. Controllers are expensive.)
It’s a brave new world, my friends. Put your old controllers away. (Somewhere safe, so you can use them later.)
Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.