Controllers act as your gateway into the game. Everything a game allows you to do is translated through the chunk of plastic and electronics in your hands. And just as consoles have graduated from large and clunky, to sleek and powerful, the controllers have had just as dramatic of an evolution. Here’s a brief overview of how gaming controllers have advanced over the years.
The first commercial gaming system came to us in the form of the Magnavox Odyssey. As you can imagine, the first gaming console controllers did not have a lot of bells and whistles, but it did get the job done! Each controller was contained in a small box with a plastic knob on top. This joystick gave the user the ability to move both vertically and horizontally.
In 1974, another home console became popular: Atari 2600. The game that made families want to bring this console home? Pong. With controllers built into the console, this all-in-one gaming system was like bringing the arcade home. With one knob on either side of the console, playing Pong for hours was a common pastime.
At the beginning of this new decade, a new game house arrived, Nintendo. With their arrival came a new console, the Family Computer (FamiCom). This console featured two, red, brick-like controllers hardwired onto the machine. They featured a cross-like direction pad, two buttons labeled A and B, as well as Start and Select buttons. The Player 2 controller also featured a microphone in the center. The U.S. version that shipped with the NES had the same basic shape, but had a different color scheme, no microphone, and was able to be disconnected from the system.
Another Japanese contender that debuted in North America during the 80’s was Sega. Their console, the Sega Genesis, came along with a crescent shaped controller. Following a similar blueprint as the Family Computer, Sega’s controller dawned a directional pad, as well as A, B, Select, and Start buttons. They added a C button, which many people appreciated.
1990 - 1994
By the time the Super Nintendo Entertainment System / Super FamiCom launched, games were becoming more complex, demanding more control options. The new controller saw a big update, with rounded corners, two extra action buttons, and a fancy new set of shoulder buttons.
In 1994, Sony debuted the hit PlayStation. This refined the SNES design further, adding a second set of shoulder buttons. The unique face buttons stood out with their unique symbols: green Triangle, red Circle, blue Cross (yes, it’s officially a cross - not an X - due to the perpendicular nature of the lines), and pink Square. The controller received a massive refinement in the form of the DualShock, which added dual analog sticks and vibration features. The DualShock’s design would be largely unchanged for the next two console generations.
Along with Nintendo’s 1994 release came a very intriguing controller. The Nintendo 64 controller. Molded in a three-pronged shape, this controller was equipped with a directional pad, red Start button, A and B buttons, and four yellow C buttons. The controller also featured shoulder buttons and an analog stick in the middle of the M. Nintendo wasn’t sure analog control would take off, so they hedged their bets and made a controller that could still be used the old-fashioned way.
2001 – 2006
In 2001, Microsoft debuted on the home console scene with the Xbox. The chunky “Duke” Xbox controller that launched with the system in the United States was not initially well received. It was phased out in favor of the sleeker “Controller S” a year later. But the basic form factor has since been seen as the prototype for most modern styles of gaming controllers. It had two offset analog sticks, one on each side, directional pad, four action buttons on the right, analog triggers, and two memory card slots.
The Xbox 360 controller, which made the design scheme more ergonomic and turned the Black and White buttons into the right and left Bumpers, would become the de facto standard controller design for much of the industry going forward.
The biggest shakeup to the industry came in the form of Nintendo’s Wii Remote. But that’s a whole can of worms for another article.
While the Sixaxis controller that launched with the PlayStation 3 retained the basic shape of the DualShock, it dropped the rumble features and added motion-sensing accelerometers. The DualShock 3 that came later would put the rumble features back into player’s hands.
2010s – 2020s
The Xbox One controller was a slight ergonomic improvement over the 360. Nothing much new to report there. The Series S/X controller was an even more subtle update.
The DualShock 4 that came with the PlayStation 4, however, saw some interesting improvements. A large touchpad in the center of the controller replaced the Select button, and a “Share” button dedicated to capturing screenshots and video clips was added. The accelerometer was upgraded into a gyroscope, allowing for more precise motion control. A colored lightbar on the back could change hues to denote player number, to signal in-game statuses, or so the PlayStation Camera could track its position in VR games.
As for the Wii U gamepad… We’ll get to that in a forthcoming article.
In 2020, the much-anticipated PlayStation 5 arrived. People who could get their hands on one were introduced to the DualSense controller. This controller follows the blueprint of the DualShock family. Its colorful trim changes along with the game you are playing, and it is touch sensitive. Additionally, it features a microphone and speaker. Probably the best addition is the controller’s very precise and tactile haptic feedback. This controller helps immerse the user into the game in all new ways with Adaptive Triggers that can tighten or loosen depending on what’s happening in the game.
See a controller on this list that you forgot about or want to collect? Take a look at our vintage gaming controllers to see if we have it! Odds are that we do.