Game Controllers: The Evolution From the First Generation

Often overlooked, the controller is easily one of the most important aspects of the video game experience.

Controllers are a vital part to any video game. A great controller can give an immersive experience, but a poor one can easily be the most frustrating part of any game.

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From the first generation consoles, like the Magnavox Odyssey, to 8th generation consoles, like PS4 and Steam Machine, controllers have made great ergonomical strides.

As new-gen consoles are developing ‘revolutionary’ controllers, it’s important to look at where it all began.

So let’s start from the beginning —

 First Generation

http://www.magnavox-odyssey.com/Odyssey/Collector/Double_star_savings_2.jpg

In 1972, Magnavox released the Magnavox Odyssey 100 and the Magnavox Odyssey Shooting Gallery.

MO100 featured one dial to control horizontal movement and one for vertical — players could navigate Pong paddles for hours on end.

MOSG was the first ‘light gun’ controller available for a home console. The gun would score if shot at any light source: light bulbs, windows… you name it. Sounds like a shooting game even I could play!

The Atari Home Pong Console (1975) allowed player’s to slide their Pong paddle up and down by rotating a single dial. 

The controls were unique because it featured two dials on separate halves of the console, allowing for two people to play!

Second Generation

http://www.vintagecomputing.com/index.php/archives/527/retro-scan-of-the-week-atari-2600-newspaper-ad

In the midst of the Pong frenzy, Fairchild released the Fairchild Channel F, known as the Video Entertainment System (VES) in 1976.

The VES looked like a detonator straight out of Wile E. Coyote’s dynamite stash.

It featured a rotating 8-direction top that you could click down to fire.

The first recognisable joystick arrived in 1977 with Atari’s hugely successful 2600. Atari 2600 was the most popular console of the second generation.

Third Generation

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While video games lost popularity in the US during the video game crash of 1983, Japan produced some of the most iconic old-school systems of all time.

In 1983, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was released.

The NES games were much more complex and needed four directions, all while still being able to interact with the environment.

So Nintendo not only successfully introduced the world to the first d-pad controls, but it also firmly established it in the history of video games.

 

 

Fourth Generation

The Sega Genesis (1988) was the first controller to make any attempt at being comfortable to hold.

http://levelupgamingsite.com/2012/06/18/flashback-megadrive-vs-snes-advertising/

It kept the d-pad on the left and added an extra on the right (for a total of 3). A 6-button version was released for button mashers like Street Fighter II.

Probably one of the oldest gaming consoles still used by my generation is the 1990 Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES).

SNES controllers joined the original design of NES and the Sega Genesis. It featured a d-pad and 4 buttons along with the first shoulder buttons!

Fifth Generation

The first Sony PlayStation debuted in 1994. The PS is similar to the SNES controller that came two years before. But it was the first controller that was elongated on the sides so that it could rest easily in the palm of your hand.

PlayStation threw gamers into the world of triangle, circle, square, and cross.

http://www.youbioit.com/en/article/1417/fifth-generation-video-games-consoles

Nintendo 64 came out in 1966 and is still widely used today. N64 with live in infamy because of Super Smash Bros. 

N64 controllers combined the d-pad, four-button design, and joystick into one controller. It featured three different places to put your hands depending on what game you were playing.

PlayStation Dualshock Controller: to some it’s known as the greatest controller of all time.

Since the introduction of Sony’s PlayStation dualshock controller, the controller components for almost all subsequent controllers, consists of the d-pad and 2 joysticks. But PlayStation’s controller wouldn’t change for 2 generations (PS2 and PS3).

Sixth Generation

Nintendo came to their senses with the GameCube (2001) controller; they realized that the joystick is best placed directly under the thumb instead of in the middle of the controller. So Nintendo went back to a 2-pronged controller. The d-pad, shoulder buttons, dual-shock, and four-button design were all still there. This time packaged in a not-so-grey controller.

The first Xbox controller from 2001 turned out to be a bigger bite than Xbox could chew.

Although its joysticks were exceptionally well placed and the controller was relatively comfortable, it was just too big.

“As far as we’re concerned, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 controller managed to perfect the DNA of Sony’s DualShock. An ergonomic master class and durable enough to last for years.” -ShortList

 

Seventh Generation

The Xbox 360 came out in 2005 and its controller was much smaller and easier to hold. It is said that the Xbox 360 the first to perfect the dualshock feature:

Nintendo came out with the Wii in 2006 in an attempt to captivate ‘casual gamers.’

The Wiimote and Numchuck allow for all of the controllers ever made so far in the evolution of controllers, but was the first controller to feature motion control.

http://static2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20090124073627/vgsales/images/c/ce/Economist_generations_1980-2002.jpg

Eighth Generation

Finally we arrive at the most recent consoles: the New Generation.

In 2012, Nintendo came out with the WiiU Gamepad. The Gamepad has a 16×9 touchscreen that can either supplement or replicate the gameplay shown on the TV display. It also featureshttp://www.usgamer.net/articles/nintendo-believes-wii-u-will-have-a-strong-holiday-season

  • a built-in front-facing camera and 
  • sensor strip
  • a built-in microphone 
  • stereo speakers
  • supports near field communication
The WiiU Gamepad is revolutionary because it is the first controller to feature a built-in camera, speaker, and microphone.

Sony’s PlayStation 4 came out in November of 2013. The PS4 has very familiar controls with a similar d-pad to the left and triangle, circle, square, and cross buttons to the right. But the new features are in the little details. 

The PS4 controller features:

A touch pad in the center of the controller.

  • Improved dual analog sticks
    and trigger buttons.
  • The analogue sticks are further apart than before and there are even little grooves for your thumbs to sit in.
  • It is the first controller with a headphone jack — it allows you to play privately without disturbing the rest of the house.
  • A touch/ track pad in the center of the controller.

Two weeks after the release of the PS4, Xbox released their new Xbox One. The Xbox one controller has:

  • Impulse Triggers that deliver fingertip vibration feedback. 
  • Redesigned thumbsticks and an all new D-pad give greater precision. 
  • Batteries fit inside the controller body, allowing your hands more room to naturally grip the controller. 
  • Grips and contours have been designed to fit a wider range of hand sizes comfortably.http://www.gameskinny.com/oxjj5/steam-controller-update-valve-axes-the-trackpad

In my opinion, the Xbox One controller is a little lackluster. It feels fantastic in your hands but did not add that many new features to improve the gaming experience. 

Valve is going to be releasing their first ever console this year: the Steam Machine. The controller is still in beta but Steam has claimed that is going to change the way gaming works for years to come. I wrote an article about the most recent information Valve has released about their controllers. There is still a lot of time left for Valve to tweak their controller, but as of now, I am disappointed in its prospects. 

At the end of the day, it’s the controllers that gamers connect with. Whether it’s thrown at the TV during team death matches, tossed in celebration at the end of a level, or mashed into oblivion while running away from the scary ghost chasing you through the asylum.

From the Magnavox Odyssey slider to the PlayStation 4 DualShock, this article serves to document the most important evolutionary steps in the life of the video game controller. If we are to keep making strides in controller design, we must understand the successes are strifes of its predecessors.

The best part is that controllers will only continue to evolve.

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Author
Nicole Long
PC gamer, artist, student, and die hard Magic the Gathering player when I'm not snuggling with my cat