This one should be fairly obvious why it’s innovative and worth discussing. Until Gunpei Yokoi decided the Game & Watch version of arcade classic Donkey Kong would work better with a D-pad, games were played either with a joystick or mouse-and-keyboard combination.
That’s fine under the right circumstances. But plunking an arcade-style joystick in the middle of a small gamepad really just doesn’t work that well, the Commodore 64 had the keyboard covered already, to middling effect, and Coleco’s multi-button phonepad was perfect for octopi only.
EIther way, the goal at this point was differentiating Nintendo’s products from the failed Atari, especially in the West, and joysticks would not be the way to achieve that. So, the humble D-Pad was born and has sort of stayed around ever since after it became a feature of the Famicom/NES gamepad.
And it might be more innovative than you’d initially think. Imagine controlling Link in the first The Legend of Zelda with just a joystick. Along with generally just being clunky, it’d get pretty tiresome after a while. That doesn’t even take into account issues of accuracy, like those jumps in Super Mario Bros. that require absolute precision — something you definitely don’t get with a joystick.
That’s probably why scholar Alan Richard da Luz argued, at the Human-Computer Interaction conference in 2014, game interfaces like the D-pad evolve over time as complements to the gameplay and narrative experience. A D-pad gives far more tactile response than a joystick, helped along by that general feeling of connection between the direction buttons (conspicuously absent in the base Switch’s four arrows).
Just like that, literally with the press of some buttons, you’re taken out of the gimmicky arcade cabinet experience and pushed into something much more immersive, where you feel and see your actions on that little pad causing direct effects in the game world. When that coincides with deeper and more varied experiences like the NES and Game Boy offered, then you get a winning combination of convenience and immersion..
And then Nintendo takes it away again with the Switch in a move we can only look at and laugh over.