The fascinating history of the video game controller: 50 years of innovation
From 2022 to 1972: gamepads, joysticks and more.
Think about your gaming history and you may assume it’s the consoles and games of your childhood that will come to mind. But we bet there are a few images of controllers strewn about a living room. Or of being huddled around the CRT TV with friends or siblings, tethered by the cable of a gamepad.
Joysticks, pads and wheels have all had a huge influence on the way games play. And today we will take a trip back in time, looking at all the important designs from 2022 - well, 2020 but we the DualSense is very much still being used today - back to 19272 when the first home consoles arrived.
Prepare yourself for some nostalgia feelies. Whether you grew up with a Gamecube, or can remember pining over Pong ad in a magazine, this one’s likely to stir up a few golden memories.
- Ready for most nostalgia? Check out our shortlist of the best retro games
Sony PlayStation 5 DualSense (2020)
The PlayStation 5 is here and one of the biggest advancements, other than the powerful console, is the DualSense controller. If anyone has played Call of Duty on the thing, then you will know just how inventive the controller is, rumbling and having adaptive triggers that really do work. It is one of the finest controllers we have used and will certainly go down as one of the best - if not most advanced - controllers ever made.
Nintendo Switch Joy Cons (2017)
Switch Joy Cons don’t look like much. They come in a rainbow's worth of colours, and are surprisingly expensive, but don’t seem remotely as advanced as a DualShock 4. Their influence is all about how we use a game controller, not about what’s going on inside.
They grip to the side of your Switch for handheld use, slot into the Joy Con Comfort Grip to become a standard game pad and can be used solo as motion controllers. It is a greatest hits of ideas from previous Nintendo consoles. The Switch’s own kickstand deserves a special mention here. Prop up the base unit and you can use a single set of Joy Cons as a pair of controls for games like Mario Kart. It's the retro “couch” multiplayer experience, now available on trains, planes and automobiles. As long as you’re not the driver.
Buy a Nintendo Joy Con from Amazon
>> Read about the best Nintendo Switch games
Xbox One Elite Controller (2015)
Two years after the Xbox One's arrival, Microsoft decided to get "serious" about gaming. Which translated into this - the "Elite" controller, a customisable handset aimed at players who operate in split-second reactions. The principle is a simple one: if you're running around a super-quick multiplayer shooter, like Call of Duty or Halo 5, you never, ever want to take your thumbs off the joysticks - be it to reload, jump or launch a melee attack. Those precious moments could leave you open to a streak-ruining kill.
Instead, extra buttons are mapped onto leavers that sit on the rear of the controller, letting you create custom button layouts for your games, as well as an interchangeable D-pad. You'll have to come up with a new excuse for a woeful kills-to-deaths ratio with one of these in your hands.
Buy the latest Series 2 Xbox One Elite Controller from Amazon
>> Our readers ranked the best Xbox One games
Sony PlayStation DualShock 4 (2013)
The PlayStation 4 controller is sturdier than the light-weight PS3 design, buffed to a smoother, more comfortable finish. The most significant addition is a 'capacitive' touch pad: this touch sensitive click could have done wonderful things for point-and-click titles, but it has turned out to be the least-used part of the pad. And gone are the days of 'Select' and 'Start' - a staple of the last decade of controllers. Now it's all about 'Share' and 'Options'.
Buy a DualShock 4 controller from Currys
>> Next, read our shortlist of the best PS4 games
Microsoft Xbox One (2013)
Microsoft spent a lot of time thinking how best to replace the 360 controller. Ideas that went through group testing included adding "smell emitters", giving off the stench of burning rubber or gunpowder to 'enhance' the game experience. Thankfully, the controller that made it through is much the same as the 360 design, but with tweaks. Gone is the lump of the battery pack; rumble features have been stepped up, now including rumble triggers; and it's generally tougher, purportedly able to survive "gamer rage". Ours are still going strong.
Buy an Xbox One controller from John Lewis
>> Want another option? We made a shortlist of the best Xbox pads
Nintendo Wii U Gamepad (2012)
Another Nintendo console defined by its controller, the Wii U struggled to overthrow its older sibling and was ultimately considered a failure. The remarkably unique controller design hasn't worked in the console's favour, with designers of multiplatform games reticent to build special game elements especially for the undersold Wii U. However, it paved the way for Switch, many people's fave console of the generation.
It's not too late to snag a Wii U from Amazon
PlayStation Move (2012)
The PS Move motion controller seemed a failure for the best part of seven years. Game support was relatively weak and in 2012 Sony admitted this Wiimote-a-like had not lived up to expectations. But then the PSVR arrived in 2016, and the Move became the best controller for the virtual reality headset’s most ambitious titles.
Buy a set of PS Move controllers from Amazon
>> Read all about the best PSVR games
Microsoft Kinect (2010)
Holding the record for "fastest selling consumer electronics device", the Kinect was just one of the life-extending additions that Microsoft brought out for the Xbox 360. Looking to recapture some of the fun from Nintendo's Wii, the potential of the Kinect as a motion controller is still being realised by bedroom hackers across the globe. Now used in operating theatres and bomb disposal robots, the Kinect is one of the most important controllers ever made. However, was it a true success? Not really. But the concepts it explored became cruicial for VR.
Microsoft Xbox 360 S (2005)
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 (unless you threw it at the TV), we were worried that Microsoft might ruin their gem with the Xbox One design...
Nintendo Wiimote and nunchuck (2006)
In looking to capture that rare beast, the 'casual gamer', Nintendo threw the console rule book out of the window. In doing so, they created one of the best selling bricks of all time. The Wii owes much of its success to the unique manner in which gamers are able to interact with its games, thanks to the Wiimote and nunchuck. All of the essential controller requirements are there: joystick, trigger, buttons - just with an added dash of motion control.
Nintendo Wavebird (2002)
The Wavebird for the Nintendo Gamecube is a classic of technology if not design. That lip is pretty fat, don’t you think? However, it set the standard for wireless controllers, the default choice for the generation of consoles to follow. Radio frequency wireless pads and sticks had been around since the Atari 2600 days, but the Wavebird brought the performance up to modern standards. Early versions used the 900Hz frequency band, but later pads switched to a 2.4GHz receiver, the same band used by today’s Bluetooth pads.
Microsoft's 'Fat' Xbox (2001)
The original controller for Microsoft's Xbox raised a number of eyebrows: sure it was comfortable, and the triggers were exceptionally well placed, but it was just so big. Once the rest of the world saw the Controller S design that Microsoft released in Japan, popular opinion grew that the original was just too big. The Controller S became the standard controller by 2002.
Nintendo GameCube (2001)
The significance of the Nintendo GameCube controller was in its subtle variation on Sony's Dualshock. While Nintendo appeared to concede that the traditional 'handlebar' design offered a better gaming experience over its three-pronged N64 controller, the designers felt that the left joystick was better placed directly under the thumb, keeping it in-line with the main buttons. It was also nice to have a controller that didn't come in grey.
Nintendo recreated the Gamecube controller for Switch, available now from Amazon
Sega Dreamcast (1998)
Ushering the sixth generation of consoles, a poor Japanese launch cut short the life of the Dreamcast. The promising console sported a bold controller design, which featured two dock connectors for various different accessories including the visual memory system. It also introduced the double trigger to controller design, as opposed to shoulder buttons. The final appearance of Sega in our history tour, we'll always have a soft spot for the Dreamcast.
>> 20 best Dreamcast games: the shortlist
Sony PlayStation DualShock (1997)
The greatest controller of all time? The DualShock set the benchmark of controller design back in 1997, with almost all (Wii excluded) subsequent controllers attempting to perfect Sony's design. It rumbled, it hugged the hand, every button sat within comfortable reach of your thumbs. Perfection in a grey plastic case.
>> Have your say in our ranked list of the best PlayStation One games
Microsoft Sidewinder Force Feedback Wheel (1997)
There’s more to game controllers than pads and joysticks. Microsoft changed what racing wheels could be in 1997 with the Sidewinder Wheel. This was the first force feedback wheel. It uses motors in the wheel base to simulate the sorts of resistance and pull you’d feel driving a real car. And nowadays you can spend hundreds or even thousands on a racing wheel setup like the Fanatec Podium Racing Wheel F1. Drool.
>> Check out the modern day equivalents in our best racing wheels article
Apple Bandai Pippin (1995)
Apple's console was short-lived, due in part to the Pippin's staggering $599 (£380) launch price. The system's controller was a strangely beautiful design though, clearly baring the DNA of several D-pad-and-button designs that went before it, with the novel edition of a central scroll-ball. The boomerang shape failed to catch on, making a brief appearance as an early design idea for the PlayStation 3's controller. We're glad it died with the Pippin.
Nintendo 64 (1996)
When Nintendo announced the successor to the SNES, no one expected it to come with a controller quite like this. Three pronged, armed with a trigger and double shoulder buttons, a D-pad and a joystick, it was as though every separate controller element ever designed was united in one body. But somehow, Nintendo had managed to make it work. The cartridge loader was an added stroke of genius.
Sony PlayStation (1994)
The icon that introduced us to a world of triangle, square, circle, cross, Sony's original PlayStation controller was a masterful design. Released in the same year as the Sega Saturn, it made Sega's six button controller look like the tired old dinosaur that it was.
Neo Geo CD (1994)
An expensive console yielded an interesting controller, if only for having a now-familiar thumb hugging joystick. That little thumb indent makes all the difference after several hours of gaming.
Atari Jaguar (1993)
In the fifth generation of consoles, some of the old giants of the industry pushed themselves beyond their limits. The PlayStation arrived just a year after the Jaguar, putting this many-buttoned-beast to the sword. Our phone had fewer buttons.
>> Read about gaming's 8 biggest flops
Sega Activator (1993)
Long before the interactive days of the Wii or the Kinect, Sega launched their own get-off-the-sofa controller. The vastly unsuccessful Activator was designed for use with fighting games. Placed on the floor in front of (and a safe distance from) your TV, players were to control their characters by punch and kick through infared beams. Inaccurate and costly, it flopped.
Super Nintendo Entertainment System (1990)
A rounded evolution of the NES controller, the SNES established the now accepted formate of having four buttons under your right thumb and shoulder buttons for your fingers. An economic use of space and a beautiful design. We sold our SNES at a car boot sale in 1997 and have regretted it ever since.
You can relive your SNES days with a SNES Classic Mini, from Amazon
Commodore 64 Games System (1990)
The Commodore 64 Games System never shared the same success of its home computing brother, but it did come with a significantly brilliant controller. With rubberised suction cups to make sure you don't come flying off the desk in excitement, the crowning glory of the Commodore 64's joystick was the tasty big trigger - a first for home consoles unless we're mistaken.
Sega Genesis/Mega Drive (1988)
As the fourth generation of consoles rolled around in the late 80s, the console war was being fought by a smaller number of players, with an even smaller number of controller designs. The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive controller exhibited some actual ergonomic design, hugging the hand rather than brutalising it. A six button version was released by Sega in 1993 for button-hungry Street Fighter II.
We highly recommend the Sega Mega Drive Mini, one of the best mini retro consoles, available from Argos. It includes 40 classic games.
>> Best Mega Drive games: head back to the 90s
Sega Master System (1985)
Sega's plucky Master System looked to overthrow the dominance of the NES in North America and Japan, coming to market nine months late. However, its superior graphics and remarkably similar controller design failed to overturn Nintendo's iconic champion. Controllers came with or without directional nubbin.
Nintendo Entertainment System (1983)
Things really started hotting up for gaming in the 1980s. While the USA underwent the 'video game crash' in 1983, Japan saw the launch of one of the most iconic consoles of all time. The design for the NES controller was borrowed largely from Nintendo' s handheld Game & Watch series. Four directions, two buttons, it was a slice of brilliance.
Get an 8-bit fix with a NES Classic Mini, available at Amazon
>> Vote for the best NES game
Casio PV1000 (1983)
Made by the same chaps who make digital watches, the PV1000 never made it out of Japan. With only 15 games that used the consoles eight colours, the coolest aspect of the ill-fated console was it's joystick controller, with buttons mounted in a jet fighter styling. If you don't want to press that big red bomb dropper you must be dead inside.
Atari 5200 SuperSystem (1982)
While a number of 'pads with numbers and dials' designs came and went, it wasn't until the Atari 5200 that a notably different controller emerged. Uniting a keypad with a joystick, the 5200's 360-degree non-centring joystick gave players more control than the previous eight-way design. It also looks like it belongs in the cockpit of a Thunderbird.
Atari 2600 (1977)
The first recognisable console joystick arrived with Atari's hugely successful 2600. The console came bundled with a number of controller options, including two joysticks and a pair of dial controllers for paddle or driving games. We long for the days of the 2600, when selling a console with two controllers the norm.
RCA Studio II (1977)
While other second generation consoles were trying new and bold things with their controller designs, the RCA Studio II looked to have taken something of a backward step. The console housed two number pads that gained different control functions for each of its five inbuilt games - some of which used the numbers layout as a direction pad. It was discontinued after two years. Why the new PS4 isn't available in a similar 70's bathroom plastic hue is beyond us.
Coleco Telstar Arcade (1977)
The most extravagant example of a controller contained in the casing of the console, the 'Acrade' version of the Telstar console offered three different play functions: a steering wheel for driving simulators, two dials for the standard Pong tennis variations and a quick draw light gun. Unfortunately there were no games that incorporated all three sets of controls (we heard the kids were longing for a "Drive-by tennis slam" title).
Fairchild Channel F (1976)
The first of the "second generation" consoles finally moved controllers on from built-in dials and knobs. Although medicinal in appearance, the black controllers of the Fairchild Channel F were remarkably more sophisticated than the offerings of the previous generation: the thumb operated "cap" was an eight-direction joystick, which could be pushed in to fire or pulled out to... do something other than fire. The cap could also be rotated, offering the same functionality as the former generation of controllers.
Atari Home Pong console (1975)
The take-home version of the game that started it all, the Atari Home Pong console contained one of the most powerful computer chips in a consumer product when it was launched by Sears in 1975. The controllers were built into the console itself, allowing player's to slide their Pong paddle up and down by rotating a single dial.
Magnavox Odyssey Shooting Gallery (1972)
This remarkable rifle was actually the first 'light gun' controller available for a home console. The Shooting Gallery had four compatible titles on the Magnavox Odyssey. Wildly inaccurate, the gun would score a hit if the player shot at any light source - meaning you could point the thing at a light bulb to record a hit. But given that there was no scoring system, you were only cheating yourself.
Magnavox Odyssey 100 (1972)
The first commercial digital video game console for the home, the Magnavox Odyssey 100 shipped with an analogue controller of less complexity than some ancient hand-carved stone tools. With one dial to control horizontal movement and one for vertical, players could navigate 'Pong' paddles for endless hours of joy/until their fingers cramped up.