Gaming

History of the video game controller

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David Cornish
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We've struggled to form a bond with our consoles. The black/grey boxes that have ruled hours of our lives have always sat in the same space under the increasingly thinning TV, churning out dream worlds and adventures - but we've never been excited by their vital statistics or angular looks.

It's the controllers that we've connect with. We've thrown them at walls during death matches, hurled them in celebration after successful boss battles, held them close to us like the hand of a dear friend.

From the Magnavox Odyssey slider to the PlayStation 4 DualShock, we've documented the most important evolutionary steps in the life of the humble video game controller - from a scrolling wired slab to a news-grabbing gaming event. Triggers, buttons and motion sensors galore, this is the history of the video game controller.

  • History of the video game controller 93

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 94

    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.

  • History of the video game controller 95

    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.

  • History of the video game controller 96

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 97

    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).

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 98

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 99

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 100

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 101

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 102

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 103

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 104

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 105

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 106

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 107

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 108

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 109

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 110

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 111

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 112

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 113

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 114

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 115

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 116

    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.

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 117

    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.

    (Image: Nintendo)

  • History of the video game controller 118

    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...

    (Image: Wikimedia commons)

  • History of the video game controller 119

    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.

  • History of the video game controller 120

    Nintendo Wii U Gamepad (2012)

    Another Nintendo console defined by its controller, the Wii U has struggled to overthrow its older sibling. 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. Could this be the final controller Nintendo ever design? We hope not.

    (Image: Nintendo)

  • History of the video game controller 121

    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". We'll see...

  • History of the video game controller 122

    Sony PlayStation DualShock4 (2013)

    The new 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 pad could do wonderful things for point-and-click titles. 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'.

    (Image: PlayStation)

  • History of the video game controller 123

    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. 

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Author

David Cornish

Shortlist.com’s esteemed Tech Editor. David has a keen interest in video games, Star Wars and stuff that runs on batteries.

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