The controller has basically been around since the conception of the video game. It’s taken many forms: keyboard and mouse, joystick, fightstick, flightstick, racing wheel, and numerous gamepad designs. Some of these peripherals only work with certain types of games, while some of them work with every type of game. Some are quite better than others, but all gives us --the players-- what we desire: control. I can name some pretty great controllers that I’ve used over the years, but I can also rattle off the less than stellar ones. These interfaces have evolved along with the increased popularity of video games, for better or for worse. The questions now are these: how has the controller evolved to where it is now, and what's the next evolutionary step for them? And is an evolution even warranted or wanted?
Classic Controllers; The Good and The Bad
I think that it’s fair to say that video game arcades were the birthplace of the controller that we know today. Games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man utilized a joystick and buttons to move a character around the screen. These were really the first machines to feature an analog form of input, rather than the digital inputs of keyboard-controlled games that had been around for some time by then. The controls were extremely simple, so much so that almost anyone, gamer and non-gamer alike, could pick up the mechanics relatively quick. These rudimentary controls meant that anyone with some change in their pocket could give the game a spin, and that was good for business. Atari wanted to try and duplicate the natural feeling of the joystick by implementing it on a smaller controller; one that could be sold and placed in the buyers home. Enter the Atari 2600. This machines controller was a simple joystick and red button interface. It was a huge success with the masses, and revolutionized the way that people thought about playing and making games. Unfortunately, Atari’s next shot at the console market, the Atari 5200, was considered particularly poor. The controller had a smaller, non-centering joystick that made it awkward to control a lot of games, and a convoluted number pad; much less intuitive than the 2600’s controller.
After 1982, almost every console maker in North America was out of business. One Japanese company, however, was just getting started. Nintendo released the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985 in North America, and it was a huge success, though the controller stuck to the basic digital inputs for games. Four directional buttons, two A and B buttons, and Start and Select buttons. Many consoles came out in the time between 1985 and 1995, including, but not limited to, the Sega Genesis, Neo Geo, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and the Playstation. All of the machines to come out in this timespan, while increasing the number of interaction inputs --jumping, attacking, etc.-- all of them stuck with the conventional D-Pad directional inputs or semi-large joysticks. Nintendo took the reins again and introduced the Nintendo 64 to the world. Launching in 1997 in North America it came with a very peculiar three-pronged controller that had a tiny “analog stick” in the middle prong. Launching with Mario 64 and Pilot Wings 64, players got to experience extremely smooth and responsive gameplay via the analog stick. Seeing the success of Nintendo’s controller, Sony quickly followed suit and updated their controller with two analog sticks, deeming it the Dualshock. This allowed the players to control the camera like never before. Both of these controllers provided visceral, natural experiences; thus, revolutionizing (again) the way that games were played and designed.
(Not Quite) Comfy Conformity
From there, the rest is literal history. After the short lived Sega Dreamcast, the big three as we know them, were born. In 2000, Playstation released the Playstation 2 with the familiar controller design, dubbed the Dualshock 2. Nintendo, and newcomer Microsoft, followed suit in 2001 with the release of the Gamecube and Xbox, respectively. Both the Gamecube and Xbox controllers had two analog sticks like the Dualshock 2, but the placement was slightly different: switching the Dualshocks D-Pad location for the analog stick, while leaving the right analog stick in the same general area. Of course, gamers will have their preferences, but these controllers all featured around the same number of inputs, and all were functionally the same. Times were changing though, and games were getting huge. DVD’s with large amounts of memory, CPU’s that could handle higher graphical fidelity, and developers striving to make the best games imaginable pushed the market like never before. Games had become so complex, and had so many inputs, that it was no longer possible for anyone to pick up and understand the mechanics immediately. This isn’t to say that the gameplay on any game wasn’t natural or intuitive, but rather that because of the complexity of the controllers coupled with the depth of a lot of the video games, it became very difficult to attract what would be considered a “casual” audience into buying a console. The terms “core” and “hardcore” come to mind when thinking about this era of video games.
In 2005, Microsoft released it’s second console: the Xbox 360. Shipping with an updated controller that is widely considered to be among the best of all-time. Needless to say really, it was an instant success and many people became Xbox regulars. In 2006, Sony gave its response to the Xbox 360 with the Playstation 3. Keeping the same design as its previous controllers (though it almost had this atrocity: http://vbimagehost.gamexeon... and adopting the triggers, the Playstation 3 was essentially more of the same. It had a pretty rough start due to a few factors: its price ($600!), its complicated architecture, and its general lack of launch titles. Though, over time --once developers got familiar with its complex Cell architecture-- the Playstation 3 became popular due to its impressive first-party lineup and free online service.
In 2006, Nintendo also released a console. The Wii will most certainly go down as one of the biggest gaming phenomena of all-time. Instead of coming with a traditional controller like the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, the Wii used motion controls. A peripheral known as the Sensor Bar was placed either on top or below a TV set. This bar would track the “Wiimote” as the player swung, pointed, and prodded away. The Wiimote could also be connected with a device called the “Nunchuck,” that was essentially the analog stick for moving around. Shipped with Wii Sports, a game that included Bowling, Boxing, Golfing, and more, the Wii was an instant success. And by success, I mean that it was a booming accomplishment from Nintendo. Stores were sold out of the Wii for months on end, and they were selling like hotcakes on sites like eBay and Amazon. Once again, they changed the way that games were played. While using the Wiimote wasn’t necessarily the most natural thing ever for a lot of games, Wii Sports was most certainly that exception. It was so natural and intuitive, in fact, that once again anyone could pick it up and understand the mechanics almost immediately. And since it was shipped with the console, everyone and their grandmothers had a copy, literally. My own grandmother was addicted to Wii Sports more than anyone in my household… and she was damn good! This was proof that Nintendo had made something that everyone could use; a “casual” experience for anyone, and boy was it something to behold.