With so much emphasis placed upon games, graphics, and online play these days, we sometimes forget about an intrinsic element to our video gaming experience; an element that we could not do without. I am talking, of course, about the controller.
Now, before half a dozen retro fanboys start jumping up and down on the spot shrieking at the insensitivity of not including the Tandy 1000 Joystick, let me preface this article by stating that I have only included the handheld masterpieces that had a huge impact on both the gaming, and popular, cultures.
I can only imagine what it would have been like for a kid to get home from school to a brand-spanking-new Atari 2600, complete with Pac-Man, Pitfall!, and a couple of badass joysticks.
Unfortunately, I, like so many others, missed the Atari boat due to a lack of existence. However, the 2600 joystick holds firmly onto our opening spot for sheer interactive excellence with a single button and stick. Oh, and the sweet sensation of carpal tunnel.
Must-plays: Pitfall!, Pac-Man, Missile Command.
Looking more like Tommy Vercetti’s mobile phone, the ColecoVision’s controller was able to morph into several retro beasts better left in the bargain bin, alongside abominations like the NES Power Glove.
Still, being able to slip your controller into a nifty Driving Expansion Module, complete with steering wheel and pedal, was a pretty revolutionary idea, and would pave the way for a handful of similar devices on future consoles.
Must-plays: Dragonfire, Fathom, WarGames, Zaxxon.
Just like ColecoVision, Atari “borrowed” the idea for their controller from Mattel’s Intellivision. However, a few extra months off the market allowed the 5200 controller to top the ColecoVision, with double the amount of buttons, number pad, and the familiar Start, Pause, and Reset thumb-bashers.
Despite its remarkable number of buttons, however, the Atari 5200 system is generally considered to be a market failure, as it was unable to compete with the veritable “Atari 2600 emulator”, ColecoVision.
Must-plays: Space Dungeon, Qix, Rescue On Fractalus!
Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
With a revolutionary system came a revolutionary controller. No longer was vertical the way of the gamer; now, a horizontal controller allowed players to reach every single button without excessive or awkward movement.
There are far too many accessories (52 that we could find) to name here. But let’s just say that the NES Zapper for Duck Hunt kicked ass, while the Laserscope… well… didn’t.
Must-plays: Super Mario Bros. 3, Mega Man 2, The Legend of Zelda, Punch-Out.
Sega Master System
While the Master System itself looked more like an oversized tape-recorder, the controller was quite clearly inspired by the success of the NES. Black as a Sega fanboy’s hatred for Nintendo, the Master System controller boasted merely a D-pad and two buttons, with the 1 button doubling as the Start function.
In 1990, despite the success of Sega’s new Mega Drive system, they bought back the rights to the Master System from Tonka, and released the aptly named Sega Master System II. If it weren’t for the fact that you could play Alex Kidd in Miracle World without even inserting a cartridge into the system, the SMSII wouldn’t even warrant mentioning.
Must-plays: Wonder Boy in Monster Land, Phantasy Star, Alex Kidd in Miracle World.
Sega Mega Drive/Sega Genesis
It’s time to wave goodbye to palm indentations caused by rectangular controllers, because the ergonomic (sort of) Sega Mega Drive is here. A D-pad, complete with A, B, C, and Start buttons were all you needed in the days when Sonic and Altered Beast weren’t the laughing stock of the gaming community.
I’ll always have fond memories of “Up, Down, Left, Right, A, Start” for giving me the opportunity to bypass that crappy Marble Zone.
Must-plays: Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage, FIFA International Soccer.
Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES)
Still regarded as one of the greatest consoles to have ever been released, the SNES offered a remarkable fourth generation controller that included the standard buttons with a couple of new shoulders.
Still used fervently in next-gen consoles today, the shoulders allowed players to utilize more features, using more fingers, in shorter periods of time. Do your worst, arthritis!
Must-plays: Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, Super Metroid.
A massive flop outside of Japan, I had the pleasure of consistent game time on one of these badboys thanks to a cousin of mine. Though it didn’t have anything on my Playstation, it did offer some pretty incredible games including Panzer Dragoon, and an entire army of Virtua titles.
Featuring both CD and cartridge drives, with the ability to play any standard music CD, the Saturn eventually found its way to the bottom of the bargain bin alongside its uglier cousin, the DVD/VCR combo.
Must-plays: Panzer Dragoon Saga, NiGHTS into Dreams, Virtua Cop.
The Playstation revolutionized not only the way we play games, but also the way we use our hands to dictate them. After the standard PSX and dual analog controllers, Sony believed they had stumbled onto a near-perfect handheld design in the DualShock; a claim backed up by their 2007 Emmy Award for “Peripheral Development and Technological Impact of Video Game Controllers”.
And who am I to argue with the Emmys? Even though the Nintendo 64 had a single analog stick in 1996, the DualShock controller has been partnered with every Sony console since 1997, and allows the gamer to use both the standard D-pad as well as the more sensitive analog sticks.
Must-plays: Metal Gear Solid (PSX), Final Fantasy VIII (PSX), Tekken 3 (PSX), Shadow of the Colossus (PS2), GTA: San Andreas (PS2), Kingdom Hearts (PS2), Killzone 2 (PS3), Valkyria Chronicles (PS3), Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PS3).
After the new boy Sony made such a splash on the market, Nintendo had to come up with something unique in order to counter the massive wave of Playstation gamers. And, being Nintendo, they did exactly that.
Enter, stage left, the three-legged freak known only as the N64 controller. Despite its awkward shape, Nintendo managed to fit ten buttons in total onto the M-shaped thingy, with a handy backside that was clear for a bit of Rumble Pak action.
Must-plays: GoldenEye, Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Still by far my most favored of all console controllers, regardless of the lack of a second analog stick. The Dreamcast one-upped the 64’s idea of an open back by doubling the memory card slot availability, and adding two triggers to the rear of the controller.
And it was definitely the memory card that was the pièce de résistance of the Dreamcast controller. Take a pinch of Sega’s Visual Memory Unit, add a splash of Sonic Adventure, and hey presto! your very own portable Tamagotchi!
Well, something had to make up for that ridiculously placed lead.
Must-plays: Shenmue, Sonic Adventure, Jet Set Radio Future.
Once again, Nintendo tried to push the envelope with the Gamecube, and it is crystal clear what they were trying to achieve. However, they ultimately ended up with an oddly shaped controller that could simply not compete with the likes of the DualShock and the Xbox Type-S controller.
Still, I have many fond memories of holidaying with Nintendo-loving cousins playing Sega Soccer Slam, and the highly underrated Star Fox Adventures.
Must-plays: Resident Evil 4, Metroid Prime, Super Smash Bros. Melee.
The original Xbox is not only father to one the most ridiculously obnoxious controllers in video game history, but also to one of the greatest. The original Duke controller managed to piss off nearly every Microsoft fan except the Japanese. Luckily for them, they got a hold of the Type-S well before the rest of the world.
Still, once the Type-S hit the open market, it was obvious that the Xbox had found a soul mate, and would go on to form the basis for Microsoft’s seventh generation controller.
Must-plays: Halo, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay.
Microsoft Xbox 360
Improving only slightly upon the Type-S design, the Xbox 360 controller followed Sony’s lead by replacing its black and white buttons with left and right bumpers above the triggers. Makes for damn good grenade throwing in Halo 3 multiplayer.
But possibly the best part about the 360 controller is that the wired version has a USB plug that can be used on most PCs. Makes for damn good emulator gaming.
Makes for damn good everything!
Must-plays: Bioshock, Braid, Gears of War.
Taking the standard controller to the next level – and then some – only Nintendo could develop such a marvel of technology that has managed to split the gaming community.
Whatever your stance on the Wii’s innovation, the truth is that it has managed to open up the gaming market to millions of men, women, and children that would never have purchased a gaming system in their lives had it not been for titles such as Wii Fit.
For Nintendo fanboys, however, there is always the Classic Controller attachment, and Gamecube controller ports, as well as plenty of former Sega and Nintendo titles available at the Wii’s online store.
Must-plays: Super Mario Galaxy, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.