Control: A Historical Review of Joypads

That is by far the geekiest title for a post I have ever made, and I only hope the full 3000-word text lives up to that expectation.

You see, I thought I’d do something different today. Rather than review an album, or the latest BSG or whatever else, I was sitting on the toilet reading Edge (as I am wont to do), when I hit upon something I’ve always found quite fascinating.

I’ve grown up with videogames as part of the tapestry of my life, through my childhood, and now into my 20s. My first console (ignoring an old Acorn Archimedes system of my parents’) was the Sega Master System, and now I own a Wii. One thing that’s not talked about that much in the history of consoles is the controllers, which strikes me as odd considering how fundamental they are to the whole experience. Indeed they are the very mechanism through which one interacts with the games, and as such deserve to be treated with my own brand of beard-stroking bullshit faux-academia.

So long story short (after having already heard the long version of course), I thought I’d do a basic review of all the pads I have experienced, complete with handy pictures for the folks too young/old/cool to know what I’m talking about. These are based on subjective assessments and are not about the game systems, nor the games themselves – although these obviously informed the experience I have with the controllers. I will try to objectively assess the build quality, features, ergonomics, and overall feel of each controller individually. Naturally, the 8bit systems are at a disadvantage, but hey, that’s the nature of the game.

Additionally, I should note they’re in roughly the order that I experienced them (while in brackets I note the year of the pad’s release – don’t get confused by this), or as close as my memory can reconstruct, rather than their release order, so each subsequent controller is naturally compared to its predecessors. Again, that’s just the nature of the game (and as Mike Patton sang, “… and you have to play”).

So, let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?

Sega Master System (1986)

Master this, Apeman of West Viginia!

The Master System controller was not that notable. Indeed, the stupid thing only had two buttons and a d-pad. If you wanted to pause a game, you actually had to go up to the console itself to press the big pause button, meaning you’d have to find a point in the game where you could take your hand off the controller to pause it – something of a problem in racing games for example.

As for ergonomics, well… you have to realise that electronics in those days had very little understanding of ergonomics – remote  controls, for example, were chunky cuboid things with sharp edges and buttons all the same size. The Master System pad was not comfortable for long periods of time, and its d-pad wasn’t excellent by any standard. This thing is a dud. And I mean that in the nicest way. But honestly, playing with this is distinctly unpleasant.

Nintendo Entertainment System (1985)

Never Eat Sewage. Seriously. It's bad for you.

Of the 8 bit generation, the NES had the better controller overall. It was also a rectangular block, but the d-pad and buttons felt better. In addition, the start and select buttons were useful as additional non-gameplay buttons (ie. starting the game, pausing the game, opening options menus etc.). It is notable that Nintendo have the + shaped D pad, rather than the square one Sega used. Nintendo’s D-pad quality was unmatched for several more generations, before their analogue sticks took over.

This one has aged better than the Master System‘s I feel. But still, not something I miss.

Sega Mega Drive (1988)

Drive time. Groan.

This was certainly an improvement over the 8-bit controllers, with a more curved shape, three action buttons and a start button. In retrospect, it still wasn’t overly comfortable to hold, and it did feel distinctly light and cheap, though at the time, it was a welcome step up from the last generation. Later, a six-button version was introduced, but it was entirely optional and as such mostly unsupported.

Super Nintendo Entertainment System (1991)

Seriously Never Eat Sewage. I warned you, didn't I? Now look at you - all green and trogdylitic...

The SNES pad increased the action button count to six, four on the face, and two revolutionary shoulder buttons. These were useful because they usually functioned as directional or auxiliary actions in-game – changing the view, or nudging left and right. Since this innovation, every console has had some kind of shoulder button.

This pad feels nicer than the Mega Drive‘s, and it plays better too. Hell, even in terms of looks alone, this thing is well designed for readability and style, with colour-coding and all that jazzamahoo.

Sony Playstation (1994)

Never underestimate the greyness of this console.

Okay, it should be noted that the original Playstation controller is in fact, functionally, a direct rip-off of the SNES controller (indeed the console was designed as a modified SNES originally before Nintendo cut off their deal and Sony went it alone). It has the four face buttons, the start and select, and adds only two additional shoulder buttons.

However, what makes this notable is that the controller was not flat ergonomically, instead featuring handles designed to be gripped in the palms of the hands, increasing comfort significantly. This is the legacy of the original Playstation pad.

Sony Playstation – Dualshock (1997)

This isn't the standard colour by the way, I figured I'd throw it in here because everything on the original Playstation was an unpleasant grey colour. Gaudy translucent colours are a mild improvement.

In answer to the recently revealed N64 pad having a revolutionary analogue control stick, Sony released a controller called the Dual Analog, which featured two sticks grafted onto the original. Why two? Likely for symmetry and one-upmanship. The fact is that the now fairly common dual analogue control scheme went largely unused for the entire life of the PS1, except in games like Ape Escape that were designed specifically for it. The sticks are actually neither very responsive nor accurate, and don’t have good grips.

Very quickly, this pad was replaced with the Dualshock, which integrated the rumble Nintendo had only as an add-on and on top of this improved the original pad’s design by rounding off the handles, and expanding the height of the L2 and R2 shoulder buttons. These additions, along with the increased weight, made the Dualshock a major success, even if most games continued to use the digital controls. Unlike previous expanded controllers, the Dualshock was quickly phased in as the standard boxed controller for the Playstation.

Nintendo 64 (1996)

You know, Goldeneye wasn't that good. Come on, you were all thinking it.

The N64 pad is a strange mutant beast, having three prongs rather than the well established two. The d-pad and control buttons occupied the two outer grips, while a singular analogue stick and underside shoulder button sat centre stage. In theory this meant they could have the best of both worlds.

Button wise, this one introduced the four yellow directional C-buttons, used most often for camera control. But really, it’s the stick that’s the innovation here. And at the time, it was incredible. Highly responsive, although actually quite uncomfortable for prolonged use due to the hard plastic tip. Nintendo were far quicker than Sony to get to grips with the concept of analogue control, handling the transition to 3D with the sublime launch-title Mario 64. The problem was that the majority of N64 games used the analogue stick, and its position in the centre was less comfortable than it would have been on the outside.

The controller was also notable for its underside expansion ports, for memory cards, and the new Rumble Pak, introducing force feedback to the world of home gaming – although Sony stole their thunder by incorporating this as standard on their now-standard Dualshock.

Sega Dreamcast (1998)

In today's world Dreamcast sounds like a downloadable radio show for underpriviliged kids.

You may note that I skipped the Saturn Controller. That’s because I barely had a chance to touch one, such was the unmitigated failure of the Saturn. Hell, I don’t think I ever even played the console until I went to Disneyworld in 1998, and played Panzer Dragoon Saga for about ten minutes. My experience of the controller is “Wasn’t it a bit like the 6 button Mega Drive pad, with sharper angles?” My research supports this assessment.

The Dreamcast I did play though, and later bought for £20 on eBay. Sega tried hard here, they really did. Unfortunately, this controller is a ridiculously flawed design mixing the good in with the bad. The stick is okay, but the buttons and d-pad look and feel cheap. The shoulder triggers are wonderfully responsive, but the handles are angular and uncomfortable.

Even stranger are the dual ports at the top of the pad. The Dreamcast‘s distinctly unusual VMU memory cards had screens and little controls of their own, and functioned in very clunky throwaway Tamigotchi style minigames. Slotting one of these monstrosities into the Dreamcast pad’s top slot allowed the screen to be seen though the viewing port, and displayed game information or simple animation for novelty’s sake. Trouble is, being an extremely low resolution, black and white, non-backlit LCD, the screen was often difficult to read adequately. And some games had the cheek to use this for vital game information.

Additionally, the vibration add-on was front heavy, tipping the controller forward. And as if this wasn’t enough, the cable came out of the bottom of the pad, for no discernable reason whatsoever, succeeding only in getting in the way. Still, those analogue shoulder triggers were an innovation that stuck around.

Sony Playstation 2 (2000)

One subtle change is that it now says Dualshock 2 on it instead of Dualshock 1.

Okay, this controller is in fact near identical in form and function to the original Dualshock (it being named the Dualshock 2), so all that applied then applies now, only refined and slightly improved. This is a weighty, comfortable controller. Unfortunately, as analogue control became more prevalent, a subtle ergonomic flaw was compounded. Upon gripping the Dualshock, the player’s left thumb naturally lands on the d-pad. Using the left analogue stick (the primary movement control in most games) requires a slight change of position on the left grip. As I say, this is a subtle ergonomic flaw that stems not so much from bad design as Sony’s stubbornness to change, and one that most folks don’t really notice.

There are some serious improvements in the sticks stiffness to improve their accuracy and feel, and all the face and shoulder buttons are now 8bit analogue for some reason that is difficult to really justify. After all, how do you know how hard you’re pushing down the X button? It’s not like your thumb has the ability to correctly apply a range of 256 specific pressure levels as needed, and most gamers don’t even realise that it’s there.

Nintendo Gamecube (2001)

Okay, so the purple one looks childish, but let me tell you, the black one continues to look totally badass and manly.

As soon as I held this controller for the first time, it was incredible. The handles were designed perfectly for your fingers to wrap around; the stick was in the right place, had a great rubbery grip and just felt right; the index fingers, wrapped around the unusual analogue shoulder triggers;  the face buttons were an ergonomic dream, with the oversized A-button taking centre place and the hierarchical arrangement serving a standardised gameplay purpose; even the C-stick, a successor to the N64‘s direction C-buttons, was well implemented.

What the Gamecube‘s controller did, was take the most important control principles of 3D gaming, the shape of people’s hands, and build the control around those two elements. One also has to appreciate the readability and feel of this one. The C-stick served usually as analogue camera control, the green A button was primary action, the red B was primary cancel, the curved X and Y, standing at different heights, served as secondary actions.

The pad’s two flaws were a near-useless tiny D-pad appropriated from the Game Boy Advance which made it ridiculously difficult to actually press one direction at a time, and a kind of perfunctory Z shoulder button above the right trigger. These niggles aside, the Gamecube continues to be my favourite controller, and even continues to serve a use as a conventional controller on the Wii.

Nintendo Gamecube -Wavebird (2002)

Imagine if birds were made of water. They wouldn't be very good at flying really. WHAT AM I TALKING ABOUT?

The Wavebird should also be noted here, as an early example of an official high-quality wireless controller, and although it lacked the standard pad’s rumble, it retained the weight and added convenience. Unlike many third-party wireless controllers, it was not IR, but RF. And as everyone knows, that’s better. In this case it’s better because this hardy bastard can be played from several rooms away with the doors closed, with no drops in reception. Of course, you wouldn’t be able to see the screen, but standing in a locked bathroom hearing the other person shout “It’s still working!” from the living room is a satisfying moment.

Microsoft Xbox (2001)

For scale, keep in mind that each of the bean-shaped buttons is roughly equal in size to the Great Red Spot of Jupiter.

Oh dear lord… This thing is a monster. It’s literally the size of a house. And by literally,  of course mean figuratively. It is ridiculously huge though. It also has far too many buttons, all bunched up together. This thing has the four standard ABXY action buttons pretty much every pad has had since the SNES, start and select, and a black and a white button on top of this. It also has two underside triggers, two analogue sticks, a d-pad and a large plastic logo bubble in the centre which does absolutely nothing.

The D-pad is awful. The sticks felt good though. And there was a satisfyingly chunky quality that felt, dare I say it, American. Like holding a ridiculously huge hamburger – sure it’s too much, and it’s bad for you, but you can really taste the meat.

This thing is listed in the Guiness Book of Records apparently, possibly for most children crushed at a Bar Mitzvah.

Microsoft Xbox – Controller S (2002)

I'd just like to take this opportunity to remind everyone how dreadfully boring the band Marillion are. They make reading this blog entry feel like watch Die Hard. While being pummeled in the face by the sexy fists of a naked John Malkovich... Oh I'm sorry, I got a little lost in my own thoughts there. Please forgive me.

This smaller, originally Japanese-only version corrected many of the major blunders, while still not quite being able to fit all its buttons comfortably. It was a compromise though, and a lesson that Microsoft took on board quite rapidly, phasing it in as the standard pad with all new consoles. However, it’s not particularly noteworthy on its own terms, so we can move on.

Xbox 360 (2005)

As an interesting sidenote, I once totally nailed a 360 kickflip ollie transfer to a fakee rail grind in Wisconsin, while studying Jazz Tambourine under Morton Feldman.

Now that’s more fucking like it. Microsoft went from having the most ridiculous controller of the last generation to arguably the best of this generation. This controller is extremely comfortable, the buttons feel pleasant and professional, the sticks are responsive and comfortable, and the top two triggers have been replaced with simple shoulder buttons (or bumpers as Microsoft call them bizarrely).

The controller comes in wired and wireless varieties (thanks Nintendo), both with the same rumble. It even manages to include a tiny expansion port (a big step up from the massive holes in the tops of the Dreamcast and original Xbox controllers). These are used predominantly for headsets for online play. All in all, this thing is a genuine triumph.

And as if that wasn’t enough, this baby is USB and works plug-and-play in Windows. Okay, so the drivers aren’t worth shit, but you won’t find a better controller for the PC.

Playstation 3 – Sixaxis (2006)

Oh, and there's a glowy red PS logo button now. Far out.

This is the Dualshock as usual, but this time without the titular shock (due to an ongoing legal case against the rumble’s supposed inventors) making it disconcertingly light, with oddly curved new analogue triggers in place of the R2 and L2 shoulder buttons, and near-useless tilt-control unconvincingly tacked-on as a last-minute attempt to match Nintendo’s announcement of the Wii remote.

It is wireless though, so that’s nice. Sony could have taken this opportunity to rectify the growing ergonomic flaw of the primary stick position, swapping it with the d-pad, but instead stuck with the familiar design, shoe-horning its additions in, and in fact made it slightly worse. There is no real excuse for not moving the stick except a fear of alienating the faithful.

The tilt-control has become more useful as time has gone on and more games have come out, but it still offers nowhere near the freedom nor tactile feedback of the Wii’s system. Notably though, the analogue button sensitivity is now 10bit, meaning there are 1024 levels of sensitivity. Better get training those fingers.

Playstation 3 – Dual Shock 3 (2006)

Oh, and there's a glowy red PS logo button now. Far out.

Due to overwhelming public demand, Sony replaced the Sixaxis with this, restoring the previous vibration and more pleasant weight to the controller, while not addressing any of my above niggling concerns. It’s the same pad, with rumble.

Wii – Remote & Nunchuk (2006)

If you put the Wii remote's speaker up to your ear, you can hear aliens talking. Except it'll be crackly and distorted and sound like a novelty greeting card.

Hmm, this is difficult to really review in the same light as other controllers for what should be obvious reasons. The Wii Remote is nothing less than a complete left-turn that nobody saw coming. Earlier attempts in this area were uniformly retarded. Instead of sticking to tradition, Nintendo gambled everything on a one-handed motion-sensitive/IR pointer design and a whole new gameplay emphasis. It seems to have paid off financially, but what of the controller itself?

Well, ergonomically, it’s fairly comfortable, even with the rubber sleeves Nintendo provide, and the one-handed feel is actually not as alien as it first felt. There are less buttons, but that’s appropriate. The ones that are here feel good, from the big A on top to the B trigger underneath. Additionally, the controller can be spun sideways and played like a NES controller with the D-pad and smaller 1+2 buttons.

There’s even a shitty mostly useless speaker, that I should point out sounds like shit. The lack of analogue stick is solved with the somewhat clumsy Nunchuk device, derivied largely from the Gamecube‘s handle and stick design, but there is an undeniable disconnect between the two that often makes games feel different, more gimmicky and less natural than they do on standard controllers. The truth is, the Wii is simply not as capable of traditional game control as are the competitors, and this is reflected in the games for the system.

The IR pointer works convincingly enough, where properly implemented, but the motion control varies from extremely fun silliness, through gimmicky waggling for no other reason than lack of button, right on down to a clumsy pain-in-the-ass neither sensitive enough to properly translate real world actions nor predictable enough to realise what physical actions resulted in what on-screen response. The problem is, put simply, the quality of the controller is reliant on the quality of both the game’s input translation and the player’s spatial awareness. Even the room needs to be set up in a certain way to accommodate proper play. There are just too many variables to really make a fair comparison. When it works, it’s sublime. When it doesn’t it’s clumsy.

As a sidenote, there are all kinds of other attachments for the Wii Remote, but other than the Nunchuk and Classic Controller, they are useless plastic shells of basically no worth to anyone.

Conclusion

So, what can we conclude from all this? Well, aside from my obvious geekiness, it should be noted that the Gamecube controller stands out as my favourite controller thus invented, but of this generation, I think the 360 wins on traditional controller terms. Sony’s Dualshock is now obsolete, and it’s increasingly feeling like a relic. The Wii Remote on the other hand has very little consistency of experience – one game may play great, while another might not respond the way you expect it, and you might not even know why.

I hope this was as fun for you to read as it was for me to research and write, although I expect it was considerably less so. Anyway, if you’d like to know more, I’m afraid I honestly don’t know how on Earth you’d be able to find such information, readily-available as it is on the internet, armed only with a computer and an internet connection. It almost seems impossible.

10 thoughts on “Control: A Historical Review of Joypads

  1. I totally disagree. 360’s is more comfortable and more ergonomic. The deal-breaker on the PS3 pads for me is the placement of the left analogue stick. When was the last time a Playstation game used the D-Pad for primary movement? Nearly a decade ago. And yet, the left thumb still lands naturally on the D-Pad. Aside from annoying a few people with the initial change, there’s no reasonable excuse for the analogue stick not to be where the D-Pad is.

    But then again, I seem to be the only one who complains about that so maybe everyone else is so used to the thumb-stretch that they just accept it as good enough.

  2. Maybe the people who complain about the PS2 & 3 joystick position have smaller hands… or weak thumbs…? I never even noticed it and i played PS2 for ages.

  3. I think you missed my point though: It is ergonomically wrong. If you use any other post-Playstation pad, the stick is in the correct position. Then, moving to the Playstation pad, it is not. Not to mention the fact that a rational unbiased person with average hands, is going to find the 360 controller more comfortable to hold due to its shape. What Sony are saying is that their 12 year old controller shape cannot be approved upon. Well, obviously that’s not true.

    Sure, people are used to it, but just because people are used to McDonald’s burgers, doesn’t mean McDonald’s burgers are good. The PS3 pad is not unusable by any means, but when I do use it, my reaction is always the same: “this pad feels old.”

  4. I think it’s going to be a different choice for everyone. Even with just handsize taken into account.

    Personally, my favourite controller is the Nintendo DS lite. I use it with DS2Key as a wireless controller on my PC and I love it. But I also like the SNES pad a lot too. And my favourite D pad was on the Gameboy advance SP. I dislike the Playstation control pad, and it really pisses me off that it’s almost the only clone pad you can buy for the PC nowadays. That’s why I use the DS and an original SNES pad with a USB converter.

  5. Interesting choice. I’m not so big on the DS lite’s d-pad myself, I liked the clicky one from the old DS.

    But regarding PC pads, it’s the 360 all the way for me. The drivers suck, and old games don’t support the analogue triggers, but it feels so nice.

  6. Nice write up, I did enjoy reading it. I’m a bit nerdy like that.

    Couple of errors though (I think). Xbox controller never had 4 triggers. It had two, same as the Xbox 360. Basically the 360 pads removed the black and white buttons, and replaced them with the RB and LB bumper buttons, making GTA’s camera controls suddenly make sense as they did it.

    Also, the Gamecube’s triggers were analogue AND digital – you can push them down as analogue, then get a nice digital click at the end. I don’t think any games used this quite awesome feature, other than Mario Sunshine…

    I agree with your summary – the Gamecube pad is special. Xbox 360 pad is by far the best current controller, and it’s usefulness as a PC pad just makes it twice as awesome.

  7. late comment i know but i just used this to explain to my 7 year old daughter the progress in pads from when i started gaming with the atari and how pad design changed over the years (and how lucky kids of today are) thanks

    1. Thanks Steve. It’s interesting how popular this post has been over the years. I really didn’t think anyone would care about it, but if nothing else with all the pictures it’s become a handy historical reference.

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