I wrote this rather long article on controllers about a week back. Have a read and let me know your thoughts. What have I left out? What where your favourite controllers and why? How would you like to see future console's controllers changed?
Game controllers - they're our connection to the many galaxies, dungeons, space stations, warehouses, castles, playing fields, racing tracks, alternate dimensions and fantastical landscapes we explore when enjoying our favourite pastime. That piece of plastic that goes by many names - control pad, controller, gamepad, joypad - enables us to do and experience amazing things. A good controller coupled with a well designed control scheme can either make or break a gaming experience. So what controllers best pull off the feat of putting you in the shoes of a racer, pilot, adventurer or soldier? Which controllers have the right mix of ergonomics and comfort to make any gaming experience a true joy to play through?
Going right back in time to the 70s we have the Atari 2600's joystick. Simple as it may be (a stick for moving and a button for firing) this was the joystick that put you in the proverbial shoes of Pacman, or the pilot of a ship fending off space invaders. In spite of its lack of current technology it was still comfortable, and its simplicity was - in fact - key to the enjoyment of many games. The uncomplicated design of titles such as Donkey Kong made them a joy to play, embracing undemanding gameplay and a more relaxed approach.
Next up is the NES pad. This blocky, rectangular pad is so widely recognised in game culture it has gone beyond its controller routes and even become a fashion item. It may not have been the most comfortable pad, or the best looking, but again the minimalism of its design sat perfectly right with gamers everywhere. In a time before games required intricate and involved control schemes (just look at Assassin's Creed, imagine trying to map 800 different movements to a NES pad) two buttons and a d-pad were all that was needed for an afternoon of gaming. Seven years later the SNES pad - a curvier, more colourful, and multi-buttoned version of the NES controller - became any Super Nintendo owner's link to the games they played. This controller had one major difference: shoulder buttons, a design implementation that made arcade beat-em-ups a viable proposition in the home. The SNES pad was not only comfortable to hold, it was also responsive, and extremely sturdy. Frustrated gamers everywhere could feel safe to hammer these pads to get the knock-outs, first positions, and high scores they wanted.
At the same time Sega were offering the three buttoned, curvy pad with their Genesis system. Sega had improved the design of their pad, making it cosier to hold by rounding off the square edges of previous incarnations. Although this made the pad more comfortable the simple fact that it had just three buttons (plus a start button) meant that it still wasn't quite on par with the SNES controller, and couldn't quite match the level of sophistication in play.
The next generation of games consoles offered not only better graphics, but also a fully rendered, 3D space in which to enjoy them. This meant that control system had to change, and if the control system had to change, the controllers had to change. Sega, with the Saturn, stuck with a very similar design to their 6 button Genesis controller. This time they made the wise decision to add two shoulder buttons. Unfortunately, the shoulder buttons felt odd and clicky, and added little to the gameplay experience. The controller, like the system itself, was designed as an evolution of the Genesis and its pad. The lack of any really quality 3D titles meant that the pad was relatively satisfactory, as the system was really geared for 2D games. However, with the release of NiGHTS into Dreams developers new a more enjoyable experience could be achieved with a different approach. Hence NiGHTS was released with an optional controller, one that had a major design feature: an analog stick.
Sega were beaten to it, by mere days, with the release of the N64 in June 1996. The N64's pad, love it or hate it, was one of the most important joypads ever produced. Not only did the N64 controller feature an analog joystick, which made playing games like Goldeneye realistic and subtle, but it also featured a pistol-like trigger button underneath. The three-pronged shape of the pad - which made it look almost spaceship-esque - meant that the user could hold it in various ways to play an assortment of games. This new and innovative thinking separated many gamers, some who held the viewpoint that they shouldn't have to change the position of their hands to play different games, others who liked the choice and new way of approach to the control of a game. Either way you look at it the introduction of the analog stick enabled gamers to navigate 3D worlds - something that changed gaming forever - and made such games as Mario 64 a possibility.
In response to the revolutionary Nintendo 64 controller Sony also retooled their own pad to make it more suitable for the future of 3D gaming. Probably one of the most recognisable controllers in this list, the Sony Playstation Dual Shock controller came with two analogs rather than just one. This light, comfortable pad also had an 'analog' button to enable or disable the thumb sticks - a way to retain compatibility with previous games that did not support them. Having two analog sticks meant that games could once again be played in a radically different way than ever before. Move with one joystick, aim with the other, steer with the left, control the throttle with the right. This was real control, and incredibly versatile. The L3 and R3 buttons were also implemented, giving gamers even more influence over their on-screen actions. The controller also featured not one, but two motors designed for vibration. This was first offered to gamers in the Rumble Pak, an N64 controller accessory that could be fitted to the pad providing force feedback in synchronisation with on-screen events. The Dual Shock controller offered this in the two handles of the pad, meaning it was much less unwieldy than the heavy N64 accessory. By this time the innovation and design in game controllers was really beginning to bloom. The changing landscape in game design and the ever increasing desire for new ideas from players asserted that not only new gameplay mechanics were needed, but new ways to experience these mechanics were needed too.
This brings us to the most recent generation of consoles and their respective controllers. When Microsoft launched the Xbox 360 they knew something different had to be done with the pad - something 'next-gen'. The original Xbox pad's large design had to go - aesthetics and innovation were crucial. The new, white controller has both. Keeping the left analog stick higher than the right retain the comfort of the previous pad, but smoother curves and a slightly heftier weight are what truly makes the pad a pleasure to hold. This was also the first pad to come with wireless technology as standard. Gamers everywhere rejoiced as they found keeping close to the TV, tangled wires and tripping up were no longer a problem. Freedom to move was given to the gamer, meaning they could enjoy the spectacular feats they performed on screen without having to worry about pulling the console off the shelf in a moment of excitement. Add to this the Xbox button in the centre, giving the user instant access to the Xbox interface and allowing them to turn the console off without having to reach for the power button, as well as a built-in jack for connecting a headset, and you get one of the best designed pads out there. Aesthetically and ergonomically this pad delivers.
The only thing lacking from the 360s controller was the new 'must have' feature of the new generation. Motion sensing technology. Nintendo came first, with the now famous Wiimote and Nunchuck peripherals, definitely the most out-there and different control method mentioned in this entire list. Sony followed not long after, integrating motion sensing technology into their own pad, the SIXAXIS. Sony seemed to take the stance that 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it', sticking with the tried and true form of their previous controllers (possibly as a result of the public outcry about the original boomerang shaped PS3 concept controller). The SIXAXIS also took its cues from the 360's pad, placing a PS button in the centre. The controller is not without its problems though. Firstly, it did not come with rumble technology - much to the annoyance of many a gamer - who felt that force feedback was a integral part to the immersive gaming experience. Also, the back shoulder buttons, although refined to make them more trigger-like, are convex, and therefore can be difficult to keep a grip on. The Wiimote, shaped like a normal television remote and designed with a large 'A' button to demonstrate its simplicity could be said to be set to take games right back to the stage were we started at the beginning of this article. Back in the days when all was needed was one button and a joystick, games were simple, straightforward and uncomplicated. The Wii's intuitive gameplay harks back to this period, as the simple design of the controller invites gamers and non-gamers alike to join together and play. The Wiimote will undoubtedly make you look a fool sometimes, as you wave you arms about frantically playing such games as Wario Ware and Rayman:Raving Rabbids, but damn, is it fun to use. Only time will tell if the innovations inherent in the Wiimote and nunchuck peripherals will truly take gaming to the next step, or if the simple yet intriguing idea is a gimmick and nothing more.
So what's next? As gameplay and graphics evolve, so do the methods of control. Will we find one day that we use solely our minds to play a game? And if so, would this ever feel as fun as the skill and dexterity required when playing with your own two hands? These controls - our links to the universes we enjoy so much - are such an integral part of the gaming lifestyle. They evolve as the games we play evolve, and constantly find ways to innovate and amaze. Who knows where the next step will take us? But I'll tell you what, I can't wait to find out.
An honourable mention must go out to the Gamecube controller. Although it looks like something from a playschool catalogue, and is one of the least ergonomical contollers out there, but the shoulder buttons have to be the most satisfying of all controller buttons to press. Also to the Guitar Hero guitar peripheral. Never before had a game controller so realistically mimicked its real life counterpart, and any that had tried had never come even a smidge as close to gaming perfection as this did ;-)