Taking control: Part 1

Controllers battle to give gamers an edge.

By Joshua Volckaert

(Source: Reviewed)

Time changes all things, and video games are no exception. The gaming industry has been transforming ever since its inception, starting with simple pixels passing another pixel back and forth, to experiences that can transport people to virtual worlds, with sights and sounds that keep them there for hours on end. Whether you are hopping across platforms as Mario, hacking and slashing your way through gods as Kratos, or shooting your way out as Master Chief, none of these games would be where they are today if it wasn’t for the video game controllers that allows players to take the reins and immerse themselves in the worlds of their favorite digital icons.

In Part 1 of this journey, we travel back in time to the early days of video games. These machines may be obsolete today, but in their prime, they were the most efficient gaming consoles of the era. In Part 2, we examine the evolution of more sophisticated controllers leading up to today’s devices, designed for consoles whose power and technology far surpass yesterday’s offerings and capabilities. But first, let’s hit pause for a moment, and respawn where it all began.

The early-generation controllers

Before the days of giants like Xbox Series X, PlayStation 5, and Nintendo Switch, there was a much simpler gaming console, one that would pioneer the home entertainment system. Its name would be lost to newer generations, but those who do remember knew it as the Magnavox Odyssey.

The Magnavox Odyssey wasn’t all fun and games. During its development by Ralph Baer, chief engineer, at defense contractor Sanders Associates, it was known as the Brown Box, an experimental military training device. The military application for this new technology never caught on, but  Baer would not abandon it and licensed it to Magnavox. In 1972, the Magnavox Odyssey hit store shelves and changed the world. The Brown Box saw a redesign and was given a new name. In 1972, the Magnavox Odyssey hit store shelves, ushering in an industry that would change the world.

The Magnavox Odyssey. (Source: Lifewire)

The Magnavox Odyssey came with six game cards, featuring riveting titles such as Table Tennis (eventually known as Pong), Ski, Cat and Mouse, Submarine, Roulette, and others. The controller for this primordial console was a simple box-shaped device with two directional knobs, one on either side, that managed horizontal and vertical movement. On top of the controller was a reset button, and on the right knob was a node known as the English Control (EC). This node replaced the ball in the middle of the screen. The Magnavox Odyssey came complete with two controllers, for multiplayer action. But if you wanted to keep score, you would have to use the scorecards that came with the console, as the limited graphics of the time did not allow for anything more than the simple lines and dots that made up the base game.

The Magnavox Odyssey may be retired, but it paved the way for other companies to take their shot at this infant industry. This became the start of a new gaming industry and the video game controller became the key to winning.

The Atari 2600 with controller. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Atari 2600 is one of, if not the most, iconic game controllers in terms of its simple, legendary design. Future versions of the console came with games built into it, so all one had to do was plug it in to the TV and play all-time classics like Pong, Pitfall!, and Breakout. The controller itself featured a single joystick that moved in four directions and one orange button in the top left corner. The controls were still designed for the 2D games at the time, but this classic gamepad had all the gameplay functionality that was necessary back in 1977.

The third and fourth generations

In 1983, Nintendo made their move on the gaming market by introducing the world to their own console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), along with games like Duck Hunt, Gyromite, and the legendary Super Mario Bros. And with this new set of games came a new gamepad that redefined the overall design of controllers forever.

The Nintendo Entertainment System Controller. (Source: Stealth Optional)

The NES controller was a radical change from the Atari 2600’s joystick on a box. The gamepad adopted a simple, flat, rectangular design, allowing players to hold it comfortably in two hands. With the directional pad on the left and two interactive buttons on the right (labeled A and B), this meant that players could react faster to the gameplay, since their thumbs could press the buttons quickly and with ease. All future gamepads would adopt this horizontal structure, as well as the select and start buttons in the middle of the controller, though the shapes and sizes would change radically.

Eventually, a rival to Nintendo would arise in the form of Sega, though not much would be done to distinguish the two consoles besides names and game titles.

The Sega Master System controller. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Sega Master System controller did not change much from its competitor’s design, but there are a few small differences—for instance, some models of the controller featured a directional thumbstick on the D-pad (renamed “control pad”), as well as the absence of a separate set of buttons for select and start.

The Sega Genesis controller. (Source: Lifewire)

The Sega Genesis was a turning point for games as they made the jump from 8 bit to 16 bit. With titles like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mortal Kombat being the console’s main attractions, Sega was able to gain a foothold in the industry, becoming a fierce competitor to Nintendo. The gamepad introduced a soft, rounder shape that would be adopted by every other gaming controller from here on out. By softening the hard angles of the original controller’s rectangular shape, the curve of this controller meant that the players’ hands could relax and hold it far more comfortably. The D-pad turned into a cross within a circle, and the classic two-button layout was replaced with three “trigger” buttons on the right-hand side, with a start button placed just above them. A later model would feature three new trigger buttons, with the start button being centered under the logo. Sega’s legacy lives on in the curves of modern gaming controllers (as well as in its game titles).

Meanwhile, Nintendo did not stop at the NES, that much is obvious. With a design so simple yet revolutionary, the logical next step was to build off of it. Enter the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES).

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System. (Source: Nintendo Wiki)

The SNES gamepad expanded upon what the NES gamepad had but also added features introduced in their competitors’ products. This is where the design of modern controllers begins to shine through, with the four-button layout on the right, the D-pad on the left, and the shoulder bumpers on the back. All that was missing were the joysticks, and as the ’90s went on, Nintendo would be the one to bring it back. But before that could happen, another competitor rose to the challenge to make their mark in gaming history, as we will detail in Part 2.

These were the forefathers of the gamepads: Magnavox Odyssey, Atari, Sega, Nintendo, and Sony. With their contributions, a new industry had been forged, followed by an entire culture. In Part 2, we will discuss the next generation of controllers and how their contributions would go on to reshape this very world and beyond.