The Evolution of Video Game Controller
In this study, you’ll discover the history of video game controllers from the past to the present and get a sneak peek into what's coming next.
Chapter 1Climbing the Ranks. The Dawn of the Video Game Revolution. 1967-1976
Chapter 2Joysticks Arrive. Unveiling Second-Gen Controllers. 1976 - 1985
Chapter 3Sega vs Nintendo or Console Wars. 1983 - 1993
Chapter 4Say Hello to PlayStation or End of Console Wars. 1994 - 2001
Chapter 5Sony vs Microsoft or Gaming As the LifeStyle. 2001 - 2012
Chapter 6The Newest History: Customization and Immersion. 2012 to Present
Chapter 7What to Expect: A Peek into the Future of Gaming
- Haptic feedback
- Adaptive triggers
- Built-in microphone and headset jack
- Motion sensor
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You are about to take a fun journey through the evolution of video game controllers.
This study gives an enthralling look into how gaming controllers have changed throughout the past 50 years, from the primitive gadgets of the past to the 100% immersive experience models of today.
By the time you reach the end of the article, you’ll have a firm grasp of how gaming controllers have evolved and a sneak peek at where the technology is headed in the future.
Buckle up and let’s get started!
Climbing the Ranks (1967-1976): The Dawn of the Video Game Revolution
Fast forward to 2023, and the video game industry is worth over $150 billion. But it wasn't always this way.
Back in the sixties, US electronics companies were just starting to explore ways to use TVs for gaming. Little did they know, these early experiments would eventually lead to one of the world's most moneymaking industries.
The first gaming controllers were basic knobs built right into the console deck, so playing the game was your only option. But soon, they started offering controllers that you could hold in your hands. The only downside was the short cord.
Let’s check out the first model that became the first real prototype for today's controllers, the Brown Box.
The Brown Box. 1967
The very first gaming controller, or a pair of them, came in-built on the front of the wood-grain vinyl box called the Brown Box. It was a video game console developed by American engineer Ralph H. Baer in 1967.
The project was sold to Magnavox later, which advanced the prototype and released the world’s first commercial home video game console.
Magnavox's Odyssey. 1972
Magnavox's Odyssey 100 made its debut in 1972, retailing for $100, which is equivalent to about $600 in today's currency. It had a boxy white, black, and brown design and came with two wired analog controllers of a basic rectangular shape.
Each controller had a reset button on top and two knobs on each side to control horizontal and vertical motions in ping pong, checkers, and sports games. It could only be operated from a flat surface.
Odyssey 100 was doomed from the start, as the system had a black-and-white color scheme and no sound or score tracking. Coupled with very poor marketing, it sold 350,000 units over three years before being discontinued in 1975.
Atari Home Pong. 1975
Atari Home Pong revolutionized the gaming landscape when it debuted in 1975. It was an instant success—cheaper than the Odyssey 100 but much more feature-rich. A plastic black and white console contained the most powerful computer chip, an AC adapter, and came with a scoring system and sound.
2 inbuilt controllers featured a single dial each and allowed players to move their pong paddle up and down.
Going on to sell an impressive 150,000 units in its first holiday season alone, Atari Home Pong was a hit that helped shape the future of gaming. The system was discontinued in 1977 after totaling about 300,000 units in sales.
Coleco Telstar Arcade. 1976
The Coleco Telstar Arcade brought to the table the best of what the Pong experience had to offer at the time. Released in 1976, it was affordably priced at a mere $75, which is equivalent to $300 in today's currency.
The triangle brown console had three control sets: a tennis ping dial, a gun for target shooting games, and a steering wheel for racing. The wheel was the highlight of the console, but unfortunately, it wasn’t a success due to the lack of games designed for all three types of controllers.
That was the primary reason the console was discontinued in 1978, despite the fact that over a million units were sold -- not bad.
With that, we've arrived at the next stage in gaming controller development, an exciting one!
Joysticks Arrive: Unveiling Second-Gen Controllers. 1976 - 1985
A new era in the gaming industry kicked off when the second-gen controllers came out. It was a time of rapid growth in the video game hardware business.
New gaming controllers no longer featured dials or knobs; instead, they offered eight (later sixteen) directional digital movements via joysticks. These controllers were bulky, had a heavy base, and featured a stick that could be gripped in a fist.
The early years of the decade saw technology advancing at lightning speed, but things took a sharp turn for the worse. It was as if every brand had a case of copycat fever, and they were all scrambling to cash in on the latest trends in the video game industry by mimicking each other's products.
Innovation took a backseat as companies put all their energy into pumping out low-quality controllers and games without putting any effort into graphics and other basics. As a result, the market got oversaturated with low-quality games and consoles, discouraging customers from playing. The lack of third-party support for the dominant home console at the time, the Atari 2600, also contributed to the decline in consumer trust.
These factors eventually led to the Game Crash of '83, the collapse of the North American home console video game market. During the Crash (1983–1985), consumer trust in the industry took a nosedive, causing console game sales to plummet from a high of $3.2 billion in 1982 to a measly $100 million in 1985.
It was a tough time for the industry, with many people in the field losing their jobs and some companies going out of business. The video game crash had a lasting impact on the industry, and it took several years for it to recover (we'll talk about that in the next chapter).
Now let's take a step back and look at how the second-gen controllers sparked the gaming hardware transformation.
Channel F. 1976
The Fairchild Channel F console was the first programmable ROM cartridge-based home video game console that hit the market in 1976. It featured an innovative joystick that allowed users to push, pull, or rotate the cap with their thumb. With a lengthy cord, gamers could sit away from the console while they played.
Despite the innovations, Fairchild Channel F ultimately failed to gain a foothold in the market. One reason for its failure was its high price point: it cost $169, which is worth $800 today. In addition, it couldn’t compete with new, multi-game release systems in terms of graphics and gameplay.
The Channel F console was discontinued in 1980 after 28 games were released and approximately 350,000 units were sold.
Atari 2600. 1976
In 1977, Atari was released with a price tag of $199, or $900 in today's currency. The console revolutionized the home gaming market as it had better graphics, came with sound, removable cartridges, and, most importantly, made it possible to control the game with a joystick.
It was the Atari 2600 that popularized joysticks, despite the fact that they were very unreliable. Yes, they were easy to break, put a strain on the wrist, and were not ergonomically friendly, but they were the first detachable joysticks in the industry.
Although it was very expensive, the Atari 2600 was a massive success and became one of the best-selling home console systems of all time, with over 30 million units worldwide.
The Atari 2600 was officially discontinued in 1992 after a 15-year run as one of the most popular home console systems in the world. With the rise of newer and more advanced console systems, it wasn’t able to compete and ultimately fell by the wayside.
Bally Astrocade. 1978
In 1978, Bally took a shot and scored with their Astrocade joystick, a modified take on the Atari 2600 controller.
Coming with a very pricey tag (over $1,100 in today’s money), this loaded controller was ahead of its time, combining analog and digital capabilities. It resembled a pistol grip with a small joystick on top, a trigger-like action button, and a twistable knob—perfect for paddle games.
Despite its innovative design and impressive capabilities, the Bally Astrocade was not a commercial success, with no more than 50,000 units sold before it was discontinued in 1983.
The stiff competition from Atari and Intellivision was to blame.
Mattel Intellivision. 1979
The Mattel Intellivision was a pricey powerhouse that rocked the home console market in the 80s. Although it cost the equivalent of $1,200 in today's currency, it was worth every penny for the advanced graphics and sound capabilities it provided.
The brand contributed to the evolution by adding the very first thumb-operated metal disk to its bottom part. The controller was a game-changer—it blew 8-directional digital controllers out of the water with its ability to recognize up to 16 directions!
It put the power in players' hands with its four action buttons, equally friendly for both lefties and righties, plus a keypad for setting up the game to your liking—no more console adjustments needed.
Intellivision quickly became the top dog at Atari, selling over 3 million units worldwide over a decade before it was discontinued in 1990 due to the rise of newer, more advanced consoles.
Atari 5200. 1982
The Atari 5200 video game system was priced at $269, or $800 in today’s money. The console was supposed to be another breakthrough but miserably failed instead. The controller is to blame.
Aiming to beat out Intellivision, It was equipped with a 360-degree directional movement joystick, a built-in keypad, and the first ever side-mounted action buttons, as well as Start and Pause buttons
Atari didn't even break a sweat; they just threw together all the features of the competition's controller and released it to the public without so much as a trial run.
As a result, the controller turned out to be a disaster, as its analog control could not self-center. Cheap materials didn't hold the hardware in place, making the stick unable to maintain a neutral position. Since it was impossible to stay still in-game—you just kept drifting in the same direction you'd set off in—the joystick was unplayable.
The controller destroyed Atari as a brand and set off a chain reaction that almost destroyed the entire video game industry.
The console was discontinued in 1984 with about 1 million units sold.
And with that, we've reached the end of an era and are now on the cusp of a new one, where all the fun began.
Sega vs Nintendo or Console Wars. 1983 - 1993
The Game Crash ultimately ended up being a blessing in disguise. To avoid a repeat of the fiasco, new companies began to release titles of higher quality and make them more appealing to gamers.
Gaming brands entering the market wanted to establish their presence, which led to fierce competition, or the Console Wars. The key players of the decade turned out to be Nintendo and Sega, which were neck-and-neck in terms of market share.
Nintendo's success was largely due to its legendary NES console and its innovative games, while Sega had an edge when it came to marketing and its more powerful Mega Drive hardware.
The battle between the two companies was intense, with both parties launching successful advertising campaigns and even creating mascots for their consoles (i.e., Mario and Sonic).
Controller-wise, Nintendo was a leader in technology, offering turbo mod, for example, while Sega was the king of design and ergonomics.
Let’s check out the most iconic controllers of the period.
Nintendo NES. 1985
In 1985, Nintendo’s Japanese release of the Famicom videogame system expanded to the US market, ushering in the 3rd generation of console gaming.
Costing about $550 in today’s dollars, the console was an instant hit with its impressive specs, classic arcade ports, and a wide library of games such as Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Donkey Kong.
However, the real star of the show was the NES controller, a revolutionary piece of tech that changed the industry forever.
What was so special about it?
It had a simple but unique design, an intuitive layout, and an ergonomic feel that offered a level of immersion and control to gamers they’d never experienced before.
The design included a well-engineered D-pad for a directional movement that allowed precise movement in games, two buttons for A and B actions, as well as two "start" and "select" buttons,
Gamers immediately fell in love with the controller, although it had its flaws as well.
The A and B buttons were too close together, plus its cord was too short (approximately 5 feet), making players huddle up to the TV.
To sum up, the NES set the standard for how gaming controllers should look, feel, and function and remains a timeless classic.
The console was discontinued in 1995 after a 12-year run as a top home console, selling over 62 million systems and 500 million games. It was succeeded by the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES).
SEGA Master System. 1986
Many other companies took notice of Nintendo's success and quickly followed suit by creating their own versions of the controller.
Among many, Sega was the only one that stepped up to the plate and scored with its Mark III console in 1986 (rebranded later as the Master System), becoming a competitor to Nintendo in the gaming market. It was priced at $200, or $480 in today's currency.
How did the Sega Master System controller compare to the NES?
The control pad looked just like the original NES controller, with a D-Pad and two buttons labeled 1 and 2 (instead of the NES Start or Select button). Pressing button 1 also paused the game, but you needed to hit the pause button on the console itself to resume.
To avoid legal issues, the D-Pad was a rounded square rather than Nintendo's patented cross-shape, which is likely why the SEGA d-pad didn't feel as precise to many as the one on the NES.
Who’s the winner between the two?
The NES controller was comfier and had more buttons to play with. Although the Sega Master System controller was smaller, lighter, and had a longer cord (about 6 feet), it missed out on all the extra buttons that made the NES controller so great.
As a result, the Sega Master System turned out not to be a commercial success story and was discontinued in 1992 after selling about a fifth of what the Nintendo NES sold (13 million units).
NEC PC Engine. 1987
Although Nintendo and Sega had been present in the US market since the mid-1980s, the Console Wars did not begin until NEC released the PC Engine console in 1987.
Also known as TurboGrafx-16, the PC Engine was an 8-bit, very technically loaded console with a high price tag—$399, or $900 in today's currency.
But it wasn’t even the system specs, that ignited the competition between Sony and Nintendo - it was the NEC controller. How did it do it?
Simple: the controller was so tech-advanced and ergonomic that the key players in the industry sought to replicate the device for their systems and outdo the competitors.
NEC was the first turbo controller ever created, as it had a turbo switch that allowed the user to press a button quickly for a set amount of time. Not only that, it was the first to feature two shoulder buttons, which allowed for more complex control schemes than were previously possible.
Overall, the product design was more user-friendly than other controllers, with its round directional pad and two extra buttons, "Select" and "Run," that allowed quick access to many different functions.
The controller's biggest flaw was its short cord - a measly 4 feet, which seemed like an odd choice on the developers' part.
Despite the product's impressive capabilities and strong library of games (Bonk's Adventure, Dungeon Explorer, and Street Fighter II), the NEC PC Engine struggled to gain a foothold in the competitive home console market and was discontinued in 1993 with 5 million units sold.
NES Advantage. 1987
The next controller up is the Nintendo NES Advantage controller. It was released in 1987 for the NES console at a price of $19.95, or $45 in today’s money.
It was the first Nintendo controller to feature a turbo function and was intended to replicate the look and feel of classic arcade game controls.
It had a cool color scheme and a unique design with two large handles and a joystick in the center, plus turbo A and B buttons and slow-motion buttons. Turbo buttons allowed players to rapidly press a button multiple times without having to press it manually, which was great for fighting games, for example.
Two slow-motion buttons let players slow down the action in certain games, which was super useful for getting past difficult sections or for practicing a particular move. The ergonomics were on point, with the two large handles comfortable to hold and the joystick in the center allowing for precise control.
One of the main cons of the NES Advantage Controller was its size. It was much larger than the standard NES controller, making it difficult to store and transport. Plus, it was not compatible with all games, so you had to have both controllers on hand to play certain titles.
The controller was discontinued in 1990 and re-released in limited quantities in 2017 for private collections.
Sega Mega Drive / Genesis 3 Button. 1988
With the release of the Sega Mega Drive, a 16-bit console that ended the 8-bit era, Sega upped their game. The gem was released in 1988 and had a retail price of $189.99.
Featuring the most powerful processor of the time and a top-notch ergonomic controller, the console put an end to the NES' dominance on the market the same week it was released.
The first Genesis controller had three action buttons, A, B, and C. They were conveniently placed on the face of the product, allowing for quick presses during fast-paced gaming. There was a recessed Start button to avoid accidental presses during intense gaming sessions and a large, comfortable grip.
The directional pad was also designed with comfort and precision in mind, making it a breeze to move characters around in a game.
One of the biggest issues with the controller issues was its lack of a turbo feature. This meant that gamers had to continuously press the action buttons to achieve rapid fire. Additionally, the controller did not feature analog sticks, which some games required for optimal control.
The console was eventually discontinued in 1997, but not before giving the world iconic games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Phantasy Star and selling a whopping 30 million units worldwide.
Super Nintendo Controller. 1991
Not to be left behind, Nintendo released its 16-bit powerhouse in 1990 with a retail price of $199.99.
Sega Genesis had a speed advantage, but SNES was more powerful. To put it simply, the SNES could show more colors, bigger sprites, and higher resolution.
The SNES controller was a step beyond the NES controller, with the curved, bulkier sides allowing for a comfortable grip and the perfect size for small hands, making it the ultimate controller for gamers of all ages.
It made playing action-oriented games better with its four face action buttons for easy thumb access, which were angled to replicate the classic "cross-shaped" directional pad and had easy thumb access. The four buttons could be used for a variety of tasks, such as attacking or jumping.
The SNES also had two shoulder buttons, perfectly placed for index-finger access, which increased the player's ability to control the game and a d-pad.
The directional pad could be used to move characters and elements in 8 directions, and shoulder buttons were used for advanced functions, such as selecting items or accessing menus. The start and select buttons were used to pause the game and access in-game menus.
The SNES controller was one of the first game controllers to feature analog control. By pressing the directional pad in a direction and then tilting the controller, players could control characters and elements with more precision than ever before.
Any cons? Yes, some complained it was bulky and not as portable as the previous generation of controllers.
The system was eventually discontinued in 1999, but not before selling a staggering 49.1 million units worldwide.
Genesis 6 Button Control Pad. 1993
The Sega Genesis 6-Button Control Pad was a later model of the Sega Genesis that was smaller, easier to grip, and featured three additional action buttons. It was released in 1997 for $24.99.
The new X, Y, and Z buttons had a convex shape and were smaller than the original A, B, and C buttons. These extra buttons allowed for more complex gameplay and could be used for various functions, such as jumping, crouching, and pausing.
The controller had the Mode button located on the right shoulder to mimic the behavior of an original 3-button controller in the older games. A longer cable allowed for more freedom of movement.
The cons would still be the lack of a turbo feature and analog sticks.
It was eventually discontinued along with the Sega Genesis console in 1997.
With that, we covered the classical Console Wars era and are not entering the rise of the PlayStation era.
Say Hello to PlayStation or the End of Console Wars. 1994 - 2001
The fierce competition between Nintendo and Sega, fueled by aggressive marketing campaigns, ended in 1994. That year, Sony threw a wrench in their plans by dropping its first PlayStation system. It was a 3D gaming bomb that ushered in a new era of console gaming awesomeness. Its launch and the effect it had on the market ended the Console Wars, as the focus of the industry shifted to pushing the boundaries of innovation with fresh players entering the scene.
The PlayStation revolutionized the gaming world with its cutting-edge graphics, fast processor, and disc-based system for easy game installation. It also had an expansive library of games, the ability to play CDs and DVDs, and the option to access the Internet. No other console on the market could provide that kind of experience at the time.
It's interesting to note that it's not the specs that helped PlayStation skyrocket, it was genius marketing. Sony had the funds to conduct quality market research that helped to effectively position the product and implement a very strong marketing campaign that squeezed Nintendo and Sega out of the scene.
Let’s explore the best controllers of the epoch.
Sony Playstation Controller. 1994
Without a doubt, the first PS controller was the era's leader. Rumor has it Sony put just as much effort into the design of their PlayStation controller as they did the console itself while charging a modest $299 for the whole thing.
And it paid off! The first PlayStation controller was super ergonomically friendly and comfortable to hold, no matter what position you were playing in.
It was perfectly rectangular with two handles and just a bit bigger than other products, so it naturally fitted into most gamers’ hands like a glove. It was also lightweight and comfortable, so gamers could stay in the game for hours on end without feeling any fatigue.
Although it borrowed many elements from the SNES controller, including the four-button layout and the shoulder buttons idea, it was the Playstation controller that gave us the legendary Square, Triangle, Circle, and Cross button layout (originally meant to serve as Menu/View/Yes/No buttons, respectively).
An extra set of shoulder buttons was what changed the ergonomics game the most. The controller had four shoulder buttons—R1, L1, R2, and L2—that gave players two-way directional depth control. For a more secure grip, extra handles were added so that even when you shifted the middle finger to the shoulders, you wouldn’t lose your grip.
The exterior and layout became iconic in the industry and set the tone for all future Sony (and not only Sony) controllers.
Did the controller have any cons? Wired connectivity and the lack of a rumble option were the main ones.
PlayStation was eventually discontinued in 2006 due to the introduction of next-generation systems, but not before selling a staggering 102.5 million units worldwide
Sega Saturn. 1995
Sega did its best with the Saturn console released in 1995. The primary controller for the console was the most advanced controller released at the time technically. It had twelve buttons, a directional pad, an ergonomic feel, and a comfy grip. Built to be compatible with a wide range of games it had two slots for memory cards, allowing for the saving and loading of game data.
Unfortunately, the product turned out to be a failure.
The console was released four months ahead of schedule in an attempt to gain the upper hand on the market, but it backfired. There were hardly any titles compatible with the console at the time and it was $100 pricier than PlayStation.
These two factors multiplied by Sony's smart marketing techniques led to the downfall of Sega in the US. The brand and controllers completely ceased from the market in 1998 (but will always remain a big part of the gaming industry history).
Nintendo N 64. 1996
The Nintendo 64, a successor to the SNES system, was released in 1996 for $199. It was the first home console to feature 3D graphics and came with the most controversially designed controller among all gamepads of the decade.
Nintendo wanted to make sure their players could handle the transition from 2D to 3D gaming, so they created a controller with a unique design to fit the bill.
The controller came with ten buttons, an analog control stick, and a directional pad, all shaped in an iconic “M." You could hold it in three different ways, giving you access to the D-pad, right-hand face buttons, "L" and "R" shoulder buttons, the single control stick, and the "Z" trigger on the rear.
The four "C" buttons on the top were originally intended to control the camera in the N64's three-dimensional environments, but have since been used for other functions.
The analog stick allowed for 360º control plus the ability to crawl, walk, or run based on the pressure applied.
It was so versatile that you could use two fingers to manipulate its trident-like shape, or use your thumb like a digital pad to give it a go
There were upgrades available that could add the rumble or Force Feedback, and the memory pack allowed them to transfer game saves to another N64 owner's console (portable game saves).
Despite being one of the most prominent machines of its time, it had one big flaw that cost it further development. What was it? Ergonomics, of course!
While loaded with functions, the controller didn't allow players to enjoy all of them from a one-handed position. Accessing different buttons required them to switch hand positions.
In 2002, the console was discontinued after a total of 33 million units were sold.
PlayStation Dual Analog Controller. 1997
In the meantime, PlayStation technology has been developing quickly. In 1997, Sony released the first dual analog controller, which brought the brand into a whole new realm.
To understand how innovative the product was, note that back in the day, the idea of dual sticks was very weird. Some games couldn't even be played with analog controls, so Sony added a button that would let you toggle the analog controls.
The pad had two analog sticks, four shoulder buttons, four face buttons, and a directional pad. Having two analog sticks offered gamers more precise control over their characters' movements and aiming.
The four shoulder buttons made it a breeze to access more than four inputs, and the four face buttons were the perfect action buttons.
Sony's analog controller's biggest flaws remained its lack of wired connectivity and lack of vibration feedback. They said, at that time the brand was unable to incorporate the technology into the pad while keeping a steady, bug-free performance
The lack of a rumble feature was such a big deal for gamers that it became the main reason the Analog PlayStation controller was discontinued in 1998 and yield the way to the DualShock.
DualShock Controller. 1998
The Dualshock controller was the default controller to come with the Sony PlayStation 2, the most successful gaming console to ever exist.
Released in 2000 and discontinued in 2013, the PS2 was a gaming juggernaut with a library of 4,000 titles and impressive hardware capabilities. It was the perfect choice for gamers who wanted to play the latest blockbuster releases, catch up on classic titles from the original PlayStation, and watch DVDs—all in one place.
The DualShock controller had extended handles compared to the Dual Analog's standard size, which housed the vibration motors responsible for the DualShock's notorious rumble in case of certain events in the game.
On top of vibration feedback, the controller featured two extra buttons, so you could press the thumbsticks until they clicked and triggered the left and right L3 and R3 functions.
The PlayStation 2 sold over 155 million units and remains undefeated by any other gaming system to date. Woo-hoo!
And with that, we bid adieu to the Playstation monopoly as the industry embraced a new powerhouse player.
Sony vs Microsoft or Gaming As the LifeStyle. 2001 - 2012
The 2000s marked a decade of revolutionary shifts in the gaming world. Cartridges were replaced with discs and digital downloads, dual-stick gamepads made way for motion control, and the industry itself transformed from gaming-centric to multi-faceted entertainment.
The evolution of technology and social acceptance led to gaming becoming more than just a hobby; it became a lifestyle.
This was the era of high-speed internet access, which opened up opportunities for console developers to expand their systems' features and capabilities. Consoles become media hubs, social networking devices, and a marketplace.
Games had evolved to blur the line between PC, arcade, and console and offered a wide range of titles and digital distribution.
The notorious Console Wars were reignited, and this time around they were between Microsoft and Sony: Xbox vs. PlayStation.
Both sides have gone all-in on hardware and software development, with each offering gamers the best possible experience.
To add to the mix, both Microsoft and Sony have released exclusive titles to help sway gamers to their side. Xbox has Halo and Gears of War, while Sony has Uncharted, God of War, and Gran Turismo.
Other brands attempted to gain a share of the market, but they couldn't compete with the savvy marketing strategies employed by the big players.
Let’s check out the best gear for the period.
Xbox The Duke. 2001
Microsoft boldly strutted into the console market with the Xbox console in 2001. The first-gen Xbox controller that came with it, was called the Duke. They say it got its name from the MS Xbox hardware project manager's son, who was a hefty little guy. Unfortunately, the controller ended up being a bit of a dud—it was oversized and not very well received.
It had an oval shape and was loaded with two vibration motors, two analog triggers, two analog sticks (which also double as digital buttons), a digital directional pad, a Back button, a Start button, two side slots for accessories, and a full set of six 8-bit analog action buttons (A/Green, B/Red, X/Blue, Y/Yellow, and Black and White buttons).
It also has a directional pad and a memory card slot. The analog sticks were sensitive, responsive, and featured a rubberized grip for better control.
Its unique feature was the extra-long 9-foot cord with a "breakaway" connector that protected the console from being pulled.
The main problem with it was its bulky size, which made the company come up with a smaller and smarter size-wise version of the controller, called Controller S, in 2003.
Nintendo GameCube. 2001
The next prominent controller of the epoch was released by Nintendo specifically for GameCube.
Costing $199, it quickly became the go-to controller for gamers around the world as it delivered a unique and intuitive way for gamers to play Super Smash Bros. and others.
The company made a bold move when they said goodbye to the M-shaped design of their previous controller and said hello to the more traditional handlebar-style controller of the GameCube.
This controller was the perfect upgrade from the Nintendo 64, with the addition of a second analog stick and the reintroduction of the X and Y face buttons from the SNES. The shoulder buttons were also changed to hybrid analog triggers, and in 2002, the WaveBird wireless controller was released.
The controller's ergonomics were on point with its pressure-sensitive shoulder buttons, one-sided button layout, and buttons conveniently placed in all the right places.
On the "shoulders" of the controller were the two triggers, L and R, and the digital Z button in front of the R trigger. The L and R trigger acted as typical analog triggers until fully pressed, at which point they "clicked" to register a digital signal.
The GameCube controller offered a unique haptic experience with an integrated rumble motor, a feature that wasn't available on the Nintendo 64 controller.
The main con of the controller was also its main pro: the design, which was a bit of a wildcard and seemed strange to many.
However, this was not the reason it eventually failed.
The Nintendo GameCube lacked support from third-party developers, had a small selection of games, and was pretty much offline. It was just too late for the console party compared to the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, and its marketing strategy was focused on kids who weren't ready to join the party yet.
The GameCube was discontinued in 2007 with over 21 million console units sold worldwide.
Mad Catz Universal Arcade FightStick. 2005
It's impossible to talk about gaming controllers that made a difference in the 2000s without mentioning the US company Mad Catz, which was producing all sorts of cool plastic gizmos, from dance pads to top-notch arcade controllers.
Although the brand didn't get a huge chunk of the controller market, it built the first "pro" (or "modded") gaming controller that stood out from the rest.
In 2005, the company released its first console controller, the Mad Catz Universal Arcade FightStick, which was compatible with all current-gen consoles: Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube.
It was designed to bring the classic arcade gaming experience to home consoles and quickly became a popular item among fighting game fans.
The stick itself was a traditional eight-way joystick with a 30mm button layout. With a joystick on the left and eight action buttons on the right, plus more on top, you could make all the combos and quick moves you needed—all from the comfort of your sofa, thanks to the 3-meter USB cable.
The controller had all the bells and whistles you could ever want: Turbo On/Off to go fast, Stick Control Format to move left or right, Home button to pause, Share/View button to show off, L3/R3 adjusters to get the perfect grip, Keylock switch to pause, and the Pairing button to collaborate.
Although FightStick had potential, it quickly became outdated once the next-gen Xbox 360 and PS3 came out. Its poor build, pricey tag, and ineffective marketing strategy couldn’t keep up with the console gaming monsters.
Xbox 360. 2005
Microsoft entered the 7th generation of gaming consoles with the Xbox 360 console, which came in $299 core and $399 premium versions. It had a massive commercial success, with over 84 million consoles sold worldwide.
This is no surprise, as the system was the ultimate gaming and media machine. It was ready to rock any media from portable music devices, digital cameras, and PCs, and even rip music onto its hard drive. Plus, you could create custom playlists for any game and enjoy them in HD.
It was inevitable that the controller would shine, given that it was just as tech-savvy as the console. The Xbox 360 controller had the same beloved button layout, thumbsticks, triggers, and force feedback as the classic Xbox S controller.
But the innovations didn't stop there—the Xbox 360 controller also featured an additional button for direct Xbox Live access and a headset jack for in-game communication.
It was available in two configurations: wired and wireless. The wired version had a bendy cord that made it a cinch to whip around while gaming, while the wireless range was up to 30 ft., letting you get your game on anywhere in the house.
The main con of the wired model was that the cords were long and tended to coil and cross, creating a mess and causing some style-savvy gamers to cringe. The disadvantage of the wireless version was the max 30-hour battery life; some found it unsatisfactory.
The Xbox 360 console was retired in 2016, but the controller was manufactured until 2020.
Sony PS3. 2006
One year after the Xbox 360 release, Sony shook up the gaming community with its PlayStation 3 console and controller drop. Unlike Microsoft, Sony went with Bluetooth technology. With the ability to pair up to seven controllers wirelessly and a long-lasting battery, Sony had gamers stoked, resulting in the sale of over 87 million PS3 consoles.
For the first couple of years, the brand controller was Sixaxis, which had few improvements over its predecessor. It had L2/R2 buttons with more depth, a slightly wider tilting angle for the analog sticks, and increased precision information detection (from 8-bit to 10-bit).
The "PS" button could be used to access menus and power the system on or off, and LED lights were to indicate charging and player identification.
The biggest upgrade, however, was the motion-sensing technology. Now, the controller could detect six degrees of movement, including roll, pitch, and yaw, as well as 3-dimensional acceleration information.
Unfortunately, this also meant that the much-loved force feedback (rumble) feature had to go.
That was the biggest controller disadvantage that got fixed with the release of the DualShock 3 in 2008. The controller restored the haptic feedback feature while leaving the rest of the Sixaxis alone.
Similar to the Sixaxis, the DualShock 3 controller features a mini-USB port located on the back of the device, which can be used for both charging and playing while charging.
The controller remained in production until 2019 when it was replaced by the Dualshock 4 controller.
Nintendo Wii. 2006
Nintendo didn't stay at the curb and released the Wii system in 2006. It was their seventh-generation console, but the technology was vastly different from that of Xbox and PlayStation.
The developer's idea was not to compete with Microsoft and Sony on graphics and power, but instead to focus on a broader audience and impress them with something never seen before.
This is how they came up with the Wii, the first Nintendo home console, priced at $249, to support the Internet, allowing for online gaming and digital distribution.
With the iiI controller's TV-remote-like design, you could play single-handedly and control your character with ease. The plus ("+") and minus (”-“) buttons replaced traditional "Start" and "Select" buttons, and the "1" and "2" buttons replaced "Y" and "Z"—so you don’t get confused.
Plus, the bright blue LED lights indicated your player number and reminded you to recharge your batteries.
The Wii remote was wireless, and with motion sensing and traditional controls, it could be used as a pointing device or for motion recognition. You could intuitively control games with the flick of a wrist, achieving a level of realism and responsiveness that was unheard of at the time. The controllers were lightweight, ergonomic, and featured rumble feedback.
Nintendo made motion-based gaming a blast, but the controller didn't translate every tiny movement accurately onto your screen. With a simple flick of the wrist, you could hit a home run in Wii Sports—great for gamers who wanted to take it easy.
To solve this issue, Nintendo released the Wii MotionPlus add-on in June 2009. Equipped with a dual-axis tuning fork gyroscope and a single-axis gyroscope, the MotionPlus also allowed other devices to work with the controller.
In November 2010, Nintendo released the Wii Remote Plus, a Wii Remote with the MotionPlus already built in, so you could enjoy the full game immersion experience without having to worry about the controller not fitting in those plastic shells.
When it came to controller innovation, the Wii led the way. They brought motion gaming to the masses with their Wii, drawing in casual gamers of all ages.
The system was discontinued in 2013 after a successful seven-year run and the end of its life cycle. It's estimated that over 101 million Wii consoles were sold worldwide, making it one of the best-selling gaming consoles of all time.
PlayStation Move and Microsoft Kinect. 2010
Seeing the Wii's success, Sony and Microsoft scrambled to get a piece of the pie and release their motion-sensing consoles, PlayStation Move and Microsoft Kinect, respectively.
The Move controller was released for the PS3 console at $49.99. It looked like a microphone with an LED orb on top to help the controller track its movement and location. The controller also has some built-in sensors and a recognition library that help it move with precision and accuracy in 3D space.
The controller later became compatible with the PS4, PS VR, and finally the PS5, and sold 15 million units by the end of 2012.
With Kinect, released by Microsoft, you were the controller. Priced at $149, it allowed you to interact with your Xbox 360 in a whole new way. It had advanced motion capture, facial recognition, and gesture recognition, and a four-microphone array that is capable of sound location tracking
The Kinect was discontinued in 2017, after a seven-year run. The technology wasn't always as reliable as it could have been, the games didn't quite live up to expectations, and the novelty wore off. It still did well, with over 35 million Kinect controllers sold worldwide.
With that, we’ve approached the latest decade of the evolution of gaming controllers.
The Newest History: Customization and Immersion. 2012 to the Present
The most recent history saw two major trends arise in the gaming controller market.
The first trend is customizability. Manufacturers have been giving gamers the ability to tailor their gaming experience however they wish—from controllers that fit just right in your hands to a variety of software and hardware options that let you customize every aspect of your gameplay.
Controllers also tended to be more ergonomic, with curved designs that fit more comfortably in the hand.
The second trend is to create an immersive gaming experience that makes you feel like you've stepped into another world. With touchpads and motion sensors, gamers can interact with games in a more natural, intuitive way, while built-in speakers provide a truly realistic audio experience.
Let's take a look at the major players who have been able to read the tea leaves of the market and deliver exactly what gamers desire.
Trends. Pro Controllers. Scuf Gaming. Since 2011
Scuf Gaming was one of the first brands to market customizable and pro controllers. They started to design and manufacture high-performance gaming controllers for Xbox and PlayStation consoles in 2011 and are present on the market today. The brand's unique selling point is a big selection of additional back buttons, paddles, hair triggers, and mechanical shoulder buttons to their standard controller.
One of the key innovations that Scuff Controllers introduced was the trigger lock, which allowed players to set a specific level of trigger pull required to activate a button. This has helped players who struggle with traditional triggers and improved accuracy by reducing the amount of trigger travel. Additionally, the brand also featured smart triggers that allowed different levels of resistance for triggers and paddles.
They also offered mechanical shoulder buttons that use mechanical switches, similar to the ones in a mechanical keyboard. These switches provide a greater level of precision and tactile feedback, which helps improve players' reaction times and in-game accuracy.
Scuf remains an industry leader, bringing the next-level experience to gamers with its controllers every day.
Trends Modded Controllers. Mega Modz. Since 2011
As the gaming community has evolved and players have become more competitive, a new market has emerged to cater to their need for an edge in their favorite games. Enter the world of modded controllers, where companies offered a plethora of mods to give gamers a unique set of abilities to outperform their opponents in shooter and battle royale games.
Mega Modz was one of the brands leading the pack in the field. They're the pioneers behind the popular mod Rapid Fire, which is a household name among gamers everywhere.
The company has evolved and now offers mods, macros, back buttons, paddles, smart triggers, and any other bells and whistles you may wish to try to get a higher level of competitiveness in the gaming community.
Trends Custom Controllers. Xbox Design Lab. Since 2016
Customizing controller exteriors was also a trend in product design in the 2010s. From the selection of colors to the engraving of your Gamertag, folks wanted to own a controller built to their taste.
As the big guys raced to create the latest and greatest tech for each gaming cycle, the demand for custom-designed controllers was met by many customization companies, such as Controller Chaos.
Custom controllers have become so popular that Microsoft launched its own Xbox Design Lab in 2016, offering gamers the ability to customize an Xbox controller in over 8 million different ways. The platform remains very popular among Xbox fans, and the customization trend in the controller market continues to grow.
Trends Motion Controllers. Oculus Touch. Since 2016
Now let’s touch on the immersion trend that grew big in the last decade. The popularity of motion controllers led to the development of new types of controllers, such as the Oculus Touch, which are designed to be used with virtual reality headsets.
The Oculus Touch was developed and released by Oculus VR in 2016. It was later acquired by Facebook, retailing for $199 a pair.
The controllers feature traditional gaming controls such as thumbsticks, buttons, and triggers as well as motion tracking via an array of sensors along with haptic feedback. This allows for a high degree of precision and immersion when interacting with virtual worlds.
The trend has taken a firm foothold and continues to grow, with various brands releasing their version of VR headsets every year.
Trends PS4 Third-Party Pro Controllers: Nacon Revolution Pro and Razer Raiju. Since 2018
While Microsoft worked diligently to enhance its brand image and attract new customers through its Xbox Design Lab, Sony took a different approach. It collaborated with global tech titans to create pro controllers compatible with the PS4 console.
From the Razer controller produced by a Singaporean brand to the Nacon Pro Revolution pad built by the French, Sony has licensed out very tech-loaded controllers tailored to help gamers go pro in first-person shooters, sports games, or fighting games.
The controllers that emerged from the collab gained their fan base, and their newer and better models keep popping up like clockwork.
Now that we’ve covered the trends of the last decade, let’s go over the key controller releases.
Xbox One. 2013
Microsoft entered the next-gen console market with its Xbox One, which was the first console to include a Blu-Ray player, so if you were a movie buff, this was the console to go with.
The Xbox One controller was an improved version of the Xbox 360 controller, with over 40 technological and design advancements. It had a new, sleek, and streamlined design, featuring a matte finish with embossed shoulder buttons.
Once compared side-by-side, the Xbox One controller was more ergonomic and comfortable than the Xbox 360 controller. It had rubber grips on the back and triggers, a textured surface to provide a better grip, a redesigned d-pad, and analog sticks for better accuracy and control.
The Xbox S controller version released shortly after featured a slightly slimmer shape and a newer board. The production of both versions stopped as they reached their seven-year life cycle.
DualShock 4. 2013
At the same time as the Xbox One's release, Sony released the PlayStation 4, which had no Blu-Ray player but a more powerful processor, which meant faster loading times and smoother gameplay.
Compared to the PS3 controller, the DualShock 4 had a more ergonomic design and improved analog sticks and trigger buttons, which made it more comfortable to hold and use compared to the DualShock 3.
It also has a two-point clickable touchpad that opens up a world of gameplay possibilities. The touchpad and motion sensors allow for more accurate and immersive gaming experiences, which the PS3 controller lacked.
Just like the Xbox One, it also had The Share button is an awesome upgrade for the DualShock 4, letting us show off our gaming prowess live on Facebook or record and upload videos for later bragging. Plus, the built-in mono speaker and headset jack, along with the included headset, will let us chat with other gamers.
The only con was that it wasn’t compatible with older PlayStation games, which was a pity. DualShock 4 is still available for purchase, but it is no longer manufactured.
Xbox Elite. 2015
Microsoft saw the upward market trend for pro and custom controllers, and in 2015 it released an Xbox Elite Controller which is the undisputed champ of the decade. Similar to Scuff, it offered unparalleled levels of customization and control with features such as hair trigger locks, remappable paddles, exchangeable analog sticks, and directional pads.
Compared to the standard Xbox One controller, the Xbox Elite Controller delivered a much higher level of precision and control. It has a more robust design with a textured grip, improved triggers and bumpers, and adjustable tension thumbsticks.
The Hair Trigger Locks allow users to reduce the travel distance of the triggers, allowing for faster reactions and improved accuracy. The controller's interchangeable parts also add to its versatility, allowing users to tailor the controller to their preferred playstyle.
Cons? The price tag.
In 2019, Xbox came out with the Elite Series 2 controller. Check here to learn how it has been upgraded compared to the first-gen controller.
Nintendo Joy-Cons. 2017
March 2017 marked the arrival of the Joy-Con controllers—Nintendo Switch's dynamic duo!
They were revolutionary in several ways:
Their versatility. They were designed to be used in a range of different configurations, depending on the game. For example, they could be attached to the sides of the Nintendo Switch console for handheld play, used separately as two individual controllers for two-player games, or attached to the Joy-Con Grip for a more traditional gamepad experience.
Their motion control capabilities were letting gamers move and groove their way through their favorite games—just like the Nintendo Wii! With the ability to control games with gestures, a new level of immersion and interactivity was introduced, providing players with an entirely new gaming experience.
Finally, the Joy-Con controllers were also notable for their portability, as players could take them with them wherever they went and use them with the Nintendo Switch console to play games on the go.
By the way, in 2017, Nintendo added the Switch Pro Controller to its product line as an option for gamers who preferred a more traditional controller. To see how it was different from Joy-Cons, click here.
Thanks to its mobility and convenience, the Nintendo Switch console and Joy-Con controllers have sold over 84 million consoles as of 2021.
Xbox Series X. 2020
2020 was the year the latest gen gaming consoles arrived. The Xbox Series X controller is the latest iteration of the Xbox family. It has some improvements over its predecessor, but nothing truly innovative:
The main difference between the two controllers is the design. The Xbox Series X controller has a more streamlined and ergonomic design, a textured grip, and a hybrid D-pad.
Another difference is the inclusion of adaptive triggers and haptic feedback. The features do provide a more immersive and responsive gaming experience, but they can’t be compared with the progress that Sony made with its last-gen controller, which is up next.
PS5 DualSense. 2020
The D-Sense controller, which was released alongside the Xbox XS, included several revolutionary features. It is all about immersion.
Its haptic feedback and adaptive trigger technology are the most advanced on the market up to this day. The haptic feedback simulates different sensations, such as the feeling of driving over rough terrain or the recoil of a gun.
Adaptive triggers provide different levels of resistance depending on the in-game action. This allows players to physically feel the tension of pulling back a bowstring or the resistance of pressing down on a gas pedal.
Design-wide, it is different from the DualShock 4 in overall shape and size. The DualSense has a more streamlined and ergonomic design, with a textured grip and a hybrid D-pad. It also has a built-in microphone and a dedicated "create" button, which allows players to quickly and easily share their gameplay experiences with others.
The DualSense can be called a game-changer with the way it takes the gaming experience to a more immersive and realistic feel.
But that’s not it - the latest event in the gaming world is the release of the Sony version of the Elite controller, DualSense Edge. It’s unclear what took them so long to release this gem, especially considering the success of the Elite. But it’s finally here.
It's packed with all the immersive features of the DualSense such as haptic feedback and adaptive triggers but takes it to the next level with the option to customize it to your heart's desire. With swappable stick modules, triggers, and back buttons, you can make it as unique as your gaming style.
And with that, you did it! You made it to the end of this study, which means you must be pretty darn passionate about the history of gaming controllers. 50 years of gadget evolution is no small feat, but you managed to conquer it like a boss.
Now that you know the past, would you like to know the future and what's next for gaming controllers? Let's find out what gamers and developers have in store for us in the next and final section of the read.
What to Expect: A Peek into the Future of Gaming
Gamers want to feel like they're in the game, and controllers will be designed to make that dream a reality. With technological breakthroughs and a never-ending desire for more interactive and realistic gaming experiences, the future of gaming controllers is sure to be shaped by innovation.
One of the key trends expected to shape the future of gaming controllers is the evolution of haptic feedback. A controller blowing air in your hair so you feel the wind in the game? Sure, why not?
Voice commands and AI are also likely to be big things, allowing gamers to interact with their games using natural languages and improving the experience while making games more reactive and responsive to players' commands and actions.
Gesture control is yet another trend that's likely to evolve.
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology have the potential to revolutionize the way we play games, allowing players to completely immerse themselves in virtual worlds and interact with game elements like never before.
As technology continues to advance, the gaming world is sure to experience a seismic shift in controller design. So, let's spark a conversation and share our wildest dreams for the future of gaming controllers. How do you think they will look and perform? Leave your thoughts and predictions in the comments below.