News Article

Feature: The Evolution of Nintendo's Controllers

Posted by Thomas Whitehead

From NES to Wii U

In over 25 years of home consoles, Nintendo's done more than just produce ever-improving gaming systems that give us more complex, better-looking games: it's also been a major influence on how we play our games. The company has often been responsible for bringing new control schemes to the mainstream, or adapting ideas from others with its own unique touch.

After the leaked redesigned Wii U controller photo, it occurred to us that Nintendo is continually trying new ideas, both big and small, to evolve our gaming style. Nintendo controllers have developed in interesting ways, so here's a run down of its major home console control schemes. We're only focusing on the main controllers that are packed in with systems, not peripherals or third-party efforts.

Nintendo Entertainment System

By modern standards, the NES controller is very simplistic, but perhaps that's part of its timeless appeal. There were no complex control schemes or uncomfortable button presses to worry about, just a D-Pad, two 'action' buttons and one button each for Start and Select. A reflection of a time when game technology and design was a simpler affair, this set-up's legacy still lives on, as we'll explain later.

Super Nintendo Entertainment System

When SNES and 16-bit gaming came along, the complexity of games and their controls made a sizeable leap. In addition to the inputs on the NES controller gamers now had two extra face buttons and two shoulder buttons. Double the bits, double the buttons, allowing developers to create games with more moves, variables and options than possible on NES. Mario and company, in some cases, now did more than simply run and jump, and let's not forget that fighting games became a whole lot more serious.

Nintendo 64

The first look at the Nintendo 64 controller took many by surprise. Like the 3D game worlds that N64 brought to home consoles, the controller represented a bold step towards controlling a game in three dimensions. It's a strange controller: a typical grip, with the left thumb on the analogue stick, would make the traditional D-Pad redundant and rarely used. The Select button was no more, while four directional 'C' buttons were often used for camera control or inventory items. The trigger button behind the joystick was the source of the famously named 'Z-Targeting' in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and although in hindsight it may be argued that this isn't Nintendo's best design, it took a tentative yet meaningful first step into 3D game control.

Nintendo GameCube

The GameCube evolved from the N64 controller, in terms of similarities in basic shape. It replaced the four 'C' buttons with a second analogue stick, making it Nintendo's first dalliance with dual stick controls. A famous example of the second stick not being used as expected was in Metroid Prime, where movement and aiming both used the left stick: a sign of Nintendo and its developers — Retro Studios in this case — adjusting slowly to new trends. It did feature built in rumble functionality — though not in the 'WaveBird' model — as opposed to the Rumble Pak used in the N64 controller. The standard L and R shoulder buttons featured as analogue 'triggers', another first for Nintendo, and the Z button was now placed just in front of R, on the back of the controller. There was a return to the standard of four face buttons, though with a design twist of a large A button surrounded by smaller B, Y and X equivalents. Its supporters often argue that it's the finest of Nintendo's controllers, finding a balance between functionality and comfortable grip.

Nintendo Wii

The Wii control scheme was a revolution when it arrived in 2006, essentially splitting a standard controller into two separate units. The main controller is the Wii Remote: when held on its side it resembles the classic NES pad, with a D-Pad and two buttons easily pressed with the right hand. When held like a TV remote, however, the main action buttons are A and B, near and below the D-Pad respectively. Power, Home, + and - buttons complete the set, with in-built rumble, IR sensor and accelerometer making it possibly of the most diverse of Nintendo's controllers. The Remote has been used as a retro-styled controller for 2D platformers, and as a pretend tennis racquet, sword, gun and many other things in between. Analogue control is possible, meanwhile, by plugging in the Nunchuk: held in the left hand it has a joystick and two trigger buttons, meaning that many games involve holding a controller in each hand. It's a control scheme credited with bringing motion controls to the mainstream.

Nintendo Wii U

Although the final design is yet to be confirmed formally, despite the leaked images this week, we think we know the following about Nintendo's next innovative controller. The most obvious feature is the 6.2 inch resistive touch screen, similar in principle to the screen used on the DS and 3DS. There'll be two analogue sticks — or Circle Pads, depending on design — as well as four main face buttons. It's expected to have four shoulder buttons and rumble functionality, as well as new features such as NFC (near-field communication) and Bluetooth technology. In addition it'll feature an accelerometer and gyroscope, as well as a front-facing camera and microphone. That's a lot of gizmos and technology in one controller, with demos showing content moving between the new controller and TV, interactions between Wii Remote and the second screen and the exciting possibility of moving the screen and using it as a window into a virtual world.

We'll hopefully learn even more about the Wii U controller's capabilities at E3 2012, but it seems to be an interesting blend of old principles, modern technology and some touches that draw on the legacy of DS handhelds. The Wii U will also be compatible with the Wii Remote and Nunchuk controllers, so those have some life in them yet. All told, it could be the ultimate hybrid controller, bringing motion controls, buttons and unique interactivity to Nintendo's best known brands. We can't wait.

Out of all the Nintendo controllers so far, which is your favourite?

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User Comments (80)



coolvw93 said:

i always like how nintendo is the only gaming company that changes their controllers/button layout on each new generation consoles. im not sure which one is my favorite, sort of a toss up between N64 and Gamecube. but gamecube was the most comfortable to use... cant wait to try out the WiiU too...........



Shiryu said:

The SNES joypad, still the best for me. By the way Thomas, there is an error in the article. That SNES joypad is the PAL European version, not the American one, that only had 2 different colours in the ABXY buttons. The X and Y buttons are also different to the touch, I don't really like them.



Buob said:

Gamecube is my favorite for the moment. I'm not entirely sure about the Wii U's controller. It looks promising, but I really don't know....



WingedSnagret said:

To me it's a match between the GameCube and Wii. As for Wii U, I'll wait and see what it's like before I say anything on the matter.



CommanderAudio said:

Now it's time to kill this website's community with just one killer question.....
Which one is your favourite? (Runs off)



Lalivero said:

@coolvw Yeah, N64 and GC are my favorite of the '3D' era, but the Gamecube controller had a better feel to it.



ShadJV said:

The Super Nintendo by far is my favorite controller. It had the perfect number of buttons, was very comfortable, and looked beautiful (but maybe that's my nostalgia talking). Side note: has a Wii classic controller that is modeled after the SNES controller (and when I say modeled I mean exactly like it) for only $20.

GameCube probably comes in a close second. As much as I've enjoyed my Wii and look forward to the Wii U, these controllers are becoming too gimmicky for me to think of them as classics.

The worst? N64. I LOVE the system and so many of its games, but the controller was awful, the analog sticks broke easily and it was awkward to hold if you weren't a three armed mutant.



hYdeks said:

@Shiryu yay he's right...
This is the real NA SNES Controller: .... just in case you wanna see what it actually looked like...kinda purply looking

@coolvw I agree, I like how Nintendo isn't afraid to change its controller each gen., unlike PlayStation which they had to pay THREE times now for basicly the same controller....very sad.

My fav controller so far is the Wii's



Kinioka said:

It would be great if Nintendo had their own identity with their controllers. Although they innovate in each generation bringing new things to the table, they also usually create the most uncomfortable ones. I think the classic controller pro is really their best thing to date, precisely because of its simplicity.



MegaAdam said:

The gamecube has the best ergonomics of any controller I've ever touched. There are some things that could definitely be improved, like the d-pad, but it just feels amazing to hold.

And one of the greatest benefits to the Wii Remote and Nunchuk is having independent hands. You don't have to keep them together to play, and this is a supremely comfortable way to control games. I love the remote+chuk for games without motion control or IR pointing, even.

My hands cramp on a dualshock after a couple of hours. I've never had that happen on either the Wavebird or the Wiimote.



Raylax said:

@hydeks Playstation's pad hasn't undergone any major changes in the past three gens because it worked so well right from day one.

I suspect that had Nintendo not opted to go for a much simpler controller design after the GC, that would be their "PS Pad" - the one that stuck around for generations. Indeed, it's still a highly worthwhile choice (and in several cases superior to the Classic Controller/CCPro) for many Wii titles that support it. The GC pad is my favourite.



ThomasBW84 said:

RE: SNES image - Yep, my bad, that's actually the PAL region controller. Caption has been updated.

@metafaniel - 'Nintendo controllers have developed in interesting ways, so here's a run down of its major home console control schemes', emphasis on home consoles, not handhelds



ogo79 said:

"By modern standards, the NES controller is very simplistic, but perhaps that's part of its timeless appeal. There were no complex control schemes or uncomfortable button presses to worry about, just a D-Pad, two 'action' buttons and one button each for Start and Select. A reflection of a time when game technology and design was a simpler affair"

class is in session folks.



Alienfish said:

I think I'm going to like this new Wii U controller. I don't think it's possible to really pick a favorite though, since each controller is so different from the last one. I'm usually partial to the newest model, but then there's the fact that Wiimote/Nunchuk is quite different from the Gamecube controller. Yeah, this Wii U controller is going to make me completely content I think since it will finally have everything all in one package.



BulbasaurusRex said:

The N64 controller sucks, while the GC controller is the greatest video game controller ever made. In particular, it was brilliant to make the face buttons different sizes and shapes so as to never get confused between them without ever needing to look away from the TV. I'm surprised that concept never caught on to other controllers afterwards.

The Wiimote and Nunchuck get credit for being the first ambidextrous controller set. Lefties, if you're having trouble mastering analog movement with your right hand in Kid Icarus: Uprising, practice with the Wiimote and Nunchuck, preferably in a game with a lot of Wiimote swinging (to get the feel of using your left hand for something better befitting your dominant hand while moving your character with your right hand) like Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Red Steel (1 or 2), or Zelda: Skyward Sword.



Tasuki said:

My favorite is the SNES controller. The button lay out just seemed perfect and it was easy on the hands to hold not like the N64 controller. I do however think the original NES controller is the most durable Nintendo controller ever. I remember in my youth I must have slammed my NES controller into the hard floor and threw it full force into the wall so many time I lost count and they still work to this day. Nowadays you throw a Wiimote or PS, or Xbox controller into the wall and thats it its totaled.




All of those were very comfortable and brilliant controllers to use. My favourite is the wiimote and nunchuck. Yes really.



Corbs said:

While my old school nature will always love the Super NES controller, I do think the Gamecube controller was a damn fine controller. Especially the Wavebird.



Tasuki said:

@Kyloctopus: Cause the Virtual Boy was considered a handheld and Thomas said that this was article was about home consoles not handhelds.



SteveW said:

Not sure I will like the Wii U controller... especially if only one person can use it... but if it will allow me to play DS/3DS games on the Wii U I will love it!



warioswoods said:

I love the asymmetry of the Gamecube controller. Personally I consider the CC (and now Wii U) layout to be a step backwards in that department. It was wonderful to have the different face buttons (A/B/X/Y) actually feel completely different from one another, making muscle memory of different actions smoother. Similarly I prefer asymmetry for the sticks.



HaNks said:

gamecube all round best - majorly ergonomic and well designed, it still puts the 360 and sony pads to shame. n64 honourable mention for its z trigger and analogue stick which had a very satisfying stiffness. it was great for larger hands where you lean your thumb over from the left side and get really tight control of the stick. and the snes one pretty much nailed it for 2d gaming with the button layout. it's still the cornerstone of button layouts today.



bigpale said:

NES = Revolution ( control with your thumb)
SNES = Evolution (shoulder buttons)
N64 = Revolution (Control Stick...analogue control with your thumb)
NGC = Evolution (wireless with WaveBird)
Wii = Revolution (motion...3D control with your movements)
WiiU = Evolution (touch screen on a home console)
next???CANT WAIT



Emaan said:

Interesting to see all of them in retrospect. I really liked the Gamecube controller. The Wii remote worked out great too. I really hope the Wii U controller turns out to be something legendary. We'll find out soon!



black-kyurem said:

Personally my favorite controller has to be the GC controller because it's super easy to use and i grew up on the gamecube (i bought mine when i was five: still have it and all 3 of my controllers). My least favorites are the wii mote and Wii u pad for two reasons.
1:They both have gimmicks. I'm usually ok with Nintendo trying to be new and innovative.(Without the Wii to compete against Sony and Microsoft probably wouldn't have made Kinect and Move) But, there's a fine line between innovation... (wiimote-even though i don't like the motion controls and it's shape)and just plain exessiveness.(i'm looking at you 6 inch screen in the middle of the wii u pad)
2: They look nothing like controllers. The Wiimote functioned almost entirely on motion. And even though people say that the Wii u pad is comfy, the fact that the buttons on the left and right side are at least 6 inches apart still doesn't seem quite right to me.
I'm not saying tha the Wii, Wii u, and/or their controllers are bad. I'm just stating the reasons why i don't like thier controllers



Chris720 said:

The GCN controller will always hold a special place in my heart, it's comfortable to hold and the buttons are all in easily accessible positions and you never have to strain your thumbs to reach buttons..

The Wii remote and Nunchuk combo will also be the bane for my thumbs, you have to slide your thumb down quite a way to reach some buttons, which is annoying in hectic FPS games, but the pointer controls made up for the out-dated dual analog.



MattEriks said:

i think nintendo's best controller i the wii Classic Controler Pro Its flawless. Gamecube has the crappiest d pad in Nintendo's history



ajcismo said:

Love the Gamecube controller, my personal favorite of all controllers in the history of game controlling. I really liked the N64 controller when it came out, but I had more than one friend who didn't get along with it very well. That stick was pretty flimsy.



Mk_II said:

The SNES controller is most pleasing to the eye and more comfortable but the GC controller is the best controller ever made



warioswoods said:

I wish they'd have just clamped the old Gamecube buttons to the Wii U instead of that CC look.

More like this, but with higher quality of course:

GC > Classic Controller



Sam_Loser2 said:

Nintendo hasn't always made the best predictions, and by far the worst is the idea humans would grow a third arm. That being said, I still love the N64 controller, something about it just works for me. However, my favorite would have to go out to the Gamecube. It's just perfect. Can't Smash without it.



Ruthven said:

I’m still in love with the GCN Controller; I still use my WaveBird for Wii games that support it. I’m bitterly disappointed in Nintendo for not making a WaveBird Wii U (for all the cross platform goodness wii will miss out on) ... as the Classic Controller Pro just does not cut it.



Odnetnin said:

I forgot how ugly the N64 controller was.

The GameCube controller would've been perfect if you didn't have to choose between wireless and rumble, but as it stands it's still the best Nintendo has ever produced.

The Wii Remote and Nunchuk have vast potential (as explained in the article) that wasn't fully tapped into with the Wii, imo, so here's hoping the Wii U gives them the chance to reach their full potential. The Classic Controller fills the void the lack of dual sticks on the traditional set-up left, for the most part, but the lack of wireless hurts it.

The Wii U controller seems great so far, except for the lack of rear-facing camera--c'mon, Nintendo, that can't cost too much to tack on--but overall it's pretty much the best of all worlds. I mean, seriously, it has a touchscreen in the middle! Tell me the Wii U doesn't automatically have the most versatile control options ever seen in gaming.




Hmm.... NES = best d-pad. SNES = best button layout N64 = Most comfortable GCN = Built-in rumble, best camera stick Wii = Great for one-handed games and surfing the internet Wii U = Great for playing golf and painting



RantingThespian said:

I actually Like the N64 controller the most. I know people complain about the size and other things, but I liked how it feels and I prefer how the buttons are organized. I also preferred the Z Trigger button on the underside. The only complaint I have with it is the control stick. After so much use, it gets worn out and loses it's accuracy (mainly due to how much I played Mario Party back when it came out).



SamsonCat said:

Nice post! I thought the Gamecube had the best controller in my opinion. Second would be the SNES.



gyyrro said:

The Gamecube had the best controller in my opinion. The button navigation was perfect and had comfortable melding, plus, it's probably the only controller to survive two generations.



Radixxs said:

I love the Gamecube controller. After all these years, slipping my hands onto that bad boy feels still feels so right... I never knew how to use it and I never had to learn. It somehow came second nature. I'd love if the new Smash Bros. was GCN controller-compatible.



BudrSbastig said:

The wave bird was the best controller, so comfortable, and my first wireless one, it worked so well and the batts lasted ages.and its still plugged in to my wii. ohhh what about the NES power glove



Aerona said:

I love the Gamecube controller. ;-; The Wii remote is awesome too, I love not having to keep my hands so close together, using it on its side, and of course the Motion Controls!



TimboBaggins said:

The SNES controller is a classic that has yet to be improved upon. However, the GC and even the Wii controllers are very comfortable to hold (but the button layout isn't always as friendly). THe original NES, while revolutionary for its time, is too limited an pointy (ouch!). THe worst is that damned three pronged N64 controller.....what the hell were they smoking? The N64 controller confused my adolescent brain so much when I tried to use it at Toys R Us that I never bought an N64 and instead went straight back to my SNES until the Dreamcast came along.



ThreadShadow said:

All great controllers, and I'm looking forward to the Wiiu controller too. Looks great.

The d-pad on the N64 was sidelined because they actually didn't want to include it at all.

The Gamecube controller is great but has a couple oddities. 1. They dropped the memory card slot. Considering how thin the gc cards were, and how they put big emphasis on 4-players, and going to your buddies and uploading your memory card-keeping the mc slot on the controller just made sense. Too bad, that was an innovation on the N64 controller they should have kept.
And 2. the "Z" button was almost redundant seeing as the "L" trigger was now the "Z" trigger.
And 3. the unfortunately tiny D-pad shows once again Nintendo didn't really want to include it at all.

Still, great controllers all, and all "connected" with great memories!



StarDust4Ever said:

My Dogbone is actually less responsive than my NES rectangle pad. The NES controller is a classic, for sure. two buttons for jump and run/shoot = simple control. The Game Cube controller is best for analog, but the D-Pad is too small for accurate 2-D platforming.

Ironically, my favorite controller is the PS2-Dual Shock for all-around comfort, despite the fact I sold my PS2. I have a USB-adapter for Playstation 2 and it works flawlessly for both digital and analog modes.



JimLad said:

The Gamecube controller was indeed very comfortable, it had the nicest analogue stick. But I gotta say I wasn't a fan of the buttons, especially the shoulder buttons.
NES, SNES and N64 controllers were all groundbreaking, adding new options that have since become standard. But I think the SNES with it's diamond button layout and shoulder buttons has had the most enduring legacy. It's quite simply a classic.



Kirk said:

As Nintendo controllers go I actually think the Wii U controller will turn out to be their best controller ever. It has all the functions and features of their more traditional controllers perfectly executed into one simple and user friendly design.

The only thing it won't do as well as their previous controllers is the full motion control that the Wiimote offered. I think that's actually ok however because motion control is less suited to certain games and genres than all the more standard controls we've become accustomed to, so I'd rather the motion control was a secondary option than the other way around.

The Wiimote was a sidestep in their controller design imo. Different but not necessarily better than what came before it. At least not for certain types of games and genres.

The Wii U controller looks more like a diagonally forward step. It goes back to what worked so well in all their previous controllers, before the Wiimote, but also advances forward with the new touchscreen component. And the Wiimotes can still be used with the Wii U anyway should we want to play a game with full motion control or waggle.

I really think the Wii U controller could turn out to be something very special indeed.



XCWarrior said:

Crazy. I always thought that the systems had basically the same controller! other words, slow news week, eh?



Marioman64 said:

i love how if you turn the NES controller 90 degrees it looks EXACTLY like a wii controller



MAB said:

Megadrive/Genesis and Saturn 6-button controller were the best and most comfortable. The Wiimote and nunchuck ushered in a new form of laziness for me because instead of holding my hands together in front of me now I can just lounge back with my arms fully rested apart on each armrest of my Lazyboy chair even for FPS games all you have to do is flick your wrist slightly to aim I could even play less motion controlled games with my arms over the back of the couch. No other control schemes allow that sort of comfort so I thought it was a great idea.



luminalace said:

I have to pick the SNES controller. It brought the diamond button design and shoulder buttons as the norm! I quite liked the Gamecube and N64 pads too but I want my PS3/360 owning mates to be comfortable with Nintendo controllers so I can show them the light! Too unique and these people get alienated!



WiiLovePeace said:

My favourite is the WiiMote + Nunchuck, it's just such a light & easy combination. Or the Classic Controller Pro, that thing just rocks for Virtual Console games. I don't see why some see the gamecube controller as being so awesome, for one thing when I hold it my middle finger rubs against the back of the d-pad & c-stick part of the controllers, guess my hands are too big. Whereas holding the CCP has my my middle fingers just nessled in the corner of the arm parts & the back... If any of that made sense I also like symmetry but everyone's different I guess.



James said:

@wing0black You betcha

For me, Wii Remote + Nunchuk is the best combination. Incredibly comfortable — I can play with my arms crossed! — and wireless too. Second best is GameCube, I suppose.



iPruch said:

The Gamecube one is the best traditional controller ever in terms of ergonomics, quality and button distribution. Perhaps the worst thing of it is the d-pad, but luckily it wasn't used too much.

Can't wait to see that Wii U controller on my hands



Henmii said:

Let's see, the Gamecube controller is probably the best one!
It has all the buttons you need, and feels awesome in your hands. The rumble feature is also pretty cool!



Bassman_Q said:

I'd have to say that the GameCube controller was my favorite (like most people here), as it just felt natural in all the games on the system. Plus, the trigger buttons were nice to press.

For me the Wii Remote and Nunchuck was kind of awkward at times, and it still is to this day for my hands. However, I LOVE using the remote sideways for NES/TG16/Genesis games on VC. The buttons just feel awesome and natural when playing Mega Man 2 or Cave Story or Monster World IV on the Wii.



McHaggis said:

The Wii controller and Nunchuk feels like the most ergonomic controller ever designed, to me. You can relax your hands when holding them, vary the distance apart and your hands wrap around both controllers with your fingers very naturally placed over the buttons. To double as a pointing tool and include motion controls, as well as the expansion port really makes it the swiss army knife of video game controls. It's a revolutionary invention that still really impresses me, so I'm glad it's sticking around for the Wii U.

For playing VC games, though, I love my SNES classic controller for a bit of added nostalgia.



Cia said:

I wouldn't say that the GC controller is the best, since the analog stick wears out too quickly. Also, it has too small D-Pad. Classic Controller Pro is just flawless.



Kagami_hiiragi said:

so their was the nes,gamecube,gameboy,gameboy advanced,nintendo 64,nintendo DS, nintendo DSI,nintendo 3ds,and the wii u and they all look super cool byt I can't decide on witch is my favorite..

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