Feature: The Evolution of Nintendo's Controllers

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?