The History Of The Joystick

Stuart Hunt


We lookback at the history of the video game controller.

Published on Jul 22, 2011

While their looks and sounds have changed dramatically over the past three decades, the ways in which we play videogames have only recently started to evolve significantly by comparison.

The joystick, the fire button, the paddle, and the quirky game peripheral have all been around since the dawn of the industry, and the innovative control methods to have emerged following the Seventies can pretty much be counted on one hand. 

Developed by American physicist Willy Higinbotham, the quaintly titled 1958 game Tennis For Two was one of the first electronic games ever produced.

Built in a New York research facility, the game was a simple recreation of tennis, viewed from a side-on perspective, and its graphics were displayed through an oscilloscope.

Surprisingly, considering the game’s age, TFT demonstrated an intelligent control scheme that suited the style of the game: played by two people, each player used an analogue control box that contained a fire button to strike the ball and a rotatable knob that could influence its trajectory.

Of course, TFT was a rare exception. Back then, many early games and control schemes were designed using whatever was available to engineers at the time.

In the case of Steve Russell’s seminal 1962 videogame Spacewar! – the world’s first built-for-purpose videogame – the game ran on colossal PDP-1 mainframe hardware, and players used five toggle switches on the machine to operate the left and right rotation, thrust, firing and hyperspace controls of the game’s two spaceships.

However, realising that this control method proved cumbersome and awkward, engineers later created standalone control boxes, each containing two toggle switches and a single action button.

Hooked up to the PDP-1 with a wire, these boxes would become the earliest examples of a dedicated game controller. By 1971, the first wave of commercial coin-operated videogames were beginning to appear.

First to be released was Bill Pits and Hugh Tuck’s Galaxy Game. The game was a reprogrammed version of Spacewar! that ran on PDP-11/20 hardware but was mounted inside a fibreglass unit, giving it the appearance of an arcade machine.

In the same year, Nolan Bushnell also released his revision of Spacewar!, Computer Space. However, instead of toggle switches, Bushnell further simplified the control scheme using buttons for input.

The early Seventies also saw the advent of the paddle controls. A variant of the rotatable knob controller first seen in TFT, the paddle, which works using a potentiometer to vary the output of the voltage levels to signal movement, was first used for a commercial videogame in Atari’s Pong, in 1972.

And like TFT, the simple control scheme – no buttons, no dials, just a simple paddle used to move the game’s in-game paddles up and down – went hand in hand with Pong’s simple gameplay, and allowed its cabinet to look sparse and uncluttered so as not to alienate potential customers who were green to videogames.

The original game controllers relied on little more than directional movement.

Designed by Ralph Bear, the Magnavox Odyssey (1972) is responsible for beginning the home videogame market. The first ever multi-game console, the machine worked in a similar way to the oscilloscope graphics of Tennis For Two.

It basically projected light sources on screen that could be moved by players to play basic videogames, and used various overlays that rested on television screens to give its games colour and graphic.

Replicating the strange space-age shape of the console itself, the Odyssey controller featured two analogue paddles positioned either side of its toaster-shaped design: one to allow vertical movement, and the other horizontal movement of one of two differing sized glowing light cursors that appeared on screen.

A third dial, added to the crest of the horizontal paddle, allowed manipulation of a third light source that represented balls and torpedoes in some Odyssey games.

Magnavox also released an unsettlingly realistic light gun for the Odyssey. Known as the Shooting Gallery – it came packed with a selection of shooting games, hence the name – it worked by detecting hits against light sources on the television and was the first commercial game peripheral released for any home console.

The most notable controller to come out following the Odyssey’s release was the Fairchild Channel F’s Hand-Controller in 1976. The Hand-Controller took the appearance of a short, baseless joystick that was bolted onto a long black hand grip.

Predating Atari’s VCS Stick by a year, it is one of the earliest examples of a joystick-style controller, and is also one of the first to be designed with ergonomics in mind.

The Fairchild’s short triangular-shaped stick could also be used like a traditional joystick, or rotated to work like a paddle. It was pressure-sensitive and could be pushed down to act like a fire button, and pulled up like a bottle opener to signal another input to the console.

But it was Atari that would really popularise the joystick controller. The Atari VCS stick (1977) remains one of the most iconic game controllers ever designed.

Comprising a dark black base housing a single digital red fire button and a cylindrical four-way joystick positioned in its centre, its simple design may not have been much to look at, but it hid its own benefits.

Realising that the VCS would be the first time that many people would ever see a videogame, let alone actually pick one up and play one, Atari purposely packed the VCS with a simple control scheme that users could easily pick up and use.

Additionally, the VCS stick’s all-purpose feel was designed to cope with the multitude of different games that would later appear on the console. Atari’s VCS console was also notable for having a wide range of control peripherals.

In a bid to replicate an authentic arcade experience for the console’s arcade ports, Atari later released the Paddle Controller for use with games such as Pong, Breakout and Warlords, and the Driving Controller – basically identical to the Paddle Controller, except it was sold individually rather than in pairs – for use with racing games Indy 500 and Race.

It also released the Keyboard Controller, for use with the programming software tool Basic Programming and a small number of educational software titles.

By the end of the Seventies, controller designs were becoming more complex. The Intellivision controller, for instance, featured a digital control disc with 16 directional positions and a 12-button numerical pad, plus four additional action buttons positioned on its sides.

The number pad made use of overlays that explained the function of each button for their respective games. Coleco Industries later imitated this style of controller for its ColecoVision console in 1982, but replaced the control disc with a short joystick.

To compete with Atari, Coleco also released a number of peripherals for its machine, including a steering wheel controller; a trackball, which came packaged with the games Victory and the Centipede clone Slither; and the Super Controller.

Held like a pricing gun, and with finger triggers forming the fingery bit of the hand grip, the weighty Super Controller was produced specifically to play with the console’s Super Action series of sport games.

By the early Eighties, the videogame industry was becoming flooded with game consoles and low-budget videogames as electronic manufacturers scrambled to capitalise on demand – one of the many contributing factors of its eventual collapse in 1983.

And the glut of peripherals, add-ons and newfangled control schemes was only adding to its already-saturated state. It’s here that we turn our attentions to a company called Nintendo, which, in 1985, would help resurrect the videogame industry in North America by stripping things right back and simplifying things again – including control schemes. 

The NES controller was revoultionary, and a major influence on the way our controllers take shape today.

The origin of Nintendo’s D-pad (or directional pad) can be traced right back to its Game & Watch electronic games – one of Nintendo’s earliest forays in electronic entertainment.

These cute, pocket-sized LCD games were designed to offer true portable gaming, but through their transportable design, they would also come to revolutionise the design of game controllers forever.

Realising that incorporating a joystick into the design of the G&W would impede the pocket nature of his new product, Yokoi looked to a more portable control system and eventually settled on using tiny rubber buttons.

Not only would buttons allow the Game & Watch to retain its portability, but they also offered a simple and responsive control method – pressing buttons requires less physical movement than moving a joystick – that suited the twitchy but simplistic nature of the G&W games.

This control scheme was refined further in 1982 with the release of the G&W title Donkey Kong Jr. It featured four action buttons that were positioned in a cross position to visually correspond with the movements up, down, left and right, and the D-pad was born.

Nintendo would patent this revolutionary and unique cross-shape button design, and incorporate it into every one of its control pads from that moment on.

While often criticised for its angular look, the Famicom/NES joypad was actually very intelligent in its design. Borrowing the D-pad and simple control scheme of the Game & Watch games – two action buttons and Select and Start to toggle between game modes – the NES pad’s simple layout, like Atari’s VCS stick and Pong’s paddle controls, would find appeal with those unfamiliar with videogames.

They also suited the uncomplicated nature of those early Nintendo games, and by limiting the NES pad to just two action buttons, it meant that most developers were forced to make games for the NES easy to pick up and play.

It was owing to the success of the NES that the game pad then became the preferred and adopted control method for console manufacturers, with many companies quickly submitting their own take on Nintendo’s seminal D-pad controller.

In 1986, Atari released a comparable controller for the 7800, featuring two action buttons and a cross-shape D-pad that had a hole in its centre to allow attachment of a small screw-in joystick, and Sega released a similar controller for its Sega Mark III/Sega Master System.

The SMS pad featured two action buttons, and an eight-way D-pad.  Known as the D-button as its square shape gave it the look of a button, early versions of the pad also allowed the attachment of a small joystick.

Sega tended to stick to more tried-and-tested controller designs.

Finally, there was the PC-Engine controller (1987). The most comparable joypad to the NES controller in terms of look, it featured two action buttons, Select and Run buttons, and a circular D-pad.

Later iterations, such as the controllers that came packed with the SuperGrafx and Turbo Duo, added three-way turbo switches for each of their action buttons.

Meanwhile, throughout Europe and parts of North America, thanks to the booming microcomputer and arcade industries, joysticks still had a strong following.

Like Nintendo, many joystick manufacturers had realised that stripping things back was gainful, and produced basic but functional joysticks to suit the needs of gamers.

Most of these designs were reminiscent of the early Atari VCS stick, and featured DE-9 connectors, digital sticks and two digital fire buttons for left or right-handed use.

Movement in early digital joysticks worked from leaf switches, where the joystick would register movement whenever the stick was pushed in the desired direction, causing two metal connectors to meet.

Over time, though, these leaf connectors would bend, causing connections to fail unless the joystick was opened up and the connectors readjusted, understandably causing many headaches for arcade operators.

The introduction of micro switch technology in joysticks would help solve this problem. Micro switches were more robust and, as they could be triggered with very little physical force, were also more responsive.

As well as the change from leaf to micro switch technology in joysticks, the early Eighties saw the first analogue joysticks emerge with the release of the Vectrex and Atari 5200 (both 1982) joystick controllers.

Unlike digital joysticks, which registered movement whenever a connection between two connectors was made, analogue sticks worked using potentiometers, like the earlier paddles, to offer a continual input of activity, and better precision.

In 1989, British peripheral manufacturer Konix, maker of the popular Konix Speed King stick, planned to enter the console market with its innovative Konix Multisystem – a television-based console that took the shape of a controller.

The 3DO didn't really have much innovation in its controller design.

The console was designed with the assistance of Cambridge-based Flare Technologies, which would later have a hand in the development of the Atari Jaguar, with Konix coming up with the console’s unique three-part design – the main system could transform into a steering wheel, flight yoke or bike handlebars.

It also came with a gaming seat boasting surround sound and haptic feedback technology, predating Nintendo’s N64 Rumble Pak peripheral by eight years – and Flare coming up with the processor and hardware.

Despite boasting some impressive specs and support – it featured a 16-bit 8086 processor and 3D capabilities – plus planned third-party software from high-profile developers, including Llamasoft, EA, Ocean and Argonaut, Konix experienced trouble in trying to raise the money to get the console to market, forcing its release to be pushed back until it was eventually scrapped altogether.

Entering the Nineties, many console manufacturers finally started considering ergonomics in the design of their game pads. The Sega Mega Drive control pad (1988) not only slotted into hands better, thanks to its kidney shape, but also featured an ergonomic button layout.

The pad had three action buttons, and Sega’s decision to go with this setup was likely a result of its early arcade games. Altered Beast, Golden Axe and Shinobi all featured three action buttons on their arcade cabs, and they were positioned diagonally to follow the natural resting position of the right thumb: another defining moment in controller design that would quickly go on to become the standard.

The Mega Drive controller also featured an improved version of the SMS D-button. More similar to the NES D-pad, the Mega Drive version added a cross-shape detail, affording more precision to the user, and was set slightly into the pad to provide a neat gully for left thumbs.

In 1990, Nintendo answered back by releasing one of the most popular and copied control pads ever made. A subtle tweak on its NES pad, the SNES controller was dog-bone shaped, compact, and its iconic design and clean button layout is still used in game pads today.

As well as being more comfortable to hold, the controller featured a softer D-pad and four diagonally positioned face buttons that were complemented by two shoulder buttons placed at the top of the pad. A canny design choice by Nintendo, the two bumper buttons gave the controller a total of six buttons without it looking cluttered.

Furthermore, having twice as many action buttons as the Mega Drive proved advantageous to the Super Nintendo in the wake of six-button games such as Street Fighter II.

The Jaguar controller was a beast, with its 12-button keypad.

The eventual return to the console market by Atari, with the Atari Jaguar in 1993, resulted in one of the most disastrous high-profile console releases in history.

Citing that the machine was difficult to program for, Atari’s 64-bit beast failed to gain support from third-party developers. And learning nothing from the boom and bust nature of the videogame industry following the crash of 1983, Atari did itself no favours by releasing its new machine at a time when the console market was once again looking saturated.

But the problems didn’t end there. The Jaguar also featured one of the most ill-conceived game controllers ever designed. Shaped like a haggis, the Jaguar controller was bulky, ugly and cumbersome, and its dark black case and red buttons, which gave it the aesthetic of the old Atari VCS stick, made it look old and dated from the outset.

The Jaguar controller featured all the normal control elements that gamers had come to expect: a D-pad, two Start buttons and three diagonally positioned action buttons.

However, owing to Atari’s decision to add an interfering numerical pad to the design – the intention was to make use of instruction overlays much like the Intellivision and ColecoVision controllers – the direction and action buttons were pushed to the top of the controller, making its layout feel awkward and cumbersome.

By the mid-Nineties, 32-bit consoles and their respective controllers were appearing. For the Sega Saturn controller (1994), Sega would base the design on the six-button version of the Mega Drive controller, which it had packed with Mega Drive 2 consoles.

As well as being thinner and shapelier, the Saturn pad featured two fantastically ergonomic shoulder buttons. In North America and Europe, however, the Saturn controller underwent a transformation.

As well as a change in colour to tie in with the black look of the Saturn in these territories, it was chunkier, featured a different, spikier D-pad, and those fantastic ergonomic shoulder buttons were planed off so as to tidily integrate them into the shape of the pad.

In 1994, a determined Sony finally entered the videogame hardware arena with the PlayStation. Given Sony’s infamous past with Nintendo – Sony’s contract to manufacture the SPC-700 sound chip for the Super Nintendo, the ill-fated SNES PlayStation project, and then Sony’s humiliation following the bombshell that Nintendo was in cahoots with Philips to manufacture the SNES CD-ROM drive – it’s little wonder that the PlayStation controller shared more than a passing resemblance to the SNES pad.

The DualShock controller has remained largely unchanged for three generations of consoles. A testiment to its clever design.

Sony had invested a significant amount of cash into the SNES PlayStation project, even getting as far as the prototype stage, so it’s little surprise that it mimicked Nintendo’s popular SNES pad design.

The PlayStation controller is essentially just a more ergonomic SNES pad, adding two additional shoulder buttons (L2 and R2) and incorporating two vertical hand grips into its design, offering more comfort and stability.

With the 32-bit generation came a growing trend for polygon-pushing 3D games. And while D-pads worked brilliantly in flat worlds, they weren’t really equipped to handle the depth and precision required to steer avatars in 3D ones – remember how dire the controls were in Resident Evil.

1996 marks the year that all the big console manufacturers turned to analogue sticks for help. In this year, Nintendo released the N64 to the market, and it came with one of the most innovative controller designs ever seen.

The pad’s unique M shape allowed it to be held in three different ways, and its unique analogue stick – or ‘Control Stick’, as it was coined – offered a precise control method that was perfect for platform games such as Super Mario 64.

It’s understood, too, that Nintendo designed the N64 controller around this game, while its yellow C-buttons for controlling in-game cameras proved invaluable in games such as GoldenEye and Zelda: Ocarina Of Time.

The N64 controller was also the first pad to feature haptic feedback through the attachment of a Rumble Pak peripheral. Launched in 1997 to coincide with the release of Star Fox 64, the Rumble Pak could be attached to the memory cartridge slot underneath the pad and exerted a physical output on the user to offer a heightened sense of immersion.

The notches on the N64 analogue stick meant holding a specific direction was more manageable.

In 1996 Sega also released a custom analogue controller for its groundbreaking Saturn game NiGHTS Into Dreams. Its large, round design was carried over to the design of the Dreamcast controller, and it’s the design that Microsoft would ostensibly base its original Xbox controller on.

But Sony beat both Sega and Nintendo to the punch by releasing the Analog Joystick flight stick peripheral for the PlayStation. Sony followed this up with the PlayStation Dual Analog Controller a year later, which added two analogue nubs to the original PlayStation pad to offer precision control.

The Dual Analog Controller’s successor, the DualShock, then incorporated force-feedback through two motors that provided soft and strong vibrations, and rubber-textured analogue nubs that could be pressed down to actuate two additional inputs (L3 and R3).

Sony would later go on to release a total of three variants of the DualShock; one for each of its three games consoles. The PlayStation 3 variant, the DualShock 3, was a wireless controller that featured tilt-sensor technology. It was the successor to the PS3’s Sixaxis Wireless Controller, a lightweight tilt-sensor pad without the vibration technology.

Until now, all of Nintendo’s controller designs had brought something unique and innovative to the table. However, its next controller would memorably buck this trend.

While well-constructed and ergonomically sound, the GameCube pad was essentially a Swiss Army knife in terms of controller design that tried to encompass all the control schemes that had come before it.

As a result, trying to accommodate the myriad controls that gamers were familiar with meant the pad suffered by looking cluttered and unwieldy.

The Donkey Kong Bongos were perhaps the most specific of all peripherals.

Similar in design to the DualShock, the GameCube pad juggled eight buttons, two analogue sticks – one stick was a variant of the N64’s C-buttons – a D-pad and a built-in rumble motor.

And its derivative and overtly complex nature also went some way to scupper Nintendo’s creative flair. Shigeru Miyamoto echoed this observation in an interview with Famitsu magazine in 2008. “We made [the GameCube controller] as a culmination of everything leading up to it, but it really underwhelmed."

"This line of thinking doesn’t give us anything else to shoot for, does it?” admitted Miyamoto. “The GameCube controller is a product of us feeling that, without this or that, people wouldn’t be able to play the games we make. But then we realised that was a problem; that we were thinking based on that controller as the premise.”

But Nintendo of course returned with an innovative control scheme for its next console. Likely considering the popularity and success of computer vision and gesture-recognition technology seen at work with the Sony EyeToy.

Having already tested the water with gesture recognition in games – unsuccessfully in the Eighties with half-baked NES peripherals such as Mattel’s Power Glove and Brøderbund’s U-Force, and far more successfully with the touch-screen and stylus controls on the DS – Nintendo decided that a demand for this new immersive way of playing games existed.

It knew that it had the means and know-how to apply this technology to its next games console, the Wii. The Wii marked a watershed moment in controller design, and its ultimate influence is still impossible to predict.

It wasn't until the Wii that we saw a radical shift in how we play games.

Its main wireless controller, the Wii Remote, looked like a television remote control, but, like the N64 pad, it could be held in different ways: either like a traditional NES controller, with control via a D-pad and two face buttons; or held like a baton to offer pointer functionality – a feature that it gets from containing multiple accelerometers that measure all directions of motion and communicating with a sensor bar that plugs into the Wii console and sits above the television.

Nintendo also included a secondary analogue controller for the console that plugged into the Remote. Nicknamed the Nunchuk, it featured an analogue stick, two trigger buttons and an accelerometer to registered gestural movement, but offered no pointer functionality.

Mimicking what it had done previously with Super Mario 64 and the N64 pad, Nintendo released a series of simple games to show off the motion sensor control scheme (Wii Sports), and applied them intelligently to games that required more traditional control methods, like Super Mario Galaxy, to demonstrate the versatility of its new machine.

In terms of time-honoured controllers, the Xbox 360 would succeed where the GameCube failed. Essentially a far better revision of the GameCube pad, proving that Nintendo actually came very close to getting it right once again, the 360 controller is a versatile, well-constructed and wonderfully comfortable controller, and is only equalled by Sony’s lasting and similarly excellent DualShock. 

Microsoft’s announcement in 2009 that it was following Nintendo’s lead through Project Natal – a control peripheral for the Xbox that negates the need for game controllers completely by using full-body 3D motion capture and face and voice-recognition technology – provides an ironic close to this overview of the evolution of game controllers.



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