Controllers: A Divergent Evolution

Controllers: A Divergent Evolution

Lately I've become something of a controller nerd, and having taken notice of a lot of different controllers throughout the history of gaming, I wanted to quickly documented something interesting I've noticed.

I'm sure many of you are familiar with the sort of "rivalry" that existed between Nintendo and Sega in the early 90s. These days, it seems like a thing of the past; Sega doesn't even make their own consoles anymore, and in fact have collaborated with Nintendo on many occasions since the early 2000s. Nowadays, PlayStation and Xbox have taken up the torches of console rivalry. And while they're not at each other's throat quite as much as the companies who came before them, some aspects of their design philosophy have persisted through the ages. Namely, the controllers.

The Nintendo/Sony Line

Here, we start with the Nintendo Entertainment System controller.

A very classic design most people are familiar with. The things I want to point out here the most are:

  • The cross-shaped d-pad

  • Select and Start in the middle

  • B button on the left, A button on the right

While the Famicom controllers differed from the NES's in aesthetic and form factor, they essentially share the same layout.

Now let's take a look at how Nintendo took this design and evolved it for the fourth-generation of consoles.

Shares some notable similarities with the NES controller. But here's some important differences:

  • More rounded shape

  • Four-button diamond layout, with B and A being assigned to the bottom and right buttons respectively

  • L and R shoulder buttons

The SNES controller is perhaps one of the most influential controllers of all-time for the two reasons listed above: almost every modern controller has shoulder buttons and a diamond button layout, which both originated here. However, while the Super Nintendo controller created this design, what arguably cemented it was:

Yes, we're already jumping to a new brand.

As it might be common knowledge now, the Sony PlayStation was originally designed as a disc-based add-on for the Super Nintendo. However, as Nintendo wasn't interested in seeing it through, Sony opted to make it into their own home console, which went on to be a huge success that turned Sony into a video game giant overnight, a position they still hold 25+ years later.

But enough yammering. The PlayStation controller shows it's roots as a SNES add-on in it's design similarities to the SNES controller, but with some notable changes and additions:

  • Handles!!!

  • Segmented d-pad (likely as Nintendo still held the patent on their d-pad design at this time, though it's stuck around even after the patent expired)

  • Lettered buttons replaced by colored shapes (unfortunately due to pedants on Twitter I legally have to point out that it's not an "X" but a "cross", as if that's different from an X)

  • Not visible from this screenshot, but two additional shoulder buttons in L2 and R2.

The PlayStation controller was very innovative for it's time; we're like 80% of the way to a modern controller right now. Though, given that 3D gaming was booming in the mid-90s, a controller with only a d-pad was simply never going to be able to keep up. This is where we get...

The DualShock! This controller is essentially just the regular PS1 controller with:

  • Twin analog sticks

  • L3 and R3 buttons by clicking in the sticks

  • Built-in rumble motor

Technically this isn't the first PS1 controller to utilize these features, as the DualShock is just a refinement to the Dual Analog Controller. However, I'm choosing to highlight the DualShock instead, as not only is it the more iconic and influential of the two, but also the first controller to feature built-in rumble as a standard feature for international audiences.

As most PlayStation series controllers after this point are fairly similar with relatively more subtle changes, I'll just go over the notable remaining advancements in a bulleted list:

  • PS3: can now connect wirelessly or through USB, features analog L2 and R2 triggers and a home button, gyro controls, pressure-sensitive buttons.

  • PS4: narrower design, features a share button and touch plate, headset jack, blue light that never goes off.

  • PS5: two-tone design, more rounded shape, voice coil haptic feedback, wearing a nice black camisole with blue straps.

So now hopefully, if I've done a good job explaining things, you can see how the design of the DualSense can be linked back all the way to the NES controller. But what about the Xbox controller? Well, let's examine that next...

The Sega/Microsoft Line

This one is going to be notably longer than the previous line because the destination wasn't figured out quite as quickly as the PlayStation's was. Let's check out that Sega Master System controller now, yeah?

Very similar to the NES controller in it's layout, but with a few notable differences:

  • Squircular control pad

  • 1 and 2 buttons instead of A and B

  • No dedicated start or select, instead the 1 button is mapped to Start

The control pad is the thing that really jumps out at me here. It doesn't look like a particularly great method of controlling anything, though I can see how this design would influence the design of...

The Genesis controller! Let's take a look at what's changed here:

  • Rounded d-pad

  • A, B, and C buttons

  • Dedicated Start button

  • Semi-handles

Funnily enough, it now has the exact number of buttons as the NES controller, which is fitting as it was designed to compete with that console. This is the first appearance of Sega's classic rolling d-pad design, which to this day many fans will swear by. Also of note, the controller is quite large, something which no doubt helped to solidify that the Genesis was a manly console, unlike Nintendo's little baby controller! *chugs a beer and benchpresses a tiger*

However, as we all know, the Genesis's real competition was the Super Nintendo, which simply had way more buttons. This meant that the blossoming fighting game genre would have a hard time surviving on the Genesis unless something changed.

The six-button Genesis controller! Perfect for games like Street Fighter 2, or anything where you needed a little extra control.

  • Smaller XYZ buttons above the ABC buttons

  • Start button now moved to the middle of the controller

  • Mode button on the right shoulder to switch between 3-button and 6-button modes

  • Slimmer shape, also note the ovular indents around the d-pad and buttons

While some may prefer the bulkier design of the previous Genesis controllers, Sega was clearly proud of this design, so much so that it directly influenced the design of their next console's controller:

The Saturn controller! I'm showing off the Japanese white controller here just for the sake of better contrast, but rest assured, we here in America got an all-black version because we love freedom and hate bright colors!

  • More pronounced, rounded shape

  • Two shoulder buttons

  • Start button is lower

Aside from the two shoulder buttons, this is largely similar to the 6-button Genesis controller and is generally considered the best Sega controller ever made by people who care about Sega controllers (which I guess is me).

Where this really gets interesting is how Sega adapted this controller to the growing market of 3D games which demanded analog control:

BAM! The Saturn 3D Control Pad! This circular beauty was packaged with NiGHTS into Dreams, but is compatible with many Saturn titles, including those originally designed for joystick or steering wheel peripherals.

  • Large analog stick with concave base

  • L and R buttons on back, now with a more trigger-ish design

  • XYZ now standardized with the ABC buttons, Start button also larger and round

  • Switch on bottom to alternate between using the analog stick or d-pad

Some of you may already be noticing the similarities between this and another popular Sega controller. Indeed, it's very likely that the Saturn 3D Control Pad was an inspiration towards the design of...

The Dreamcast controller! It certainly retains many of the design elements of the 3D Control Pad, but with some notable differences:

  • Redesigned analog stick featuring a stalk with a stippled dome top

  • Cross-shaped d-pad

  • Z and C buttons removed, buttons rearranged to diamond pattern

  • VMU slot

The Dreamcast controller feels like Sega was trying to emulate its competitors more than their previous console generations, eschewing their proprietary d-pad design and six-button layout for something that seems more Nintendo-esque. Notably, this is the first instance of the four-button diamond layout to feature the buttons in this specific formation (A on the bottom, B on the right, X on the left, and Y on the top). Which leads us to...

The (original) Xbox controller! Couldn't find a good picture of this from a face-on angle, presumably from being so large that it wouldn't all fit in the frame otherwise. The first Xbox console notably aped the Dreamcast in a number of ways, so I'm comfortable calling this an evolution. But that's not to say that their DC-inspired controller didn't take many of it's own creative liberties. In addition to having a giant Xbox logo where the VMU screen used to be, it also boasts:

  • Six face buttons again (though in a very strange formation)

  • A second analog stick located under the face buttons

  • A back button next to start, mimicking the select button of previous Nintendo/Sony controllers

  • Analog triggers

  • Built-in rumble motor

Of course, the Duke here is only the first variation of this controller released.

About a year after the launch of the original Xbox, Microsoft released a revised controller called the Controller S:

  • Notably slimmer design

  • Face buttons now moved into a true diamond formation

  • Standardized concave stick tops

  • Start and Back buttons moved to bottom-left side, black and white buttons moved to bottom-right side

  • D-pad no longer looks like the entrance to Hazy Maze Cave

Questionable placement of the option buttons aside, this is starting to look more and more like a modern controller. This design would later be refined into:

The Xbox 360 controller! Some of the notable changes here include:

  • Start and Back now in the upper middle of the controller

  • Black and white buttons gone, replaced with left and right bumpers

  • Memory pack no longer able to be plugged into the controller

  • Middle Xbox logo functions as a home button

  • Clickable sticks

I'll only go into brief detail about the Xbone controller, as it doesn't change much from the 360 controller from a layout perspective. The d-pad is replaced with a cross-shaped d-pad, it includes buttons for wireless pairing and sharing content, and is primarily wireless.


One subject I didn't address in this article: I mostly focused on how Nintendo's controllers served as an inspiration for the PlayStation. But the way Nintendo controllers themselves evolved over the years is another interesting topic that deserves its own article...

This is something I've been thinking about for a while now, how the small differences in controller design between the NES and Master System snowballed into their own design philosophies throughout the console generations, while at the same time taking more and more inspiration from each other and eventually becoming more similar to each other than ever before.

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