History & Influences
The design of the N64 console was revealed to the public in mid-1994, but the controller was kept under wraps. The anxious gaming press had to wait for more than a year before the design was revealed — and made available for play — at Nintendo’s annual trade show in November 1995.
At a time when the competition’s controllers looked like they would’ve been at home with any of the prior generation’s systems, the N64 controller turned heads. Fortunately for Nintendo, early reactions were positive. Nintendo Power — unbiased as ever — wrote that it was “a significant step above every other controller in the world”. The theoretically-less-biased Electronic Gaming Monthly wrote that the controller was “the most revolutionary and easy to use stick ever to come out for video games”, and GamePro wrote that “[it] looks strange, but it feels super smooth”. People got it.
Although the controller may have seemed strange at first, it wasn’t completely novel. Gaming in 3D required different solutions for input compared to a 2D system. Fortunately, the Nintendo 64 wasn’t Nintendo’s first 3D-focused system, an honour that goes to the Virtual Boy. Virtual Boy was a short-lived console that launched in 1995 but was discontinued barely a year later. It was a notorious flop.
Just as with the Nintendo 64, the Virtual Boy needed a solution to the problem of moving around in three dimensions. The solution? Dual directional pads, one for each thumb.
The d-pads were still digital, so the system couldn’t offer the smooth control of an analog stick, but having two of them meant that games could be designed with a new degree of freedom in three dimensional space.
Dual d-pads aside, the Virtual Boy controller shares a few other design cues with its more popular cousin. First of all, like the N64 after it — but unlike the Super Famicom that preceded it — it had just two primary action buttons (B and A, like the NES). If you squint at it hard enough, it’s easy to see the ghost of the Virtual Boy’s “B, A, d-pad” layout when looking at the N64’s “B, A, C buttons” layout.
Secondly, large grips on each side make the controller more comfortable to hold for extended periods of time — an innovation that may have been cribbed from the design of the first Sony PlayStation’s controller (which itself was heavily inspired by Nintendo’s Super Famicom controller — everything is a remix).