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    • Note: this is a Cake-ified version of a blog entry I posted today.

      The 1990s were a wild time for the video game industry. Advances in technology had finally brought true 3D graphics to video gaming, and although this innovation was initially confined to the arcades, the march of technology brought it within reach for home gaming consoles as the decade approached its halfway point.

      The leap into the third dimension meant that the simple joypads of yesteryear weren’t nearly as capable as they once were, opening up a time of experimentation and iteration that’s still felt today.

      Of the initial set of 3D consoles, it was the Nintendo 64 that came with the most alien-looking controller. More than two decades on, it is still one of the most divisive designs in video game history. Proponents lauded its forward-thinking adoption of analog controls, while detractors criticized its ungainly three-pronged design. Was the N64 controller an insightful glimpse of the future or an evolutionary dead end?

      Let’s take a look back at the controller that tried to change the world — it’s origins, competitors, and descendants — to see if we can understand its place in gaming history.

    • Physical Design

      The N64 controller featured a novel — and ultimately unique — three-pronged design. The idea was to put the right type of input — directional pad or analog stick — under your thumb at the right time, although this wasn’t immediately obvious to all first-time users[1]. You’d hold either the leftmost or center prong in your left hand, and your right hand always held the rightmost prong. When you were using the analog stick, you’d naturally find your index finger positioned over a trigger button, often used for primary actions. With your right hand, you had easy access to the other action buttons (B and A) as well as four C buttons, often used to control the virtual camera in 3D games. The top edge of the controller had a shoulder button on either side, although these tended to be used less often than in prior systems.

      In addition to its distinct layout, the N64 controller had something else up its sleeve: an expansion slot of its own. Each of the four controllers plugged into the N64 could hold a proprietary expansion device of one sort or another, something unlike any of the other consoles of its generation. Subsequent consoles such as the Dreamcast and Xbox would explore this idea further, but no other console from Nintendo leaned on the idea as much as the N64.

      Several different “paks” were released over the course of the console’s lifetime, adding support for saving game data (the Controller Pak), force feedback (the Rumble Pak), and even interoperability with Game Boy and Game Boy Color games (the Transfer Pak).

    • 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”[2]. 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”[3], and GamePro wrote that “[it] looks strange, but it feels super smooth”[4]. 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).

    • The Competition

      The mid-90s had no shortage of interesting game consoles for us to contemplate, but for all intents and purposes, there were just two major competitors that Nintendo had to worry about: Sega’s Saturn and Sony’s PlayStation.

      Sega Saturn

      The Saturn controller was a simple evolution of the six-button Mega Drive (aka Genesis) controller, adding a pair of shoulder buttons but changing little else.

      Left: Six-button Mega Drive controller — Right: Saturn controller

    • Sega would eventually follow up with the 3D Control Pad, released in mid-1996, but it never became the default controller for the console. Although it was released (and patented!) well after the Nintendo 64’s controller, Sega still had plenty of original ideas.

      The 3D Control Pad’s patent document[5] shows that Sega wasn’t just copying Nintendo: it laid out the potential for force feedback, well before Nintendo’s Rumble Pak, and motion controls, a full decade before those would go mainstream with 2006’s Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation 3.

    • Sony PlayStation

      The PlayStation controller was, oddly enough, an evolution of Nintendo’s own Super Famicom controller, adding grips for each hand and an extra pair of shoulder buttons, but retaining the same basic layout. This resemblance is less strange than it may seem at first, given the PlayStation’s origin as a joint venture between Sony and Nintendo[6].

      Left: Super Famicom controller — Right: PlayStation controller

    • Possibly due to their position of relative strength in the market at the time, Sony would wait until 1997 before making any changes to their controller. The Dual Analog controller was released as an alternative to the bundled controller in April 1997, but was only on the market for about six months before being replaced by the DualShock controller. Unlike Sega with their 3D Control Pad, Sony replaced the controller that came bundled with the PlayStation. The Dual Analog controller was a relatively simple modification, adding a pair of analog sticks at the bottom of the existing controller design, and DualShock just extended this to include vibration. Incredibly, this same basic layout has persisted through all subsequent PlayStation consoles, an unbroken line stretching back more than two decades.

    • The Relatives

      LodgeNet

      If you happened to stay at a hotel around the turn of the millennium, you might’ve been surprised to see a bizarre Nintendo 64 controller attached to your hotel room’s television.

      This was the interface to a service called LodgeNet, which offered pay-by-the-minute access to some of the banner Nintendo 64 titles. By September 2000, there were more than half a million controllers in rooms at more than a thousand hotels.

    • iQue Player

      The iQue Player was an incompatible variant of the Nintendo 64 sold only in China, released in 2003. Its design is noteworthy for several reasons.

      The most obvious change is the removal of the third prong in favor of a more traditional gamepad layout. It also swaps the placement of the analog stick and d-pad, matching the layout of the GameCube controller and most of the following gamepad-style controllers from Nintendo. Oddly enough, it uses a non-standard d-pad shape, unlike anything seen on other Nintendo products. Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the controller was the iQue Player: the console was embedded inside of the controller itself. It’s amazing what seven years of hardware progression can do.

    • Injuries & Reliability Woes

      The controller’s most notable innovation — the analog stick — was the source of quite a lot of trouble over the years.

      One of the oddest chapters in Nintendo’s history in general was an $80M settlement paid by Nintendo of America in March 2000. Mario Party 3 was a collection of mini-games for the console, and one of the mini-games encouraged players to rotate the analog stick as quickly as possible. Frantic competitive play combined with a hard piece of plastic topped with ridges led to blisters or even friction burns. The settlement was earmarked to provide gamers with special gloves to prevent injury.

      This sort of intense usage would cause a mysterious white powder to appear at the base of the analog stick. This turned out to be the plastic wearing away from a delicate internal component. These days, it can be tricky to find a vintage N64 controller with an analog stick that still works well — many flop around, loose and unresponsive.

      Aftermarket Repairs & Alternatives

      Video game consoles, at least in the 90s, were designed to survive extended contact with young children. This means that they were built to last, and generally still work just fine today. Unfortunately, the Nintendo 64 controller’s finicky analog stick means that any vintage gaming aficionado has probably dipped their toes into aftermarket replacement parts.

      These run the whole spectrum, with something for pragmatists and purists alike. Those who’d like to preserve their controllers as much as possible might opt to swap the faulty plastic components with sturdy metal replacements. Gamers who are less picky can just swap in entire replacement analog sticks. Those with less fondness for the quirky controller can pick up an aftermarket option. These days, there are basically two good choices: one old, one new.

      The Hori Mini Pad came out during the N64’s lifetime, but only in Japan. It shrunk the size of the controller substantially, getting rid of the middle grip and swapping the placement of the analog stick and d-pad. This gave it a button layout more like the Xbox than any Nintendo console. Hori Mini Pads are still prized by enthusiasts today and command a relatively high price.

      More recently, the Brawler64 Gamepad set imaginations alight with a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign. This controller looks like a cross between a Nintendo Switch pro controller and the N64 original.

      Legacy

      In the 80s and early 90s, most game controllers looked like Nintendo’s controllers. From the mid-90s onward, though, that would rarely be true again. This didn’t stop Nintendo from innovating, however. The GameCube controller was a brightly colored lump of plastic that fit perfectly into human hands. The Wii controller was inspired by remote controls, aiming to be as unthreatening to casual gamers as possible. The Wii U controller had a large, integrated touchscreen to try to capture the sorts of gaming experiences that were possible on modern mobile devices. The Switch controllers broke into two pieces to allow multiplayer action anywhere.

      Looking back a the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see the N64 controller as a misstep, a weird evolutionary dead-end. That doesn’t do it justice, however. Nintendo’s legacy of innovation stretches back decades, but it’s the N64 controller where they really let loose and started to think outside the box. It may not be the greatest video game controller ever made, but it’s arguably the most interesting.

      Footnotes

      1. Wired: Nintendo 64 came out 20 years ago. Here’s how a teenaged me reviewed it.
      2. Nintendo Power, December 1995, page 11
      3. Electronic Gaming Monthly, January 1996, page 77 
      4. Game Pro, February 1996, page 21
      5. Patent for Sega Saturn 3D controller (US 7,488,254)
      6. Wikipedia: PlayStation (console) development

      See also

      Patent for Nintendo 64 controller (US 6,102,803)
      Patent for Sony PlayStation controller (US 5,551,693)
      Wikipedia: Nintendo 64 controller

      Image sources

      LodgetNet Nintendo 64 controller
      Nintendo 64 controller
      Sega Genesis controller
      Sega Saturn 3D Control Pad
      Sega Saturn controller
      Sony PlayStation controller
      Super Famicom and Super NES controllers
      Virtual Boy controller
      iQue Player

    • Thanks! I was actually in New York over the summer and got a chance to swing by one of the retroshops and was pretty impressed. Unfortunately, the Bay Area has a surprising dearth of vintage gaming stores.

    • Fascinating! I've owned and loved many of the consoles and controllers mentioned, so this was a fun trip down memory lane.

      These days it's hard for me to imagine how anyone could have used the old Famicom-style controllers for any length of time without serious pain. I'm super grateful for modern ergonomic controllers. I had to give up mouse-heavy PC gaming years ago because it was causing wrist pain, but thanks to modern controllers I'm still able to enjoy console games.

      I own both a PS4 and an Xbox One now, but when I buy a non-exclusive game I usually buy it for the Xbox, and the main reason is the controller: it's just slightly more comfortable for me than the PS4's.

    • This controller has given me so many memories. It was the first console controller that made me feel like I was playing something truly new and different.

      I also really loved the GameCube controller. It's crazy that they remade a Nintendo Switch version for the Super Smash Bros. purists!