Bend your hands into shapes they were never intended to form, as we explore the stumbling, unsure evolution of the game controller.

Interface design is a vexing science. It shouldn’t even be called a “science.” Here’s the process: A new tech gizmo comes out, it’s your job to design the interface to control it. You take wild guesses at what kind of frobs and knobs to put on it, and market test that design. Unfortunately this is a worthless process, because users will adapt to any interface you hand them if it’s physically possible. Testing tells you nothing. It is not in our power to articulate what an interface should look like until we see another one and say “Oh that makes sense!”

Then users also have a familiarity bias, where the interface they used before is considered superior just because it makes sense to them. Inertia is powerful in technology interfaces. “We’ve always done it that way!”

Take a look at our keyboard: The original placement of the typewriter keys was based on pure nonsense just to market the machine, yet it never changed. Over the years, the original mechanical justification for jammed keys, supposedly the reason for QUERTY layout, was erased by the time we got to IBM Selectrics, let alone computer keyboards. They just added more keys when it came to computers, and then the same keys got ported forward to later models that long ago made those functions obsolete. Smart money says most people can’t tell you what “ScrLk” (scroll lock) was originally supposed to do, and yet there’s one on nearly every laptop produced today.

onscreen_keyboard

The final justification for the QUERTY layout was that touch typists had already been trained that way, so we can’t change it now. Yet now that the keyboard has been ported to touch screens, the same layout sticks – even though it is impossible to touch type on a phone screen!

Now apply the same logic to video game controllers. It’s weird how fast they have evolved, when you come to think of it. Yet inertia held on here too, just on a timescale of decades instead of a century. On the other hand (or whatever appendage you’re waving around), the rapid evolution of video game controllers was fostered by the bald evidence that early generations of interface designers clearly had no clue what they were doing. Maybe they still don’t even now.

1972 Magnavox Odyssey

Magnavox_Odyssey

We can’t fault the Odyssey for being awkward. It was the very first home video game console, based on a prototype design straight off the demo by Ralph Baer in 1967. For what it is, the controllers bring tons more common sense to game controller design than what we will see later. It’s basically a box with knobs. Be sure not to drive or operate heavy machinery while watching this commercial:

I’m Gen-X, and I can smell the toasty vacuum tubes right through the back of that TV. Anyway, this is how video games started out being advertised, with a family so conservative they make the Brady Bunch look like the Adams’ Family. The controllers were actually a win, especially since you could only wave one big pixel around anyway.

1976 Coleco Telstar Arcade

Coleco_Telstar_Arcade

See what we mean? This mystic pyramid of bafflement confronted the home game console market and quickly vanished, making it a sought-after rare collector’s item now. The system had a lordly sum of four – yes, four! – game cartridges made for it.

Coleco releasing this was a scream of desperation at the futility of competing with the arcade market, which was just entering its prime and, for awhile, would pin down the home console market under high consumer expectations. The Coleco Telstar Arcade console is now famous forever for its enigmatic design. Is the steering wheel and gun combo supposed to foretell a two-player carjacking game later down the road? Only the eye in the Illuminati triangle knows for sure!

1977 Atari 2600

Atari_2600_joystick

Enter at last the realm of relative sanity in controller design. Joysticks worked in the arcade, so why shouldn’t they work in the home console? Looking back on Atari today, it is amazing how they ruled the home console market for so long and yet were such kings of crap. We just let them get away with it, even after the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial debacle and doing this to Pac-Man:

Times’ up! Have you thought what could go wrong with a joystick on a home console yet? Well, see, in the arcade, the joystick is mounted on a cabinet that weighs a few-hundred pounds. It’s not going anywhere. Whereas you don’t get the same response from a joystick mounted on a light square of plastic. The Atari 2600 was a two-hander all the way. They tried, give them credit for that. Later joystick generations would attempt to solve the issue with suction cups mounted on the bottom of the joystick controller such as the Commodore 64 joystick:

Commodore_64_joystick

…or even building a little stand to hold the joystick in place with some weight. Finally they would abandon joysticks for gamepads.

1989 View-Master Interactive Vision

View-Master_Interactive_Vision

By 1989, you had no excuse. Generations of home game consoles had already gone by, the Nintendo NES had already been a home staple, and controllers were rapidly converging on the hand-friendly forms we see today. So… what the hell is this? The only way to describe it is that it had to have been designed by an extra-terrestrial who had never seen human hands. Compounded with this, View-Master – maker of a binocular slide toy that had gone long out of vogue even by the 1980s – had no more business being in video games than it had being on Mars.

The “game” system was actually a stealth VCR controller, playing games on videocassette. We now know how clunky these set-ups were and how limiting they were on interactivity, even though the graphics would obviously be better. Considering that a whole seven VCR games came out for this system, all of them geared to young kids, it’s no wonder the controller design team just threw together whatever monkey wrenches they had laying around. As long as they cashed their paycheck and were away from the office when the sales figures came in.

1989 Nintendo Power Glove

nintendo-power-glove

You knew we had to include this one. You can wave goodbye to the rest of these controllers when we’re done, but the Nintendo Power Glove is the only one that can wave back. Since Nintendo was the beloved standard that got everything else right, we can allow them this one misfire. Nothing less than Angry Video Game Nerd for this bad boy:

Although, what a spectacular misfire the Power Glove was! Nintendo produced an entire movie called The Wizard which was just a big commercial for the Nintendo Power Glove. This was no direct-to-video quickie either, they got Fred Savage from The Wonder Years and released this in theaters. It’s been the subject of a documentary or two by now, so let’s move on.

1995 Bandai Pippin

Apple_Bandai_Pippin

The hits just keep on coming with the Pippin! First of all, you have to get used to the fact that Apple, the hipster computer company, tried to make a game console. Then you have to adjust to the fact that they borrowed ideas from every other game controller while still coming up with a control scheme far too busy for normal human hands.

Now add to this that they decided the best shape for a game controller was a boomerang. In defiance of human gripping abilities across all known hand configurations, they went with this. Mind-blowingly, Apple was such a big deal that other companies set out to copy the design, like this Nuby controller for the N64:

Nuby_boomerang_N64

The Bandai Pippin even looks like it wants to be thrown, setting you up to expect an Australian kangaroo hunting game to be bundled with the console. Sadly, this was not among the piddly lifetime total of 18 games and applications released for the Pippin, which vanished from the market before you could say “fool of a Took!

2000 Intel Wireless Series Gamepad

Intel_Wireless_Gamepad

It was the year 2000, it was THE FUTURE-URE-Ure-urrr, the Consumer Electronics Show met in Las Vegas, and by God they were going to provoke time travelers to beam in to check out how cool this show was. Every booth had a laughable, silly design of some unlikely Star Trek gizmo that never made it past the convention demo stage.

It fits that the only review I could find for this was a generated text-to-voice bot. Intel likely thought “nobody is going to buy a game controller from us in the year 2000,” so they deliberately made this giant horseshoe in its minty toothpaste color to show off at a booth in Las Vegas. Then after CES was over, they just chucked the Intel Wireless Series Gamepad into the Bellagio swimming pool, where it serves as a floatation device to this day. The buttons were glued on, don’t try to tell me any different.

Conclusions

This list makes us wonder what’s going on with many of those other “worst controller” lists out there. Most of them stick to D-pads out this decade, like time began in 2010. Heck, we haven’t seen a truly awkward controller come out since then. We even see people ragging on controllers like the Sega Dreamcast – blasphemy! Sure, there’s better and worse d-pad designs out there, but come on, at least they were made for people and not slimy tentacle aliens from Proxima Centauri.

About the author

Penguin Pete

Penguin Pete

Geek tribal bard for the Internet, before "geek" was cool. Linux power user, MTG collector, light saber owner, cult movie fanatic, comic book memer, video gamer, Unix beard currently measures six inches.