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.
The leap into the third dimension meant that the simple joypads of yesteryear weren’t nearly as capable as they once were, catalyzing a period of experimentation and iteration with influences that are 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?
It may not be the greatest video game controller ever made, but it’s arguably the most interesting. Let’s take a look back at the controller that tried to change the world—its origins, competitors, and descendants—to see if we can understand its place in gaming history.
The N64 controller featured a novel—and ultimately unique—three-pronged design. The idea was to put the optimal type of input—directional pad or analog stick—under your thumb at any given time, although this wasn’t immediately obvious to all first-time users1. You’d always hold the rightmost prong in your right hand, and you’d hold either the leftmost or center prong in your left hand. 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, which would often control the virtual camera in 3D games. The top edges of the controller had a shoulder button on both sides, 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. Up to four controllers could be plugged into the N64, and each could hold a proprietary expansion device of one sort or another, a feature unlike anything offered on 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 this 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).
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 controller 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 systems of the previous generation, the N64 controller bucked trends and 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 declared that the controller was “the most revolutionary and easy-to-use stick ever to come out for video games”3, and GamePro opined that “[it] looks strange, but it feels super smooth”4. People got it.
At first glance, the controller looked like a sharp break from anything else that people had seen before. Looking a bit closer, however, shows that it wasn’t completely novel. Its design was motivated by the fact that gaming in 3D required different solutions for input compared to a 2D system—but fortunately, the Nintendo 64 wasn’t Nintendo’s first 3D-focused system. That honour goes to the Virtual Boy, 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. Its 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—the Virtual Boy had just two primary action buttons (B and A, much like the NES). If you squint at it hard enough, it’s easy to see the legacy of the Virtual Boy’s “B, A, d-pad” layout when looking at the N64’s “B, A, C buttons” layout.
Second, large grips on each side make the N64 controller more comfortable to hold for extended periods of time. This innovation may have been cribbed from the design of the Sony PlayStation’s controller, released two years before the Nintendo 64. Of course, the PlayStation controller was heavily inspired by Nintendo’s Super Famicom. Everything is a remix.
The mid-90s had no shortage of interesting game consoles for us to contemplate, but in the end, there were just two major competitors that Nintendo had to worry about: Sega’s Saturn and Sony’s PlayStation.
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 document5 shows that Sega wasn’t just copying Nintendo. Most notably, it laid out the potential for force feedback, well before Nintendo’s Rumble Pak. Even more amazingly, it described motion controls, a full decade before those would go mainstream with 2006’s Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation 3.
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 Nintendo6.
Left: Super Famicom controller — Right: PlayStation controller
Possibly due to its position of relative strength in the market at the time, Sony would wait until 1997 before making any changes to the PlayStation 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 it was replaced by the DualShock controller. Unlike Sega with its 3D Control Pad, Sony replaced the controller that came bundled with the PlayStation. The Dual Analog controller featured only a relatively simple modification to the original, adding a pair of analog sticks at the bottom of the existing controller design, while DualShock extended it to include vibration as well. Incredibly, this same basic layout has persisted throughout all subsequent PlayStation consoles, an unbroken line stretching back more than two decades.
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 in more than a thousand hotels.
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 was the removal of the third prong in favor of a more traditional gamepad layout. It also swapped 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 used 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.
The controller’s most notable innovation—the analog stick—was the source of quite a lot of trouble over the years.
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. 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.
Frantic competitive play combined with a hard piece of plastic topped with ridges led to players getting blisters and friction burns. An investigation from New York’s Attorney General led to Nintendo setting aside $80M for special gloves to prevent injury while playing in March of 20007. (Nintendo also reimbursed the state for its legal fees.)
Video game consoles, at least in the 90s, were designed to survive extended contact with young children. This meant 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.
Aftermarket options 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 replace the entire analog stick. And those with less interest in using a genuine controller can pick up an third party option. These days, there are two good third party controllers to choose from: one is old, and one is new.
The Hori Mini Pad came out during the N64’s lifetime, but only in Japan. It shrunk the size of the controller substantially, ditching the middle prong and swapping the placement of the analog stick and d-pad. These changes gave it a button layout more like the Xbox controller than any of Nintendo’s controller. 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.
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 is a brightly colored lump of plastic that fit perfectly into human hands. The Wii controller was inspired by television remotes, aiming to be as unthreatening as possible to casual gamers. The Wii U controller has a large, integrated touchscreen to try to capture the sorts of gaming experiences that were possible on modern mobile devices. The Switch controllers break into two pieces to allow multiplayer action anywhere.
Without the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see the N64 controller as a misstep—a weird evolutionary dead-end. That attitude doesn’t do the controller justice, however. Nintendo’s legacy of innovation stretches back decades, but the design of the N64 controller is they really let loose and started to think outside the box.