They are the embodiment of the difference between film and video game: interactivity. Video game controllers are the language of the gamer and -for the most part- excluding novelty items and attachments, here is a list of the top 15 coolest video game controllers ever.
16 Spacewar (1962)
Possibly the first videogame ever; possibly the first controllers ever. Unfair advantages and discomfort while playing provoked the invention of these custom-made controllers. They featured two double-throw switches and a silent button. One switch controlled rotation; the other offered a selection of hyperdrive or constant fire and the button fired on your opponent silently, so they wouldn’t know when you were pressing it.
Pretty sophisticated for a first crack at remote controlling.
15 Coleco Telstar Arcade (1972)
Ok, so novelty lands this controller a spot on the list, but come on, just look at it. How cool is that for its time? The Arcade was the pinnacle of Coleco’s Telstar line, and came with a built-in cartridge featuring a game for each side of the controller: Road Race, Quick Draw and Tennis (pong).
14 Nintendo Virtual Boy (1995)
A failure of a system but a pretty cool controller, nonetheless. The Virtual Boy controller was innovative with its dual d-pads allowing movement on the z-axis, foreshadowing future controllers. It was also symmetrical allowing for controls to be set for lefties. Now if only the system wasn't so nauseatingly unplayable…
13 Nintendo Gamecube (2001) and WaveBird (2002)
On first contact, it seemed like both an eyesore and handsore, for several reasons. It was a total departure from its predecessor, the N64. it was an asymmetrical mess compared to the neat and tidy sub-SNES gamepad layouts which everyone from Sony to Sega had adopted and it seemed pretty tiny. However, once you got used to it, the controller was pretty comfortable and intuitively designed. The WaveBird was by no means the first wireless controller but it was the first developed by a first-party company. Many feel it was the first consistent and practical one, setting a wireless standard for video game controllers to come.
12 Sega Master System (1985)
Nothing Special; Nothing new: Sega’s departure from the tethered controller for the SG-1000 boasted few innovations, save for the optional joy stick/d-pad combination BUT these controllers are a must on this list for one reason- they’re so incredibly comfortable. The D-pad is a solid 8-directional tilting square which hugs the thumb, while the sunken placement of the incredibly soft, fat and responsive 1/Start and 2 buttons assure you that you can button mash all day long and your thumb will thank you for it. Put your hands through Gunsmoke on your NES and then pick up a Master System control. Then you’ll get it.
11 Nintendo Entertainment System (1983)
The controllers for the NES were initially designed as a change from the typical joysticks used on most other consoles (one reason for this was the likelihood of joysticks being damaged while lying on the floor). The ‘cross-shaped’ direction-pad was borrowed from the Nintendo Game & Watch systems and ushered in the era of the ‘gamepad’ which would last until 3D games took prevalence. Initially hard-wired to the console and matching the red Famicom colors, the updated black & gray version, remains one of the most iconic images in video game culture as well as popular color.
10 Sega Dreamcast (1999)
Well, it’s a lot more comfortable than it looks… The Dreamcast controllers were the offspring of Sega Saturn’s 3D controllers and featured a number of setbacks. First, the hard plastic buttons, triggers and protruding ‘one-piece’ d-pad were neither comfortable nor durable. A clunky eyesore compared to its competition, the wire was inconveniently placed, requiring it to be folded toward the system while in use, further increasing its likelihood to wear out.
Somehow, the Dreamcast controller seemed to grow on you. The analog stick was comfortable and the controller’s shape and design was strangely ideal for every possible genre of game –which the vast Dreamcast library more than accommodated. Much like virtually every other Sega product, the Dreamcast controller was tragically ahead of it’s time. The controller featured two expansion ports, and the Virtual Memory Unit (VMU) was an incredibly innovative attachment which tripled as a portable memory unit; handheld game unit and a secondary screen, when mounted on the controller (predating the Wii U by 14 years).
9 Fairchild Channel F (1976)
An underrated system with a unique controller. The innovative Jet-Stick, featured a long, single handle topped with a triangular paddle/joystick. The ambidextrous-friendly paddle controlled movement as an 8-direction joystick and could be pressed or pulled (think Bop-it), acting as two buttons for the controller. The interactivity of the joystick with the games available for the Channel F make it a very memorable and interesting controller.
8 Vectrex (1982)
The vector-based ‘mini-arcade’ system was claimed by the video game market crash of the mid-eighties but left an enduring effect on collectors and video game enthusiasts. The controllers featured a self-centering analog stick and four buttons, which were innovations at the time. These features gave the Vectrex a more arcade-like ‘feel’ than its competition.
7 Nintendo Wii (2006)
For this system, the controller meant everything. Compared to its peers, the Wii had inferior power, graphics and a smaller game library, yet its controller caused a major shift in the gaming industry.
To the dismay of some ‘lazier’ gamers like myself, the Wii Remote was based on motion detection, succeeding marvelously where innovations in the 90’s failed, being just far too ahead of their time. The result was an incredibly interactive experience, ranging from vicarious sword slashing to clever special moves for platformers. The remote featured built-in rumble and speakers, and could be connected to an analog joystick, completing the minimalist -yet extremely efficient Wii Nunchuk. Combined with a multitude of attachments spanning from a hockey stick to a steering wheel, the Wii remote is uniquely capable of delivering an interactive experience in any genre. The success of the Wii, prompted the bigger, badder systems of its generation delving into the world of interactive motion sensitive controllers to compete.
6 Sony Playstation (1994-present)
Originally an offshoot from the SNES gamepad, the Playstation controller has become an icon of video game culture. The controller’s slanted handles fit the hand perfectly and its general layout has endured the test of time for more than 20 years. Specifically, the double analog stick boasting Dualshock controllers, released in 1998 have become a standard for video game interactivity, suiting any game of any style in comfort, with much room for innovation. The PS4’s Dualshock 4 controllers feature even more comfortable, handles and triggers, as well as a mono speaker, touchpad, expansion port and headset jack. It ain’t broke, so there is no need for fixing a tried and tested design which has become an official language for gamers’ hands
5 Wii U Gamepad (2012)
Nintendo continued their trend of treading the line between innovating interactivity and catchy novelty gimmicks with the Wii U gamepad. Unlike its game-changing predecessor, the Wii U suffers from a deficiency of attractive and exclusive games. The gamepad, however is really very cool. Most obvious is the built in 6.2” 854x480 touchscreen, which not only offers a deep interactivity with games, but also allows the user to play a game away from the television set, if necessary.
The controller is deceptively comfortable, with ergonomic grips and dual analog sticks. A variety of gadgets adorn the futuristic gamepad, including a front-facing camera, microphone, stereo speakers and headphone jack. The game pad is also, motion sensitive with built-in gyroscope, accelerometer and magnetometer. If nothing else, the Wii U gamepad offers the coolest interface for Netflix on a gaming console, as a remote which allows browsing Netflix without interrupting playback.
4 Super Nintendo Entertainment System (1990)
A giant leap for gaming for one of the most influential systems of all time. The SNES controllers displayed immense growth from the NES, compared to the purely aesthetic growth for Sega between Master System and Genesis. The controller’s ergonomic design allowed gamers to employ their hands efficiently accessing the four action buttons and two shoulder buttons with comfort, ease and minimal movement. This ensured a wide range of intuitive gameplay across an equally wide game library. The SNES gamepad’s design has been imitated in every generation of videogame console since establishing a standard in the video game industry.
3 Keyboard (1700s - present) and Mouse (1960s-present)
The Keyboard may be a relic but it’s stood the test of time when it comes to gaming. From Sierra “Quest” style typing games to games employing the ‘arrow keys’ and CTRL, ALT, SPACE, the keyboard is extremely versatile, and was already a familiar tool prior to gaming. I can’t imagine playing Commander Keen, Wolfenstein or Doom any other way. The introduction of the mouse brought the fun of point and click games as well as a highly precise and interactive way to control first person shooters and real-time-strategy games.
2 Arcade ‘Stick and Buttons’ (1969)
The arcade cabinet is timeless and for many, the language of expression for video games has always been by stick and buttons. Arcades may slowly be disappearing but the stick and buttons have remained an unmodified pillar throughout their history. They have incurred the wrath of frustrated kids on their last quarter; overzealous button-mashers and every fool lined up across from me at Street Fighter. They’re indestructible. Across galaxies and worlds, through levels and stages, they have been on our side of the screen: allies in victory and enemies in defeat.
1 Nintendo 64 (1996)
The three-pronged monster was a shock to my young eyes and hands when I first held it. While the learning curve was rather long for me, all these years later it’s still my favorite. The innovative N64 controller was the first to successfully employ the use of an analog stick, and featured a trigger on the middle prong which made firing a blast. The controllers featured an expansion port for memory cards, as well as the innovative RumblePak and Transfer Pak. All of these innovations have been copied since and the Nintendo 64 controller was the catalyst for much of the way 3D gaming has been controlled since.
Note: If you’re a righty and you don’t play Goldeneye or Perfect dark with your right hand on the middle prong, you’re a heathen.