Today we know the NES Controller as the controller that defined video game controllers for all time. While the deceptively simple controller has a design both ubiquitous and iconic enough to be a popular graphic image, we forget just what a giant leap it represented in the way we control our video games. Of course, our rose goggles for the little Nintendo machine that brought the video game industry off life support and began its evolution into a multi-billion dollar per year juggernaut tends to cloud our judgement a bit. Was the NES Controller really all that it was cracked up to be?
If you want a sense of where me and my generation are coming from when we discuss the NES Controller, you first have to understand the way video games and controllers have developed. Back when console gaming first arrived in the 70's, toy makers (there were very few developers dedicated exclusively to consoles and video games back then) dreamed up a lot of different ways to put gamers in control. The home Pong units had knobs built onto the machine itself. Various paddles and trackballs were also used until Atari finally released its 2600 console and what was, at the time, the iconic controller: An eight-way joystick with a single action button. While it was by far the most efficient controller of the pre-crash era, it also caused a lot of wrist strain, and the joystick could be worn out very easily. And since the controller base was square, it could result in a lot of confusion on how to hold the thing.
When Nintendo decided to try its hand in the video game industry, they had one of their primary inventors, Gunpei Yokoi, create the controller. Yokoi took his design inspiration from Nintendo's popular line of handheld electronic games, Game and Watch, and used a d-pad in place of more traditional forms of movement while placing a pair of action buttons, A and B, opposite it. In the center were a pair of buttons, the Start button and the Select button. As the advertisement said, now we were playing with power!
I should also mention briefly that, since Nintendo dominated the home console market back then, we had almost nothing to compare the basic NES Controller to. The NES Controller proved so popular and effective that even the other consoles of the time were using the same basic design. The Master System and TurboGrafx-16 controllers emulated Nintendo's design so closely that you have to wonder if the patent office was awake. Those two basically had the same damn design, except for the mode select and pause buttons (Master System) and additional rapid-fire switches (TurboGrafx-16).
When people of my generation were kids, we looked at the NES Controllers and our first thoughts were along the lines of hey, these let us play games! Now we're all adults in a video game marketplace which Nintendo, in spite of their best efforts, was forced to share. When I pick one of these suckers up nowadays, my first thoughts are more along the lines of hey, look how small and boxy these things are! The feeling is only quantified in actually trying to play the games. Remember, back when the NES Controller was the norm, video games had a delinquent stigma to shake. In the 70's, gaming was seen as an activity for juvenile outcasts and a passing fad, both viewpoints which looked justified after the great crash of 1983. People didn't start hopping back onto the bandwagon just because Nintendo brought video games back; as far as onlookers and critics were concerned at the time, Nintendo was merely a latecomer which had some unexpected success but would inevitably wind up in the same scrap heap as Atari. The NES was made for kids, aimed at kids, and the size of the controller reflects that. No one - least of all Nintendo - counted on video games becoming an accepted mainstream cultural mainstay, art form, and entertainment player.
The NES Controller is even smaller than the Super NES Controller, and a lot of my gaming section readers know how much I hate that thing. I call it The Pill because it's white, smooth on the edges, small enough to swallow with a glass of water, and a real strain to hold correctly because of my deformity. The original NES Controller is not only smaller than that thing, but there's not a single smooth edge on it, so it isn't tailored to the hand of ANYONE. Now EVERYONE can play video games feeling the exact kind of discomfort I feel when I use The Pill. All the angles on the NES Controller are right angles, and the controller lacks any sense of heft or bulk. We're getting spoiled now because we're getting used to controller grip. Today's controllers are made for us to be able to hold a nice chunk of controller in our hands as we marathon game. The NES Controllers didn't exactly fit into our hands as kids. As adults, we're nearly trying to play these things on our fingertips by now. However, I'm be more forgiving than I usually am for that, because the NES Controller didn't force on us the cruel and unusual abominations that are shoulder buttons.
The d-pad gives you four directions of movement. It's very difficult to get a diagonal with it, and there's no writing that aspect of the NES Controller off as a product of the times, either. At the same time the NES was making a market killing, the Master System had a square-shaped d-pad that allowed movement in eight directions while the TurboGrafx-16 was using a disc with four elevated points. Before the NES came along, the touch disc on Mattel's Intellivision console allowed gamers 16 directions of movement. Even Atari's 2600 joystick, for everything wrong with that wrist-snapping masturbation simulator, had easy movement in eight directions!
It's hard to believe for most of today's young gamers because anyone born in the late 90's has pretty much never known video game control in anything other than analog sticks. D-pads these days are a relic of controller evolution, not unlike your wisdom teeth or appendix, which have yet to be fully displaced by whatever passes for mother nature in controller designing. Today's d-pads are used more for selection menus than anything else. Back in the days of the NES, though, that little d-pad did EVERYTHING motion-related in the game's universe. The d-pad could be counted on for use in every NES game, ever.
As far as the action buttons go, the functions varied from game to game, but the mold they were always pigeonholed into was A to jump and B to fire. I'm not going to try to track down any statistics on just how often that was true, but I'm inclined to believe that it wasn't true half the time. The NES was packed with a cartridge which contained two games: The first was Super Mario Bros., the eternal classic which defined the template for side-scrolling games and platform adventures forever and is arguable the most important video game ever created. In that game, the A button WAS used to jump, but B was actually used to speed Mario up so he could make longer and higher jumps. Yes, it was also used to toss fireballs, but Mario needed to pick up a fire flower in order to do that. The second game was the arcade classic Duck Hunt. To play that, we used to d-pad to select modes and, if I remember correctly, the Start button to actually begin a game for which the important parts required chucking the controlling to the side and blasting away with a lightgun.
Ah, the good old Start button. This is how we paused our games. It's also how we, you know, STARTED our games, but it's intristically linked in my gaming generation's minds to STOPPING games now, at least temporarily. Many games emitted a cool little beep upon being paused and unpaused, which I always liked because it always made me feel important for some reason. Some games gave the Start button a little bit more importance to the action - notably, The Legend of Zelda brought up a selection menu which allowed gamers to select usable items and displayed the Triforce whenever Start was pressed. Finally, rounding out the selection was the outcast brother of Start, the Select button. Select sometimes did provide use, but it was probably the least-used button on the controller. Most of the time it just sits there, presumably for balance. The most famous video game code of all time, the Konami Code - up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start - doesn't even utilize it.
Today it's commonplace for Nintendo to provide a wide selection of colors, but that wasn't always the case. In the 80's, you could get Nintendo hardware in any color, as long as that color was gray-white. The NES Controller is gray-white itself, but it does have a face with all the weird coloring and design patterns we associated with what we all thought the 21st century would be like back in the 80's. Red, black, and gray. Mostly black with a column of gray bars going down the middle, over the Select and Start buttons. All lettering is red, as are buttons A and B. Black is the dominant color.
It's no secret that a lot of video game-related things age poorly, but some things still age better than others. The NES Controller was the My First Video Game Controller for countless gamers today, and Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt was the My First Video Game for those very same people. Both the NES Controller and Super Mario Bros. are considered classics of video games, incredible leaps forward in the way we play games, and templates for everything that ever followed. The difference is that while Super Mario Bros. aged like wine, the NES Controller aged more like milk. And that milk expired a long time ago.