When we say gamepad in the 2020s, we can all rest assured that we form the same kind of mental image. A controller gripped with two hands with some sort of analogue sticks, arrow keys, buttons for the right thumb and a few triggers to boot. Yet the idea of the gamepad wasn’t always so unified. The genesis of gaming was the wild west for design, especially when considering at-home consoles. Joysticks buttons, one handed, two handed, you name it. Let’s take a look at how these controllers morphed over the years to form the familiar gamepad we know today. 

The Wild West of Design

Computer Space (1971)

Before gamepads really became a thing, the first arcade machine was produced for a game called Computer Space. Although it didn’t use a gamepad, it featured two joysticks and buttons, one set for each player to control laying the groundworks to what was to come.

Magnavox Odyssey 100 (1972)

As the first commercial digital video games console, the Magnavox Odyssey 100 was essentially the first controller people got their hands on at home. That said, today you would barely recognise this as a controller featuring one strange dial on either side, for vertical and horizontal movement. The controller was also totally analogue, meaning it worked totally differently inside as well.

Coleco Telstar Arcade (1977)

Drawing the whole arcade into the home, the Coleco Telstar Arcade was an extravagant controller which contained an array of dials, buttons, a steering wheel and a light gun, allowing players to experience all the major thrills to date. That said, such an extravagant “gamepad” certainly wasn’t going to stick around as it was both cumbersome and costly.

Atari 2600 (1977)

One of the most iconic controllers ever designed, the Atari 2600’s black joystick accompanied by a single big red button is perhaps what people think of when they think of retro controllers. It was hardy, simple and easy to implement in many different gaming systems. In short. This is where gamepads really started to find their direction. 

Atari 5200 SuperSystem (1982)

After the success of the 2600, many variants of the joystick began to be seen. Atari’s own follow-up saw the addition of a mobile phone-like keypad beneath the joystick [of course, back then people wouldn’t necessarily associate this with a phone, yet]. This expanded the potential for different games, but certainly lacked the iconic simplicity of the 2600. So, it was back to the drawing board. 

Taking Shape

Nintendo Entertainment System (1983)

If the epitome of the retro controller isn’t the Atari 2600, it most certainly is the NES controller. Featuring four arrow keys instead of a joystick, the big A an B buttons alongside a select and start helped to make the NES one of the most versatile games consoles yet. And as we’ll see this influenced pretty much everything that was to come. 

Sega Genesis/Mega Drive (1988)

Following their copycat of the NES controller which shipped with the Sega Master System, the Sega Genesis offered innovation. With a curved body which better fitted the two-handed grip, the controller featured three buttons alongside an eight-directional D-pad. At this point, controllers were really starting to take shape. Nintendo took note, following up with a very similar design for their super NES (1990), this time introducing shoulder buttons which would turn out to be another game changer.

The Arrival of the Modern Controller

Sony PlayStation (1994)

We all know what a PlayStation controller looks like, whether we’re a gamer or not. That easy to hold design is totally iconic, and has been for the past three decades since the release of the Sony PlayStation. However, we’re not talking about the iconic DualShock here, at least not quite. The original PS1 controller featured all the iconic buttons in their right place, but excluded the analogue sticks which came to define the modern controller. It was only in 1997 when the console’s second controller, the DualShock, came to introduce these along with the iconic rumblers.

Nintendo 64 (1996)

Although the quintessential controller had been invented two years early, Nintendo did what they always do—continued to innovate. While taking much of the overall design language from the PS1 controller, the N64 controller is an oddball. Three grips? One analogue stick in the middle? That said, somehow, they managed to make it work, and the N64 controller is as iconic as they come.

But, as we’re all well aware, this iconic design didn’t stick around and their next console, the GameCube, opted for a controller much closer to the PS1’s revolutionary controller.

The Quintessential Gamepads

After this point, the main consoles (PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo’s offerings) held onto the iconic design that integrated one-two analogue sticks, a D-pad, a handful of buttons and triggers. Of course, we all have our favourites, whether that be the new DualSense or the legacy “fat” Xbox controller from 2001, but the overall design remains the same—and it’s clearly here to stay.

The Future of the Gamepad

The next gamepad may well not even be a gamepad at all. You may even be with it right now… From PlayStation’s EyeToy to Microsoft Kinect, consoles have been playing with the concept of controller-less play, making your body the interface. With the release of finger-tracking in the latest generation of VR headsets (Oculus Quest 2), it’s clear that we’re far closer to this becoming a reality than ever before.

While this may sound exciting, it’s certainly still a long way off using our hands and body as our only interface for navigating virtual worlds. 

But one thing is for sure: the controllers we know and love today are likely to be around for a long time to come—seeing as 20 years has taught us that they appear to be, more or less, the pinnacle of universal gamepad design.

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