Evolution of the Console Controller – The Classic Era

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Classic game controllers, roughly definable as those appearing before the 8-bit era, are a mishmash of inputs and designs. Before the release of the D-Pad in 1982 and the introduction of the NES controller in 1983, there was no generally accepted standard for game controllers. The videogames industry was trying many input devices, looking for a few great ideas to settle on.

The Atari 2600 had well over a dozen controllers produced throughout its lifetime. Though most games used paddles or a joystick to play, other devices included motion controls, touch controls, a variety of shapes and sizes of buttons and sticks, keyboards, trackballs, wireless controllers, and number pads. Part of the reason was that the Atari 2600 (and several other early home consoles) doubled as a home computer; some controllers were intended for use with the BASIC programming language or other non-games. Atari did not maintain tight control of the hardware allowed to be used with its machines. Anyone could create a new controller and many did.

The barrier to entry in the new industry was very low. Many companies sprang up, creating their own consoles, controllers, and games. To understand the era, one must keep in mind that at the time there were no standard hardware designs. The standards had not been invented yet! Trying something new was inexpensive compared to today, and the few companies that first came across the best hardware inventions stood to enjoy tremendous success for it. This drove a glut of hardware.

The limits of controllers and computer hardware of the time had a strong impact on what kind of games were available to play. Games tended to be very simple by today’s standards. The earliest games often used motion along a single axis and only one or two player actions. Game designers’ imaginations outstripped the available hardware and games grew in complexity over time. Ultima (1981) stands as an example of what can be achieved even on simple hardware and with a keyboard alone as input device.

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