Evolution of the Console Controller – The D-Pad Era
The Directional Pad, better known as the D-Pad, is an analog or digital directional controller frequently used for control of video games. D-Pads can be found in other uses such as on television remotes because of how well suited they are to controlling menus and other 2D interfaces. Generally, D-Pads are the shape of a plus sign or circle. The primary input directions on a D-Pad are up, down, left, and right, though many D-Pads can accept input from more than one direction at once and some have up to 16 valid directional inputs.
Ancestors to the D-Pad can be found on several early consoles. The Atari 2600 joystick, for example, employs a 4-way digital stick that can produce the same basic inputs as a D-Pad. The advantage of the D-Pad over the stick’s design is the D-Pad’s compact size and ability to be manipulated by only a single thumb rather than requiring a full hand. From a capability standpoint, the controllers are similar.
The modern cross shaped D-Pad, engineered by Gunpei Yokoi, originated in 1982 on the Game and Watch version of Nintendo’s Donkey Kong. It immediately proved popular and has seen use on every Nintendo console since. It also continues to see extensive use across non-Nintendo game platforms.
The D-Pad is incredibly well suited to controlling 2D games because 2D games generally require only four or eight directions of input. Furthermore, 2D games generally do not need the precision of analog input. For this reason, the heyday of the D-Pad was the 8 and 16 bit console eras, roughly the mid nineteen eighties through the mid nineties.
The D-Pad began to fall in popularity in the era of 3D gaming. The analog stick is a superior input device in 3D environments and has since become the primary directional controller in most games. However, the D-Pad is still widely used in certain genres and game types. Modern 2D platformers and fighting games are still better controlled with the D-Pad, for example.