Nintendo Controllers – An In-Depth Comparison
What’s one of the most important pieces of being able to enjoy a game? If you ask me the controller is key to getting any enjoyment, and I feel like all successful consoles have a good controller – Nintendo especially. They’ve been one of the main innovators for controller design, so I’m taking a look at what they’ve done over the years, and figuring out which Nintendo controller is my all time favorite. We’ve been talking about controllers a lot lately here, and now is the time to look at the company to whom the modern game controller owes so much.
As a note, I’m only going to be looking at the “main” controllers for each system, so ones such as the Wii’s Classic Controller or the Wii U’s Pro Controller aren’t part of my consideration.
Nintendo has done a lot for the game controller. After using a directional pad for the Game and Watch version of their arcade classic Donkey Kong, Nintendo used the same kind of input for the NES, and we’ve seen versions of d-pads on game systems ever since.
The NES controller is a perfect example of simplicity, as its games never demanded anything too complex. The two button design with the A and B buttons worked for the majority of its games, and the pause button was a fairly new feature at the time. It’s strange to think of a time before pause buttons, but that’s the distant past now. No need to worry.
The controller is light and small, and the buttons are well spaced. It’s easy to lay everything out when you’re dealing with only four buttons and a d-pad, but Nintendo has never struggled with placing its buttons, even on the Nintendo 64 controller.
If I have one complaint about the NES controller, it’s the shape. I wouldn’t have a big problem with the rectangular shape if the corners didn’t dig into my palms (I have very thin hands, and the corners tend to make them uncomfortable after a little while). Otherwise, I love the controller for its simplicity.
However, Nintendo’s next home console controller did nothing but improve on the design of the NES controller. You could even say that this controller was…super.
Seriously though. It’s impossible to dislike the Super Nintendo controller, as far as I’m concerned. Nintendo added four buttons to the controller – two more on its face, with the X and Y buttons joining A and B in a diamond shape, while the new L and R buttons sat atop the controller, and would come to be known as shoulder buttons.
This controller is a major game changer, and its influence is obvious – Sony based the PlayStation controller off of it, adding extra shoulder buttons, eventually adding analog sticks to bring more precise control and creating the DualShock. But that’s a story for another section.
The SNES controller is similar in size to the NES controller, but much more comfortable to hold due to its rounded shape. I could play for hours with this thing, and I’ve had many a marathon session with a SNES controller in hand. With a controller this great, surely Nintendo was going to make an even better one for their next system.
Well, about that. I don’t hate the Nintendo 64 controller. In fact, I find it to work incredibly well for the games which used it best. However, the very first time I saw it at a friend’s house, I remember not knowing how to hold it properly. The sight of three possible places to put my hands didn’t make a whole lot of sense to a six year old kid who knew, at the very least, that he only had two hands.
But there’s still some good to talk about from the controller. The analog stick would quickly become the norm for video game controls as it entered an era of 3D gameplay. Nintendo knew that games like Super Mario 64 wouldn’t work with a d-pad, and so they worked to implement a more precise way to control in a 3D environment, and the analog stick was born.
However, the analog stick on a Nintendo 64 controller is infamous for being of a lower quality than you’d ever expect from Nintendo. From extended use and constant rubbing together, parts of the analog stick would wear away and cause the stick to become loose, sometimes moving it off its centre position and leading to a general bad time. Add to that some general discomfort issues, including the horror stories of Mario Party players blistering their palms from intense rotation of the analog stick (a story I can attest to – been there, done that) and you’ve got a controller that was weird, but it did its job.
Now we’re getting to my absolute favourite of the bunch, which might surprise some people. The GameCube controller may very well be the pinnacle of human achievement as it relates to game controllers. That’s a thing, by the way. I’ve been tasked with keeping track of that very specific thing, even if it sounds ridiculous.
In my many years as a gamer, I’ve never had a controller feel quite so natural in my hands. The placement of all its buttons, and now, two analog sticks (a larger one on the left side of the controller, and a small yellow one called the C-stick underneath the main buttons on the right) – this was a controller that had utility. The analog stick was comfortable, and the shoulder buttons had an interesting feature where a light press and a hard press (until the button clicks) were different, allowing each shoulder button to act as two buttons.
The face buttons returned to the Super NES style, with four buttons: A, B, X, and Y. Nintendo made a neat design choice with the GameCube controller to make the buttons different shapes and sizes, as well as laying them out with the A button as a center point, rather than as a diamond. I always liked how it made it possible to feel each button and know where they are on the controller through shape.
Let’s talk about the comfort factor, which if you haven’t noticed, is always a big consideration for me when it comes to controllers. To talk about my hands again, I remember when I first tried to play an Xbox and I literally couldn’t manage to use its controller properly due to my small hands. The GameCube controller, though? That wasn’t a problem. It fits so snugly into my grip, and I don’t need to reach for buttons awkwardly – every movement I make with my hands on a GameCube controller is efficient and easy. It’s the comfiest controller I’ve ever used. Add in the fact that the Wavebird version Nintendo introduced was one of the first incredibly reliable wireless controllers, and you’ve got an absolute winner in my eyes.
Next up is another product of innovative controller design in the Wii Remote and Nunchuk. While it seems like motion control has mostly left us, the Wii Remote and its companion are a curious development. Far removed from the traditional controller, the Wii Remote sits in your hand like a small television remote, with a d-pad and A button at the top, and some non-traditional buttons at the bottom, a 1 and a 2 button. Flip the remote on its side, and you have the NES controller of the future. Well, present. Well, eight years ago. Whatever.
Besides that, the Wii Remote was the magic wand of motion control, which many of us can agree was either a great idea when games utilized it well, or a bad idea when game developers couldn’t figure out how to integrate it properly. It helped developers to create simple games that anyone could understand, and motion control became a major selling point for games.
When combined with the Nunchuk, the Wii Remote became a full fledged controller, with one of my favourite analog sticks of all time – small, easy to manipulate, very responsive, and of course, comfortable. With games like Super Mario Galaxy, the Wii Remote and Nunchuk combo worked incredibly well, with the wonderful analog stick melding well with the motion controlled spin attack. Neither piece of the Wii Remote and Nunchuk setup is heavy, so they feel very good in your hands. However, I knew that Nintendo would need to go back to a more traditional controller setup in the future. And of course, I was…
Alright, I was wrong. The Wii U GamePad, Nintendo’s latest main game controller, is not your typical controller, although I’d say it’s closer to that than the Wii’s. The GamePad has two identical analog sticks, a d-pad, the classic four buttons, and for the first time on a Nintendo console, two sets of shoulder buttons. Add in a start and select button, and you’ve got what sounds like a normal controller.
Once you throw in a 6.2 inch screen, your controller moves into the land of the strange. Nintendo’s experience with using touchscreens on both the DS and the 3DS led to a touchscreen smack dab in the middle of the Wii U GamePad. Not only used for gimmicks in games, the Wii U is also capable of transmitting what would regularly be on the TV onto the GamePad screen – what Nintendo has called Off-TV Play. If you live with someone who is constantly badgering you for hogging the TV, the Wii U provides a nice solution – it’s also great for letting someone else play a different system on the same TV, without disrupting anyone’s fun. It is what sets the Wii U apart, and makes its experience a unique one.
Of course, the controller needs to be big, but Nintendo proves themselves to be capable of even making a comfortable controller in this setting. Nice and rounded on the sides, with the buttons all easy to reach, and a ridge running across the back along with two protruding grips, the Wii U GamePad isn’t as awkward to hold as you’d think. When I got my Wii U, the GamePad’s weight and shape were my biggest pleasant surprise.
At the end of the day, my favorite Nintendo controller is the GameCube controller for its design and comfort factor. However, the SNES controller is wonderful as well, and it has certainly had a long lasting effect on the design of many video game controllers since its release. It’s almost a tie, but the edge goes to the GameCube controller. Because let’s face it, any controller that I can play Super Smash Bros Melee with is a darn good controller, right guys?
By the way, we here at the Nintendo section will be holding a contest near the end of the month. When the time comes, all you need to do is let us know your favorite game story in the comments of our articles. Stay tuned for more details!