Nintendo controller design history: the evolution of Nintendo controllers from the NES to the Switch Pro Controller

What a journey it’s been, from the NES to the Switch through some amazing controllers!

by Daryl Baxter

‘Change my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon.’ – a famous Time Lord, probably talking about Nintendo controllers!

We’ve charted the history of PlayStation and Xbox controllers, but here’s the main course – the vast history of Nintendo controllers.

Ever since the debut of the NES in 1985, Nintendo has shown us what makes a gaming controller great.

Starting with the NES and going all the way through to the modern-day, let’s take a walk down memory lane with our favourite Nintendo controllers…

NES controller

It’s still so beautiful…

The NES controller is a true classic of gaming, and it’s still easy to see why.

It’s the template, which set the standard that inspired a thousand controllers in its wake.

The DPAD, the two buttons, the rectangular shape of the controller itself; it was short and sweet but enough for gamers to understand as they took their first steps into the wide world of gaming.

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The original GameBoy

Ah, the memories…

It had to be mentioned; launched in 1989, it’s Nintendo’s handheld console that began a lot of people’s gaming career in many ways.

Its portrait orientation still sets it apart today, with its chunky design and sharp-green dot-matrix screen, it introduced many to gaming as a whole.

What made the GameBoy work was the handheld design itself, aided by the simple yet effective buttons. Later versions would follow, like the Gameboy Color and Gameboy Advance, as this portable portion of Nintendo proved to be very popular.

Read more: Why it’s still worth buying a PS Vita

SNES controller

Check out the shoulder buttons on that.

The refinement to the NES; two extra buttons, and the first appearance of shoulder buttons.

A colourful design, although the PAL version had a pale-purple appearance that mostly reminded people of the Parma Violet sweet.

It did the job and was a controller that aged well. Its layout has even been inspired by third-party makers, such as 8BitDo, with wireless features and even a dual-analogue variant.

It was a great console, but 3D was rearing its head, and so Nintendo had to go back to its drawing board and see what could be done.

Read more: Retro consoles that were hugely underrated

Virtual Boy controller

Exactly what everyone wanted… right?

This was just straight-up surreal, mainly due to it having a short wire to make sure that the system could be used on a table. The user would lean forward and play it as if that was an ergonomically normal way to use a console.

It’s commonly known that this was a failure, with Warioland being the only game worth playing from the system, but it’s a system that oddly hinted towards what was coming.

The controller is slightly reminiscent of the Switch’s Joy-con. It’s a symmetrical peripheral, with a d-pad and two buttons on each side, giving hints as to what its successor could also be bringing.

Read more: How to fix Joy-con drift

N64 controller

Bit of a Marmite one.

A controller that still divides players today. Released in 1995, the controller is in the ‘M’ design with an analogue stick at the centre – this made a statement, saying this stick was the primary method to use this controller.

There were slots at the back for a rumble or memory pack, but it was an extra expense to see if some games supported these functions, especially as the games such as Ocarina Of Time had a save function within the cartridge. 

The layout of the controller is still controversial, with third-party variants such as ‘Retro-Bit’ that introduce a variant that looks more like a ‘Controller S’ controller from the Xbox console.

Approaching the millennium, eyes were on the PlayStation 2, Dreamcast and Xbox, while the N64 seemed to be getting put out to pasture. The next console and controller had to make an impression. And it did.

Read more: Best retro consoles to buy in 2020

Gamecube controller

One of the best.

Some say that this is the best controller from Nintendo; the true successor to the NES controller. Some even say it’s the best controller that Sony never made, bizarrely.

The controller fits like a silk-glove, with every button strategically placed to be muscle-memory for the player after only using it for a few minutes. The buttons are all the same from the N64; it could be seen as a reboot of the N64 controller in a way.

There was even a wireless variant called ‘The Wavebird’, which plugged into the controller-port of the console, so it could transmit ‘radio waves’ to the controller. It was less reliable than bluetooth, but for 2003, an official-wireless-controller was unheard of.

But twenty years on it is still highly regarded, with Nintendo even bringing out an N64-style controller that could work on the Switch for Smash Bros players, and an adapter for classic controllers to work as well.

Read more: Nintendo Switch vs PS5

Wii controller

A world in motion.

Many thought that this was the point where Nintendo had lost its mind, but it turned out to be fantastic. The muted success of the Gamecube forced Nintendo to rethink, and the rise of the Wii really set the company apart.

Motion controls and new uses for gaming abounded here, with Wii Sports showing just what the potential of the controller was, thanks to it being bundled in with the console.

The controller made developers think of new ways to interact with the game, from a sword in Red Steel, to a racket in a tennis game.

But it was Mario Galaxy that really defined the controller; to have a Mario game that did this in the same way that Mario 64 did for the N64, it’s a game that’s timeless, and highly regarded to this day.

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Wii U gamepad controller

A step in the wrong direction?

What comes up, must come down, and that was the Wii U. A bizarre marketing campaign gave the understanding that this was an add-on, similar to the Sega 32X to the Mega Drive. Plug it into your Wii and you’ve got HD graphics with a gamepad that features a screen.

But, in reality, it was simply a HD console that came with a gamepad. A chunky controller which worked okay, but it took away what made the Wii so great, and almost restricted control up to a point.

It was a Nintendo DS but for the console, with the TV being the top screen, and the Gamepad being the bottom screen for the player to manipulate the game in certain ways.

Looking back, this part seems like a prototype that was released far too early. But similar ideas would resurface later.

Read more: Best Switch controllers to buy

Enter the Nintendo Switch Joy-con controllers

A genius move from Nintendo.

The announcement video of the Switch is telling; Nintendo explicitly says that it’s a culmination of the controllers of before. The ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘X’, ‘Y’ from the SNES, the single Joy-con reminiscent of a NES Controller, the motion controls of the Wii, and so on.

It’s a different controller yet again, but a chameleon of sorts. It adapts to any scene, from multiplayer to just playing it at a coffee shop. The Switch console is also a touchscreen, so up to a point, it can be classed as a controller itself.

There have been heaps of creative uses of the Joy-cons, too: the cardboard add-ons of the Labo range and the extra peripherals of Ring Fit Adventure have shown just what this console can do.

Read more: Ring Fit Adventure review

Nintendo Switch Pro controller

Does it get any better than this?

We’ve also seen the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller arrive on the market, for the not-too-shabby price of £55 on Amazon. It’s one of the best things Nintendo has ever come up with, controller-wise.

Combining the motion-powered coolness of the Joy-cons with the high-end feel of a more traditional controller, the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller is ideal for hard-core gaming sessions.

There are rumours of a ‘Super Switch’ console coming, perhaps even adding a second screen into the mix, but who knows exactly what the future of the Switch will hold.

Even after all of this history, it still feels like the start of the story here…

Read more: Nintendo Switch Pro revealed with second screen?!

Daryl Baxter