A short history of Nintendo controllers – Part 2 – Nintendo Enthusiast

Last time we talked about the controllers that defined early Nintendo generations and the impact that they had on gaming as a whole. After the universal praise that the GameCube controller received, it was time for fans to get ready for Nintendo’s next big idea. The dawn of the seventh console generation was also the beginning of the HD era of gaming. It was at this point that Nintendo decided that it did not want to compete with graphical prowess, but instead try something that set it apart from the competition with the Wii.

Wii – Wii Remote and Nunchuk

The Wii Remote and Nunchuk were easily the most radical departure in controller design that we had seen up until this point. Having motion controls at the core of the design for the Wii was a move that few people could have predicted, and it took gamers (and the larger world) by storm. Wiis were sold out for months, and Wii Sports quickly became the best possible tech demo for this new technology. However, this wasn’t something Nintendo did on a whim. The motion control technology behind the Wii was actually pitched (unsuccessfully) to both Microsoft and Sony before Nintendo accepted it back in 2001. Nintendo had even considered motion controls for the GameCube, but it was deemed to be too expensive to implement at the time.

The Wii Remote’s design was unlike any controller before it, but its resemblance to a TV remote made it intuitive for anyone to understand it had to be pointed at a TV, therefore drawing in the Wii’s new casual market. Shigeru Miyamoto also stated that having “moms’ approval” of the console was a guiding aspect of their design decisions, leading to them to make the controller as simple and convenient to use as possible. Inspired by “cell phones and car navigation remote controllers,” among other things, Shigeru Miyamoto eventually led Nintendo to the one-handed TV remote-style design the Wii Remote and Nunchuk received.

As a result, the Wii Remote can be used vertically or horizontally to fit the game, while B became a trigger button and the start and select buttons were shortened to the now-familiar plus and minus icons. Instead of X and Y, Nintendo changed its two other face buttons to 1 and 2, to further complement the TV remote design. The simple layout of the Wii Remote worked in tandem with the Nunchuk, which resembled the center prong of a Nintendo 64 controller (with two shoulder buttons), to form a cohesive and easy-to-understand controller for the casual market.

It undeniably ushered in a new age of motion control in games that left the industry scrambling to follow in its steps, such as with Xbox Kinect and PlayStation Move. Developers had to design new kinds of games to take advantage of its new features, but Nintendo, of course, brought out the best potential from these controllers. Whether it was through having arcade game-like experiences at home, or through the system-defining games like Super Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, the Wii controllers proved that motion controls could take gaming in new directions. Beyond the standout games and not-so-amusing accidents, the Wii controllers have also been used in non-gaming scenarios like cognitive psychology experiments, and feedback garnered from Wii even became the basis for the Switch and its Joy-Con.

Wii U – GamePad

As a console, the Wii U had many failings, chiefly in its marketing, but the GamePad controller had its champions and detractors. A few different inspirations served as the basis for the tablet-like controller. Shigeru Miyamoto believed that the physical lights on the Wii couldn’t provide enough information to a player about notifications, so a secondary screen that was separate from the TV could let players access the status of their console more efficiently. The GamePad screen drew parallels to Japanese karaoke systems, where a smaller tablet screen lets customers decide on songs to appear on the larger screen. In a similar vein, the GamePad’s touchscreen gave players extra functionality, including in-game actions, being a full alternative to the TV or just accessing system features.

Unfortunately, the GamePad was lacking in some fundamental areas. The return of twin analog sticks, shoulder buttons, triggers, and four face buttons was all welcome, but as a controller, it was not comfortable to hold for extended play sessions due to its bulky frame and the positioning of these buttons being somewhat far apart. The included screen was literally central to the GamePad, but as it (mostly) couldn’t work without the Wii U turned on and within range, it meant that the idea of console gaming without a TV screen wasn’t quite there yet. To make matters worse, the screen resulted in the GamePad having poor battery life compared to Nintendo controllers of the past and was often seen as more of a distraction to the gameplay experience, compared to the more fun dual-screen functionality of Nintendo’s handhelds.

The GamePad was also a jack of all trades, with features like a built-in camera, microphone, and the ability to control your TV inputs and cable guide for a time. Yet, due to the lack of third-party software support for the console, many of these features ended up being underutilized. Some players were also underwhelmed by what one writer described as “Fisher-Price” toy-like material construction, and for many, this was a sign that Nintendo wasn’t focusing on its core demographic of fans anymore. The Wii U GamePad is a perfect analog for the Wii U itself, an innovative and interesting idea that wasn’t executed to its full potential. While these factors mean that the Wii U GamePad will go down as one of Nintendo’s weakest controller memories, it’s important to respect it for being the foundation of a brighter future.

Switch – Joy-Con

During the Nintendo Switch reveal event, Yoshiaki Koizumi explained that Nintendo had implemented the best features of its past consoles into the new console. While this may have sounded like marketing talk, he was actually right on the mark. The feedback that Nintendo received on the Wii controllers, such as players wanting a smaller form factor, eventually led to the concept of a portable console with these new controllers. Holding two separate and detached Joy-Con is akin to holding the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, while the four face buttons were a welcome return to a tried-and-true layout from the SNES controller. Motion controls could now work without the need for a Wii-like sensor bar, and the left Joy-Con features a button to capture screenshots and videos.

While in handheld mode, the Joy-Con provide players with all the necessary buttons within an easy-to-reach distance. In a grip, they can form a standard controller shape and can also be used separately in each hand. Additionally, handing a single Joy-Con to a friend for some multiplayer sessions means that each Switch has local multiplayer capabilities right out of the box.

In spite of their small size, the Joy-Con also have a lot going on in a tiny form factor. Features like an NFC reader, Bluetooth, HD Rumble, and even limited gyroscopic functions for motion control were all essentially features of prior Nintendo controllers that are now available in a conveniently small package. As the newest feature, HD Rumble hasn’t been used in a truly groundbreaking way yet, but considering that a gamer was able to discover a hand tumor with it, the technology is likely sound.

With a flexible range of control options, the Joy-Con can be tailored to a lot of different experiences, and their in-built technology has led to a lot of creative uses such as Nintendo Labo or Ring Fit Adventure. In the history of Nintendo controllers, the Joy-Con may be slightly underappreciated, especially due to overshadowing problems like Joy-Con drift and their high price point, but without them, the Switch wouldn’t be the same.

What are some of your favorite Nintendo controllers over the years?