Nintendo has offered its players a wide variety of controllers throughout the company’s lifespan and many console generations. Nintendo has always aimed to be cutting-edge in terms of control, offering new and unique ways to play its games. While most competitors found successful controller design templates early on and stuck with them, Nintendo innovated in each generation of its consoles, pushing the boundaries of what made each past controller a success.
A video game console’s controller is intrinsically linked to the success or failure of its platform. Without a convenient and instinctive way to control the actions of characters, a player’s immersion is broken. Nintendo understands that well, and its creative flair causes it to constantly seek new ways to further solidify that link and deliver an experience that a player can only receive from Nintendo. This can be seen through the mentalities of its core developers, like Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, who thinks shooters aren’t creative, criticizing them for their lack of originality.
From the Nintendo Entertainment System all the way to the massively successful Nintendo Switch, Nintendo has had a long history in gaming. Many players have spent their entire lives playing Nintendo games and have a deep connection to the intricacies of each of its consoles. While each iteration of controllers has capitalized on being different, it hasn’t always been to the company’s benefit. But when Nintendo invents a solid controller concept and executes it properly, it often achieves a triumph. Below is a list of each generation of Nintendo controllers, ranked from worst to best.
#7 – The Nintendo 64 Controller Was A Bold Attempt With A Poor Design
While the Nintendo 64 was known for its excellent games, mastering the art of the 3D platformer in Super Mario 64, and establishing a further-reaching 3D Zelda franchise through Ocarina of Time, its controller fell short. It was a major step up from the Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s controller in some crucial ways, featuring Nintendo’s first analog stick, which allowed for effortless 3D movement, and it offered more buttons as well as gaming’s first rumble feature. However, the overall design was plagued with problems, such as the N64 controller’s legacy of leaving blisters on its players’ hands with its rigid rubber covering on the analog stick.
The Nintendo 64 controller tried to accommodate both the directional pad and the analog stick by creating three handles to grip the controller with rather than two. The idea was that players could adjust their grip based on whether they were playing a 2D or 3D game, but in a practical sense, it just overcomplicated things and made holding the middle handle for 3D games awkward. On top of this, the controller was quite cumbersome, having a lot of weight to it and a layout that made players have to strain to reach all of its face buttons.
#6 – The Nintendo Entertainment System Controller Was Effective But Simple
The Nintendo Entertainment System was Nintendo’s first console, which launched the company into the forefront of gaming. Due to the technical limitations of the 1980s, its controller was very utilitarian. Only capable of handling 8-bit 2D games, the NES controller featured only a directional pad, two face buttons, and Select and Start options. While this controller wasn’t the reason for the console’s success, it provided enough to attract players and keep them invested in playing the NES.
Although the NES controller paved the way for Nintendo’s eventual heights due to it being the company’s first, its design didn’t differentiate much from its competitors. The small size of the NES made it accessible for kids but troublesome for adults, and its rectangular shape made it hard to grip for longer periods. However, it did offer an exceptionally long wire for the time, 91.5 inches, which is about three times longer than the wire offered on Nintendo’s new NES Classic Controller replica.
#5 – The Super Nintendo Entertainment System Controller Was A Step Up
Nintendo’s second console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, featured a solid controller perfect for platformers. It improved on the formula of the NES, rounding the edges of the controller and creating a more convenient grip for players. The SNES controller’s sleek design also made room for two additional buttons on its face, X and Y, and Nintendo utilized the vacant space at the back of the controller to fit two shoulder buttons, L and R, both sets of which would eventually become core parts of Nintendo’s standard design.
The SNES was Nintendo’s last 2D home console. Accordingly, it only featured a directional pad for movement, which worked fine for sidescrolling games but was awkward for titles that gave a more free range of movement, like the Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s Super Mario RPG and Final Fantasy VI. Though it offered more buttons than the NES, the SNES controller was still rather small. It lacked the handles that would eventually become the most comfortable way to play with controllers in future generations.
#4 – The Nintendo Wii’s Controller Combination Was A Fleeting Success
Nintendo abandoned all traditional standards to chase what looked like a gimmick in motion controls with the Wii. To the world’s surprise, the Wii Remote and Nunchuck turned out to be revolutionary. They offered players a virtual experience unlike any other, inserting them right into the action of the Wii’s games through the use of this odd controller combo, with a rectangular pointer in one hand and a small device containing an analog stick in the other. Both had cleverly positioned buttons alongside their motion controls that added another layer of depth to the control scheme.
If this was a ranking of Nintendo’s most impactful controllers, the Wii Remote and Nunchuck would vie for the top spot. They helped reassert Nintendo as a champion of innovation in gaming and inspired the future of virtual reality, but because this is a retrospective consideration of each generation, the Wii Remote and Nunchuck falter. While they achieved so much during their time, these controllers fell out of favor quickly as the novelty of motion controls wore off. On top of this, while the technology the Wii offered was celebrated for simpler sports and party games, complex titles like the Nintendo Wii’s The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword saw a myriad of problems due to a lack of precision.
#3 – The Wii U Game Pad Flopped; The Pro Controller Pushed Nintendo Forward
Nintendo was under a lot of pressure to follow the boldness of the Wii’s controller with something equally unique, and while the Wii U Game Pad was a clever concept, it failed in execution. The Game Pad was essentially a half tablet, half controller device that came with the console, which broke new ground in offering a touch screen display on a home console. The problem with the Game Pad was its size and lack of portability. It was large and cumbersome, unintuitive, and uncomfortable. It had to be within range of the home console to play games, which was a major detriment, and the in-game mechanics it included were not distinct enough to justify using the bulky controller. This controller had a hand in the downfall of the system, causing many Wii U exclusives to be remastered on Switch to give them a second chance at life.
Ironically, the Wii U achieved excellence with an entirely separate controller, one that did not come with the console at launch. Motion controls were no longer relevant enough to be the central asset Nintendo’s controllers offered, so it presented players with the Pro Controller. This controller was more similar to an Xbox controller than most Nintendo controllers, with the same diamond-shaped display of face buttons and a similar build. Its creation was recognition from Nintendo that sometimes the best controller isn’t the most original, but the one that performs the best and fits comfortably in players’ hands. The Pro Controller ushered in a new era for Nintendo, in which they prioritized offering sleeker, more modern designs for its less casual fans.
#2 – The Nintendo GameCube Controller Was Pure Nintendo Greatness
Nintendo’s GameCube controller was a giant leap from its Nintendo 64 controller. It was a much more ergonomic approach, prioritizing style and comfort. It offered two simple handles, which created a comfortable grip. Each of its buttons was well placed aesthetically and made easily accessible, and the analog stick was wisely placed in the top left corner with a directional pad below it. It also came in a variety of colors, adding more customization options to the console. These features created a novelty around the GameCube controller, and because of that, Nintendo provided a GameCube controller adapter for the Wii U and Switch, recognizing it as the preferable way to play the Super Smash Bros games. The launch of Super Mario 3D All-Stars even proved many fans still preferred to use the GameCube controller for classics like Super Mario Sunshine over the current generation’s options.
The GameCube controller addressed the problem with the N64 controller’s analog stick, smoothing the rigid rubber into another pleasant feature. Its shoulder buttons, L and R, were also an upgrade from the 64’s, becoming satisfying, responsive triggers. Rather than using the C Buttons on the N64 controller, it implemented a C Stick, a second analog that granted players easier camera mobility. This was essential for 3D adventure titles like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The implementation of this feature would leave its mark on Nintendo’s most successful future generations of controllers.
#1 – The Nintendo Switch’s Joy-Cons & Pro Controller Perfected The Formula
The Nintendo Switch’s Joy-Cons present a whole new class of controllers previously unexplored. These are devices capable of both attaching to the Switch’s portable console and detaching in order to play the console wirelessly. They can even be used singularly, fitting the needs of a full control scheme for any game with only one joy-con, allowing players to share them easily for multiplayer games. They follow a similar pattern to the Wii U Pro Controller with their diamond display of face buttons, but instead of the second control stick being placed above the buttons, it is placed below them, giving players easier access to both. The Joy-Cons contain a plethora of impressive features, and if it weren’t for the technical issues like the dreaded “Joy-Con drift”, they would likely be looked upon more fondly.
Even beyond the technology of the Joy-Cons, the real hero of the Switch is its own Pro Controller. It mirrors the button layout of the Joy-Cons, but offers them in a full-scale controller. Whereas the Joy-Cons are small and practical, the Pro Controller gives each of the buttons and control sticks more space and enlarges them. Taking inspiration from its transition of NES to SNES controllers, Nintendo took the comprehensive design of the Wii U Pro Controller and smoothed its edges, creating something that feels polished and seamless in players’ hands. The Switch Pro Controller takes all the best aspects of each past generation’s controllers: rumble, motion controls, dual analog sticks, four face buttons, and L and R triggers, and it executes each with high marks. With all of these assets, the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller could potentially claim the title of the best controller of all time, but certainly the best Nintendo controller.
Each controller in Nintendo’s arsenal has a unique style and feel. The Switch’s adaptable Joy-Cons and its stellar Pro Controller have been a large part of what propelled the Nintendo Switch forward to eventually topping sales charts. Nintendo has once again created something wonderful, and the pressure is going to be on the company once again to follow up a masterpiece. Hopefully Nintendo continues to learn from its extensive history in gaming and doesn’t sacrifice accessibility for creativity.
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