The Evolution of Video Game Controllers: From Coleco Telstar to PS5's Dual Sense controllers

Since the inception of video games in the 1970s, games and video game consoles have evolved with each generation. As a result, the controllers we use to play those games have changed to adapt with that ever-advancing technology.

Video Transcript

BRANDON QUINTANA: Video game controllers-- the middleman between the player and the fun, the original gaming peripheral. Video game controllers have been around since, well, as long as video games have been around, considering there'd be no way to play without them.

And since the inception of video games in the 1970s, video game controllers have come in various shapes and forms. They've also changed drastically since, with each generation seemingly inspiring the next in terms of style, comfortability, and practicality.



The first generation of video game developers dating back to the 1970s were burdened with the task of creating video games with very little examples to pull from and extremely limited hardware to play them on. As a result, video games of this generation were basic-- I mean, extremely basic.

Take the Coleco Telstar, for example. The Telstar came with three games-- handball, hockey, and tennis. Tennis is essentially what most people today recognize as "Pong." Hockey is the same game but with two or more paddles. And handball is yet again the same game, only with one paddle bouncing the ball off of a wall. It's essentially "Pong" for lonely people.

Because video games were so basic at this time, video game controllers didn't need to do much. A simple knob or two were all that was required. And typically, that's what you got.

Being that there was no conventional way to design a controller in the 1970s, most of the designs were questionable, to say the least. Both the Atari Model C-100, Atari's first console, and the Coleco Telstar, which I'm holding right here, required two people to sit right next to each other in order to play. That's because the controllers were actually on the console themselves.

That's right. Gaming used to require human contact and socialization. Interestingly enough, it was actually the very first console, the Magnavox Odyssey, that first featured controllers that could actually detach from the console itself, something that would become a standard of gaming in generations to come.

Now, that brings us to generation two. Gen two was the era that brought us, of course, handheld video game controllers. But most importantly, in this generation, instead of having a variety of games hardwired onto each console, interchangeable ROM cartridges became the norm.

Video games no longer meant just bouncing a blip between rectangles. This meant that controllers of this generation had to be designed with more versatility to accommodate for the more complex games.

Though by today's standards, "Donkey Kong" is far from a complex game, when you compare this to video games of the previous era, it's clear that video game technology made a huge leap. And judging by the look of most second-gen controllers, it's clear designers had their hands full adjusting to it.

One of my favorite examples of that had to be this one right here. This is the controller for the ColecoVision. It has a huge knob on it, two clicky buttons, and in case you didn't notice, it's got a gigantic keypad taking up half of the controller. The most common use of this keypad was to select the difficulty of the game that you're playing. But some games came with an overlay that you'd slip into the slot here, labeling each key's function.

Although this design may seem pretty out there, other consoles, such as the Intellivision, also used a similar design for their controllers. Controllers from generation two may not have felt the most comfortable, and they made for pretty clunky controls, but at least two people no longer had to sit next to each other, holding one controller.


Generation three is perhaps one of the most important generations in video game history. This is when video games started to look like video games, and video game controllers started to look like, well, video game controllers. This is the era that brought the "Legend of Zelda," "Super Mario Bros," "Metal Gear," and "Final Fantasy."

These are the video games that set the standard for what a video game should be. And that standard remains prevalent today. It's only fitting that this foundational era in video game history also set the standard for how a video game controller should look and function.

For all of this, we really have Nintendo to thank. I mean, take a look at this controller. There's no knobs. There's no dials, no giant keypads. Most importantly, there's no wasted space-- movement controls on the left, action buttons on the right, a basic button layout that worked so well that it's still being used today, by everyone.

There were other controller designs at the time, namely by Sega and Atari. They both launched their consoles paired with basic paddles with big joysticks and buttons on the side akin to what you'd see in the second gen. But as soon as the NES gained popularity, everyone else was like, hold on a minute. Forget those old things. We can make our controllers cool, too.

And soon enough, both Sega and Atari had released new NES-looking controllers for the Master System and 7800, respectively. Naturally, by the fourth gen, video games had evolved even further. And video game controllers with two action buttons were no longer going to cut it. Games were calling for much more functions outside of just moving, jumping, and attacking.

Though the Sega Genesis controller should be given credit for being one of the first controllers to be designed specifically to be comfortable in the user's hands, its three-button control pad would quickly be outdone by their competitors at Nintendo when they released the Super Nintendo, which came with a controller that had six buttons, two of them being shoulder buttons.

These allowed for a wider variety of attacks and more control over the video games than ever before. Many of the most popular games in the SNES actually made use of these new shoulder buttons for elaborate controls.

Sega, of course, wound up releasing their own controller to keep up, the six-button control pad. Though having all six buttons on the face of the controller wasn't a terrible idea, especially since it did resemble the "Street Fighter II" arcade button layout, the SNES controller had set a new standard, and these new left and right shoulder buttons were a crucial part of that.

Now, gen five not only saw an improvement in graphical fidelity, like all the other generations, what made gen five special was that it was the jump between 2D gaming and 3D gaming. As such, controllers needed to allow the player to control 3D characters and traverse through 3D environments.

As it turns out, the solution to this wasn't as simple as it sounds. Sega's solution was to add more buttons. And newcomer Sony's PlayStation launched with a controller that had handles and four shoulder buttons.

Today, having a handle on each side of the controller is kind of what we're used to. It's actually hard to imagine a world without controllers like that. The original PlayStation deserves credit for that.

However, it was again Nintendo that forced the competition to adapt mid-generation with its Nintendo 64. The Nintendo 64 controller doesn't have the most conventional shape, and it may not be the most comfortable to hold in your hand, but it's the implementation of an analog stick that allowed for the kind of precise movement required to truly navigate the 3D worlds of the fifth generation.

As with previous generations, Nintendo's competitors were forced to reissue new controllers like the Sega Saturn's crazy-looking 3D controller. However, rather than simply keeping up with Nintendo, Sony would actually outdo them when they released the DualShock controllers. The DualShock controllers had two analog sticks and were capable of vibration feedback, a feature not present on the Nintendo 64 controllers without the use of a Rumble Pak attachment.

The impact that Sony left on the video game world with their PlayStation and DualShock controllers was evident in the sixth generation. Both the Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft Xbox controllers came with twin analog sticks and motors that allowed for the controllers to vibrate, just like the original DualShock.

Let's be real. In this generation, the sixth generation, Sony's new DualShock 2's and Nintendo's GameCube controller were hard to beat in terms of comfortability and functionality. But where is the fun in being conventional? Sega seemed tired of simply playing catch-up with the controllers that the previous generation had to offer. Sega was looking to be the innovator this time around.

Sega's Dreamcast controller was behind in a lot of ways. It only had one analog stick, and it required an extra peripheral in order to make use of the vibration feedback that every other major console came stock with. And overall, it just didn't feel comfortable to hold.

But where it lacked in, well, basic functions compared to every other controller at the time, it made up for in its unique and creative memory storage unit, the VMU. Primarily, the VMU is a memory storage unit that plugs into one of the top slots of the Dreamcast controller.

The VMU actually served many functions, including a real-time clock, a second screen, and it even played its own mini games. The VMU is actually very helpful in games like "Resident Evil-- Code Veronica," where you can use the second screen to actually view your health meter through this window here. Now, the Dreamcast controller may not have been the best controller by most metrics, but it added a level of interactivity not present in any other primary video game controller of the sixth generation.

Then came the HD era. Graphical enhancements are inevitable between, and even during, gaming generations. At this point, the console wars had become a competition between Sony and Microsoft over who could produce the better graphics. Their controllers are sort of a reflection of that.

Sony's two primary controllers at the time, the Sixaxis and, most importantly, the later-released DualShock 3, were refined versions of the DualShock 2. Microsoft, on the other hand, found a way to convert their original Xbox controller abomination into something that was meant to be held by human hands in the Xbox 360 controller.

Because graphical fidelity and hardware capabilities were the main selling points of the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, controllers really just needed to be responsive and comfortable to play with for long periods of time. Nintendo, on the other hand, was in a league of their own. Rather than focusing on powerful HD hardware, Nintendo came up with a new way to enjoy games, and their controllers had a huge part in that.

Most of Nintendo's entire presentation at E3 2006 was focused on the Wii's controller, the Wiimote, and all of its capabilities. This new Wiimote could be a baseball bat, a sword, a fishing pole, and much more. It was so versatile that the Wii didn't even have to be as powerful as the competition because the Wiimote allowed for an experience that you just couldn't get on the PS3 or the Xbox 360.

Of course, this eventually led to Sony and Microsoft releasing their own motion controllers in the PlayStation Move and the Xbox Kinect And if you don't remember them, it's probably because you're trying to forget.

Now we're approaching the modern era of gaming. And if you've been playing games for the past 10 years or before it, you're probably very familiar with this era. Xbox released what I find to be one of the most comfortable gaming controllers ever for the Xbox One.

Nintendo reversed pretty much all of the good things I had to say about them in the last generation with their release of the Wii U and the Wii U's primary gamepad. I mean, it's a tablet encased in bulky plastic. Its functionality was interesting, and the Wii U had a fun, albeit small, library of games. But having to carry this bulky thing while playing games just didn't feel comfortable.

Well, it seemed Nintendo was aware of this. And in a bold move not seen in decades, Nintendo released a second console within the same generation, the Nintendo Switch. The Switch controllers, or Joy-Con, could detach and reattach to the console at any time, had motion controls like the Wii, and could even be slipped into a cute puppy-looking holder to form one single controller.

Generation eight also marked one of the most significant changes in Sony's controller, the DualShock. Rather than undergoing small tweaks in tech and physical appearance like previous DualShock controllers, the DualShock 4 added a 2-inch touch pad that allowed players to use touch, click, and swipe gestures. It's kind of like they threw a laptop trackpad onto a DualShock controller, an interesting feature now exclusive to the PlayStation, thanks to these controllers.


So here we are, the current generation, generation nine. This is a modern generation primary controller. Xbox continues to keep it classy, comfortable, and simple. This time around, it's Sony who turned in a flashy new design. They finally ditched the DualShock controller that we've all grown so accustomed to since the original PlayStation.

The PlayStation 5 comes with the new DualSense controllers. And while their shape and button layout may be reminiscent of the DualShock, everything else has gone through massive changes.

It's got a sleek, futuristic, two-tone design, translucent buttons, and an even bigger trackpad. But what makes the DualSense controller truly unique is not its aesthetic design. It's the technology that's inside the controller.

Sony's DualSense features haptic feedback that allows it to vibrate in unique ways depending on the scenario or environment in the game that you're playing. On top of that, it actually has adaptive triggers that become easier or harder to press to adapt to the game that you're playing.

The DualSense controllers provide a unique way of bringing you closer to the game that you're playing without actually taking your attention away from the screen. If I had to think of the biggest compliment that I could give to a controller, that would have to be it.

When you look back at each generation and how controllers have evolved, it's hard not to appreciate how far they've come. It's even harder not to get excited about where technology like that of the DualSense will take us in the future.

At the same time, though, it's also important to acknowledge just how influential controllers of the past were. And it's still evident in the design of controllers today. For more content on all things electronics and tech stuff, be sure to follow and subscribe to Engadget on all platforms, including the one that you're watching on now.