The N64 controller was a weird but essential introduction to joysticks

In the annals of gaming history, there is no controller better known than the three-pronged piece of plastic that came with the Nintendo 64. That probably has a few reasons. There’s the unique design, which makes it instantly and unmistakably recognizable as the N64’s gamepad. There is the popularity of the console, which has helped Nintendo become one of the definitive names in gaming.

But the most important part of the N64 controller isn’t the design or the box it’s attached to: it was the joystick, which introduced millions to a new way of controlling games and paved the way for modern 3D games that are almost standard today. to be.

Nintendo didn’t invent the joystick or the idea of ​​using it for games, but it did popularize the joystick as a standard control option for mainstream games in a way no one else had done before. Before the N64, joysticks were largely limited to flight simulator enthusiasts looking for the most realistic platform to mirror actual flight. But the N64 controller provided a joystick as the main control scheme for: each game type and placed it front and center in the hands of the players.

One of the reasons for that decision was the shift to 3D gaming, a change Nintendo helped usher in with the N64. Moving through a polygonal three-dimensional world allowed players to navigate more freely than a traditional D-pad (designed for grid-like pixels on previous consoles) would allow. It’s something that’s reflected in my favorite design cue of the N64 joystick: the octagonal pit in which it rests, subtly pointing players to the eight cardinal directions in which they can tilt the stick and then move their character on the screen. (It’s also a detail Nintendo stuck with on its subsequent consoles up to the Wii U.)

But the magic of the N64’s controller is how Nintendo used the design to teach players how to use the new joystick and navigate new planes. The odd-looking third controller grip allowed the N64 controller to be held on the two outer grips like a “regular” controller, but the center-mounted stick encourages players to view it as the primary control scheme. And the textured rubber grip rests naturally under your thumb, making it easy to tilt it in any direction.

The joystick also allowed for more subtle movements than a traditional D-pad. In Super Mario 64, players are introduced to the idea that they can push the joystick hard to run, but tilt it slightly to walk. Later in the game, they can even use it to fly freely in three dimensions.

The hardware had problems. The mechanisms were subject to wear and loosening over time, requiring proper maintenance, lubrication and replacement. But it’s important to remember that it was also a first-generation product, released at a time when Nintendo’s biggest competitors, the original PlayStation and Sega Saturn, only came with old-fashioned D-pads. (Both would later release controllers with joysticks after the N64 was released.)

The N64 controller is also very clearly a transition point. The design is almost like an SNES controller that has been given some extra appendages, and the directional pad and face buttons still allow developers and players who were uneasy about the new control scheme to avoid it. There was only the single analog stick, which made camera control a frustration in some games.

It wasn’t until Sony released the Dual Analog Controller in 1997 that the modern dual analog stick design, still used on virtually every major controller and gamepad today, would arrive. Even Nintendo would offer its own version of PlayStation’s face button/D-pad/dual stick/triggers layout with the GameCube, the Wii Classic controller, the Wii U, and the Switch.

But the N64’s single joystick was a starting point, a bridge from the pixelated consoles of the past to the ultra-powerful PlayStations and Xboxes we have today – teaching generations of players a new way to think about gaming and moving in a digital space.