How Nintendo's NES console changed gaming

How Nintendo helped redefine the way we interact with our games forever.

The video game console controller has seen countless iterations and evolutions, but perhaps none more notable or influential than the Nintendo Entertainment Console's iconic grey, black, and red controller.

Released in 1983 in Japan and in the U.S. two years later, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) accomplished a great number of things in its illustrious lifetime: It established Nintendo as a major force in the games industry, it helped reinvigorate the ailing market after the great crash of 1982, and it exposed an entire generation to the joy of video games. But while it's cultural and fiscal impact has been thoroughly documented, little attention has been paid to one of its most important contributions to gaming: the seemingly innocuous controller that a legion of gamers held in their furtive grasps.


While it has been supplanted by technology featuring superior ergonomics and functionality, the original NES controller deserves to be remembered as a transformative piece of technology whose impact is still felt today. How did a simple piece of plastic measuring only 12.2 cm by 5.25 cm change video games forever? By establishing a new "language" that defined the way we interact with our video games.

It might sound disingenuous to talk about gaming as a language, but it has all the earmarks of one: there is a defined and shared vocabulary that gamers adhere to, and an established grammar that governs how most games work. The language has evolved and changed over the years but the alphabet was initiated in the golden 8-bit era of the NES. That system's simple controller, which consists of the iconic cross-shaped directional pad (borrowed and refined from earlier precursors found on the Intellivision console, Microvision handheld, and Nintendo's own Game and Watch handhelds) and four face buttons, is gaming's Rosetta Stone -- the defining document that serves as the basis of our collective lexicon.

Early home consoles that predate the NES featured unwieldy and overly complicated controllers that weren't known for their form or function. The earliest consoles were dedicated solely to Pong and its many variants, and therefore featured a lone knob for controlling the paddles. Later systems, like the ColecoVision, had bulky controllers with unnecessary features like a numerical keypad; its two buttons were also embedded on the side of the unit, necessitating an awkward "pinch claw" grip where your hand wrapped around the controller's undercarriage. The most popular console of that era, the Atari 2600, had a controller that paired an upright joystick with a single button; while its simplicity was admirable, the design hampered the overall complexity of game experiences possible on that platform. In terms of the language metaphor, these controllers could be considered the gaming equivalent of cave drawings, which were our ancestors' first flirtation with communicating shared ideas; in that context, the NES controller is the first actual written document and it represents the point in time when the defining characteristics of our collective language became fixed.

This was due in large part to the controller's intuitive design. The rectangular shape was a vast improvement in terms of overall comfort and ergonomics; the placement of the face buttons, which put the majority of the stress on your thumbs, was also important -- there is a reason why those two opposing digits are constantly referenced as one of the defining evolutionary advantages that humans have over other animals. Go to your game collection and pick up one of the many "modern-era" controllers you no doubt own (the Xbox 360 controller and Sony's DualShock are the most likely candidates). Now, hold it the way you would when you're playing a game; you probably don't notice it because it's autonomic-like breathing and blinking -- but look at your hands and how they're positioned. The controller is cradled in your palm and your thumbs are resting on the analog sticks, ready to manipulate the majority of the buttons available to you; this is the set starting position that all console gamers now live by, and it was Nintendo's revolutionary approach to designing its controller that firmly cemented this under-appreciated aspect of gaming culture in stone.


The NES controller was also far more functional, and it allowed developers to design more sophisticated gaming experiences; this would lead to a generational leap forward in both quality and depth. While improved technology and better development techniques deserve a majority of the credit, the increased functionality offered by the controller's design would also have a game-changing effect (excuse the pun) on game design by endowing developers with greater flexibility.

This is something modern-era gamers may scoff at, but the NES controller was a relatively sophisticated piece of technology for the time. The four face buttons, along with the NES' beefier hardware, made it possible for designers to implement systems that were far more complex than those found on earlier consoles. For instance, Square Enix's original Final Fantasy and Nintendo's own The Legend of Zelda were able to offer intricate RPG experiences complete with an inventory and character leveling. (Old-school PC gamers who were playing titles like Rogue and Ultima around this time are no doubt rolling your eyes, but such gameplay mechanics would have been impossible or unwieldy on a relatively simplistic home console had the controller and user interface not been up to snuff.) The "Select" and "Start" buttons were especially key, allowing game designers to implement sub-menus where new abilities and items could be managed, and these layers of added complexity made games like the original Metal Gear and Mega Man far more compelling.

The NES would also have a noticeable effect on the overall culture of games, and certain "phrases" would become so pervasive that they entered the mainstream consciousness, the way idiomatic slang can infiltrate the popular lexicon (remember that, at one point in time, the word "cool" was used solely to describe temperature). The most obvious and pervasive example is the "Konami code," something even most non-gamers can recite from memory. The controller itself would also become a cultural symbol, used as the inspiration for a wide-ranging series of pop culture ephemera -- like belt buckles, earrings, and hand soap.

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Of course, nothing lasts forever, and the NES' time in the spotlight eventually ended. Gaming as a whole matured, and so too did the language; a linguistic analogy would be modern English, which evolved from an old world hodge-podge of Latin, Germanic, and Celtic influences (among countless others), and continues to be changed and altered on a regular basis today. It still bears a resemblance to the form it took during its early stages of existence, but its current incarnation is clearly a more evolved and complicated beast. New concepts like analog sticks and shoulder buttons have expanded the alphabet and grammar of gaming, and controllers like the DualShock 3, with its rechargeable battery, wireless connectivity, and multitude of buttons, make the NES controller seem positively ancient by comparison. But today's sophisticated controllers clearly owe a debt of gratitude to Nintendo's original, as they're just a more advanced form of the same concept.


The same holds true for the next evolutionary step for gamers: motion controls. This gesture-based method of interaction has the potential to move us away from the standard set by Nintendo back in 1983. Fittingly, Nintendo is once again on the forefront of this movement with its innovative Wii Remote and Nunchuk, but Microsoft and Sony have also invested heavily in the technology with Kinect and the PlayStation Move, respectively. The standard handheld controller won't be replaced any time soon-the same way physical storage mediums have yet to be replaced by digital distribution as predicted by pundits for years -- but it's clear that the language of gaming is headed in a direction where the ubiquitous handheld controller could one day be rendered obsolete, the same way Latin and other "dead" languages fell by the wayside in favor of new ones. But even though these technologies are having their own transformative and disruptive effect on the status quo, they are simply a variation on the same theme Nintendo addressed so many years ago: that of effectively and intuitively bridging the gap between the gamer and the action on the screen.

While the visuals and gameplay get all the love and attention, it can be argued that the tactile component is more important simply because it is the most direct connection we have to the games we play. It allows us to not only interact with the games we love but to exert a tangible measure of control over them. This is why the language of gaming is so important: without a shared system of concepts and ideas to frame our interactions with the games we play, the industry would essentially devolve into a chaotic environment akin to the one left behind after the fall of the Tower of Babel. Each developer would dictate its own rules of interaction, which would only breed confusion; imagine if each first-person shooter had its own distinct control scheme-you would essentially have to retrain yourself every time you put in a new disc.

While diversity is important and still exists in terms of control layouts and game design, the gaming industry could not grow or thrive unless the majority of games adhered to the same basic set of rules. The NES controller is such an important artifact of gaming history because it was an instrumental part in the creation of the concepts which act as the foundation of the medium even to this day, which was no small feat for a simple piece of plastic measuring only 12.2 cm by 5.25 cm.