In the annals of gaming history, there’s no controller better known than the three-pronged piece of plastic that shipped with the Nintendo 64. That’s likely for a few reasons. There’s the unique design, which renders it instantly and unmistakably recognizable as the N64’s gamepad. There’s the popularity of the console, which helped cement Nintendo as one of the definitive names in gaming.
But the most important part of the N64 controller isn’t the design or the box it attached to: it was the joystick, which introduced millions to a new way of controlling games and paved the way for modern 3D gaming that’s virtually standard today.
Nintendo didn’t invent the joystick or the idea of using it for games, but it did popularize the joystick as a default control option for mainstream 3D games in a way that no one else had done before. Prior to the N64, joysticks were limited largely to flight simulator enthusiasts looking for the most realistic platform to mirror actual flight (although earlier consoles like the Atari 2600 did feature a joystick input, albeit for 2D gaming.) But the N64 controller offered a joystick as the main control scheme for every type of game and placed it front and center in players’ hands.
One reason for that decision was the shift to 3D gaming, a change Nintendo helped usher in with the N64. Moving around a polygonal three-dimensional world meant players needed the ability to navigate more freely than what a traditional D-pad (designed for grid-like pixels on past consoles) would allow. It’s something reflected in my favorite design cue of the N64 joystick: the octagonal well it rests in, which subtly cues players toward the eight cardinal directions they can tilt the stick and subsequently move their character on-screen.
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