When I first started out playing video games, the controller was built right into the game console. The Coleco Telstar was my first voyage into the strange and wonderful world of video games and I still remember playing it to this day. When I got my first computer, however, the joystick was where it was at in its simple one button, eight direction configuration. For many games today, that simplicity still works.

Controllers are a very personal thing. I’ve had the opportunity to watch people interact with a rich history of controllers at the Personal Computer Museum and took a great interest in how different controllers seem to have a different impact on different people of different ages. Some pick up the controllers backwards and others struggle while many just get it instinctively. Controllers definitely don’t fit into the one size fits all category.

A Brief History of Gaming Controllers 

Atari created the standard controller that dominated many 8-bit computers including ones from Commodore and Atari. The connector and the joystick style itself was so popular that it lasted for several generations, from its public introduction in 1977 to well into the 1980s. Nintendo also thought it was a great idea, but they decided it was too bulky and when they released the Nintendo Entertainment System (Famicom in Japan) they made it less bulky and created what is now known as the D-Pad. They also changed the connector to make it more difficult for others to copy their design.

The Atari stick is a very digital device, producing four different directions (with diagonals that increases to eight) but other computers went the opposite way with analog controllers. The IBM PC, Apple II and Radio Shack computers for example used a different technology to produce controllers that could be “more left” or “more up” rather than simply one way or another. There have always been advocates for one method over the other, but like many things it all comes down to personal preference. Of course in attempt to please everyone most modern controllers feature both.

Voice Activated Controllers Have Been Around A Long Time

You might have thought that motion controls and voice activated controls are a “this generation” kind of thing but in reality both of these technologies existed much earlier than you might have thought, thanks to the open nature of computers and their accessories. One controller add-on in particular that I remember well was 1988’s “LipStick Plus” from Access Software which, besides the rather unfortunate name, had an interesting premise. You put the unassuming headset on and it had a primitive technology in it to “hear” speech at a certain level. Call out “Fire!” with some enthusiasm, and the controller would pass along a signal for the fire button to the computer. It would work equally well with whatever word you uttered, however, and only gave the illusion of early voice recognition.

While the technology inside the LipStick Plus is rather unsophisticated today, it’s general design and pass-through connector that allowed it to work alongside your favourite joystick for movements made it a general success from of a user acceptance stand point. It was bundled inside of a game called The Echelon, which unfortunately failed to doing anything substantial with gamers. Yet the idea of these add-ons was, and continues to be, somewhat of a passing fad.

Console or Computer Gamer? Or both?

If you are anything like me you are going to switch back and forth between the land of the console and PC gaming. Once you get used to console controllers, it can be difficult to switch back. The bane and blessing of PC gaming is that it’s an open market that is open to innovation and exploration. While you can certainly connect an Xbox 360, Xbox One, or PlayStation 4 controller to your PC perhaps there is a better and more suitable way to navigate your perfect fantasy world or strategy game.
If you don’t have an extra console controller kicking around, budget conscious gamers won’t go wrong with the Logitech Gamepad F310 controller. Taking its colouring cue from the consoles as well as the mix of analog and digital sticks, the F310 gives you a quality built product at an affordable price. Using it, for me, feels like a console experience on the PC but I still have to wonder when did we switch from calling these things joysticks over to controllers? I suppose when we moved away from a single button and a single stick.

Some Gaming Genres are Best Handled by PC
One genre that the PC does way better than a console is the flight simulator category – whether it’s in the real world or in space, no platform has this covered better than modern computers. Of course, a traditional controller just isn’t going to do in this case so for me the Logitech Extreme 3D Pro Joystick fits the bill perfectly and won’t break the bank all in one shot. It may not be the best choice for playing Pac-Man, but for anything that involves flying it is going to work very well.

If you long for the early console games and want to play them on your mobile device or through emulation on your Mac or PC then it’s hard not to fall in love with the 8Bitdo SNES30 Pro Bluetooth Gamepad Controller. Showing its modern props by doing away with wires altogether, this Bluetooth enabled controller that has obvious aesthetic roots from the 1990s, the SNES30 ditches the analog side of controls for its full D-pad offering but with 8 different buttons. That is likely to make an old Atari joystick quiver in its 8-bit roots…er…boots.

There is no doubt that controllers have changed a lot since the early days of gaming. Unlike many other technologies however the fact that “retro” style controllers like the SNES30 even exist is that they did things right back in the day, and many people feel like gaming was more fun when the controls were simpler and the focus was more on gameplay rather than graphics, sound, and special effects. The good news is that there are many choices available to you, which ultimately means that you are in control. Quite literally.

Check out the range of gaming accessories from Best Buy 

Syd Bolton
Syd Bolton has over 30 years of experience with computers and runs Canada's only interactive computer museum, The Personal Computer Museum (http://www.pcmuseum.ca) in Brantford, Ontario. Syd lives and breathes technology of all kinds and is always trying something new. He is also Canada's top videogame collector. Find out more at http://www.sydbolton.com.