Natal may be the latest gaming breakthrough, but it's just one of many evolutions and revisions in controller designs over the years. Whether it was the gamepad, analog controls, or a fishing rod, there have been plenty of neat innovations.
Galaxy Game: This was one of the first arcade games to ever come out.
Pong's Poteniometer: Pong's controller consisted of little more than potentiometer—that round dial you turn—as its sole gaming control. Simple, but still fun to this day.
Atari Paddles: Pretty much like the Pong controller, but, you know, handheld and in your living room.
Atari 2600 Joystick: The Atari 2600 Joystick went in and added a big red button to go next to the joystick, giving your finger a nice target to land on.
ColecoVision: As games started to ramp up in complexity, consoles such as the ColecoVision started adding more buttons and controller forms. Maybe that's just what they wanted us to think, but either way, controllers started getting a lot of buttons.
NES: The NES controller had one of the first D-pads used for gaming, changing the way we hold gaming controllers. It also managed to scale back the number of buttons on the controller.
Power Pad: The Track and Field Pad gained popularity because it was one of the early control innovations that let you get in on the gaming action by mimicking real world actions. And because of World Class Track Meet, I can't think of 8-bit track and field games with out the Power Pad coming to mind.
Zapper: Light Guns. Duck Hunt. Need I say more? Ok, fine...it's a damn shame more games didn't use this thing.
NES Advantage: The NES Advantage brought Turbo and Slow macros into play, letting you flip a switch for gameplay modifications. Turbo let the controller register multiple taps every time you hit the button once, and made the character move faster. Slow made everything move at a snail's pace for precision gaming. The problem is, most the games weren't designed around this idea, so it worked better in theory than actual practice.
R.O.B. the Robot: As much as R.O.B. is loved, the Gyromite star wasn't so much an evolution in gaming controls as much as he was pure gaming gimmick. His ability to stack rings was a neat demo of what was possible on the NES, but it was difficult to extend that idea to other games.
Power Glove: I love the Power Glove. It's so...bad. I feel like this is the peripheral we all wanted as kids, but none of us ever actually got. Utilizing a series of flex sensors and speakers that could read your movements and interpret them as in game controllers, the Power Glove was one of the earliest motion gaming devices. Sure, the life of the Mattel device was short lived and criticized, but the Rad Racer scene from The Wizard will live on forever.
Sega Master System Controller: The Master System controller was one of the first 8-way D-pads, joining the NES in ushering in a joystick-less revolution in directional inputs.
SNES Controller: Nintendo continued to push things forward by including two extra face buttons (diamond configuration!!) along with the even more significant inclusion of shoulder buttons. Now more fingers than just our thumbs were able to get in on the action.
Honorable Mention: Sega Genesis Six Button Controller: The original Genesis gamepad added a extra button, which was cool, but the Six Button Controller was way better because the button layout was perfect for games like Street Fighter II. To this day, six-button gamepads are still made for fighting games.
Sega Activator: This octagon-shaped ring was another early attempt at motion gaming. There were 8 IR stations around the ring, and each one corresponded to a different set of actions. Move your foot over that IR beam, and you'd carry out the action. It wasn't the best innovation from Sega, but the idea was in the right place.
Nintendo 64: Despite it's unique shape, Rumble Pak, expansion port, trigger button, and multiple colors, the biggest innovation the N64 controller brought to gaming controllers was the inclusion of an analog joystick, which upped the ante as far as precision gaming went. And it was absolutely essential, as gaming moved into the world of 3D.
PlayStation Dual Shock: The electronics inside the initial PSX controller were pretty run of the mill—D-pad, shoulder buttons, face buttons. But the controller has some of the greatest ergonomics ever seen in a gaming device. And the development of dual analog sticks, and then pressure sensitive face buttons on the PS2 iteration make it an absolute winner.
Dreamcast: In addition to including some of the first analog trigger buttons, the Dreamcast controller also had a spot for the Tamagotchi-like Virtual Memory Unit, which let you play mini-games related to the larger console game, and would allow you to progress further or rack up stats while you were away from the console.
Dreamcast Fishing Controller: This was one of the first console gaming peripherals to mimic the real world that wasn't a gun or a steering wheel. It also has legendary cult status amongst Dreamcast fans thanks to Sega Bass Fishing.
Samba de Amigo Maracas: Probably the game controller with the most personality since R.O.B. (wait do robots have personalities?), the Samba de Amigo maracas could keep a party going for hours. You shake, the score on the screen bakes.
Nintendo WaveBird: Nintendo's wireless WaveBird controller was the first wireless controller that didn't totally suck. While it didn't revolutionize the way we play games directly, it did open up possibilities for future controller designs.
DDR Dance Mat: The Dance Dance Revolution mat is essentially the Power Pad revisited, but it's the best implementation of a mat/pad-style game that you use with your feet. Stomping for fun experienced a renaissance with DDR.
Guitar Hero Guitar Controller: Don't underestimate the power of a guitar shaped controller and a little imagination. With Guitar Hero, we all lived out our deepest fantasy of shredding harder than Hendrix. Sure, you could accomplish the same exact thing with a table controller (or even a gamepad, for that matter), but would it have been half as fun?
Nintendo introduced the touchscreen DS in 2004, which brought tactile gaming into the mainstream. Nintendo kept saying they saw a trend where a user didn't want games to keep getting more complex. Rather, new gamers favored simpler gameplay and more intuitive controls. Apparently they were hardwired into the gaming zeitgeist. Overwhelming commercial success ensued.
The Wii Remote, soon known as "Wiimote," made a big break from the popular trends in gaming. Leery of dual sticks and the glut of buttons, the Wiimote is all about intuitive gameplay, making use of accelerometers and IR sensors to provide motion gaming in 3D space. It's elongated, upright shape makes gameplay with one hand easy, but you can also add a nunchuk for slightly more conventional gaming, or plug it into a shell for some gimmicky fun.
Wii Motion Plus: Well the first version of the Wii didn't really track your movement in game with extreme precision. However, with Wii Motion Plus, which adds a gyroscope into the mix, your actions will be integrated into gameplay more than ever.
EyeToy: The EyeToy for the PS2 was one of the first camera-based devices to truly let you interact with the game. Most of of the compatible software consisted of disposable minigames, but it was awesome to see your movements affecting the action on screen.
Vuzix CamAR: Vuzix showed CamAR, their augmented reality system earlier this year, which overlays computer graphics onto real world settings, bringing the game into our own world. Using a pair of video glasses and a head-mounted camera, you can interact with digital elements that don't actually exist.
Neurosky Mindset: Neurosky is leading the way in mind controls with the Mindset, which monitors specific cerebral activity, and is able to translate changes in those brainwaves to in-game action. For now, you can't control the entire game using just your mind, but seeing how gaming controls have evolved over the last 30 years, I wouldn't be surprised if they got close some day.
Headtracking: Headtracking is when the game follows your own movement, and changes the frame of reference according to your absolute position in the room. So if you lean to the left or right in front of the TV, the scene on the TV will change accordingly. NaturalPoint currently has a Trakkir, a PC gaming peripheral that does just this. Homebrew hacks have also been carried out on the Wii, and in our demo, Natal seemed able to do this.
PlayStation Motion Control: PlayStation's entry into motion controlling revolves around the PS3 EyeToy, and a special wand which the camera knows to interpret specially as a controller. Sony too promises 1:1 motion gaming with their solution.
Natal: Microsoft Natal is a complete, hands-free motion tracking sensor, that uses an RGB camera, infrared depth sensor and microphone to detect your position and movement in relation to the TV. Then you are put directly in the game, with what is promised to be 1:1 motion (apparently Natal can track 48 points of the body).