Nintendo could have just added a simple D-button and still been ahead of the competition, but they threw a curveball into the controller mix. And to shake a stick at tradition even more violently, they designed the R-button to be pressed with an index finger, not the thumb. This button, like several others on our list, turned the entire industry on its head.
Above: We promise the R-button is there. You just can’t see it
Both durable and non-circular, the “R” has stood the test of time. Controllers continue to use the index finger option to add extra buttons in the same way the SNES did all those years ago. (However, the coloration of future buttons tended to emulate the European, Japanese and Australian scheme, instead of the North American one.)
Above: Sorry, non-North Americans, you’re not tough enough to use the purple version
Before the Atari Jaguar, people had always made the assumption that buttons should serve a purpose. Atari didn’t see buttons that way; they saw them as art. Button critics didn’t know what to make of the # found at the bottom right-hand side of the controller, so it was met with initially mixed reviews. “What do we need a # button for in a game?” Are we supposed to be using this as a phone? What does the # do on the phone?” There were already another 24 buttons on the controller, including 11 identical gray buttons assuming formation next to the #, each with a number (or an equally enigmatic “*”) etched into the plastic to indicate its function. The button took everything we’d assumed about button function and debased it, in the same way the Jaguar undermined our automatic connection between consoles and fun.
Above: We count the D-pad as eight buttons, one for each direction
Often misunderstood, the #-button was widely underrated. People didn’t understand that it was a piece of social commentary saying that we could transcend the form-and-function relationship that had limited buttons in the past. Its influence continues to be felt, however, and discerning critics may see echoes of the #-button in modern counterparts, such as the PS3 controller’s L2 button, which also generally does nothing.
Above: Number 2
Back in ’95, there were a lot of buttons that couldn’t distinguish themselves from each other. Say you were playing a game and not really paying much attention. You hit the button under your thumb. Of course, it’s the A-button, but what system are you playing? Maybe NES? Could be a Genesis A-button, though. Or even a Game Boy or Jaguar, though Atari’s Jag controller went C-B-A, from left to right. That’s where the PlayStation comes in.
Above: Ain’t no letters on this fine-lookin’ piece of plastic (except maybe ‘X’)
Maybe it was some kind of copyright issue, but Sony went the outside-of-the-box route and created the X-button. Different from the A,B,C variety because X comes at the end of the alphabet, “X” is complemented by three other buttons, the triangle, square and circle, that don’t adhere to the “buttons are letters” precedent at all. We picked the X-button because, in addition to bridging the gap between letters and shapes, it made us think, “Is it supposed to be the letter ‘X’? Or is it an ‘X’ shape?” This marked the last time Sony did something unusual with a controller.
The “W” key combines an appealing and generally square face with its titular letter plopped in the center of the key. Of course, it’s only one letter in a 26-letter alphabet, but we think the “W” merits more praise than its peers. When you consider the four directional buttons, 10 number keys, 14 standard English punctuation marks and various WoW-oriented keys, the “W” is still our favorite. Capable of being modified to produce either the standard lower-case or the more distinguished upper-case version to suit most users’ word-formation needs, the key really comes into its own when playing almost any PC shooter, where it controls our favorite direction, forward. This makes it one of the few keys that not only performs its intended function, but has also taken up the mantle of a forward directional key that is on the left of the keyboard. That forward arrow must be jealous.
Above: That’s the forward arrow, all the way on the other side
We’d still like to see a few more things out of the next generation of “W.” For instance, it could incorporate a double-click feature to produce some other letter, or perhaps a triple-u? Like this: \/\/\/. There’s also room for growth; we’ve seen some things that are being done with the space bar, and it’s at least 10 years ahead in terms of size.