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The history of the D-Pad: Console gaming’s indispensable control

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And yet the Nintendo Switch has none

Somewhat obscured in the Nintendo Switch's launch is this fun fact: It's the first Nintendo console whose standard controller does not feature a D-pad. As Nintendo is the creator of the D-pad, this is a remarkable detail.

In the video above, YouTube's Gaming Historian goes into the genesis of the control scheme and how it has come to be such a baseline expectation of game controllers for the past 30 years. (Yes, the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller has a D-pad, but the assembled twin-analog controller (comprising the two Joy-Cons) does not.)

With the Joy-Cons usable in local multiplayer, Nintendo likely didn't want to give one side an advantage over the other, and/or found making both button interfaces a D-pad to be unworkable (they allow for 8-direction input, instead of a true four buttons, after all).

It's interesting to consider that something so integral to modern control pads was not immediately patented; also that the D-pad's original patent expired in 2005, meaning console makers since have no longer had to fig-leaf their interpretations of the pad. Before it required all sorts of workarounds to keep from infringing on Nintendo's design. Many worked a lot worse: the Xbox/Xbox 360 D-pad is probably the worst offender among the genre. Some worked better; Gaming Historian says the Sega Nomad's D-pad is superior.

Speaking for myself, when the NES launched 31 years ago, there was actually a good deal of skepticism about the controller setup among my friends. This seems silly today, with a D-pad second nature to everyone, but we had all been conditioned to expect joysticks in console gaming, beginning with the Atari VCS (and these were supported across all PCs of the time, too). Further, everyone had a weird friend with solar panels on the roof and a Dad who was a HAM radio enthusiast who bought an Intellivision instead of an Atari. Its floaty and imprecise directional-disc may have allowed for greater range of movement but no one trusted or liked it. ColecoVision's knob seemed geared toward players of either style, but most manipulated it like a stubby joystick.

What made the D-Pad worth it was the undeniable arcade quality of the games. The ColecoVision busted its ass to present legitimate arcade-style ports that the VCS could not. The Nintendo beat all of that, seemingly effortlessly, especially with Super Mario Bros., and then jackpot followups like The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! Whatever misgivings the joystick generation had about using a D-pad were swiftly set aside, and a new standard was born.