Since video games have existed, there’s been the need to make your avatar on the screen actually do things.
At first, this was done with simple knobs and joysticks. When video games moved from the arcades to the living room, this seemed to be the way things were going to stay.
But it wasn’t.
And although many controllers share similarities, there’s one that stands out for a very specific reason, and that’s Sony’s PlayStation controller. Why do the PlayStation controllers have a triangle, circle, X, and square?
On top of that what inspired the other design choices for the gamepad?
To find this out, we have to jump back to 1983 and look at Nintendo. After finding success in the arcade and digital toy side of gaming, with the likes of Donkey Kong and their Game and Watch handhelds, they decided to enter the home console market. They used inspiration from some of their Game and Watch digital toys for their control pad. The name of that home console? The Nintendo Entertainment System.
The simple gamepad of the NES helped set it apart from the competition. A four-way directional pad on the left, two buttons on the right, and start and select buttons in the middle. It was easy for anyone to pick up and understand. Something proven by a four-year-old me and my 60-year-old grandma on numerous occasions.
The NES controller set a new standard for the games industry, and as new systems were introduced from competitors the D-Pad quickly became a mainstay, with the face buttons varying in letters and numbers. Nintendo then introduced the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and evolved the gamepad again, in a way that still sees its influence to this very day. Two more buttons were added on the right, and two buttons were added to each shoulder at the top of the controller.
The time of the Super Nintendo was also the time of a collaboration between Nintendo and an electronics company you might have heard of – Sony.
Sony was working with them to make a CD-ROM accessory that would be compatible with the SNES, and began work on it all the way back in 1988 – two years before the SNES even existed. At the Consumer Electronics Shows in June 1991, Sony announced the collaboration to the world. At the show the very next day, Nintendo announced their partnership with Philips to make a CD-ROM accessory. A surprise to everyone… especially Sony.
This created an obvious conflict between Sony and Nintendo and spurred Sony on to make their own console, the PlayStation, which would release in 1994. The story of Sony and Nintendo’s conflict is something for another day, but an important thing to establish, as we explore why they adopted the shapes of triangle, circle, X and square.
In Super Mario World, an enemy called a Magikoopa, or Kamek (depending where you’re from), tries to attack you by firing some magic. How does that magic appear on screen? In the shape of a triangle, circle and square, with what looks suspiciously like an X as well.
Some believe this why Sony chose the shapes they did, but unfortunately that’s not the case – they have some very specific reasons for their shapes and colours.
How do we know this? From a 2010 interview with Sony engineer Teiyu Goto. Teiyu designed the PlayStation controllers and, whilst being interviewed in 2010, explained that the shapes and their colours were not just random, but something deeply thought out. He said:
Other game companies at the time assigned alphabet letters or colours to the buttons. We wanted something simple to remember, which is why we went with icons or symbols, and I came up with the triangle-circle-X-square combination immediately afterward. I gave each symbol a meaning and a colour. The triangle refers to viewpoint;
I had it represent one’s head or direction and made it green. Square refers to a piece of paper; I had it represent menus or documents and made it pink. The circle and X represent ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision-making and I made them red and blue respectively. People thought those colours were mixed up, and I had to reinforce to management that that’s what I wanted.
The controller has evolved over the years to include thumbsticks, vibration, and more, but the shapes and a lot of the layout has stayed the same, making them a key part of PlayStation’s brand identity and much more than a bunch of random shapes.