Very much the jilted lover, Sony decided to release their own system. The Playstation was a 3D marvel, small and powerful, and solidly designed inside and out. The Playstation controller, however, was a basically a SNES pad with handles.
Imagine a drunk Sony engineer, sitting in a pub and drinking away the sting of a Nintendo betrayal. He's sketching ideas on a notepad.
Starting with a SNES pad, the first step is avoiding the Nintendo cross-shaped d-pad patent. With only two strokes, the Playstation's iconic 4-part d-pad is created. Moving on to the buttons, he crosses out ABXY and scribbles in some random geometric symbols, and because he heard his manager mention multimedia once, he draws a rectangle stop and triangle play button over Nintendo's start and select. After knocking back another cup of sake, he writes assholes over the Nintendo logo.
That'll teach 'em he thinks to himself. He looks at his drawing with smug satisfaction, but it's not enough. It's the same controller, isn't it? Inspiration strikes, and he throws in two more shoulder buttons. Hah! Now it's way more awesome than the SNES pad. Still...
He draws a couple of bug antennae on the top, but erases them. He draws two big ears on the sides, and erases them too. Finally, he draws a couple of dangly bits on the bottom, and pachinko-victory alarm bells go off in his head - now it's the controller of the future.
When I first tried the Playstation pad at CES in 1996, my first impressions were favourable. It was, after all, sexy new hardware, and I was dazzled by the smooth framerates of Ridge Racer. When it was finally released nine months later it didn't take long for the pad to simply fade into the background. With the first generation of Playstation games the controller was, essentially, invisible. It was all about the games.
That's how it should be.
The Playstation pad was functional, comfortable, and reliable. It just worked, but being borne of the SNES pad you would expect exactly that.
Some people complained about the d-pad: the separated buttons confused a lot of people who saw it in magazines. Why does it have four buttons? they'd ask, before announcing with great fervour that it sucks. For most people, when they actually played it, they either loved it or just didn't mind it too much. It worked, and it worked better than many pads.
For my money, it's pretty awesome. Functionally there's no difference between this d-pad and any other. It's actually one piece, despite its divided appearance, and with your eyes on the game you'd be unlikely to even notice it's not connected in the middle. As far as I'm concerned anyone who strongly dislikes this pad either does so for completely ridiculous reasons or because they were unlucky enough to get an ALPS-made unit.
Everything else about the pad is, basically, excellent. All the buttons are easily found, the shoulder buttons are comfortable, and Sony's drunken engineer should be commended for not screwing up what Nintendo put so much effort into.
The Dual Shock
When Nintendo and Sega brought out analogue controls, Sony followed suit (read more about this), adding two analogue sticks to the basic Playstation pad. At first they added only the two sticks: the Dual Analogue pad was a slightly larger but otherwise identical Playstation pad with two concave-topped sticks crammed between the handles. Nintendo, Sega and Microsoft put the analogue stick in the primary position, but Sony left the digital d-pad where it was, and I could never get used to it. It always seemed as if I was reaching for the stick, and I found it difficult to be accurate with that awkward reach.
Sony made the sticks clickable too - you could push straight down on them, giving players two additional buttons. These buttons were incredibly annoying, and pushing down on the sticks invariably shifted the stick away from the position it was in.
Sony and most of their customers were so pleased with this Dual Shock that the design became unalterable. Sony essentially locked the pad down, and for the next decade they made very few changes to it.
When the Playstation 2 was released Sony added analogue buttons: the harder you pressed, the more the game would respond. This was too annoying for most players: the lack of feedback meant you never knew how far you were pressing it, and the actual result was sore fingers from pushing as hard as you could all the time, and most games ignored the feature. For the Playstation 3's release Sony finally caught up with 1996 and its analogue triggers, went fully wireless, and moving quickly to match Nintendo's Wii, included rudimentary motion-sensing abilities too.
The Bottom Line
The Playstation pad was brilliant, the Dual Shock no less so if used as a digital pad. After many years of playing with it I don't hate the twin sticks as much as I once did, though I still believe that making both sticks secondary inputs was the wrong choice, and making them also buttons is a totally worthless feature. Ultimately I think this is one of the greatest pads ever made. If Sony had swapped the left-side digital and analogue controls I might love it more... If they want to try that and send me a prototype, I'll happily let 'em know if I'm right or not. =D
Interestingly, Sony sought other ways to avoid Nintendo's patent on the d-pad. One of the criteria Nintendo mentioned in their patent application was the rounded bottom of the d-pad, which acted as a fulcrum. Sony's design used a weird four-pointed plastic insert which had its own fulcrum. Being disconnected from the main d-pad apparently kept the lawyers at bay. What's weird though is that this device had three arms that were longer than the last. It doesn't seem to matter how it's oriented in the pad, it's just shorter.
The Playstation was one of the first systems to use a complicated controller protocol for passing information between pad and console. Unlike most previous systems, which used off-the-shelf generic chips, Sony's solution was very different. When the system is started the controller and console have a little dialogue, and the controller details its ID, features, button count and other details.
The Playstation controller port had two pins for power: One 3.3 Volt line for the controller, and an unregulated 8 Volt line for peripherals requiring more power. Many third party pads used cheap 5 Volt components, and drew their power from the 8 Volt line (it's easier to reduce the Voltage than increase it from the 3.3V line). Since these controllers were unauthorized, they didn't realize the Playstation couldn't supply a lot of current via the 8V line, and many third party pads would fry fuses inside the Playstation. At my store in Canada we made many players happy by replacing these fuses for less than Sony charged.
I feel compelled to complain a little about Sony's low-risk method of controller innovation. For more than thirteen years the pad has remained basically the same, and despite radical hardware decisions in the consoles themselves, Sony was very conservative with their controllers. Too conservative, in my view: Nintendo had two shoulder buttons, Sony had four. Nintendo and Sega had one analogue device, Sony had two. Nintendo adds vibration, so does Sony. Nintendo adds motion sensitivity, so does Sony. Nintendo releases pads in multiple colours, so does Sony. Sega and Microsoft have analogue triggers, finally (12 years later) so does Sony.
No matter their success in the console war, they were always chasing the leaders of controller innovation. Sony did manage to be first with only two features: the sticks had integral buttons, and could be pushed downwards so they clicked, and in the Playstation 2, the face buttons were analogue. Microsoft copied both of these features for the Xbox and 360, but neither feature is particularly useful to players.
I was very disappointed when the PS2 was released with the same old pad: It hardly felt new and exciting when you came home with fantastically expensive new game hardware, unboxed it and hooked it all up, and then slapped the same old controller into your palms. It's the same with the PS3. Oh sure, maybe the buttons were analogue, maybe the controller had no cord, but it was basically the same, and after thirteen years, it's basically boring. Probably just whinging for the sake of it though - the old pad is still a good pad.