Most gamers from the 80s got very accustomed to using joysticks thanks to arcade cabinets and the early systems from Atari like the 2600. But, when the NES/Famicom came on the scene, it adopted the now industry-standard, plus-sign-shaped D-Pad for directional movement (hence the name “directional pad”.) But, little did we know that the NES was first intended to have a joystick as its main form of input.
NES creator Masayuki Uemura recently revealed this factoid in an interview with Nintendo Life. So, what made him and his team decide to move away from the joystick? Uemura said it had to do with durability; they feared that kids could potentially break the expensive joystick if they were to step on it. So, the NES team instead opted to borrow the d-pad design from the Game & Watch team, who they worked next to.
Here is his full statement:
I started with the famous joystick type. We developed a lot, all kinds. One of the crucial points that we realised is that after kids might step on the joystick, then the knob will break. I tried to use a material which is not breakable, and that is very expensive.
One of the reasons we could get into the directional pad like a Game & Watch was because the Game & Watch division was right next to us, so it was easy to have them bring over the device and then check it. For a while, we worked on a joystick type of controller, but it didn’t work. But we only had this pad type of design for the Game & Watch, so we just put it onto our device just as a test, and it worked well, so we decided to use it.
Another cool controller tidbit about the planned NES was that it was planned to sport wireless functionality, which you can read more about here.