We're on the brink of the next generation, which will see PlayStation 5 step into the spotlight. Among other headline features such as a speedy SSD, 3D audio, and a seriously streamlined UI, Sony's new console will of course sport a revised controller. We now know this PS5 controller as DualSense, and it's the biggest departure Sony's ever made in terms of design. Even the DualShock name has been ditched. It still carries the fundamentals of a PlayStation pad, but if you compare the original to the upcoming device, the difference is night and day.
It's inspired us to take a look back at how the PlayStation controller has changed over the course of 25 years, and that's precisely what we'll be doing here. Let's dive into the history of Sony's iconic line of console controllers.
PS1 — Where It All Started
Let's begin at the beginning. The original PlayStation released in North America at the end of 1995, a time when gamers were accustomed to the SNES and the SEGA Genesis. Both machines had decent controllers, with the Super Nintendo's pad in particular a departure from the norm, sporting a D-pad, two shoulder buttons, four face buttons, and two central buttons. It's clear where Sony's initial inspiration came from, then, but it took things a step further for its very first controller.
The first attempt differentiated itself in a few ways. A unique D-pad design, four shoulder buttons emphasising the depth of 3D games, handles for better ergonomics and grip, and of course, the Triangle, Circle, X, and Square buttons — now synonymous with the brand. The reasoning behind the symbols is pretty sensible; initially, Circle and X were meant to represent yes and no, Triangle was supposed to denote a point of view, and Square was intended to be akin to a sheet of paper, or a menu. These original purposes have been lost as time's gone on, but the symbols themselves have remained throughout every iteration of the PlayStation pad.
It was only a couple of years later that Sony would introduce the world to the DualShock, an updated PS1 controller with two key additions — a pair of analog sticks and two rumble motors. The sticks have of course become a staple in controller design across the industry, allowing far better control in 3D games than the eight directions offered by the humble D-pad. The DualShock slowly replaced the stick-less model and became the de facto version moving forward. Games would come to rely on the twin sticks, with Ape Escape famously designed specifically around these inputs. Gamers have also come to expect rumble in controllers, and it's something that's stayed mostly the same in Sony's pads through the years.
PS2 — Paint It Black
When it came to PlayStation 2, it seems Sony knew it had a winning pad. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and at least in terms of exterior design, DualShock 2 is almost identical to its predecessor. The first noticeable difference is the change in colour scheme, swapping the light grey of the PS1 for a sleek black that would become the standard going forward. There were other refinements, though — the pad is lighter, and most inputs became analog, meaning buttons could respond differently depending on the pressure applied by the player.
Though the black colouring has become the default look, DualShock 2 introduced a rainbow of alternative colours, something Sony offers in future controllers too. Whichever colour was your favourite, it's likely this controller is one of the most used ever — PS2 is the best selling console of all time, after all.
PS3 — Motion in the Ocean
Before we start, let's have a moment of recognition for a prototype PS3 pad that has become lovingly known as the Boomerang. It was a clear indication Sony was looking to make big changes, but this early design proved very unpopular online.
Sony reined it in for the final design, but it still experimented much more with player input. At launch, we had the SIXAXIS, which made a whole bunch of changes to the familiar pad. It retained all the buttons from previous iterations, but removed the rumble motors completely amid a legal battle between Sony and a company called Immersion. In its place was a gyro sensor, introducing PlayStation gamers to motion controls for the first time. It also included Bluetooth technology and a rechargeable battery, finally freeing users from wires, and made the L2 and R2 shoulder buttons much deeper in an attempt at triggers. Lastly, a central 'PS' button allowed players to turn on the PS3 wirelessly, access more options, and would eventually grant access to the console's menus mid-game.
Lots of important changes, then, but without vibration, something was missing from games, and the controller was considerably lighter than usual. A couple of years after PS3's launch, Sony won the legal fight over its rumble motors, and released the DualShock 3. Nearly identical to SIXAXIS, it finally added vibration back in, giving PS3 titles a new lease of life. While definitely an improvement, DualShock 3 still faced some criticism; the trigger buttons weren't ideal with their convex design, and the motion controls were largely ignored outside of first party games. However, all the new features introduced in this generation would go on to be implemented and improved in the next.
The PS3 era also saw the arrival of PlayStation Move controllers, inspired by the popularity of the Wii Remote. These bizarre wands didn't quite replicate the widespread love for Nintendo's unusual input, but Sony managed to find a new home for them much later with the advent of PlayStation VR.
PS4 — A Touch of Change
Once again, for Sony's PS4 console, it decided to overhaul the design for its latest controller. DualShock 4 made some pretty hefty changes, and it's widely considered the best controller the company has made yet. It's overall a larger pad with much improved grips, while the basics are all present and correct. Unpopular as it was, gyro motion controls remained intact, and rumble was there from the start this time. The L2 and R2 buttons were greatly improved, curving up instead of down, and narrowed to make them more trigger-like.
There were much bigger changes, however. Front and centre sits a touch pad, a brand new input that allowed for touchscreen style controls. It's also clickable, effectively giving the DualShock 4 an extra couple of buttons. Speaking of buttons, Start and Select — present on every PlayStation pad since the start — were ditched in favour of Options and Share. Options largely acts on behalf of both Start and Select, while the Share button played into a more social side of gaming. This revolutionary new button allowed players to capture screenshots and gameplay footage to directly share online, and it's quickly become an industry standard input.
DualShock 4 also incorporated a tiny speaker, allowing some game audio to come through your controller, and a headphone jack, conveniently letting you plug your headset straight into the pad. Less popular is the light bar, which replaces the little red LEDs that used to indicate which player number you were. Big and bright, players would complain the blue beam would reflect on their TV screens. However, with the arrival of PlayStation VR, the light bar became a necessity for the tech to read the controller's position. It's still not a particularly popular part of the DualShock 4's design, but with the ability to dim the light or turn it off altogether, it wasn't a permanent issue. If you can also overlook a limited battery capacity, PS4's controller is still considered a fantastic bit of hardware.
PS5 — Changes in Every DualSense
And so we come to what's next — the DualSense PS5 controller. The upcoming pad is another huge leap in terms of design, perhaps the biggest in the platform's history. The name should be a clue that Sony's not messing around here; we were all convinced the DualShock branding wouldn't be going anywhere, but PS5 is ushering in a totally revamped device with changes from the name up.
The exterior design is quite the departure from the norm. Larger than the DualShock 4, DualSense looks to have improved ergonomics while retaining all the key inputs. All the usual buttons are there, although the face buttons lose their classic colours in favour of a more uniform look. The colouring, meanwhile, is very different. We're so used to a solid black pad that the white frame is very striking, with only a small portion of the controller sporting a darker hue. The infamous light bar has moved to the front of the pad, surrounding the expanded touch pad to add a splash of blue. The Share button is now the Create button, and the PS button has evolved from a circular input to take the form of the emblem itself. Finally, an extra button at the bottom allows you to mute the new built-in microphone.
Speaking of new features, L2 and R2 are now adaptive triggers, meaning they can give the player a much wider variety of feeling. For instance, drawing a bow string back could make the trigger buttons tense up, and harder to press down. Then you have haptic feedback, which sees the classic rumble motors replaced with something more high tech. This will give players much more detailed sensations, allowing you to feel the difference between two surfaces, for instance.
The DualSense controller has proved exceedingly popular on social media, so the future looks bright for PS5's pad.
Looking back on PlayStation's major input devices, it's fascinating to compare what's changed over the years, as well as what's stayed the same. Fundamentally, every controller bares the same buttons, but Sony has gradually added more and more functionality. DualSense might look like a drastic change even compared with DualShock 4, but it's still absolutely a PlayStation design, building off the early successes of that original controller.
Which PlayStation pad is your personal favourite? Are you keen on the DualSense PS5 controller, or would you have preferred a more familiar look? Have your say in the comments below.