These days, whenever Nintendo releases a new console with a wild and unusual new controller, they typically have a backup — something more basic for their more traditional games and the traditional gamer. But what did they do back in the era of the Nintendo Entertainment System, when their controller already was pretty basic?
It may be hard to believe now, but at the time, the original NES controller that would effectively set the standard for decades to come was actually pretty new and radical when compared to the myriad joysticks and paddles of its predecessors, usually accompanied by either one button or an entire keypad. But rather than lean into that older style of controller, Nintendo would instead double down on and attempt to enhance what was already great about their standard NES controllers.
One such result of this is the NES Max. Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the Max and the boxy, rectangular standard NES controller is the more ergonomic grip with its wing-tipped handles — a design choice that wouldn’t quite become en vogue until the introduction of the Sony PlayStation in 1994. In a way, this design makes the Max look more like a contemporary controller than a relic of a time long ago.
Further reinforcing this almost prescient visual are the two additional face buttons, bringing the total up to the commonplace four (not including Select and Start). However, these buttons mirror the functionality of A and B, but for once difference: The inclusion of “turbo,” a rapid-fire series of presses available by simply holding the button down.
Finally, there is the cycloid input in place of the Dpad. At a glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is similar to the analog sticks and Circle Pads of today, but the cycloid not only didn’t center itself as those do, but didn’t actually do anything in its own right. Rather, it provided smooth movement for the thumb as it traveled along the black outer-rim, which is where the actual eight command inputs lie — and if one didn’t want to bother with the cycloid, could do so directly by pressing the frame.
In some ways, the NES Max was ahead of its time. Even so, Nintendo has never chosen to iterate on it directly, not even with the recent release of the NES Classic.