For years people have joked that the Nintendo 64 controller was designed for a person with three arms. Even today, it's unique trident design stands out from pretty much every other game controller ever made. So, it begs the question:
WHAT WAS NINTENDO THINKING?
At first glance, the N64 controller is a mess. It's physically impossible to simultaneously access it's face buttons, d-pad, and analog stick at the same time. On top of that, it's "Batarang" design just looks awkward compared to the more symmetrical layouts of controllers built for the PS1 and Sega Saturn. However, appearances can be deceiving. And despite its uneven looks, the N64 controller was actually a marvel of ergonomic engineering, and one of the best designed gamepads of all time.
The reason you can't access all of its buttons at any time is because you shouldn't have to. The N64 was Nintendo's first 3D gaming system, and as such they were reluctant to completely abandon the controller layouts that had defined their incredibly successful NES and SNES systems. So as a compromise, they sought to create a controller that could serve multiple functions. If the analogue stick is ignored, players can comfortably hold the N64 controller in pretty much the same manner they held an SNES pad: d-pad on the left, face buttons on the right, and a pair of shoulder buttons to round things out. The fact that it now had ergonomic grips made it arguably even more comfortable to handle than its predecessors. But more importantly, it allowed players to enjoy traditional platforming games in the style to which they had grown accustomed.
Worked Great for 2D and 3D Games!
However, if the player was trying out a new-fangled 3D game that permitted a full 360 degrees of movement, the left half of the controller could be just as easily ignored. The analog stick allowed players to travel in substantially more directions than a d-pad's traditional 8 directions. And the inability to reach the left shoulder button was completely remedied by the addition of a new "z trigger" mounted underneath the analogue stick. It didn't matter if your left thumb was resting on the left or middle prong of the N64's controller; you'd always be able to reach the same number of buttons.
Designed With Comfort in Mind!
This button layout made it equally convenient for developers to map out controls for 2D as well as 3D games on the same controller. It was a game pad that was meant to bridge the evolutionary gap between games of the 16-bit and 64-bit era, by supporting both of them simultaneously. This was no easy task, but I think you'll agree that Nintendo more than succeeded at its mission. After all, anyone who's ever handled the N64 controller can tell you it's shockingly comfortable to use, regardless of how you hold it.
Buy an Original N64 Controller Here
I think that for what it was designed to do, the N64 controller feels great in the hands. But, maybe my thumbs are more calloused than most. Let me know in the comments what you thought of Nintendo's 3rd generation of controllers.