Why the buttons on most controllers are called A, B, X, Y (and why the buttons on the PlayStation are different)
We do not even realize it, but when we play we have already assumed that except in the case of the PlayStation, the controllers of other consoles use the button scheme A, B, X, Y. Why do they do it? And why not Sony and its PlayStation?
The truth is that the reasons are not entirely clear and in fact there were old consoles that instead of having buttons “A” and “B” had buttons “1” and “2”. Nintendo seems to have been the great promoter of the ABXY scheme: Microsoft copied it on their Xbox, but curiously Sony preferred to go another way that, yes, has become a hallmark of its controls.
How many buttons do we put? The ones we like
The legendaria Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) of 1983 was undoubtedly one of the most successful consoles of its time, and with it Nintendo began to define what the controllers should be.
In addition to the directional buttons and the Select and Start buttons – which have also remained with very similar iterations decades later – the engineers and designers of the Japanese company they added two action buttons, “A” and “B”, which defined that generation of video games.
Sega, which released its Master System in October 1985, decided it wasn’t going to copy that design entirely. They wanted to be different, so instead of using “A” and “B”, they put the labels “1” (which also doubled as the “Start” button) and “2” to their buttons..
Things began to get complicated when the Sega Mega Drive (Sega Genesis in the US) was launched in 1988, which posed a slightly different command in which there were not two action buttons, but three. Sega decided not to complicate and follow the alphabetical series.
Those buttons were called “A”, “B” and “C”, but in Sega they decided that maybe that was not enough and they created a new controller with three other buttons, which they named “X”, “Y” and “Z”. Apparently they were trying to follow the scheme of some arcade machines of the time such as ‘Street Fighter II’.
There were those who apparently had no problem with calling the buttons in different ways. The mythical Neo Geo 1990 used a controller that mimicked that of arcade machines, and in it we found four buttons named “Pad A”, “Pad B”, “Pad C” and “Pad D”.
But for rare controls, the one of the 1993 Atari Jaguar, which had a very rare numeric keypad at the bottom and three action buttons that it named “A”, “B” and “C”. At Atari, by the way, they ended up redesigning that controller and adding three more action buttons (“X”, “Y”, and “Z”) and two triggers: people complained that in fighting games the original three buttons were not they served a lot.
Let’s stop the nonsense, Nintendo said: the controllers have to have four action buttons and that’s it.
That having six buttons on the front seemed to be too much, and it was Nintendo that ended up imposing an unwritten rule with the launch of the no less legendary Super Nintendo in 1990: the controls of their consoles they would have four action buttons, and they would be called “A”, “B”, “X” and “Y” (They also included the left and right triggers, by the way, idiocy).
Why not “A”, “B”, “C”, and “D”? There are various unconfirmed theories. One of them indicates that Nintendo wanted differentiate the functionalities of the buttons in two different groups.
Another, even more curious, claimed that the problem with those letters is that they sounded too similar in English (especially “B” and “D”), which meant that referring to the buttons with oral instructions could lead to confusion. (“Press B and then A”. “Wait, did you say B, or D?” Etc).
It may also be that Nintendo also wanted to differentiate itself from its competitor at the time: neither Sony nor Microsoft had shown interest in this segment until then, and Sega was the rival to beat: if they used the “C”, Nintendo had no intention of doing so and then also use the “D”, it seems.
The truth is that, as we say, it became the de facto standard for many of the controllers that Nintendo used – although the Wii Remote (or “Wiimote”) had a different configuration with an “A” button and then another two, “1” and “2”, at the bottom.
Even Sega adopted that ABXY setup on their Dreamcast in 1998 – with the Saturn they insisted on six-button controls – and of course Microsoft ended up doing the same on all its Xbox, which in its different controls has followed the same trend and has used the four ABXY buttons.
It has also done it with the controllers of the Xbox Series S / X, which are basically one more iteration of those that we had already seen on the Xbox One. If it works they say don’t touch it. Or touch it, but leave the buttons as they were.
Sony stands out: they like the four buttons, but not those names
When Sony decided to enter the video game market, He did it with a bet that was singular in everything. The PlayStation marked a milestone and managed to convince the world that not everything had to be Nintendo or Sega in that segment, something that seemed difficult to achieve.
Among its many differential points, at Sony they decided that the remote was also their hallmark. The original PlayStation Controller (which would later become the legendary DualShock) adopted the four action buttons that had powered the Super Nintendo, but Sony didn’t like giving letter labels to those buttons.
This is how he told it Teiyu Goto, responsible for the design of the PlayStation original, and that created the iconic buttons of that controller that would eventually become the hallmark of the entire legacy of the PlayStation division.
Goto explained in an interview with Famitsu in 2010 his reasoning for not using the ABXY schema:
“Other game companies of the time assigned the buttons letters of the alphabet or colors. We wanted something simple to remember, so we opted for the icons or symbols, and immediately afterwards I came up with the triangle-circle-X-square combination.
I gave each symbol a meaning and a color. The triangle refers to the point of view; I made it represent one’s head or direction and made it green. The square refers to a piece of paper; I made it represent menus or documents and I made it pink. The circle and X represent decision making “yes” or “no” and I made them red and blue respectively. People thought those colors were mixed, and I had to reinforce to management that that’s what they wanted. “
That, of course, worked. Sony has maintained that same scheme in all its consoles to this day. He has certainly done it on the DualSense controller of the PS5, although the traditional colors have been lost here that were also already assigned to each of those forms. The form may have changed: the substance has not. And the four buttons, either.