The Meaning of the PlayStation Controller Buttons
For all of the ways that Sony’s PlayStation shook up gaming when it entered the fray in 1994 — as an entrant into the gaming world that wasn’t made by Sega or Nintendo, as a 32-bit system that didn’t suck — one quiet change came in the form of its controller buttons. Previous systems from the Sega Genesis to the Super Nintendo to the Atari Jaguar to the Neo Geo CD had all identified controller buttons with letters: With its triangle, circle, square, and X, PlayStation was one of the first to use shapes.
Interestingly enough, they weren’t picked arbitrarily, but actually had carefully considered meanings corresponding to their roles in gameplay. In a recent interview with 1up, Sony designer Teiyu Goto spills the beans as to what he had in mind with each button:
Other game companies at the time assigned alphabet letters or colors to the buttons. We wanted something simple to remember, which is why we went with icons or symbols, and I came up with the triangle-circle-X-square combination immediately afterward. I gave each symbol a meaning and a color. The triangle refers to viewpoint; I had it represent one’s head or direction and made it green. Square refers to a piece of paper; I had it represent menus or documents and made it pink. The circle and X represent ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision-making and I made them red and blue respectively. People thought those colors were mixed up, and I had to reinforce to management that that’s what I wanted.
One bit of trivia: At least one controller contemporary to the PlayStation also had shapes for buttons: The Apple Bandai Pipp!in, designed by Apple and produced by Bandai in 1995. Alas, it cost $599 (!), an absurd sum back then, sold very poorly, was discontinued a year later, and had the dubious honor of placing on PC World’s 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time list; not exactly a PlayStation, by more metrics than one.