Video game controllers are something I have a lot of strong feelings about. When a game has a multi-console release, I don’t care too much about framerates or 720p vs. 1080p. Exclusive content usually doesn’t sell me on one or the other. But the controller – how comfortable it feels in my hands, and how intuitive playing the game will be – that’s important to me.
So today, I’d like to go through a (completely biased) history and review of all the console controllers that have been a part of my gaming life.
I remember the good old days. Days when controllers were simple. When ergonomics was a term I had never heard. When I didn’t spend all day in front of a computer with my hands on a keyboard and need to worry about repetitive strain injuries. I was 7, and holding a blocky NES controller was second nature to me.
Looking back, it’s not a pretty controller. And it’s definitely not a comfortable controller to hold. But it did its job for me at the time, and having only 2 buttons was good enough for the games of that era. Of course, I’m not 7 anymore and my hands are no longer child-sized. Games have also become much more complex. Luckily, controllers evolved.
Sega Genesis (1988)
The Sega Genesis was released in North America three years after the NES and it introduced a much nicer controller.
With the jump to a 16-bit CPU, Sega introduced a controller with a third button. Though the positioning of the buttons was a bit odd, the extra button was nice (and a few years later they introduced a 6-button version). The D-Pad allowed you to push in 8 directions. The shape of the controller was a huge improvement and much more comfortable to hold.
Nintendo entered the 16-bit era with the SNES.
The biggest improvement over the NES controller was the introduction of more buttons. X and Y were added and the diagonal placement of the buttons really worked and became a mainstay for most future controllers. Left and right shoulder buttons were also introduced, bringing the button count up to six. The D-Pad remained pretty much the same and though they added some curves, the way you held the controller didn’t change much.
Sony entered the console wars with the 32-bit PlayStation.
This is console the one that spawned my love of RPGs. It’s also the one that added the phrase “No, I don’t want to come outside, I’m playing video games” to my daily vocabulary. The PS controller was an absolute joy to use after so many years of Nintendo bricks. PS added another pair of shoulder buttons (L2/R2), but other than that the button configuration was pretty much the same as the SNES. The the four face buttons were labelled with shapes/colours, likely so they weren’t directly ripping off Nintendo. The grip handles were the big selling feature for me, and (thankfully) soon every major console controller would have them.
Nintendo, not to be outdone by Sony, released the 64-bit N64 a year later. It was a more powerful machine but still relied on expensive, limited-capacity cartridges rather than moving to CD-ROMs. In terms of sales, the N64 was hugely outperformed by the PlayStation.
Here is where the slow descent into madness starts. The N64 controller was odd in that there were a couple different ways you could grip it. It could be held in the traditional way, with the left and right grips – meaning you had to use the D-Pad, and would not be able to reach the analog stick or the trigger (Z-button) underneath. Well, actually you could reach those, but it wasn’t comfortable. I don’t even want to tell you how I held this controller for my first few months of playing Goldeneye. The other option was to hold the center grip and right grip – this way you could use the analog stick and trigger, but couldn’t use the D-Pad or left shoulder button. Not being able to easily reach every button on a controller was a very strange design decision. Nintendo also recreated the wheel by dropping the X and Y buttons and replacing them with 4 smaller C-buttons.
In 1997 the Rumble Pak was released, making the N64 controller the first one that could vibrate in response to in-game events. The Rumble Pak was a separate peripheral that got plugged into the memory slot on the controller.
PlayStation DualShock (1998)
It didn’t come with a new console, but Sony released an even better PS controller a couple of years later.
In 1998, the DualShock controller was released for the PlayStation, which added a number of new features. Most obvious were the two analog sticks, which gave gamers a choice between the D-Pad or the stick for movement, and opened up the door for camera control using the right stick. You could also press the analog sticks down, giving two more buttons to play with (L3/R3). Sony one-upped Nintendo’s Rumble Pak by adding internal vibration motors. The DualShock’s rumblings were far superior to the Rumble Pak’s loud and jarring gyrations.
PlayStation 2 (2000)
Oh PS2, how I loved you. What a great console with an amazing library of games. And that backwards compatibility… It’s the best-selling console of all time for a reason.
Functionally and aesthetically, the DualShock 2 was not much different from the DualShock 1. Kudos to Sony for not messing with a good thing.
In 2001 Microsoft began their journey into the console market with the XBox.
The original XBox controller was a hulking beast. I don’t even think that people with large hands liked it much, as even though it had a huge surface area, the buttons were inexplicably squished together. For me, Microsoft’s best design choice was swapping the positions of the D-Pad and left stick, which made everything feel much more balanced. The XBox controller had nice solid feeling trigger buttons, and also added two small black and white buttons (which I honestly can’t even remember a use for).
Nintendo GameCube (2001)
After the N64, which had some great games but lackluster sales, Nintendo released the GameCube, hoping to turn things around. Unfortunately, the sales were still dwarfed by the PS2.
The GameCube controller was quite different from the N64’s. They got rid of the middle grip, which was good. However, they also completely reconfigured the buttons again. Now we were back to 4 buttons (A, B, X, Y) on the controller face, which had 3 different shapes. There was a left and right Trigger, and the Z-button got moved above the right Trigger and changed into a shoulder button. There was no corresponding shoulder button on the left side. Like the XBox, the GameCube controller put the left stick above the D-Pad. I think the GameCube controller is funny looking, but it’s actually my favourite offering from Nintendo.
XBox Controller S (2002)
The next year Microsoft released a more reasonably sized controller for the Xbox, which became the standard.
The A, B, X, Y buttons were moved into more standard positions with better spacing, though Start and Back got moved got moved to the left side because giant logo placement is clearly most important. It wasn’t quite there yet, but Microsoft was well on its way to creating a very good thing.
XBox 360 (2005)
Microsoft got a head start on the 7th console generation by releasing the 360 a scant four years after the original XBox.
And here it is. The XBox 360 wireless controller – the pinnacle of gamepad design. I love everything about this controller – the shape, the weight of it in my hands, the perfect placement of every button, trigger and stick in relation to my fingers. It’s sleek and smooth, the black and white buttons from the original XBox controller were removed and replaced with left and right bumpers. The center Guide button was added to turn the console or controllers on and off, or access the 360’s menu. If I could use this controller on every console I’d be a happy girl.
Of course, the problem the best controller being released in 2005 is that the future designs just feel inferior (some more than others).
PlayStation 3 (2006)
Sony came out with two controller for the PS3 – the Sixaxis and the DualShock 3. However, they’re almost identical so I’ll address them both at once.
Sony seemed to like the design of the DualShock, so the appearance of PS3’s DualShock 3 and Sixaxis controllers was very similar. The Analog button was removed, and a PS button (which functioned much like the 360’s Guide button) added. These controllers also used motion sensing technology to experiment with motion controls. Heavy Rain was the only game I played on the PS3 that used this (actually, it was the only game I ever finished on the PS3, period) and the motion controls weren’t as obnoxious as I expected.
The Wii was the last of the 7th generation of consoles, and with its release came the realization that I was definitely not Nintendo’s target audience anymore.
Nintendo went off the motion control deep end with the Wii Remote. The Wii Remote is long and skinny, designed to be used with one hand and pointed at the motion sensor. The labelling of the buttons was completely changed – again. Now there was a 1 and 2 where A and B would usually be. A was now a big button near the D-Pad, while B was a trigger on the underside of the remote. Start and Select were now + and -. Some games used the Wii Remote on its own, while others added the nunchuck which gave players an analog stick for movement and a C trigger button. I guess using completely awkward controls and flailing around could be fun if you’re: a) a child, b) playing Wii Sports with a group of people, c) drunk, but otherwise these controllers are total bullshit.
Some games let you hold the Wii Remote horizontally… I have nothing nice to say about this.
If you hated the Wii Remote, Nintendo also sold the Classic Controller (along with about 90 other accessories). With the exception of the analog sticks, the Classic Controller has a very similar design and shape as an SNES controller. Because of all the controllers you could replicate, why not copy the one released in 1991? Attach the cord to the bottom instead of the top just to show what a special snowflake you are as well.
Wii U (2012)
The Wii U was marketed terribly, and sold accordingly (though it seems to be improving now). As someone who pretty much stopped paying attention to Nintendo after the Wii, I was under the impression that the Wii U Gamepad was the new system, rather than the controller for a long time. Sigh. Nintendo, why don’t you want me to love you? (I could probably write a whole post on this).
The Wii U Gamepad is huge. Like a handheld console, except even bigger. The thing that drives me crazy about many Nintendo controllers (well, one of the things) is that no matter how big the device gets – whether it’s the Wii U Gamepad or the 3DS XL – the controls stay child-sized. The D-Pad is small, the buttons are tiny and close together. My hands aren’t even large, but I pick up a DS and think “wow, this definitely was not designed to be held by me”.
The one cool thing about the Gamepad is that you can use it like a handheld and play in bed or something while the console is in the other room (you do have to get up to put the disc in though). However, playing with this monstrosity when you’re sitting in front of the TV the Wii U is connected to is so completely unappealing. It just isn’t at all comfortable to hold. The touchpad is used to as a 2nd screen to supplement gameplay in a lot of games. That can include things like displaying the track map in Mario Kart 8 (a feature which does not offend me), or having to blow into the microphone or rub the screen to reveal secrets in Super Mario 3D World (a feature which is fucking obnoxious).
Thank goodness Nintendo had the sense to release a proper controller for the Wii U, because if I had to use the Gamepad or a Wiimote I would never touch the thing (which would be a shame, because Mario and Donkey Kong are fun). The Pro Controller looks like a rip-off of the 360 controller. I don’t know how Microsoft feels about this, but I think this was an excellent design decision. For some reason they’ve swapped the positions of the right stick and A/B/X/Y buttons, which makes this controller more awkward than it needs to be, but it’s still 100x better than the other options for the Wii U.
PlayStation 4 (2013)
The PlayStation 4 is currently the most powerful console. Apparently, with great power comes great responsibility… and the need to “improve” on an already very good controller.
The DualShock 4 is pretty similar to the DualShock 3, but made a few changes. The grips are wider apart and the Start/Select (now Options and Share) have been moved to the top in order to make room for an gratuitously large touch pad. In games like Tomb Raider and Murdered: Soul Suspect, the touch pad is used open the game menu or map which is okay by me, even though it’s too big for this to be the main function. However, a game like Infamous: Second Son makes you swipe the touchpad to perform certain actions, which feels totally unnecessary. They also added a large light bar along the top edge of the controller. Apparently it’s used for player identification, though the light will often change colours based on things happening in the games. Generally the bar glows a really bright blue, so if you’re playing in the dark don’t tip the controller up if you don’t want to be blinded.
The speaker added to the controller is kind of cool, and the motion sense is still there, but has been used sparingly in most games I’ve played.
XBox One (2013)
The XBox One is the most recent major console release.
Most of the development for this controller was focused on refinement, while the design was left relatively the same. The textures of the analog sticks have changed and gotten a little smaller. The Start and Back buttons were relabeled. The biggest improvements are on the bumpers and triggers – they feel really nice, solid, and responsive now. The Guide button now glows white instead of a muted green. I’m not sure what it is about the latest generation and making the controllers glow so brightly – isn’t the glow from the tv enough? I don’t find the XBox One controller quite as comfortable to hold as the 360’s, but it’s pretty close.
Here’s the TLDR version of what I’d rate the best major console controllers from 1985 onwards.
- XBox 360
- PS DualShock 2
- XBox One
- Nintendo GameCube
- PS DualShock 4
And the worst? Pretty much everything else from Nintendo, with the Wii Remote taking home the award of “controller I’d most like to throw in a fire.”
What do you think? What are the best and worst console controllers?