Controllers can be incredibly divisive things. In the run-up to the latest console releases they were discussed at length and started many an internet ruckus, but now they’re out and we all know which we prefer. For some it’s the much improved iteration of the DualShock and for others it’s the slightly refined One controller. In this piece I’m going to take a look at various controllers and let you know which ones I liked and which I didn’t, in a vaguely generational order.
As with any opinion piece, these are just my opinions. That much should be obvious and render the sentence redundant, but it’s important to state that I’m not being even remotely subjective here and will just be presenting my personal preferences in each case. With that said, I should let you know the pertinent fact that I have massive hands. Seriously huge. I’m 6’6” but my hands are still disproportionately large. They look ridiculous. Oddly, I don’t think this has really affected my controller preferences much but I thought I should let you know just in case you can read something into it that I haven’t noticed.
I’m going to start with the NES and Master System. I think the Master System pad might have been the first home console controller I ever used and it was shit. Both consoles had similar blocky rectangle designs but the NES wins thanks to a much better d-pad and possibly better buttons. That Master System d-pad was just horrific.
That was easy then. 8-bit generation done, but before we move on let’s think for a moment about all those crazy devices that were around for the various machines of the time. The madness of the Master System left-handed stick for one. What were they thinking? I used quite a few things on my friend’s computers but never really owned any myself so can’t speak with any authority other than to say that I suspect none were very good. I did have a joystick for the Master System though, it was the Quick Shot one and it was awful.
Now we’re at the point where pads and sticks started to improve a lot, the 16-bit era. Again, my main experience was with Nintendo and Sega’s offerings, but the giant arcade sticks were cropping up in more homes and those Special Reserve ads for Neo Geos in the back of magazines made us all long for a big stick of our own. I’ve got one now, but at the time it was just an unobtainable object of lust.
As with so many things in gaming, I never had a problem with the Mega Drive pads at the time but now they seem terrible. Once again the d-pad was poor and the buttons were spongey. The 6-button version which came later was a huge improvement and I would imagine still holds up okay today. The texture on the d-pad was lovely. For me though, Nintendo win once again with what might be one of the greatest controllers ever. Of course, it would be almost useless for today’s games but these things need to be judged for their time and the SNES controller was perfect. The d-pad seemed the same as the NES one but improved in some intangible way. The buttons were almost touch-sensitive things that hardly needed pressing and the whole thing was so light you forgot you were holding it, surely the Holy Grail for any controller. Its weakness was the shoulder buttons which were a little clunky and often quickly broken. It’s still a stunner though and almost 25 years later those button colours sold a whole load of New 3DS machines to people of a certain age.
The move to 3D in the 32-bit era demanded a different kind of controller, but it didn’t get one. I’m going to jumble this whole era together a bit as things went crazy for a while. One of the first ‘next-gen’ machines was the 3DO which had novel daisy-chaining controllers that were okay I suppose but owed more to the Mega Drive design than the SNES. I suspect this was possibly due to EA’s links with the console and their apparent preference in the time immediately beforehand for Sega’s hardware over Nintendo’s. The PlayStation, meanwhile, wore its Nintendo links on its sleeve with a broken up version of their d-pad and the familiar diagonal button arrangement. I remember thinking this pad looked amazing in pics before the console was released and it did end up being a good approximation of what the SNES controller had offered previously. The Saturn pad managed to somehow be a worse version of the Mega Drive 6-button pad where change for the sake of change ruined what was good about that controller. It was weird and angular where it shouldn’t be. There was a curvier revision but by then it was too late. (I might be wrong about the order of these Saturn pads but that would just make it even madder).
Other competitors included the CDi, which was just weird, and the Jaguar with its famous calculator pad. I actually didn’t mind the Jaguar pad to hold but it was hugely impractical and the buttons were at a disconcertingly steep angle. If you’re too young, or just don’t remember these pads, have a Google of those CDi, Jaguar and 3DO controllers and look at the horrors that might have been. I mean, CD32 for fuck’s sake! Think how lucky you are. I remember around this time, possibly later, I started to see Microsoft Sidewinder PC controllers in Dixons and places like that. I thought they were great to hold but never really used one and looking back now they seem a bit shit too.
I suppose the PlayStation won that generation’s war of the pads almost by default; none of their potential opponents really showed up, but that all changed in 1997 when Nintendo released the N64. What the fuck is that thing? I first saw the N64 ‘live’ and being used on Bad Influence as Andy Crane bumbled through the opening of Mario 64. He explained how you could hold the controller in two different ways depending on if you were using the stick or the d-pad. In reality, the stick caught on so quickly that hardly anyone had to worry about the d-pad and it became a largely redundant area of the controller that lived on the back of your left hand. So successful was the analogue stick that Sony quickly launched a revision that clumsily plonked two of the things in an awkward position on their existing design. A bit like when you run out of power in Sim City and have to whack a fusion reactor on the edge of your swankiest neighbourhood. It doesn’t matter, you’ll find a better place for it soon and knock that one down. Sony didn’t get around to doing so until 2013 and they didn’t so much move it as replace the nuclear power with solar power – it’s still in the wrong place but much less offensive.
Sony can be put to one side for the next few years as aside from Sixaxis and Dualshock shenanigans they didn’t change their core design. Nintendo continued to innovate with rumble paks, which were novel but didn’t add much at the time, certainly not enough to suggest that rumble would become the default feature it is today. The GameCube controller was the next leap, moving the analogue stick to the dominant position and thereby proving that this, not the d-pad would be gaming’s future input device. There’s a lot of love for the GameCube controller and I can see why. I too, was a fan, but it was also very much of its console. By that I mean that it was one of the first of Nintendo’s controllers that was designed for Nintendo games first and everything else second. I could play Winning Eleven 6 FE on it, but it didn’t feel completely natural doing so.
It was Microsoft who would offer the next challenge with the Xbox. They fucked that up though. The controller was huge. Even with my massive hands I had issues. It wasn’t so much the size as the general design though. Something about it just made it uncomfortable. The buttons were in a strange parallelogram shape and squished too close together and the whole thing just felt clunky. If there’s one thing Microsoft (still) deserve credit for though, it’s listening. They released the new S controller and it was a revelation. It could be argued that it was the first ‘SNES’ controller of the 3D era in that it had what the SNES pad had but with the necessities of a modern era included in the right places.
Microsoft would continue this with the 360 controller, a slightly more ergonomic version of the S controller which became many people’s favourite. Nintendo meanwhile, went all waggly. I’m not sure how to class the Wii controller. It’s undoubtedly revolutionary in what it did but at the same time it’s not very good as a traditional game controller. I never really got on with it but I fully accept that I probably missed the point, or that the point just didn’t appeal to me, so I’m not going to comment too much on it.
That brings us on to the current gen and Sony’s first true design change, well, ever really. Before that though, I’m aware I’ve missed out all sorts of gems here. I’ve focussed mainly on first party pads but those third party offerings are their own mysterious world. Who is it that buys the GAME own-brand £9.99 controller and are they a step up from the person that buys the second hand crisp-encrusted GAME controller for £7.99? I don’t mean to be snobby here but why buy something which is very honest about how shit it is on the box? I’m amazed that this type of third party controller still exists but I suppose it’s for people who just want something for the occasional visitor to use. I both understand it and really don’t understand it at the same time. There are also the optional devices like arcade sticks and steering wheels. I still have two sticks and once had a fancy wheel set-up but one day you look at it and realise it’s maybe a bit much and start to feel ridiculous. For the more emotionally secure there’s a huge range of quality sticks and wheels that can offer all sorts of experiences for all sorts of prices. As someone whose first ever interaction with a videogame was probably through a Pole Position cabinet steering wheel I have a soft spot for the crazier set-ups but I’m happy to leave them in my youth now, I just don’t have the room.
Back to today then and we have three consoles on offer with three fairly different pads. Let’s quickly get the Wii U out of the way as I know most people don’t include it (despite it clearly being the best). It was a while before I tried the very odd looking GamePad in a GameStop in New York and I was surprised by just how comfortable I found it. Maybe it’s my big hands again but I found it to be much better than I expected and I still use it over the Pro Controller which is a fairly derivative 360 pad knock off. The lack of analogue triggers is an odd decision and there is a general feeling of ‘retro’ or even third party-ness about the Wii U’s pads but they’re perfectly serviceable and I’ve found them to be pretty decent.
The DualShock 4 then. Hailed as the second coming by many who tried it before release and dismissed by many others as soon as they saw the stick placements. I owned a PS4 for just over a year and found the controller to be excellent if a little fragile. Many people had issues with the sticks wearing away and I suffered this fate a few times – football games kill DS4s. However, for the purposes of this piece I’m not going to include durability as a factor and as such, the DS4 deserves praise for its comfort and the precision of its sticks.
The Xbox One controller is a revision of the 360 controller, which was a revision of the S controller. You could argue that Microsoft haven’t really innovated much but then they didn’t really have to. I’d only played with this controller on demo pods until recently but found it to be comfy enough and chose it as my controller for the PC I built recently. Having used it more now I can say that it’s fine. Nothing more really and it’s a bit clicky in places, not that it matters, just a bit odd. I think if I had to choose I’d go for the DS4 at a push. Sony’s controller just feels a little ‘softer’ and I think I prefer it’s buttons. The sticks may also be slightly better. However, in the real world durability is a concern, as is customer service, which is why I’ve gone for the One controller on PC.
That’s it then, my self-indulgent trip through controller memory lane has come to a close. Add your own thoughts and let me know what I missed out or forgot about in the comments. What would you have on your controller desert island? For me, if I had to have one for all time? Give me that SNES pad.