This week on “The Retrospective,” we’re taking a short break from examining games to instead focus on our implements of play, console controllers. Looking back through history, we’ve had quite an array of novel plastic hunks fit snuggly into our grips. A good controller needs to maintain a high level of comfort, a solid range of functionality, and plenty of game type flexibility. Oftentimes the mark of a solid controller is one that you quickly forget you’re even holding, as its ergonomics and implementation allow for seamless transitions between our world and that of fantasy. Be sure to also check out Inverseman’s thoughts on the various controllers throughout gaming history.
So let’s kick off a ranking, starting with an honorable mention.
Most Under-Appreciated: Nintendo 64
I know I’ll get flak for this one. In most circles, the N64 pad is a loathsome memory of reaching beyond the respectable bounds of experimentation. Indeed, it’s entirely too bad we were ever forced to choose between a joystick and a d-pad, neither or which will go down in history as being particularly well built.
But here’s the thing. The onset of 3D gaming was such a new realm that it’s kind of cool to go back and revisit the crazy ideas that came from it. The N64 controller is not the most functionally sound, sure, but it was our gateway to Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and so many other Nintendo classics, and didn’t fart in our face completely while doing so. It even managed to be on the comfortable side of the spectrum, with nice, gentle curves and a solid plastic build.
While it may not be the majority opinion, I’m sure there are others among you that think back to N64 controller with warm memories. Even if it wasn’t the most logical pad, it at least stands out as something completely and utterly different.
#5: The Dualshock
Now here’s an important one, the almighty PlayStation companion. The gateway to the modern controller. The pad so nice they made it thrice!
While Nintendo was busy being… Nintendo, Sony decided to ditch the problematic PS1 controller for something a little flashier. They took their initial design and added rocket engines in the form of duel analog sticks, a move that was extremely important for game design, as it’s proven to be the best way to control characters in 3D space.
Of course, many of you will get on my case for not including a Dualshock higher up on the list, and while it is an incredibly important and innovative piece of machinery, it’s not really the very best. Fast forward some fifteen or so years and we still have the same controller in our hands, plus a few feature upgrades like Sixaxis and analog triggers. And what we have now is a fine, functional controller that, unfortunately, has been left outclassed. The ultimate downfall of the Dualshock was Sony’s insistence that nothing needed to be changed, and while it’s certainly handsome, our bigger western hands don’t tend to play very nice with the contours. I always notice how the controller floats in my fingers, instead of letting me grip down hard, and marshmallowy analog sticks often lead my thumbs to slip and slide.
But even with those flaws, the Dualshock line has always been functional and flexible, working well with the majority of games thrown at it. While it probably fits best with slower-paced RPGs, it holds its own with action games and shooters alike. With the DS4 coming to consumer hands soon, it’ll be time to say goodbye to the old build and welcome a better fitting design. I’ve held one and I can only say that it’s the change we’ve been waiting for. Luckily, it’s maintaining the best parts of the dualshock as well.
#4: The Gamecube Controller
Nintendo’s response to Sony’s powerhouse controller was something that many people still reach for whenever a game of Smash Bros is suggested. The Gamecube controller is one of Nintendo’s finest, with a solid construction, a smooth analog stick, and a thoughtful button layout built around the natural flow of our thumbs.
And then there’s the matter of gripping one. The Gamecube controller lets your hand ease around it fantastically, with little sign of the same floaty feeling that plagues the Dualshock. All your fingers fit into place well and almost all the inputs are easily accessed. Well, except for that damned d-pad.
What’s the matter with you, Nintendo, your D-pads are usually great! The best, even! And here we have this shrimpy little nothing sitting off the left, ignored and sad. I guess it’s not too much of an issue considering no games ever used the damn thing, but it seems like a waste to include a d-pad and A. make it piss poor and B. never find any functionality for it at all, besides giving orders to squadmates in Rogue Squadron, I guess.
Otherwise, this makes a great, responsive, sturdy pad that still manages to get used with a surprising regularity thanks to the Wii’s Gamecube support.
#3: The SNES Pad
With controllers in the late eighties and early nineties slowly finding complexity, the SNES came out as a herald of successful game design. Part of the equation was, of course, a solid controller with plenty of buttons and a great, Nintendo-certified d-pad. Yes, the overall design of this controller is fairly simple, and it maintains visual cohesion more than it strives to be perfectly ergonomic. But for its time, the four face-buttoned layout with shoulderpads could do little wrong. It worked for RPGs, fighters, side-scrolling action games, shmups, platformers, and everything in between.
Another remarkable aspect is how well built the controller is. I anticipate that once society has fallen and mankind has withered to dust, these controllers are all that will be left of our civilization. Seriously, I could see a SNES controller taking a bullet.
#2: The Keyboard and Mouse
Ok, ok, so this isn’t technically a controller, more of a classification of controller. But since there isn’t a standard setup, I’m making one big sweeping generalization this time around. The keyboard and mouse setup on PCs is just a great way to play, not only because it allows for larger amount of input flexibility and the like, not only because the mouse offers an unparalleled standard of accuracy in shooting games, but because this method of play gives its users access to a number of genres that have proven cumbersome on consoles. The RTS, management simulation, and top-down RPG all make their home on the PC, and are made much, much better for their inclusion of tight mouse controls.
All of these bonuses should rank the keyboard and mouse setup a #1 spot, right? Well like every method of play, this has its own issues. Because all of the input devices are digital buttons on a keyboard, you can’t have the same range of maneuverability like you can with a controller. Whereas a standard analog stick will supply you with a 360 degree range of motion, the WASD only allow for the four straight directions and their four diagonals. Eight total directions possible. And because these are binary buttons we’re talking about, the speed of movement can only be adjusted with a shift toggle, or equivalent measure. No valley of speed variation, like the kind enjoyed by console games.
Luckily though, the customization offered by the keyboard and mouse trumps nearly all console controller setups for most occasions. Sure, racing games, third person action games, and fighters will pretty much always be better with a controller, there are a number of games that aren’t only better on a mouse and keyboard, but the mouse and keyboard are entirely essential to the game’s functioning at all. Would you ever want to play Roller Coaster Tycoon on a console? I sure as hell wouldn’t.
#1: The Xbox 360 Controller
I know I’m about to face ire from the Sony crowd for this, but I assure you, I am primarily a PS3 user who just happens to concede a battle when I know it’s been lost. The Xbox 360 controller is downright wonderful to use. My palms fit around its curves so snuggly and and the buttons all fit right into place. The triggers are nice and firm and the analog sticks have almost perfect tension.
And then there’s the weight. One of the aspects of this controller that I like the most is how it makes me feel like ever action I take has power behind it. Every movement and button press takes just a little more effort than on the Dualshock 3, which feels decidedly light and airy. And this is great, especially when playing something shooting-intensive like Halo or Red Dead Redemption.
Like every controller on this list, it has its flaws. But these flaws, limited to a poor D-pad and a mildly obtrusive battery pack, are so very minor that they hardly detract from the overall quality at all. Honestly, when I first made the jump to the PS3, I had a nagging feeling in the back of my brain yelling at me for ever abandoning that great controller.
But the highlights don’t end there, as one of the best parts of this controller is its near seamless integration with Windows. So even if the Xbox 360 is no longer my usual place for games, I can still appreciate its controller, albeit a wired version on my PC. And it works like a charm.
So what are all of your favorite controllers? I’m sure a number of you would have produced completely different lists, and I’m naturally curious to see which pads you wish I had included.