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Controller Retrospective

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By Nelson Schneider - 10/27/12 at 08:17 PM CT

The ways in which we interact with the virtual worlds of videogaming are incredibly important, despite the fact that a proper player:game interface recedes into the background. The best controller is one you can forget about because it fits perfectly into your grip and has ergonomically-placed and responsive buttons. With the WiiU just around the corner and its promise to revolutionize the player:game interface with its tablety Gamepad, it seems like a good time to take a walk down memory lane and remember the controllers of the past, both the great and the awful. Of course, there have been an incredible plethora of terrible third-party controllers, and few good ones, so this list is confined to first-party offerings. Here are my favorites and least favorites.

Top 5:

1. Xbox 360 Controller
My choice for best controller may seem surprising, considering I don’t own an Xbox 360 and never have anything nice to say about it. Well, I’m saying something nice about it now: The Xbox 360 has an awesome controller. The analog sticks and d-pad are in the most ergonomic positions, the plastic molding of the controller’s body feels really nice for gaming sessions of any duration, the buttons are all responsive and easy to hit (including the clicky analog-stick buttons), and the triggers are the perfect shape and size to act as either analog triggers or simple buttons. Even more incredible, the Xbox 360 controller can be easily plugged into any modern Windows PC and used with little-to-no troubleshooting. The only flaw preventing this controller from being absolutely perfect is the horrendous d-pad, which uses a design lifted from Sega rather than Nintendo, and thus is more like a flat-headed mushroom whose stalk can be tilted in 8 directions than a true directional pad.

2. Wavebird
Why is the Xbox 360 Controller so awesome in its design? Because it’s an almost complete rip-off of the GameCube controller! The Wavebird was Nintendo’s wireless version of the GameCube controller, and it worked spectacularly. It did have a handful of tiny flaws that prevent it from coming out on top; specifically, the unorthodox layout of the face buttons, the non-clickable analog sticks, and the overly large shoulder triggers. Of course, the button layout and shoulder size worked great in games designed for them… it just makes it feel weird to play GameCube games using a standard-layout controller, which will only become more and more of an issue once Nintendo starts putting GameCube games up for sale on the WiiU’s Virtual Console emulation service. It’s a shame Nintendo didn’t keep refining this original design for their Wii Classic Controller Pro and WiiU Controller Pro.

3. DualShock
Sony was the first company to figure out that dual analog sticks are a necessity for controlling 3D games (that extra stick is mandatory for keeping horrible game cameras in line). Adding built-in force-feedback, clickable sticks, and two pairs of shoulder buttons put this controller way ahead of the competition and the preceding SNES controller. The original DualShock design was so great that Sony is still using it to this day (albeit with horrible, spongy triggers and barely-used tilt sensing). The only flaw with the original DualShock design was that Sony, likely due to patents held by Nintendo, decided to add four d-buttons instead of a d-pad, making those fancy Hadoukens a bit tougher to pull-off.

4. NES Max
The original NES controller was tiny, pointy, and not very ergonomic. The NES Max corrected all those issues by including the gull-wing-style casing that was later adopted by the DualShock, GameCube, and Xbox controllers. In addition, instead of a tiny, cross-shaped d-pad, the NES Max had a larger, circular d-pad with a free-floating disc in the middle. While it was still digital and not analog, this circular d-pad made diagonal movement in certain genres (like SHMUPs) a lot easier. The fact that the NES Max was the first official controller to include Turbo buttons and slow motion (really just a Turbo switch for the Start button) just made it that much more progressive.

5. Wiimote & Nunchuck
A lot of people will wonder how and why this made the “good” list, especially considering my hatred of motion controls. But what makes the Wiimote & Nunchuck so good has nothing to do with motion and everything to do with the pointer and ergonomics. Prior to the Wiimote, there was no easy or useful way for console gamers to point at something on-screen from the comfort of the couch. Sure, some old PC ports, like “Dungeon Master” moved an on-screen cursor with the d-pad, but it was REALLY slow and not very useful. The Wiimote is like a mouse you can hold in the air. And while I DO have an Airmouse, the locations of the buttons make it pretty useless for gaming. So, why aren’t the Wiimote & Nunchuck higher on the list? Well, the fact that they acted as Trojan Horses for developers to try to shoehorn crappy, waggle-based motion controls into every genre is still a big problem. And the button layout on the Wiimote isn’t exactly ideal. The placement of the 1 and 2 buttons is far too low, and that big A button seems a bit lonely in the middle. But that B button… that thing is perfection, combining with the controller’s modularity to allow the Wiimote to serve as a standard NES controller, a makeshift light gun, a more modern controller, or a joystick and airmouse.

Bottom 5:

5. Keyboard & Mouse
Why do I hate the keyboard and mouse so much? Well, it’s not really the mouse’s fault. A well-designed gaming Airmouse would be a great boon to PC gaming from the couch. But the keyboard will always be a problem both because of what it has and what it lacks. The keyboard lacks anything resembling a d-pad or analog stick. Decades of gaming have taught me that character movement is best handled with either a pad or a stick being depressed by a thumb. Arrow keys and WASD just don’t cut it, as it’s impossible to use either method comfortably with a single thumb. What the keyboard has instead is a smorgasbord of buttons… too many, in fact. What makes game controllers great and useful is that once a player knows what each button does, consciousness of the controller fades away, leaving the player to move thumbs and fingers to get results. With a keyboard, there are far more buttons available than necessary, so they will either be assigned as shortcuts or do nothing. The need for shortcuts is the result of deficiency in a game’s interface design, and unused buttons merely serve to confuse fingers and force players to look down at the keyboard in order to reorient their hands.

4. Original Genesis Controller
The original Genesis controller was absolutely laughable compared to its competition. Instead of a nice cross-shaped d-pad, the Genesis controller introduced the mushroom d-pad that still gives Xbox 360 Controller users fits due to its inaccuracy. On top of that, where the SNES controller introduced the four-button diamond layout for controller face buttons still used by most controllers today, the Genesis controller had three buttons strung-out in an uncomfortable arc… and no shoulder buttons… a layout used by… nobody. Sega did manage to improve the Genesis controller somewhat with the release of a six-button model, but it still had the horrible mushroom d-pad and no shoulder buttons. It wasn’t until the following generation, with the Saturn, that Sega finally designed a truly great 16-bit controller, only by then it was too late.

3. Power Pad
In an attempt to prove to worried parents that playing videogames would not make their children fat, Nintendo released this abomination, which was compatible with a whopping six games Stateside… all of which were garbage. Of course, what really makes the Power Pad a joke is that it didn’t actually do anything interesting. It was just a big floor-mat with alternate inputs for a standard NES controller. It was possible to play pretty much any Power Pad game by plugging in a regular NES controller and rapidly tapping A and B in alternately.

2. Nintendo 64 Controller
What WASN’T wrong with the N64 controller? Sure, it may have introduced the analog joystick, but it did an incredibly poor job of it, saddling N64 owners with a fragile and finicky beta test of new tech. Of course, it only had the one analog stick, so when Nintendo did what they always do and shoehorned their new gimmick (3D movement!) into every new game, things got ugly fast thanks to first-generation 3D camera controls. And when the flaky analog stick and lack of proper camera controls weren’t ruining things, the mindblowingly bad tri-pronged layout of the controller kept the pain coming. Instead of a sensible design for a single-analog controller, like the Saturn analog controller or the Dreamcast controller, Nintendo made it impossible to reach all of the inputs on the N64 controller without changing its position. In one game, the Z button might be on the right, in another it might be on the left. Did the d-pad ever get used for anything? Why was it impossible to use the L and R shoulder buttons at the same time? It’s like they weren’t even trying!

1. Kinect
The Kinect, like the keyboard & mouse, seems to be better suited for interacting with a slow-paced computer interface rather than a game. Navigating a menu with voice commands and hand-waving? Great! “Playing” a “game” with voice commands and hand-waving? No thank you. In fact, the Kinect has to take so many liberties with using the “YOU” as the controller, that every one of its games may as well be a non-interactive automated process. Maybe the Kinect would be a good match for a slow, turn-based RPG (my favorite!), but since nobody makes those anymore, we’ll probably never find out. Of course, why would anyone choose to select menu options in an RPG by yelling at the TV or slowly waving their hands in front of a camera when slow-paced games have been perfectly playable with a standard controller for decades? The Kinect is still an interface solution seeking a problem.

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View Jonzor's Profile


Wrote on11/03/12 at 09:09 PM CT

Well... is your experience with Dragon Age the fault of the keyboard or the interface/developers?

As far analog movement... completely overrated, competative or not. When I'm playing on a console, I'm pushing the stick all the way 99% of the time. It's not needed.

You should do a YouTube search for "StarCraft APM". You'll see how much a keyboard gets used.

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Nelson Schneider

Wrote on11/03/12 at 03:32 PM CT

I thought the KB/M would be better for RPGs, which is why I bought Dragon Age: Origins for PC. But after playing Chris' copy of the PS3 version, I was disgusted by how clunky the KB/M controls were compared to the DualShock.

I don't play many FPSes, and I don't play ANY competitively. I can see how aiming with the mouse is more accurate, but I can't see how moving with keyboard keys is better... they aren't even analog, so there's no way to adjust movement speed.

Things like Starcraft do benefit from the mouse, simply because they frequently require selecting a bunch of different units. Do many Starcraft players use the keyboard? I dunno, I don't really pay much attention to RTSes either. But one thing I have observed is that most KB/M only games cover the screen with clickable icons because people want to click with the mouse, not remember which keyboard key does what.

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Wrote on11/03/12 at 03:03 PM CT

When my hands are on WASD, I've got access to... hang on... between 6 and 12 non-WASD-keys - depending on what game you're playing and how technical you want to get - without having to look down to find a key, and not counting the mouse at all, which generally has 3, if you count left/right click, and the button under the mouse wheel, but not the wheel itself, even though most computer games find some way to use it. An Xbox 360 controller has 16, counting the d-pad, stick-clicks, and Start/Select. So I question how much recentering of the hands is really needed. I played Mass Effect 3 multiplayer last night for an hour in the dark, I did just fine.

And let's drop this nonsense about muscle-memory. Boot up Dungeon Defenders, build a minion wall under a super-aura, and then tell me there isn't a little muscle memory involved in wielding that controller. That's what your line "the controller fades away" means... using the controller is muscle memory. There's no reason a keyboard can't be as well, especially when practically an entire nation is playing StarCraft II at around 75 APM. I doubt they look at the keyboard much.

I think the real issue here, is that in your head, you're trying to play Mario on a keyboard, and maybe you think I'm trying to argue that the mouse and keyboard is the superior control option... this isn't the case. No one wants to play Zelda or Madden with a mouse and keyboard. But for an FPS, RTS, or many RPGs, there's no better way to play. Especially as a game gets more intricate and complicated. There's a reason no one has ever asked to play WOW with an Xbox 360 controller.

But you know what? If people are ever given the option of playing Halo on their Xbox 360 with a USB mouse/keyboard combo, ALL the serious players will be converted in a few months. Unless the players using a controller get some lame auto-aim helper to compensate for their inferior control scheme.

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Nelson Schneider

Wrote on11/01/12 at 12:24 AM CT

@Nick: I find it odd that Sega was able to put a good d-pad on the Dreamcast controller way before 2005 and MS had to put a crappy one on the Xbox 360 controller way after 2005.

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Nelson Schneider

Wrote on11/01/12 at 12:21 AM CT

Perhaps you've heard of typos, Jonzor? They happen to everyone, even people who have been typing for decades, because sometimes your hands get off-center a bit, for whatever reason, on the keyboard. I look down when typing all the time, and find it very difficult to type in the dark. I guess I just suck at typing, despite having a speed of 70 wpm.

The keyboard really sucks as a GAME controller because of the reasons mentioned above and the fact that, while, yes, we DO type all the time, typing is largely muscle memory and has nothing to do with being able to quickly and accurately hit the handful of keys that have a game command assigned to them.

I thought about putting in the original Xbox controller in place of the original Genesis controller. But it would have been entirely based on hearsay, as the only Xbox controller I ever actually used was the S-Type... and that was only once.

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Wrote on10/28/12 at 12:39 AM CT

I can't imagine how long it takes to type these blog posts as you scour the keyboard every time you need to push a button... since it's just impossible to use a keyboard without looking down at it.

I guess I'd feel a lot worse about the N64 controller if you'd ever had reason to use "all the buttons" at the same time. Seems like a complaint just to complain instead of because of an actual problem that was ever created. I can't remember a single game ruined, or even mildly hindered, by my inability to "use all the buttons". But I didn't play them all.

I think the original Xbox controller really deserves a mention in the bottom 5. I'd remove the Dual Shock completely from these lists, both good and bad, until they get with the times and move the analog stick where we all know it should be.

Lastly, I heartily agree with the Wavebird and Xbox 360 controllers being in the top 5. I really love both of those. My sole issue with the Wavebird was the Z button being pretty awkward... slimming those shoulder buttons down could have allowed Z to be placed more appropriately. And I've got nothing on the 360 controller, other than the d-pad, but I'd given up on proper d-pads by the time that controller came out. Now that Nintendo's patent has expired, I hope everyone starts putting the only d-pad worth using in their controller.

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Wrote on10/28/12 at 12:00 AM CT

As David just pointed out to me tonight, Nintendo held the traditional d-pad patent until 2005, that is why no-one else has it on their controllers.

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