Last month, Youtuber MetalJesusRocks, uploaded a video called “Top 5 Greatest Game Controllers of All-Time”. While I respect his opinion, I couldn’t help but feel that he could have made some better choices. Sure, this is all subjective, but I feel like there should be some principals laid down.
First, if I was to just list the best controllers, I would simply list the current gen controllers, as they are the most robust in terms of features and most useful with the gaming consoles we are playing today.
Second, I am factoring in all mainstream controllers across the 40+ years of gaming history. I’m counting how revolutionary they were for their day, but also how well they hold up today. While there may be some great choices, I’m going for the best incarnation with respect to the history.
Third, these are in no particular order. It’s too hard to order these, but I will pick an overall favorite.
The NES controller (1985)
I think most gamers would be hard pressed to pick a more iconic controller. There’s a reason that 33 years after the debut of the NES (35 years if you count the Famicom) that you still see hats, T-shirts, and wallets with the controller design embroidered on them. That’s not just because it was a damn good controller, but laid basically all the groundwork for controller designs that we still use today. To this day, pretty much all modern controllers have a d-pad on the left, action buttons on the right, and utility buttons in the middle; it all started here. Before the NES, console manufactures thought wonky joysticks, and number pads were a great idea, but Nintendo drew a line in the sand and for the most part, we haven’t looked back.
The Dual Shock (1997)
See the evolution?
Sony may be guilty of stealing other people’s ideas, but they not only steal the best ideas, but they also improve upon them, such is the case with the original Dual Shock. See, back when Sega, Sony and Nintendo were designing their controllers for their upcoming 5th generation platforms, they had to come up with the monumental task of designing something that would accommodate not only the traditional 2D games that everyone was familiar with, but also new 3D games. It turned out that they really didn’t know what they were doing.
Sega basically took their 6-button controller from the Genesis, added a couple shoulder buttons, and called it a day. Sony, took the SNES controller added a couple more shoulder buttons, some better grips for ergonomics, and called it a day. Of the three, Nintendo had the most foresight and gave us an analog stick, as well as 4 C-buttons to facilitate camera controls (a precursor to the right analog stick) and then slapped in a trident shaped shell.
Midway through the generation two things were apparent:
1 Nintendo was right about the analog stick, camera controls, and rumble
2 Nintendo was wrong about pretty much everything else
Sony went to work. They took the tried and true design of the original Playstation controller and added not one, but two analog sticks, built in rumble (without the need for battery hungry accessories) and made the controller even more ergonomic with better grips and elongated L2 and R2 buttons, the rest is history.
I consider the original Dual Shock to be the first “modern” controller. It’s such a good controller that they’ve managed to keep that fundamental design for over 20 years. I wish they would get with the times and fix the placement of the analog sticks, but it’s still very functional even all these years later.
The Saturn Control Pad Model 2 (1996)
Often imitated, never duplicated
Remember when I said that Sega played it safe and just updated their 6-button controller from the Genesis? What makes this so special? Well, this one of those instances where I have to also acknowledge how well a controller holds up, and the Saturn has certainly accomplished this. The Saturn model 2 controller absolutely nails one thing: it’s that it’s a fantastic fight pad.
Because of the Saturn was a commercial failure, and the age of the console, I imagine that most gamers today haven’t even held the controller. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like much, it’s it bit on the flimsy side, most likely well worn, it doesn’t even have rumble, but don’t be fooled by its appearance, not everything is as it seems.
Once you do sit down and spend some time with it you’ll most likely get a good feel for the d-pad. The saucer design makes Street Fighter a dream to play, but the buttons are very comfortable, with the A, B and C slightly larger than the X, Y and Z buttons. Not only that but they’re also concave instead of convex, so you can easily tell them apart, even without looking. The shoulder buttons feel clicky, and rest nicely under your index fingers. Basically, it just feels right.
Sure, you don’t see that design in standard controllers today, but all modern fight pads owe their design to Sega, and to this day, I haven’t used a more comfortable version of it.
The Wii Remote & Nunchuck (2006)
You know what the Wii remote looks like...
MetalJesusRocks actually picked this for his video too, and I have to agree. Sure, this may be “controversial” but hear me out, and hopefully you’ll come to the same place.
While there may have been precursors (RIP Dreamcast fishing rod), the Wii remote pioneered motion controls. I think we all remember that moment when Iwata came on stage saying “You want a revolution? Well, we’ve got one!” Even if you hate the Wii, it’s pretty hard to deny that they did deliver on that promise. Long after the death of the Wii, we’re still using motion controls in modern gaming. All modern consoles have some version of motion controls implemented into them. Even cell phones have sensors to know when to put the screen into portrait or landscape. It’s pretty hard to call something with that kind of staying power a gimmick.
The biggest reason people hated motion controls was that it was forced on them, many times in games that had no need or benefit from them. Worse yet, in some games, they were poorly implemented, which basically made some games a chore to play. To me, that’s a knock against Nintendo for forcing it to be a primary interface, when it never should have been. Motion controls work when the games are designed with them in mind.
As far as the controller itself, I find it to be very well built, comfortable, durable, and surprisingly versatile. Playing games like Super Mario Galaxy, Wii Fit, Wii Sports/Resort, Sin and Punishment Star Successor, and Resident Evil Chronicles are prime examples where motion controls can be sublime.
At the end of the day, even if you can’t appreciate the controller, I feel like you should be able to appreciate what it has done for gaming.
Xbox One controller (2016 Revision)
You can even make it looks like it was designed by a 5 year old, if you really want to...
I consider the Xbox One controller to be the best overall controller on the market. It features nearly all of the technologies that I’ve discussed, with excellent build quality, a reasonable price, excellent ergonomics, and incredible versatility.
To be fair, this could be said of all three modern controllers, but I feel like both the Switch controllers and PS4 controllers have enough faults to keep them from taking the crown.
The Dual Shock 4 has a gaudy light and short battery life. I’ll once again cite the analog stick placements (yes, I know some prefer it that way) but it’s just not my cup of tea, despite being well designed.
The Switch pro controller lacks Bluetooth, analog triggers, and a headphone jack. The build quality is the best of the lot, and the HD rumble is wonderful, but it’s not quite there yet.
The Xbox One controller simply works for me. I love the native Windows compatibility (no dongle needed for wireless play) the headphone jack, the customization options and the user replaceable battery. There’s even an elite version for those who are willing to spend the money. I have yet to try it, but it’s still an option.
So, there it is. I feel like I’ve covered a wide spectrum with respect to the great designs of controllers. What do you guys think? Which controllers would you have picked? Sound off in the comments below.