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[Mr. Bradshaw takes us back in time to the distant past, before the Nintendo Switch released, in order to compare the pros and cons of the modern controller design. The year was 2016 and there were three major consoles locked in an eternal war for our affections/money. One of them got the affections, one got mostly ignored, and the other had an extremely annoying light bar…
P.S. We’ve decided to start resurrecting some older blogs that may have gotten overlooked the first time around under the tag Who Let The Blogs Out! If you come across any potential candidates, feel free to make a nomination by sending an email to [email protected] – Kevin]
I thank my lucky stars every day that we have video game controllers like we do. No, the perfect controller hasn’t been decided as of yet, but the talent that is out there is really something to behold. I hope you’ll join me for this in-depth look at where we are in the whole controller game.
So let’s take a second to ramble about the blessings the market has bestowed on us in the way of controller design. It’s something that I consider to be one of the key tenants of gaming. Back in my day, it seemed that having a controller that worked, in many cases, was a blessing. We had to tolerate a lot of dumb bullshit. We had the dial pad, rough joysticks, fucked up form factors, along with a slew of crap I’m probably not thinking about.
When you think about the origin of all controller design, you need only look at the joystick. It began in the arcade, so I guess it only makes sense that the gaming companies would start there and try to make that set up handheld.
The fact of the matter is that it was designed for a different type of environment. It wasn’t made for kids sitting in the living room. It was designed in mind for arcade cabinets with people standing upright. The concept of the first controller, the joystick, was a misguided attempt to find some sort of a halfway point that never really worked in the end.
The true transformation came when Nintendo, smartly reflecting on the function of the human form factor and the console environment, developed the NES gamepad that included the standard D-pad.
This NES layout is now considered the backbone of all modern gaming controllers. Simple things that we all take for granted like the movement being on the left and the action buttons on the right are some of the major overlooked facets of the NES revolution.
This eventually led to a bunch of other companies ripping off the NES and trying to work around the D-pad patent Nintendo cleverly filed, but that led to a bunch of weird knockoffs that didn’t feel as solid for generations to come.
That simple cross-directional pad, in my opinion, is the one thing that, for some reason, the competitors just can’t get right. It took about 25 years for the main competition to get their shit together. I can’t for the life of me understand why controllers took forever to get this part to work. Looking back, the worst had to be the 360. This was an unbelievable level of broken D-pad. To me, this seemed so odd. Why is it so confusing for everyone else? Just stick to the script. Nintendo had it right years ago. Just make a cross that pivots between four rubber conductive contacts- very simple stuff.
PlayStation almost had it right with their controller, but they broke up the D-pad in the middle, which never made sense to me. I mean, it works but forget about your thumb effectively sliding from one point to another. The only PlayStation system they got that right on was the PlayStation Vita but then there’s a tad too much micro-clicking going on there. I don’t get it. Why try to reinvent the wheel?
Nowadays, we have the extremely solid Wii U Pro Controller, the DualShock 4, and the incredible Xbox One controller that even managed to make the D-pad all nice and perfect.
Now let’s look at joysticks. This is tricky. We need to look at joysticks from two angles: positioning and surface texture.
To understand the best positioning, we need to bring it back to the Nintendo 64 and the logic that they were using back in ’96.
You see, most games of that era were projected to be 3D and thus have a back view of the character. To understand the logic behind the positioning of the Nintendo 64 joystick, you need to think of your thumb in relation to the Super Nintendo D-pad. Why? Because it’s connected.
2D Mario levels push to the right of the screen for the most part, and your thumb, in relation to the controller orientation, also pushes to the right. This is the most comfortable positioning. Nintendo, when looking at a 3D Mario game, took no chances and made it so the Nintendo 64 would require the thumb to point directly upward for the most ergonomic response. This is the logic behind joysticks on the Xbox being placed in a fashion that has your thumbs pushing forward too.
The second important facet is the shape, surface, and texture of the joystick. Nintendo and Sony have clearly decided that convex style joysticks are the way to go. The logic behind this concept is that the thumb can pivot from the direct center of the thumb. The thumb’s angle alone can make the joystick move most responsively. That being said, I have got to side with Xbox’s logic. They’ve got it right here. Xbox One’s controller went the route of a concaved surface with a tire track edge around the stick. You see, the problem (and not a major one) with the Nintendo and/or Sony concept of the joystick, is that the convex approach has the player’s thumb slipping off the sides. In order to remedy that, the Wii U has a little bit of resistance with a lifted ring in the middle, and PlayStation has a lifted ring around the convex portion of the joystick. (Good but not perfect.)
Again, Xbox has the better approach here because the top of the joystick is concaved and surrounded with a tire track to keep the thumb firmly in place. What Nintendo and Sony don’t seem to understand, from the looks of it, is that the ball under the stick does the work of a convex surface. The function of the top of the joystick should be committed to grip, and Xbox understands this.
The overall shape of the controller, one that best fits in the hands of gamers, was pretty much standardized by Microsoft. It’s honestly hard to imagine an improvement on what Xbox One’s controller (or the 360) has done in this regard. I guess you can say that it all started with the criticisms of the original Xbox controller. They clearly took that to heart because the controllers that would follow, that deviate from the Xbox original, would be some of the most well-crafted controllers this side of gaming. The most significant improvement is, easily, the shape. That was the most heavily criticized aspect of the controller in ’02, and now it’s the most praised aspect of the Xbox controller in ‘16.
PlayStation’s controller, when it comes to form factor, has always been a bit of an acquired taste but some people prefer it. Nintendo is really all over the place, but when they make a classic like the Pro Controller, they’ve pretty much just stuck to the script. The script they wrote and Xbox adjusted in the way of form factor back from the 360.
The L and R triggers were really an invention of the Super Nintendo. Then there was the concept of the back triggers from the Nintendo 64 and, finally, pressure-sensitive triggers on the GameCube. The latter, pressure-sensitive triggers, have just now become an industry standard. The DualShock 3 was kind of a half step. Sure, it was there, but not without your fingers slipping off the backend. For some strange reason, Nintendo completely forgot about the concept of pressure-sensitive triggers. Xbox on the other hand, once again, mastered this concept. The Xbox One controller has the most solid triggers of any video game controller. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s something.
Most importantly, we have the face buttons. I’ve always thought that all gaming consoles have pretty much got this part right, but I have to say that Nintendo’s buttons, since the beginning of time, have always been the best. I think it’s going to have to come down to taste and (maybe) how you were raised, but the buttons on Nintendo controllers have always had the exact right amount of spring back and resistance in comparison to Sony or Microsoft in my opinion. Sony has SLIGHTLY not enough give and Microsoft has SLIGHTLY too much resistance. This is an almost indistinguishable difference though, and it’s going to come down to personal preference. So long as it’s not the fucking micro switches that have become standardized in handhelds, with way too much resistance, console buttons have always been fantastic. (With the exception of the Intellivision.)
I have to say that when you combine all these details together from our new gaming controllers, it’s fucking hard to pick a real winner here. Not that we need one. Whether you’re messing around with the DualShock 4, the Wii U Pro Controller or the Xbox One gamepad, this is one amazing lineup of perfected science. We don’t have the three handles from the 64, we don’t have the slippery triggers from the PS3, and we don’t have that disgusting-ass loose D-pad from the 360.
But just for shits and giggles, let’s compare these controllers and break it down. Now, before anything, please remember that these “weaknesses” are extremely debatable.
Strengths: Symmetrical joysticks and motion control built in.
Weaknesses: Broken up D-pad
Xbox One Controller:
Strengths: Form factor, joystick texture, and an interesting D-pad
Weaknesses: Non-symmetrical and Rumble noise
Wii U Pro Controller:
Strengths: Form Factor, D-pad, symmetrical joysticks and their natural positioning.
Weaknesses: Not enough grip on the joysticks and no pressure sensitive triggers.
The fact of the matter is that controllers have been great recently. So, ultimately, picking a winner is much harder than what it used to be. Every single one of these controllers is an absolute joy to play with. I end up gravitating toward the Xbox One controller more than anything simply because of its industry standard design.
So what’s the bottom line? I don’t know. I guess I just needed to write this down because I appreciated the thought process behind the design of the video game controller. It’s an art that has to strike the balance between the human condition and reflexes. It has to be seamless, but it also has to be significant. I have always wanted controllers like the ones we have today. The fact of the matter is that the controller is actually one of the most significant pieces of the video game experience that often gets overlooked by many. I am happy to be in an age where we don’t have any more shortcomings in this regard. Controllers have become so good now that it compels me to go back to shittier games, with worse controllers, just to appreciate them more.
So there are my random thoughts on that. Time to drink.