When it comes to video game development, there are a lot of factors to consider when crafting the perfect game. Visuals have always been a top priority as they’re the simplest way to demonstrate quality to the consumer so the necessary hardware is required to craft some pretty graphics. A fast processor is certainly required or else those pretty games will be choppy and slow. Audio is obviously important, as who would ever want to go back to mono? When it comes to actually interacting with a game and that little avatar on the screen, few things are as important as a controller. There are a lot of different factors that go into creating the perfect controller. Before the NES the joystick was the preferred input method, which was replaced by the directional pad or rocker switch, which has now mostly been supplanted by the analog stick or nub. Those early Atari controllers usually only featured one action button, now anything less than eight is unacceptable. As games have advanced through the decades, the controller has been asked to do more. Let’s pay tribute to those who have done it the best.
First, let’s also make some dishonorable mentions, those controllers that failed to impress.
Nintendo 64 – How to rank this one? You all know it, that oddly shaped, three-handled device released in 1996 alongside the Nintendo 64. It wasn’t the first controller to feature an analog thumb-stick, but it certainly made it standard, which is about the only good thing I can say about it. It was chunky, the face buttons felt cheap, and the shoulder buttons offered little satisfaction. The Z-trigger was a nice touch, but unless you were playing one of the many 3D platformers featured on the N64, this one was lacking.
Atari Jaguar – Just look at this thing. If you never handled one consider yourself lucky. Ignoring that the system was a terrible waste of money, this controller was a beast of unwieldy proportions. See that key pad? Of course you do because it’s gigantic. That thing had inserts that could be snapped over it depending on the game, but it was mostly a tacky, useless feature that just made the controller obtuse. The cheap feel didn’t help things either.
All right, with those out of the way let’s move onto the top five. For the controller to be considered, it had to be a “stock” controller during a system’s lifespan, meaning it came bundled with a new console. I also tried to give some deference to the controllers that paved the way, otherwise this top five would be really slanted towards the modern additions since developers have naturally had many opportunities to improve upon the designs of yesterday. Before I get to the top five, let’s first pay homage to the godfather of the modern controller:
The NES controller – It’s the one that standardized the modern layout of basically every controller. The d-pad on the left, and action buttons on the right. Maybe the squared edges weren’t the best idea but the re-designed “dog bone” bundled with the later model NES rectified that mistake. It’s been improved upon by leaps and bounds, but few people thought at the time there was anything wrong with it.
5. The Neo Geo CD Controller – Neo Geo is the console for SNK and their many arcade games. It was a high-end console for arcade enthusiasts as the giant cartridges were essentially identical to the arcade counterpart. As such, it was really expensive. It was also heavily populated by the fighters, and since every arcade cabinet is equipped with a joystick, the Neo Geo was bundled with one as well. When the Neo Geo CD came out though, it came with a more traditional controller. The layout is the standard established by the Super Nintendo with four face buttons arranged in a diamond shape, but the thing that stands out is that analog slider type of input on the left. Quite simply, it’s the finest analog stick or slider I’ve ever encountered, which is incredible since it’s over twenty years old at this point. It has a satisfying click to it and enough resistance for more precise actions. I’m not sure how well it would hold up with modern 3D games, but for 2D games it’s flawless. And best of all, it’s the only analog thumb-stick I’ve ever encountered that’s usable with fighting games. Anyone who tried to play Street Fighter IV on an Xbox 360 can tell you how impossible a task that is.
4. Sega Genesis Six Button Controller – Not a stock controller initially, the six button version of the Genesis controller was the preferred controller by gaming enthusiasts who had a Genesis. And if you were really into fighting games, it was probably your favorite across all consoles. It maintained the standard Genesis d-pad, which included easy diagonals making it superior to the one offered by the Big N. The three buttons layout though was suboptimal, and the six button controller rectified that shortcoming. The layout made it super easy for games like Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat to access the strongest punch and kick attacks. By the time the Genesis 3 and the CDX came to be the controller even came with a turbo function (in case you forgot, gamers in the 90’s thought turbo was the greatest)! The only criticism that can be levied on this one is the size. Being quite small, it takes some getting used to in the hands of an adult male.
3. The Xbox One – It’s more or less the same as the 360, which is probably what most gamers wanted. The ergonomics of the controller are pretty tried and true and this point, though while most controllers are trended more towards the smaller side, Microsoft still likes to keep their controller a little thicker than others. While the original Xbox controller was too much like the Dreamcast in that department (which was a contender for a dishonorable mention), the Xbox One controller has found a nice balance. The only thing holding it back is that damn D-pad. One of the measuring sticks of a controller is how well it handles all genres of games, and the Xbox One’s inability to properly control a quality 2D fighter is a hindrance carried over from its predecessor. If you don’t like 2D fighters though, a genre that has certainly seen its popularity apex long ago, then you’re probably good with this one.
2. The Super Nintendo – The Super Nintendo is essentially the root of all modern controllers (excepting, of course, the oddball Wii controllers) as it established the preferred layout for virtually every game. A directional input on the left, diamond shaped action buttons on the right, and shoulder buttons for easy trigger finger access. The rounded edge made it comfortable, and the center of the controller was open for less important buttons and functions which is something future controllers took advantage of. The Super Nintendo controller was essentially perfect for its era. While most gamers would agree the the d-pad on the Genesis controller was superior, it wasn’t able to match the feel of the SNES controller, nor was the d-pad advantage enough to make up for the extra buttons. Oddly enough, Nintendo has been the one company to not really carry forward the SNES controller’s design. After it came the N64 and Virtual Boy, which also featured a terrible input device, before the Gamecube sort of brought Nintendo back to the old design. The Wii and Wii U obviously went in completely different directions for their input device, but at least they’ve had secondary controllers that resemble the SNES one. Sometimes it’s better to just stick with what works.
- The Dual Shock 4 – Stick with what works seems to be an unofficial motto for Sony and its Playstation controllers. The original Playstation featured a controller that was essentially a SNES controller with two extra shoulder buttons and handles for added comfort. After the N64 made analog a big deal, it was replaced by the Dual Shock which added a vibrating function and twin analog sticks. The PS2 and PS3 did little to change from the Dual Shock, but the Dual Shock 4 brought about some slight modifications that have helped to make it gaming’s best all-around controller. The D-pad is still placed in a prominent spot despite the fact that it’s utilized less than an analog stick, but the analog input manages to remain in a thumb-friendly zone. The rear triggers are comfortable and responsive, and the diamond layout for the face buttons is preserved. Sure, the touchpad in the center of the controller is a novelty addition, but it’s not one that takes away from the controller’s main functions. It’s the one controller I really can’t complain about as it has a nice weight to it, it’s durable, and never lacking for buttons. Good luck to those who try and top it, but hopefully Sony continues to stick with what works.