Tuesday Top Ten: Video Game Controllers


It’s that time again—time for another Tuesday Top Ten!  Yesterday, we discussed video game controllers, taking a look at a few of them while discussing how much technological skill goes into the design of one.  It follows rather naturally, then, that today we count down the top ten controllers.

There have been a lot of game pads.  The number of first-party game pads alone is staggering, but then you add third-party pads into it—the number becomes fearsome.  Still, some stand out as being interesting, exceptional, or simply wonderfully accessible.  That last is especially important; we don’t really think about our game pads very much—until we get one that’s cumbersome.  Then we can’t help but think about it, and the things we think are generally less than polite.

With that in mind, let’s get this week’s list started with…

10. MadCatz RetroCON
I hesitate to put this on the list; I’m not usually a fan of third-party hardware, but there’s just something incredibly neat about this controller.  It has every bit of PlayStation 2 functionality crammed into a game pad about the size of the controller for the original Nintendo Entertainment System.

The surprising thing is that by an large, everything worked—mostly.  The shoulder buttons, though moved from their “upper” and “lower” positions to “inner” and “outer”, worked well.  The face buttons as well; they were calibrated nicely as well, and the same could be said of the analog sticks.  The problem was the D-pad.  You had to exert more pressure to get the same response, which made it difficult to use for games that demanded quick responses.

Still—that one flaw aside, it’s one of the few third-party pieces of hardware that could be bought with head held high.  It was a solid “throw-back” design that managed to fit everything a gamer could have wanted into such a small package.

09. Virtual Boy Controller
Say what you will about the Virtual Boy itself, but it was an attempt at portable three-dimensional gaming.  The controller fit that attempt perfectly.

It was incredibly comfortable to hold, and the buttons were all within easy reach, as well as making “sense”.  You never really had to think about what button was where.  Aside from the comfort, you could see the grand plans Nintendo had for the Virtual Boy in the controller—the two D-pads were most likely going to be used how we use sticks today—one for movement, one for aiming.

Like the system itself, it was rather ahead of its time, and one can only imagine the games it could have been used for.

08. X-Box 360 Controller
Whether wireless or wired, the controller was otherwise the same.  I have to admit, I wasn’t a fan of even the smaller version of the original X-Box controller, and I wasn’t alone.  Quite a few gamers told Microsoft how little they thought of that controller, and this was their response.

It’s comfort from the get-go.  The asymmetry of the thumb sticks made it less than perfect, but they ditched the “black” and “white” buttons, for additional shoulder buttons—which were still a little awkward, but nowhere near as much as the “black” and “white” buttons had been.  Still, it was surprisingly comfortable and accessible—surprising for someone coming into it from its predecessor, anyway.

07. PlayStation’s Controllers
Yes, that’s plural.  The reason for that is that the basic  aesthetic hasn’t changed overmuch since the first Sony PlayStation.  You can see the evolution of the controller  from the first one for the PlayStation all the way to the one for the PlayStation 3 here, here, here, here, and finally here.

What’s not to like about it?  Similar to the N.E.S. game pad, it was efficient.  There was no wasted space; everything fit on it pretty well.  It was a bit front-heavy, but not so much as to be truly a detriment, since the Dual Shock motors were in the handles.

While the internal workings changed over the years, Sony knew what it was doing when they kept the aesthetics as simple as possible.  It made it easier for gamers to get into the newer consoles, since they didn’t have to figure out a new button configuration while they were trying to figure out their new system.  It made it easier for gamers to game.

06. N.E.S. Max
One of the first redesigned controllers to truly be a step forward was the N.E.S. Max.  It was more comfortable than its predecessor, and had two turbo buttons.  It also had an ancestor to the modern thumb stick, which was a little “plate” sort of thing one could rotate, and a black ring set around it could be used like one would a normal D-pad.

The “cycloid” was a bit cumbersome; some gamers simply ignored the pad itself and almost solely used the black ring.  Still, that was one small mark against an otherwise-perfect controller.  It was easy to use, and comfortable as heck besides.  It took nearly everything its predecessor did and did it better.

05. Genesis/Master Drive Six-Button Controller
It wasn’t easy to improve over the original.  What you saw was what you got.  It was a bit bulky, but unlike later bulky game pads, it didn’t really hamper the feel very much at all.

The design was simple enough to make the only way to improve on it being to add turbo buttons—which they did.  It doesn’t have a fancy name like some other remade controllers, so it was just known as the six-button controller.  It wasn’t really “revolutionary” in that it “changed things up” or anything—but it did make gaming easier, if only a little.  They were basically three additional buttons, but not every game used them, considering it came out late in the Genesis/Master Drive’s life cycle.  Still, it was a great little addition to the system.

04. Dreamcast Controller
As I said yesterday, this one is easily my personal favorite.  It’s the most comfortable I’ve used, and it was one of the most innovative controllers out there.

Interestingly, it featured a D-pad not unlike the N.E.S. controller’s.  SEGA likely got around Nintendo’s patent because the inner workings were sufficiently different.  No matter how they did it, the end result was a D-pad that was comfortable to use, which made gaming all that much easier.

03. S.N.E.S. Controller
The last controller Nintendo came out with before really pushing the boundaries—and testing the patience and dexterity of some gamers—the S.N.E.S. controller.

Like its predecessor, it was simple, yet stylish.  It was a bit curvier than the N.E.S. controller, showing the more “natural” direction the company was trying to go in, but everything fit.  The game pad fit in the hands naturally, with every button within easy reach.  It also had a notable impact on gaming as a whole—it might well have been the pinnacle of game pads for the time—and everyone else took notice.

While it’s really not fair to say every competitor “ripped off” the design, the design worked, and worked beautifully.  They couldn’t have come up with another design that wasn’t odd to the point of being incredibly inefficient.  That’s a testament to Nintendo’s hardware design as much as anything else.

02. N.E.S. Controller
The one that stars prominently in most gamer’s memories.  It was elegant in its simplicity.  You just don’t find that these days.  It was, almost shockingly, rather comfortable to handle—and even coming at it years later, after handling modern controllers, it’s still easy to use.  It doesn’t feel as awkward as others of that era might.

It was also one of, if not, the first major system to use a directional pad instead of a joystick.  That D-pad seemed more simplistic, but that was the goal.  The controller as a whole was made to be accessible, almost “friendly”.  You knew what button was where.  Most game pads since then, intentionally or not, had at least tipped their hat to the S.N.E.S. controller, as mentioned above—but those elements started right here, with this humble game pad.  

01. Atari 2600
The classic.  It wasn’t the first, it wasn’t the best, and it wasn’t the biggest—but it was the one that, for so many gamers, was the first one they wrapped their hands around.  Many of us still remember playing Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, waggling that stick like there was no tomorrow.

It was simple as heck—a joystick and a button.  That was it.  You held the thing in your off-hand, thumb resting near the button, and maneuvered the joystick with the other hand.  For all that simplicity, it still sold well—for years.  There’s something about grabbing on and moving it around as the avatar responded.  It offers a bit more tactile responsiveness than a D-pad or thumb stick.  The design was about as basic as it could get, and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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