Controllers of the Decade

I thought I would do something a little different for this year and take a look at game controllers I've bought and/or used over the past ten years as opposed to a half thought-out haphazard list of games I played this decade that I barely remembered. I might still do that, but I doubt it'll be as well-written or insightful.

I've always found that there's a lot of fun playing something in a way that you're not supposed to. Did you know that if you gently rotate the left stick and mash on the X/Square button you can get through basically every predator encounter in Batman: Arkham Knight? Did you also know that turning off all the music and dialogue, Arkham Knight is a much more tolerable game? Did you know that having the speed up to 10x in Skyrim all of the items start to move around erratically? Did you know my friends no longer let me play board games with them?

And no, using a different controller is not quite the same, but it does still carry that thrill of doing something you're not supposed to and giving an advantage that the average player might not have. Personally, I find that I'm more excited to test out a new peripheral than I am to play a new game. Maybe there's something wrong with me. This also serves as an excuse to justify my bad habit of buying way too many controllers of the years with no real reason for doing so. I have a similar problem with headphones, but this is a website for video games (more or less), so here we are. Let's take look at the SHAPE of CONTROLS:

HANDHELDS

Yes, I know, they're not really controllers, per se, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention these, especially as I have a special place in my heart for the PSP. Without further ado:

NINTENDO 3DS/3DSXL"Circle Boy"

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It's hard to believe that 3DS is just now starting to slow down even when debuting 8 years later. When it comes right to it, the most notable thing about the second 3D game boy is that wonderful Circle Pad. I would've said the Stereoscopic 3D, but Nintendo basically gave the game away when they introduced the second entry on our list. The best thing I can say is that I never really thought about it while using it. Other than that, the 3DS was a basically a quality system. I would recommend the XL version over the regular one, but the actual controls don't change much at all. I guess it's worth mentioning the circle pad pro, but I never picked one up, so [fart sound].

NINTENDO 2DS "A Hell of Bent Fingers"

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The nice thing about the 2DS, besides getting rid of the least necessary part of the system, is that it also made a great door stop once you were done playing it. Now you don't have to worry about your houseguests destroying the walls of your house! For the most part, there's not much of a difference between the 3DS and 2DS, except for one glaring flaw. Those goddamn shoulder buttons. By necessity, you have to have most of the controls between the two screens, but the drawback is having the shoulder buttons still on the top, meaning I had to stretch my hands to an uncomfortable position to hit them. While the shoulder buttons also curved around the side of the console in a more comfortable position, it never felt like a sure thing that your button presses would actually register. Considering this is a handheld geared more towards children and their tiny tiny hands, this always struck me as an odd choice. That being said, it's a durable little fucker, and I feel like most 3DS games didn't rely on the shoulders too much. Then again, it has been a long time since I actually played a 3DS game, so maybe I'm just talking out my ass.

NEW NINTENDO 3DS/3DSXL/2DS "Mr. Nipple"

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Finally, a handheld system that has the same little nipple thing that used to be in the keyboard of all those IBM laptops. Do they still put them in the Lenovo laptops? Is there a market for that still, or since we all have touchpads on our computers have they all disappeared? I hope that's not the case. All that aside, the nub thing seemed like a real good idea on paper. Then again I never played a game in which I needed to use it. Also of very little use was the second set of shoulder buttons. I understand why they were included, but the side-by-side positioning made the actual use of them fairly awkward. The rest of the unit is definitely a marked step up, and if you're the sort of pervert that buys amiibos you can use them for… something, presumably.

PLAYSTATION VITA WiFi "Feel the Magic XY/XX"

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Ah, the PS Vita. So much Potential. So much of it wasted. I pre-ordered this thing along with Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and a proprietary memory card, hoping it would be another PSP. It was not.

The Vita was a definite upgrade in the hardware. It had actual sticks, which was a definite leg up on both it's predecessor and the 3DS. And while it didn't have any divot to keep your fingers on the sticks, it still had a nice, rubberized grip to it. But as it was pointed out to my by a friend, it felt a lot more natural to hold when it was upside down. The D-pad still felt great, but the face buttons had gotten too small for my liking and felt less durable than the previous generation.

The biggest problem with the Vita was the back touchpad. Not only was it totally unnecessary, but it also was a fingerprint magnet. The whole thing was a fingerprint magnet! What the hell is with Sony's brief obsession with glossy finishes? The back touchpad also made the whole unit a lot more awkward to hold. While there was small divots on the back for your fingers, it often felt cramped and awkward. You had no choice but to smudge this thing up if you had any hope of holding it comfortably.

So while the whole thing certainly looked a whole lot better, getting into the nitty gritty and actually using the system revealed the many flaws inherent in the design. Which is a fitting epitaph for the system as a whole.

PSP VITA PCH-2000 "Project Rub"

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The Same problems on the previous model were here as well, but at least the divots in the back were bigger.

…which would have been an improvement if the whole system wasn't slimmer now, meaning that your fingers were still smudging up that back touchpad. On top of that, the whole system was a lot lighter and felt much more breakable than the base model.

Oh well. At least we had the PSP…

Alright, time for the main event. Actual peripherals sorted by manufacturer. Don't get too excited.

SONY

DUALSHOCK 3 "Mr. Marshmallow"

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Don't you ever change, Sony. That was the advice that should never have been uttered. The two things that really made the DualShock 3 stand out were the sixaxis motion controls (which mostly went unused) and a built-in chargeable battery. That was perhaps the one edge that it had over Microsoft. But by this time, the convex, rubberized analog sticks were completely outdated, and the worst part was the R2/L2 triggers. While putting in analog triggers was step forward, the actual shape of the buttons weren't changed much, leading to fingers sliding right off the triggers and leading most developers to put iron sights/trigger on the R1/L1 buttons instead of where they would be on an Xbox. The controller still worked perfectly fine, but it was obvious that the tried and true design simply wouldn’t make it to the next generation.

DUALSHOCK 4 "The Platonic Ideal"

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The DualShock 4 is a pleasure to use. Among the improvements are the more naturally-molded grips, concave thumb depressions for the analog sticks, and of course, just a little grip on the paddle shaped trigger buttons. It is a controller that sits toe-to-toe with Microsoft, and really pulls it all of the design lessons of previous generations together. Also, the fact that it can be used with a PC is definitely a nice bonus.

That's not to say that the DualShock 4 is entirely perfect. The light on the back is extremely useless and the motion controls still seem shoehorned in. Also, for some reason Sony decided to make the Select button around 100x larger than it used to be for seemingly no reason.

MICROSOFT

XBOX 360 CONTROLLER "The Standard"

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This controller really did change everything. Okay, so, the Original Xbox Controller S changed everything, but we're not talking about that. And By Original Xbox Controller S, I mean Dreamcast controller. Look, it's complicated, okay? Regardless, the format of two analog sticks, two analog triggers, two bumpers and six face buttons stuck around for a reason. It's hard to imagine another controller becoming The Standard design, and it all comes back to this. Still, it gets points off for not being rechargeable. Though I guess you could use rechargeable batteries. Whatever, it works on PC, who cares? But, all is not well in the realm of the Xbox 360. After all, that d-pad was unforgivable.

XBOX ONE CONTROLLER "The Gold Standard"

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Hey, they got rid of that terrible d-pad and replaced with a good d-pad. Also, there's no unsightly bump on the back this time. Yay. If that was it, it would've been fine, but honestly, there are a lot of more subtle refinements that make it feel so much more naturalistic in your hands. The overall shape is easier to grip and the triggers are less severely shaped, meaning resting your hands for long periods of time, murdering others isn't murder on your hands. Hooray for murder!

XBOX ELITE CONTROLLER "The Platinum Standard"

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This thing as premium as it gets, and I'm not just talking about. the price. I've only briefly gotten to use one, but it's place among the pantheon of Controllers is cemented forever. Adjustable triggers, Adjustable Sticks, and everything other customization option you could want. And it's got that weird dish-shaped d-pad thing. I assume that's good. Is it for fighting games? Maybe it's for fighting games. I don’t know. I know you got those sweet-ass paddles on the back. The only drawback is the price tag. This thing should really only be offered from a limo rider to another passenger in a separate limo on a silver platter. Is that Grey Poupon commercial too old of a reference? Technically I wasn't even alive for that reference, so maybe it's timeless. I also watched all of those "I Love the [decade]'s" show on VH1 so maybe my references are skewed in a very strange way.

NINTENDO

JOY-CONS "3(ish)-in-1(ish)"

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Yes, I'm skipping right to the Switch as I didn't own a WiiU. Look, I like Nintendo as much as the next guy (not really, probably far less than that), but I think we can all agree that their home consoles were in a bit of a slump during the back half of the Wii's lifespan. And while the WiiU was probably a semi-decent console, just didn't move the needle for most people. Thankfully their latest release just five years ago really turned everything around.

The switch is undoubtedly taking some cues from the WiiU gamepad, but it's a leap in that it's the first controller Nintendo made with staggered sticks. Wait, I guess technically the GameCube controller had staggered sticks, but the c-stick is a monstrosity, and barely counts in my eyes. Seriously, why was it that every single c-stick on every controller I encountered immediately got stuck after being gently nudged in any direction? Did they fix that with the new Gamecube controllers? If not why not? What is wrong with you perverts?

I'm getting off track. The joy-con controllers are fascinating things, especially with the split ability. You only need one console to play with a friend, and frankly, that's a pretty big seller for a good deal of people. That being said, of course, they do have very notable drawbacks, including the lack of a proper d-pad and analog triggers. Although, I hear having a hair trigger in shooter games is a good thing, so maybe that's not a drawback for you? Also, the second player controller (righty) is uncomfortable with the stick all the way in the center of the of the controller, and that's not getting into the problems with lefty. I didn't experience any of drift or connection issues myself, but it's definitely worth bringing up.

Also due their small size, the face buttons and d-pad end up being completely vertically aligned with the sticks, which means bending your thumbs to an uncomfortable angle when holding it normally. To paraprhase a catchphrase from a youtube show: You may not have noticed it, but your hands did. I've found playing it split to be more ergonomic than on the unit or in the grip controller. I don't know, maybe that dog-faced grip from Hyperkin makes it more comfortable, but I haven't bothered picking it up.

All that being said, there's nothing that wrong with these controllers. The sticks are the nicest I've used on any Nintendo controller, and the triggers, while digital buttons, conform to the fingers very comfortably. Also, and this is a minor thing, but I love the plus and minus buttons. Not only are they in the perfect place on the controller, but they have that nice tactile feel on both of them. It's not something I would want on every face button, but for the start and select buttons it's works very well.

SWITCH PRO CONTROLLER "The Nintendo Xbox Controller"

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I mean, what else can you call it? The Switch Pro controller does have nicer, softer feeling matte plastic than what you find on the standard Xbox or DualShock 4 controllers. Plus, the addition of a real D-Pad cannot be overstated. And yet, it still has the digital trigger buttons which is simply no good for playing Trials Rising. Also, –and this is going to sound kind of weird or nitpickey– I think the +,-,home, and screenshot button are all a little too close together. I often found myself hitting home or screenshot when I was trying to either pause the game or open the select screen. Still, if you're someone who plays in docked mode like I am, this is a must-have.

POWERA

WIRED PS3 CONTROLLER "The Sony Xbox Controller"

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Look, there's pretty much no other way to put it. I remember this controller actually working really well, with a nice rubberized grip, but the problem came with the reversed shoulder/trigger combination on a lot of games. Really, that's more of a PS3 problem than anything else.

AIR FLO WIRED XBOX 360 CONTROLLER"Sweaty Delight"

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For some reason there was a period of time when my hands got way sweaty whenever I played video games. Maybe it had something to do with living in a windowless room and not having air-conditioning, but it's hard to say if we'll ever truly know the reason why. I ended up ruining a couple different mouses (is it mice if it's not animals?) with the salt deposits from my sweaty hands because of it. I'm sorry you had to read that story and this might seem like a poor excuse for telling it, but it ties into my love for the airflo line of controllers. After a long gaming session with this thing my hands were nice, frigid, and cold to the touch, just like the hands of Death himself. if that doesn't sell you on this, I'm not sure what can.

XBOX 360 MINI CONTROLLER "Baby Xbox"

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It's tiny and precise and an xbox controller. What's not to love? Well, maybe it was the fact that it wouldn't stop vibrating or the left stick drifting hard to the left.

XBOX ONE MINI CONTROLLER "My Hands Hurt"

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By the time we made it to the current generation of consoles, I was prepped to get my hands on another Xbox Mini controller. After all, it was a pretty good controller until everything started fucking up. Unfortunately, this had the same problems out of the box and my hands had grown older. This thing is a real Arthritis-er.

ENHANCED WIRED XBOX ONE CONTROLLER "'Enhanced' Should Probably Be in Quotes"

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First off, no this controller is not bad, but there really just isn't much to it. It's very light and cheap-feeling, which for a controller that costs $25 isn't too bad, I guess. I think the part that took the greatest hit in quality were the bumpers. There's just something about using them that didn't feel right. Luckily, there are some programmable buttons on the grips that make up for it, but it never felt great to use. Also, for whatever reason, I tend not to trust a wired controller unless it's hardwired into the console, which unfortunately is not the case for this USB-powered controller.

HORI

FIGHTING COMMANDER 4 "The Duel Master"

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Finally, the perfect controller to recreate the Sega Genesis experience for the modern age! Also, if you're into fighting games, I assume this is perfect. Knowing what's good for fighting games requires actually being good at fighting games. I don't have time to be good at any game, let alone a fighting games. Either way, it has a nice, multi-function turbo button (i.e. turbo, burst, and hold features), and switches for changing between PS3, PS4, and PC. You know what that means? You can switch this thing into D-Input mode and play Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver for PC! Finally! The real standout on this is the fully customizable D-pad. Not only does it have a wheel for rotating the orientation up to 20 degrees, but it has adjustable dial on the back to adjust the diagonal range, making for a consummate experience. The shape is also prefect for setting it on your thigh and going arcade-stick on that piece. God I wish I never sold this thing.

FIGHTING COMMANDER FOR PS4 "The Duel Apprentice"

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On it's surface, this Fighting Commander (now also available for Xbox One) is an improved iteration, but in reality, the more symmetrical grip doesn't give as much as an advantage as the previous controller, and the d-pad customization is completely out the window. That being said, it's still a solid six-button controller. It also helps that is still being manufactured and can be found for a reasonable price.

FIGHTING STICK MINI "I Don't Think I'm Good at These Games"

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This is a nice cheap little fighting stick. That being said it is definitely a cheap fighting stick. I don't know much about sticks, really, but I could tell that the materials are not up to the snuff for tournament play. I'm also not much of a fan of the standard arcade stick as it spreads out my fingers too much for my comfort. I'm just going to guess that this a semi-decent arcade stick for just playing around with. I'm sorry that I'm not very good at actually giving a good analysis of fighting games, but I'm really bad at them.

HYPERKIN

X91 "An Affront to Decency"

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I'm not opposed to the idea behind this controller. A retro take on a modern controller is something I seek out, but the implementation here is just dreadful. The controller itself is awkward to hold, despite the supposed ergonomics on the back, and using it for long periods is a terrible idea. The D-Pad is way too stiff for comfort, the shoulder buttons don't always register and the triggers are way too tight and completely uncomfortable. The whole thing has undeniably cheap feel and I would only recommend this to someone who literally no other choice.

THE DUKE "The Beautiful Dream"

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If you're playing Halo: The Master Chief Collection without this controller, you haven't ever really played it. If you've ever used the (in)famous Duke controller, you're already familiar with this beast. Yes, there are many detractors for this piece of gaming history, but it has the most important feature that all modern controls lack. That's right, it's the return of the black and white buttons, baby!! They haven't been included in any controller since and I can only assume this is because Microsoft are COWARDS. Also, it's a got a sweet-ass LCD that you can use to play the original xbox boot screen to your heart's content. Well, actually my controller has a broken LCD because I bought it on clearance:

My phone's image stabilization really did a number on this gif.
My phone's image stabilization really did a number on this gif.

With all the nostalgia out of the way, I have to say this is a surprisingly great controller. Yes, the bumpers are not great, but that's what those BW buttons are for. The rest of the controller is a high-quality product. And maybe it's just because the first time I used a duke controller I was 10, but the Duke is a lot more comfortable than I remember the original being. It's one of the best 3rd-Part controllers on this list, and no, I'm not joking.

STEAM

STEAM CONTROLLER "Pervert's Delight"

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A friend of a friend of mine once briefly worked at Valve as a mechanical engineer. Since Valve is one of those companies that's not great about direction, he was at a loss for what to do. A senior employee told him he should work on making a stand for the Steam Controller. This was despite the fact that there were already two teams working on a stand for a steam controller. After a while, he was so frustrated with the management style that he decided to quit.

On an unrelated note, the Steam Controller can really only be summed up in a long, defeated sigh. The idea behind it, replacing the Mouse and Keyboard is a semi-decent idea, but the idea of using it as a replacement for all forms of input was an insane prospect. The tactile pads, while having a nice feel and haptic feedback, are poor replacements for mouse and or keyboard controls. Both pads stop registering input when you get the edge, meaning instead of smooth turning, you had a lot swift swipes that were much less precise than your average analog stick. This might be good for RTS or strategy games, but I don't think they make those anymore. Using the left touchpad as a replacement for the d-pad felt awkward and werid requiring a lot more clicking than you might expect.

The rest of the face buttons are cheap-feeling and tiny as if they were an afterthought (possibly because if you were to go off the leaked prototypes, they definitely were a complete afterthought). But hey, the stick felt nice. The real high points are the shoulders, triggers, and paddles that were built in. Not only do they all have a nice feel but it really helps to engage your whole hand. And hey, there's something to be said for the relentless customization that it brings to the table. Still at the end of the day, I only used it for a brief period before using it as a presentation remote once.

If it only it had a stand…

8BitDo

N30 PRO 2 "What if the PS Vita Was Good"

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I actually loved the PSVita, but it's the only reference point I could think of for this controller. I couldn’t help but be skeptical when I first saw this online, but, weirdly, the actual packaging of the controller made me feel like I was in for a good experience.

Look at the beautiful Graphic Design!
Look at the beautiful Graphic Design!

Seriously, just look at those boxes, they're beautiful! But what about actually using this thing? After all it has side-by-side shoulders and triggers like the New 3DS, so it should be terrible. In my shock, though, I found using the triggers to be a completely experience. It wasn't great, but the fact that I was able to comfortably hit the triggers without mashing the bumpers by accident was a small miracle. On top of that the sticks were comfortable and clicking them in was never a problem. Also the face buttons were nicely vertically staggered, so there were never any strenuously bent thumbs. If the PS Vita had these triggers, layout and clickable sticks, it might still be around! Of course, you would also need to add the ability to play PS2 games, get rid of the back touchpad, and be able to use a microSD card as opposed to the obnoxious proprietary memory cards. Maybe it's just a losing battle.

That all being said, it's more geared to shorter gameplay sessions. While far more comfortable than some of the other controllers on this list, it's more for on the go than anything else. Also, if you're hands are Vinny or Ben-sized, you will likely hate this.

SN30 PRO "What the X91 Should Have Been"

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Hey, what if you put Sticks on an SNES controller? That's a simplified way of looking at this gamepad, but it's not exactly far off. In addition to those sticks, 8bitDo has also added digital trigger buttons to the back that are comfortable to use and conform to the shape of the finger just right. That paired with a nice Turbo button (on PC anyway) and the SN30 Pro is an all around great controller with a high-quality buttons, nice DS4-styled sticks, and a d-pad that works like a dream.

SN30 PRO+ "The One to Beat"

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If we're being reductive, you could say that they just added handles to the previous controller on this list, and while that's somewhat true, it's also so much more. In addition to the handles, the SN30 Pro+ also has also upgraded to actual analog triggers. It also now has a removable rechargeable battery, that can easily be replaced by AAs in case the rechargeable one dies or you really love throwing away batteries. The best addition is the Ultimate Software that adds an ability to program button presses, button macros, and perhaps most impressive, the dead zones on both the sticks and the triggers (as shown below).

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This controller is as close to perfect as you can get. The only real drawback is that it doesn't work on Xbox One and PS4, and we all know that's not really criticism. If you do know how to (cheaply) make this work on Xbox, I am interested in hearing your feedback. I would even go on to say it's on par with the switch pro controller especially being $13-20 cheaper. It is now my Go-to for PC gaming and hey, it even came out this year, so I think it's safe to say it's my controller of the year, and definitely the best third-party controller of the decade.

LITE "Hubris"

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Listen, I'm all for the idea of replacing sticks with d-pads, but this controller is, uh… well bad. I'll say this much, it's surprisingly easy to hit the R3/L3 buttons while still manipulating the d-pads, but the controller is so small and so uncomfortable that it's just not worth it. It's a neat-looking controller, but it's also a surprisingly cheap build quality given the quality of the rest of the 8BitDo controllers on this list. If you're buying accessories for your lite and you need something portable, DO NOT GET THIS. If you want to make enemies of your friends, this is a perfect controller to buy. Just remember to get rid of the box and the receipts so the target is stuck having to trade this in at gamestop for something close to $3.

There you have it. I had a lot fun with this list, which is something I can't say for any of my other game of the year lists. Hopefully the next generation will give us input options that we haven't even dreamed of yet! Like some sort of crazy haptic orb or some shit, I don't know. Merry Holidays, Everyone.

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