By Lewis Empson
The humble controller is arguably the most important component of the gaming experience. It is our main point of interface with the virtual world (if you’re a console gamer, that is) and therefore its important for a controller to tick all the boxes to be favoured by gamers. There are a few controllers that spring to mind that blend comfort and features with a little bit of nostalgia to be remembered as the greats. There are also some colossal flops that will be remembered here in our roundup of some of the best (and worst) controllers in gaming history.
The GameCube controller launched alongside the titular system in 2001 and became an instant classic for fans of one of Nintendo’s biggest franchises, Super Smash Bros. It became so popular that it received support for the Wii, Wii U and a new version was even launched in 2019 alongside Super Smash Bros Ultimate on the Switch, truly a testament to its longevity and admiration from fans as its still the favourite method of beating the crap out of your favourite Nintendo characters by both casual gamers and e-sport professionals alike.
The DualShock 2 is the fondly remembered companion to arguably one of the greatest consoles of all time. The PS2’s controller didn’t revolutionize the game, and it’s certainly nostalgia that has great influence over how I remember this controller, but it was just a reliable and comfortable controller with plenty of features that allowed me to play the likes of Lego Star Wars, Ratchet and Clank, Gran Turismo and Star Wars Battlefront 2 for hours on end.
Xbox 360 Wireless Gamepad
Taking us into the wireless age is perhaps a controller in competition for the greatest of all time. The Xbox 360 gamepad was comfortable and feature packed, it was versatile and quickly became a fan favourite both on the 360 and the PC. Comfortably spaced thumbsticks, responsive bumpers, triggers and face buttons, and an iconic design that just outright felt good in the hand. It may have had an annoying proprietary headset port and would always run out of battery when you needed it most, but nobody’s perfect although the Xbox 360 Gamepad was damn close.
Xbox Elite Controller Series 2
Taking the iconic design of the Xbox 360 controller and modernising it with sharp edges and a minimalist design, the Xbox One controller did an admirable job at adapting a classic. The Elite series of controllers, however, took it to the next level. A modular design with swappable magnetic thumbsticks, dpad and additional rear paddles that could be mapped to different buttons for quick and easy access and adjustable triggers to fully customise your experience. It’s a sturdy controller built with aluminum components and secure rubber grips that culminate in a solid and feature packed controller that is a joy to use. The Series 2 takes the cake however with its USB-C charging and combination protective case/wireless charging dock that makes it a smart piece of kit that’s always ready to be picked up for a lengthy gaming session with a full battery.
Bringing us right up to date is the PS5’s DualSense controller. As a newcomer to the scene it’s difficult to tell yet if this will be remembered as a classic, but one thing is for sure, it is absolutely loaded with features. Adaptive triggers, on board microphone and speaker, touchpad, motion sensors, haptic feedback, the list goes on and I covered all its great features in my review here. During my time with it so far it’s been great, a little larger and more comfortable than its predecessor, the DualShock 4, and all its features feel useful and truly next-gen. I’m looking forward to seeing how this controller is used for future PS5 titles as it’s brimming with potential – even if its battery life is pretty terrible, but I’ll let it slide in favour of its frankly ludicrous feature set.
Oh the Kinect, in the early days of Kinect there was promise of a whole new level of motion controlled interactive gaming. The Wii popularised it and Xbox were ready to revolutionise it and yet they fumbled it massively. A few games really took advantage of the Kinect but it quickly became a novelty with some lackluster motion tracking and a fairly weak library (Star Wars Kinect being a prominently awful title that I remember playing). Its motion tracking was inconsistent and issues arose surrounding the large play space needed for it to work properly. The second-gen Kinect was forced onto launch Xbox One customers as a required extra that was bundled in with the console resulting in a higher launch price. Eventually this bundled extra was dropped along with support on the Xbox Series S and X as the Kinect port wasn’t even included on these consoles. Rest in peace Kinect, you tried your best.
The PS3 may have had a great library of games but it is remembered as a rather large misstep overall from Sony. The DualShock 3 really didn’t help their case as it was a pretty terrible controller to use. It’s most remembered in this regard for its horrendous mushy triggers that practically ruined any shooter or racing game you play. Most games in fact, such as The Last Of Us, defaulted to using the bumper buttons to bypass this mess. The DualShock 3 became infamous although as an outcome Sony put all their efforts into making the DualShock 4 a pretty great controller so every cloud has a silver lining I guess.
Wii U Gamepad
This thing baffles me. Unwieldy, enormous, cheap feeling and full of frankly useless features, it felt like Nintendo kind of forgot what made the original Wii such a success. An unnecessary touchscreen slapped on front that was used often just to show a map (or in some admittedly useful cases you could mirror the display of the Wii U to it for some handheld gaming) just became another useless extra that seemed to miss the entire point of the original Wii. The freedom and untethered interactive motion controls were what made the Wii so innovative; so why add this bulky accessory that acted like a regular controller that you’d sit and play with? I guess the Wii U Gamepad’s saving grace was that it served as the inspiration for the far superior Switch so we have that to thank for it.