A Guide to the Worst Video Game Controllers Ever Made
From the Atari Jaguar pad to the giant monstrosity that was the original Xbox controller.
Illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham
Video games are, for the most part, pretty great. I feel we've established that over the last 45 years or so of hitting square balls with primitive paddles and shooting alien invaders from out of the sky. But what lets them down, in every hardware generation, is control: Our enjoyment of this always progressing medium, this uniquely interactive entertainment, is often dependent on our hand-to-eye coordination, and our ability to map to memory a wide array of commands triggered by a selection of color- or shape-specific buttons. We have to connect what we see on the screen to what is in our hands, and back again, feeding into and from the pixels and polygons that leap and bound at our whim—assuming we're not repeatedly tripping our avatars into an another-life-lost chasm of fiery death.
For some, this comes easy, and games makers understand that what works for one title will fit others, too—which is why reload is so often where it is on first-person shooters, whatever the developer, and why those left and right triggers aim and fire accordingly. Others can never get to grips with even the best video game controllers around, and in the current console generation we've one of the greatest ever produced with the Xbox One's wireless controller. It's effectively an expertly tweaked take on Microsoft's previous official pad, for its 360 system, adding extra rumble on the triggers and refining the curvature of the unit, so that it's more comfortable than ever in the palms. Its thumbsticks are just right, the NES-like four-pronged D-pad a pronounced improvement on the 360's circular version. It's just really good, is what I'm saying. Though it's missing a "share" button, which in 2015 is just dumb.
(And hey, Sony fanboys: I really like the PS4's DualShock 4, too. It's a great controller, with a touch pad that's actually useful and that all-important share functionality that keeps me in Twitter likes. But the thumbsticks get a bit slippery, don't they? Yeah they're sort of ridged around the circumference, but my dumpy digits are never quite as secure when battling through Bloodborne as they are cruising through Dying Light on the Xbone. Maybe it's just me, and I should keep a towel handy. It's probably just me.)
The "Duke" in all its hideous glory
It wasn't always this way. Microsoft's first console, its original Xbox, launched in 2001 amid a storm of hype strong enough to blow an armada around the world for the entire 16th century—and with it came a controller that to this day (I know, because I asked Twitter) is regularly cited as just the worst pad ever given the official seal of approval and boxed with its parent machine. This was the "Duke" or, less flatteringly (although you can see why), the "Fatty," and it was an absolute monster of a controller that would give a professional wrestler hand cramps after half an hour of Halo.
Just look at it. It looks like an attachment you put on the end of a hair dryer. It looks like one of those automated vacuum cleaner things that you see in the kitchens of rich people's houses on the TV, when you're channel hopping and end up on ITV2 because you hate yourself. It looks like the worst Bat-gadget ever, the kind of WayneTech mistake that cost the company millions of dollars but that's OK because Bruce can take the hit... cocktails? What is that weird D-pad explosion meant to be? Does that central X have to be quite so enormous? I mean, we already know we're playing an Xbox—it's there, in front of us, like a dredged submarine, rattling up a racket. Why do the lettered buttons look like those coded tablets that your gran takes, yes the one in the home, to keep her breathing against her will oh why oh why won't you let her just die?
It's a mess, isn't it, and it's completely understandable that Microsoft killed it as soon as they could, replacing the "Duke" with a more compact model, the "S," in which we can see the beginnings of the classic 360 pad's smooth design. But the "Duke" probably isn't the worst controller—the worst official controller—to have ever been passed from owner to just-popped-over friend with the command of, "You fucking do better, then, prick." Trip back through further console generations and there are so many horrors. Some of which you might consider to be amongst the best pads you've ever known. But I'm writing this article, so you're wrong.
Because humans have three hands, obviously
Step forward, the triple-pronged, single-sticked, Z-below beast that is the Nintendo 64's official pad, dating from 1996. That analogue erection, which would limply drift six months into ownership, never quite standing proudly after your nth attempt at acing Crystal Lake in 1080° Snowboarding, was introduced to enable better character control within a 3D space, essential for launch title Super Mario 64. Some will claim that the pad was designed the way it was as a direct result of Shigeru Miyamoto's landmark platformer, but that is (says Wikipedia, quoting a Nintendo technical director) "a misnomer." Whatever the real story behind the pad's production, it was flawed from the first moment it landed in player hands: There was no way to comfortably reach both analogue stick and D-pad. Unless you had three hands, which most humans don't. I'm surrounded by people right now, and I'm telling you: they all have two hands. I should probably stop staring.
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The N64 pad was also massive, and while the optional rumble pack was a cool extra—it came boxed with Star Fox 64, buzzing as wildly as a 15-year-old in the summer sun after downing a bottle of Banana Red 20/20 whenever McCloud got a missile lodged in his Landmaster—it simply added extra weight to an already cumbersome controller. What Nintendo did next, with the GameCube, was reposition the stick closer to the D-pad, removing the third prong and going for a more "traditional" wing-grip body, albeit with that customary company quirkiness, which explains why A, B, X and Y are so bizarrely arranged. My fingers and thumbs never got used to the GC's uniquely awkward layout—I loved its spongy triggers, but that Z button was a constant irritation, while the C stick... what did the C stick do again? Did it order pizza? It probably ordered pizza.
Nintendo's biggest rival through the 1990s, SEGA, wasn't without some crappy controllers of its own. Its swan-song console, the Dreamcast, was special in many ways, but its official pad was a distressing hybrid of future-facing ambition and abject stupidity. Good: its colorful face buttons and second screen (which was on the changeable memory cards, called VMUs—"Visual Memory Unit"). Bad: its size (too big), its cable positioning (it's backwards), and its flappy triggers. You couldn't really hold it for too long, either—much like the "Duke," its sheer size was always forcing the hands into position, rather than resting in them with ergonomic precision. They always felt cheap to me, too—I've three of them, and I don't think one works perfectly anymore.
I hate to say it, but against the wonderful Super Nintendo pad—I mean, look at it, it's just too pretty, and it sat in the hands like a purring kitten—the Genesis's three-face-button controller was a bit of an ungainly brute. It was just so massive, the A, B, and C buttons broad and, after not too long at all, utterly unresponsive. SEGA's smaller six-button pad, which they released in 1993, was a much better option, even for older games that didn't need the row of X, Y, and Z inputs. Come the 32bit era, SEGA's first-model Saturn pad was divisive, but I kind of liked its blocky body—it looked like the result of an illicit peripherals liaison between the Geneis's curved number and its predecessor, the perfunctory, not-quite-a-NES controller of the Master System.
While Nintendo and SEGA were at each other's throats in the early 1990s, and before Sony swept in to pull the mascot-branded rugs out from under both their fortunes with a beaming grin that positively screamed "I fucking told you so," another company was aiming to advance gaming into a brilliant new future of BIGGER STUFF and LOUDER THINGS. Atari, having already given the world an abomination of a controller with the 5200's mobile-phone-sucking-on-a-sex-toy disaster (it had a pause button, though, and was the first controller to do so), was about to reveal another pad riding high on Twitter's love-to-hate list.
Someone at Atari was pretty high when they approved this, most likely because they figured they could order munchies-countering pizza with it.
The Jaguar came out in 1993, promising 64bit gameplay while the likes of SEGA and Sony were only offering half that many, um, bits. Remember when we measured console power in bits? What did that even mean? Can someone leave me a reply in the comments because I'd like to know but while I am currently using a laptop with a perfectly good WiFi connection I can't Google for answers due to being blinded by that absolute horror of an official controller, just up there. Now there's a pad you definitely could order a pizza through, right? I mean, look at that layout: it's a phone! It's an N-Gage, without the screen. Only, it looks even more like a phone than the N-Gage ever did—and that was made by a company best known for making phones. What idiots men are.
The reasoning for the phone-numbers-like array beneath the regular A, B, and C buttons—which irritatingly run backwards, from the perspective of a SEGA user—was that an overlay could be, well, overlaid atop it, explaining the function of each button dependent on the game. Amazingly, Atari later produced a "Pro" version with even more buttons, adding an extra three atop the C-B-A line allowing for better control of fighting games like Primal Rage, as well as now-customary shoulder switches, L and R. But nothing was about to reverse the Jaguar's from-the-outset decline. Offensively aggressive marketing, a paltry selection of desirable games, and a controller that looked like it was designed by an eight-year-old with the very loosest grasp of the alphabet using a bunch of broken shit he found in his parents' garage, it all added up to a sad end to Atari's hardware business. They wouldn't produce another console after the Jaguar, and you know what? Good, I say, because they were lying to us. 64bits? A pair of 32bit chips does not a 64bit system make, you deceitful dolts.
OK, that's probably enough. I might have taken the Philips CD-i's weird, TV-remote-like controller to task for being a certifiable basket of crap, but since the company lost a billion dollars on their flopped console, I'd say they've suffered enough. The Amiga CD32's pad warrants a mention, too, on account of being, basically, upside down and, if you squint, sort of smirking at you, laughing at you, for buying Commodore's always-likely-to-fail system over a SEGA or Nintendo. This new Steam controller also looks like it's destined to, what are the kids saying, get in the sea? Why would a controller be anywhere near the sea? You might drop a Game Gear in the surf I suppose, should it slip from your grip during a frenzied session of Baku Baku while on an afternoon stroll in the shadow of Sellafield. Anyway, the Steam controller: probably cack.
Wait. Can we count Kinect? Should we? Does that not make you the controller? Sure, you're an awful controller. The worst. Now click away and whine somewhere about how I just "don't get" the N64 and "missed" the Wii U's GamePad off this list because I am an SJW shitstain pushing an anti-Xbox agenda or something. Happy button bashing. Be grateful that your PlayStation's not got one of these plugged into it.
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