Which Video Game Controller Is Best?

For this week's Burning Questions, Jason and Kirk talk about video game controllers. Which controller is better, Xbox or PlayStation? What do touchscreens like the Wii U and the Vita hold for the future? Is the Kinect good for anything? What is the difference between "Effect" and "Affect"?

Well, then. Those sure are some... Burning Questions.

Kirk: Why hello there, Jason. Today we're talking about controllers. Not flight controllers or passive-aggressive boyfriend-controllers... video game controllers!

Jason: So just to be clear, we're not talking about the bad guys from Animorphs?

Kirk: Nope. And we're also not talking about that one guy from Mass Effect 2. Though I'm sure someone will make an "assuming direct control" joke at some point. Unless that counts. Nope, just video game controllers. Much is made about how the biggest thing that sets games apart from other media like, say, movies, is the fact that we can interact with them. When we say "controllers", we're really talking about that — the means by which we interact with games. Controllers are the bridge between us and video games — they're kind of a big deal!

Jason: And for such a big deal, they can sure be annoying sometimes. But it's hard to enjoy games without them, isn't it? Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

Kirk: Sort of like Tigers! Though more people are living with them than ever. Rather than wait until the end to answer the Big Question, I'll start with it: Do you prefer the Xbox 360 controller or the PlayStation 3 controller?

Jason: PlayStation 3. By FAR. It's sleeker, it's lighter, and it doesn't have those ugly extraneous bumper buttons. Plus, it doesn't require expensive batteries (although it's annoying when you forget to charge it just before you want to start playing Tales of Graces). What about you?

Kirk: I can't believe you prefer PS3. You CAD. I'm the opposite! I greatly prefer the 360 controller. When the 360 came out, I was so impressed with how well Microsoft had improved upon the (terrible) Xbox controller.

The ergonomics are fantastic, I think — it's close to the perfect controller for me, and I really do hope they add squeeze controls like that patent application suggests. And improve the D-pad. The PS3 feels to small for me, but I've grown to like it for everything but first-person shooters.

Jason: This conversation is making me want to hold a PS3 controller right now; that's how much I like it. Like, I'm feeling ghost sensations and want to put my hands on the DualShock 3. And I'm hardly a fanboy — I didn't even OWN a PS3 'til early 2011.

Kirk: I was drafting a pithy way of mocking your PS3 preference, but actually, let's not get sidetracked on the pluses and minuses of these specific controllers. There's a bigger picture thing here, and that's the fact that gamers like us have evolved alongside these controllers. We have these super-specific preferences, but when it comes down to it, the controllers aren't THAT different. And they're both very inaccessible for newcomers. An Xbox controller has 13 buttons, a D-pad and two joysticks. Good gravy.

Jason: Which might be why Microsoft is putting all of its energy (and money) into an accessory that does away with controllers entirely. Few video game controlling mechanisms are more accessible than Kinect.

Kirk: Well that's the question, isn't it? Is the Kinect really all that accessible? I'm not so sure. I am growing more and more convinced that Microsoft made an error when it assumed that people want to control their games (or their entertainment systems) with nothing but their voices and their hands. If my sister came over and wanted to fire up YouTube on my 360, she'd actually probably be more comfortable doing it with a controller.

Jason: Microsoft's sure putting a lot of money on the idea that it is accessible! But I dunno. I have no interest in waving my body around to control a video game. I want to feel buttons and directional pads. And whenever I talk to friends about Kinect, both gamer and non-gamer, it seems like they like the idea a lot more in theory than they do in practice. I don't think we realise how important tactile feedback is until it's taken away from us.

Kirk: I agree. The games will no doubt improve with the next iteration of Kinect, but even then, some sort of physical thing will probably always be necessary, or at least appreciated. Have you played the upcoming Steel Battalion game?

Jason: Nope. Is it fun?

Kirk: Well... it's wild. When I played it earlier this year, I described it as the hardest-core Kinect game yet. And that's true — it becomes so hardcore not by replacing standard controls with analogue controls, but by layering one on top of the other. Suddenly you've got your controller and your whole body to worry about. Which could be neat, but the farther I get from it, the more I'm convinced that the Kinect just isn't responsive enough.

But the broader thing Heavy Armor makes me realise is that motion control is certainly a lot better when it's bolstered by some sort of tactile feedback.

Jason: Well that's the Wii, isn't it? Nintendo mastered the motion control/tactile hybrid years ago.

Kirk: It is, except that the Steel Battalion motion controls are insanely more complicated and varied than any Wii game. You literally navigate an entire tank cockpit using only gestures. You stand up, lift your hand to your eyes for binoculars (that's really cool), grab levers, put out fires, fist-bump your teammates... it's an order of magnitude more involved than any Wii game.

But given how well Wii games have worked (though I don't think I'd say Nintendo has "mastered" anything just yet), I'd say Nintendo may have the more approachable idea. Which brings us to the Wii U, and the thing that just may blow the whole "new video game controllers" thing up — a touchscreen. That, as far as I'm concerned, is actually the best option for all of this media stuff and for shopping online stores in your living room.

Jason: Kinect feels similar in many ways. It was released, what, a year and a half ago? And the best use of its controls is still Child of Eden, an experimental game in which you aim with your hands and clap to switch weapons. Could have easily been done with a standard controller. (And it was; you can play the game with a normal Xbox 360 controller.)

That's what really worries me about the Wii U. Is this another case of a hardware manufacturer thinking ahead of software developers? Will we see games that really take advantage of the system? Or will we just use it like a regular controller for most games because that's just the easiest way for developers to let us play?

Kirk: Well, if anyone's good at getting developers on board, it's Nintendo. At least, they pulled that off with the DS. Who knows if they've got that kind of magic trick in them again, though at least the Wii U has enough in common with the DS (it's just bigger) that developers should be able to get their heads around it. What's striking, and this is from playing the Vita a lot, is how well analogue controls and touchscreen controls can blend. You wrote a little while ago about how touchscreen controls aren't enough for gaming. Do you agree that, when combined with traditional controls, they can open up a lot of new doors?

Jason: Absolutely! And when I played the Wii U at E3 last year, I was really impressed by how its controller felt (for the most part). Creative developers should have a field day brainstorming ideas for how to use the touchscreen both as its own mechanism and as a supplement to the buttons and joysticks around it.

Kirk: I've always thought it's funny — a lot of long-time gamers look at motion controls and touch controls as a threat, like they're going to somehow replace the controls we've spent 25 years perfecting. But really, I just think they're going to all combine — a game console that can see and hear you, and has both precise analogue controls and a touchscreen... the possibilities are endless! And believe me, the games that sucker will run will be anything but casual.

Jason: See and hear you??? That sounds kinda terrifying.

Kirk: Well yeah, though I for one welcome our new video game console overlords. (I'm sorry. Has that reference officially expired? Or did I maybe just make it expire?)

Jason: Good question. And I don't think I can answer, because I think my favourite game control schemes are the ones you don't even think about. The more intuitive the controls, the less you notice how great they are.

Kirk: Really? Oh come on, you have to have some favourites. I think about this kind of thing a lot. For example — I love aiming with the left trigger. I can't remember which console game was the first to do that — though I suppose Call of Duty made it popular. I think that feeling is fantastic and vastly prefer it to clicking the right thumbstick.

Similarly, I love using the shoulder buttons for ancillary junk. Say, the active reload in Gears of War. Something about the positioning, and how you hit the button with the inside of your index finger... it feels great.

Jason: The control schemes I remember are the ones that were frustrating as hell. Like the Metal Gear Solid games, which are all both wonderful and saddled with atrocious control schemes that involve holding and pushing so many arbitrary buttons, sometimes I wonder if it's some Kojimaesque meta commentary about how stupid video games are.

Kirk: Man, I agree. Sometimes I think they were kidding with that crap. Like, is anyone actually any good at CQC in those games?

Jason: Nobody.

Kirk: Seriously. If you fail, you never get another chance to try, and the button inputs couldn't be more complicated. I like combos (like in God of War, like you mention) as much as the next guy, but when it comes to Metal Gear, I could probably live with contextual controls.

Or just shoot everyone with a tranq gun like I usually do.

Jason: Which is much more fun than that CQC nonsense anyway. Now here's an interesting thought: how would Metal Gear Solid adapt to a system like the Wii U?

Kirk: I'm a little worried about that, actually. I mean, "worried" is the wrong word. But I think that the first games that come out for Wii U that are ports from other consoles will use the touchscreen in weird, tacked-on ways. The interesting games are going to come from Nintendo's own studios, for the most part.

Jason: If that happens, the system is doomed. It'll never take off. It won't appeal to the casuals like the Wii did, and it won't appeal to the dedicated gamers who don't care about Mario and Zelda.

The only way the Wii U can survive (in my semi-educated opinion) is if third-party developers master its controller like they never did for the Wii. I want to see games like Metal Gear Solid rock the shit out of the tablet controller. I want to see tactical RPGs that let you move characters around a touchscreen grid in your hands. I want to see rhythm games that require you to pull off perfectly timed swipes and presses. I want to see puzzle games that use two screens simultaneously in ways that weren't possible on the DS.

Kirk: Well, it's not just games. I get the sense that everyone is angling to have their console be the must-have, all-in-one set-top device. And the idea of browsing an e-store with a touchpad like the Wii U has is really enticing. So much better than using my mouse from afar, like I do now with my PC. Apple's iPad/Apple TV combo is looking like the one to beat at the moment, but the Wii U could... well, theoretically sneak in there. I wouldn't want to be taking on Apple, though. I'd also be surprised if Sony doesn't do something like that with the Vita and the PS3/4, since I love shopping on the Vita.

Jason: Well if we're talking home entertainment, that's the one place where Kinect really does sing. Literally. You can sing at your TV and get it to play videos and shit.

Kirk: You can get awesome critiques from it. "Slightly pitchy." But even so, I'd rather use a touchscreen handheld from my couch than use the Kinect. Though I do love saying "Xbox, Pause!"

Jason: "Don't tell me what to do, arsehole." "Come on, Xbox, I hate it when we fight."

Kirk: I wonder what my neighbours think, particularly when it's not responding. "XBOX, F**KING PAUSE ALREADY!!"

Jason: Have you played with the Wii U yet? Even if you haven't, do you think it can really compete with other systems as the One Home Entertainment Device To Rule Them All?

Kirk: I only sorta messed around with one at E3. But no, I don't really think so — and like I said, it's gonna be hard to beat Apple for that One Device to Rule Them All, particularly if they get serious about set-top gaming and can get more core games onto its App Store. (Which it's already starting to do.)

Jason: If any gamemaker wants my attention, they'll have to compete with Kingdom Rush on the iPad. (Best game ever.)

Kirk: Now imagine Kingdom Rush... IN GLORIOUS HD.

Jason: Do you think Nintendo will actually get its shit together online this coming gen?

Kirk: Man, that is a whole other Burning Question altogether.

Jason: Ha, that's true. And if the answer isn't yes, Nintendo's investors will be Burning Iwata.

Kirk: Haaaaa

So as we're heading towards wrapping this up, here's a burning question for you: inverted or boring, dumb non-inverted? (With the bonus question: Can you tell which I prefer?)

Jason: I forget.

Kirk: Bullshit.

Jason: Seriously. I'd have to check one of my games. It's one of those things I can never remember, along with the difference between "affect" and "effect".

Kirk: "Affect" is hipsters. "Effect" is movies. I can't believe that about you not knowing the most important control-related fact about yourself. I guess you just play JRPGs, so it doesn't matter.

Jason: JRPGs, Madden and StarCraft II.

Kirk: Which is not a bad mix really. Hey, before we're done — I know you've been playing some Diablo III. What do you think about the controls in that game?

Jason: I would answer, but I'm still nursing carpal tunnel syndrome from last night's clicking session.

Kirk: Ha. I'm really interested to see how well the game takes off among people who don't normally play games — as much as people argue that it's a complex, hardcore game (which it is), there's no denying the fact that you could play it... basically... with two fingers and a trackpad.

Jason: Yeah, it's very user-friendly. But that's part of the reason it's so appealing! You don't have to think much. It's soothing. Click, click, click, click, click, click.

Kirk: Reward! Click, click, click. Though I find that excessive clicking has been hell on my inventory space. It's so easy to click, I get going and don't spool down fast enough. I didn't even want those cracked-cloth pants!

Jason: I still don't understand how cloth can be cracked.

Kirk: It's old, man. It's old and crusty.

Jason: You're old and crusty.

Kirk: Sigh.


Comments

    Played most consoles since my first NES as a child, and am primarily a PS3 user currently. The Xbox 360 controller still stands as the best to date for me. I love the PS3 controllers, but the domed tops of the sticks and the oversized surface area is just not as intuitive as the 360's with their indentation on the surface of the sticks, not to mention the offset analogs, which for some reason feels natural.

      The Correct Top 5
      1. Dreamcast (aint nothing better still to this day)
      2. Original xbox (the Duke, perfect setup for big hands)
      3. Gamecube (Extremely comfortable, decent button possitioning, a little small for my liking)
      4. N64 (everyone knows why this is in the top 5)
      5. Xbox 360 (best of the modern day controllers, still too small tho)

      well the ps2 controller was actually better than the ps3 one in my opinion because it has more weight to it there is resistance in the sticks but the 360 does fell better than both of them

    If the 360 controller had a less awful d-pad it would basically be perfect.

      Add to that, rechargeable without a monstrous battery pack that weighs a ton.

        I actually find the weight of a 360 controller with a rechargeable battery pack quite reassuring.

      You do know there is a newly designed dpad.

      XBox 360 and Gamecube are the best.

      For the next gen I want a trackball for the look, a touch pad underneath and squeeze technology.
      The Sticks / DPad could also be designed to be swappable and replaceable with the trackball.

      Agreed.

      the new updated d-pad on the silver and gears console controllers is better. i guess still not perfect but i've never had any issues with it as i use arcade sticks for fighters. one thing i've noticed recently is i prefer the ps3's face buttons. the x360 buttons are convex and can get a bit harsh on the thumb when playing platformers (using the traditional tip of the thumb on X and ball of the thumb on A), whereas the ps3s face buttons are flat and gentle on the thumb. yeeeep

    I love the 360 controller most of all, though I did like the chunkiness of the original Xbox controllers (not those tiny 'S' variants).
    Razer Onza TE is brilliant.

      Some of the shoulder buttons and triggers on my Onza TE randomly stop working so i've stopped using it.
      Epically ergonomic and felt great for all games except the triggers were horrible for driving games.

    +1 for 360
    Yeah, the dpad fails massively for arcade/street fighter style games. I'm still yet to try one of the revised models but either way it kicks the crap out of the PS3 controller.

    Probably the 360 controller.

    The N64 and Wii controllers seem to be the most revolutionary though.

    The N64 and Wii Controllers most different. Gamecube controller was king but the 360 controller is just perfectly shaped. sits in the hand perfectly. The PS3 is close but the shape feels a bit cramped to hold.

    I'm at odds with the WIIU though. All other controllers have the "abxy" buttons at a 45 degree angle above the right analog. The WiiU has them directly below. Not sure how that'll work...

    Gamecube is probably my favourite, followed closely by the Wii's CCP and the N64 controller.

    Well I for one, welcome our new expired-reference overlords.

    As for controllers, I've forever been under the allure of the ergonomically unsound variety. NES, N64 (yes, I tried to use all three grips), Atari. The keyboard is my controller of choice these days, however the Xbox 360 controller just fits the hand so damned well.
    As for touchscreens/motion control, I struggle to see their place as a mainstay. Tactile feedback is a must, and without it quite a lot of the experience is lost. I do hope to see them become integrated in gaming (and indeed entertainment in general), though I envision it being complimentary at best, akin to 3D tech in films these days. If used appropriately, in subtle ways, it works WONDERS.
    Use it as a gimmick, and it will only ever be treated as such.

    DS3! Having my thumbs symmetrically opposed makes me feel like I'm more coordinated.

      Oh and touch screens! I think the biggest problem is that many games try using traditional controls. FPS will never work with touch. Not the way we like it now, but Fifa 12 on iPad has brilliant controls. Virtual buttons (unable to be moved, unfortunately) and a floating joystick control moderately similar to console, using gestures for tricks rather than button combos. The bit that stands out is that you can switch player control, pass a some other things just with taps. It makes me crazy when I pass to the wrong player on console, but iPad makes it luxurious!

        DS3? The Nintendo DS 2 isn't even out yet.

    Love the Xbox360 controller. Ergonomic wise it just feels great in my hands. I like having some weight, it feels indestructible while the PS3 feels too light.

    Battery packs arent an issue if you use Ebay. I have had my 3rd party Ebay one for years and its fine.

    Having played games for the better part of 25 years now, I can honestly say that the DualShock is the most comfortable and accessible controller I've used so far. The worst would have to be the XBox and Dreamcast controllers - too chunky.

    I like the pressure sensitive buttons on the Dualshock .

    Mouse + Kb is superior!

      lol +1 from me

      although thats because i play games more suited to M&kb

    Cube or PS3 for me. I don't mind the Classic Controller for the Wii, it's just shit that it has to be teather to a Wiimote.

    Another +1 For Gamecube!

    Have to give props to the Sixaxis (PS3) for using standard mini-usb to charge. Absolute lifesaver. Feelwise I preferred the Duke for original Xbox, the 360 control is pretty decent. If we are going to play classic loyalties, Mega Drive and Game Gear all the way.

    I don't play consoles much now day's (ie. not at all), but my ideal Frankenstein controller would be:
    - Dual Shock 3 Body (including analogue stick location, symmetry :P)
    - XBox360's Analogue Sticks (nice concave sticks)
    - PowerA's Pro EX Triggers (wider than the Xbox's triggers, and feel far better)
    - Wii Classic Controller's D-Pad
    - All buttons to be pressure sensitive too.

    If I had to choose a controller on the market then I would probably pick PowerA's Pro EX Contoller.

    You have to hand it to them, the xb360 controller is the best ever.

    I'm stunned anyone would count the Ps3 controller as contender. Has Jason never used another console? Any console!?

    The PS3 is flawed in countless number of ways--it's a poor version of the SNES controller with countless number of after-thoughts tacked on. The L1/2 triggers should be put tried for cruel and unusual punishment.

    The PS3 was my first PS, having owned every NES prior, and it felt like I was holding something designed from the 90's. Technically I was.

    Here's the best Controller: A keyboard and mouse :D

    +1 for animorphs

    Obviously the best video game controller is the Atari 2600 Joystick!

    Ok, maybe not, but it was a steep learning curve moving from a joystick to a control pad when the NES arrived.

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