Hori as a company has been making video game controllers for years. These have ranged from joysticks and FPS controllers to a mouse for console gaming. Their newest controller, the Gem Pad, is specifically designed for those who think fighting games are best played with a pad, and not a stick.
A little background before we take a look at it; I am not a hardcore fighting gamer. While I have played many different fighting games in the past 20+ years, I have rarely been any better than average at any of them — and certainly not tournament level. So any noticeable edge I can get when playing fighters is a welcome addition.
To start with, the Gem Pad comes in two forms: the Gem Pad 3 for the PlayStation 3 and the Gem Pad EX for the Xbox 360. To test them, I played Persona 4 Arena, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Gundam Extreme VS, and, for the sake of seeing how it felt as a normal controller, Grand Theft Auto V.
Size-wise, the Gem Pads are slightly larger than a PS3 controller but are smaller than a 360 controller — and the Gem Pad sits quite comfortably in your hands. The outside is made of two pieces: a semi-transparent facet-covered "gem" case on the front and a slightly translucent off-white back. When plugged in, the controllers glow, thanks to an LED light within. This looks equal parts cool and tacky. Through the coloured, faceted front plate, it looks nice enough; but that frosted glass-style plastic back just looks cheap.
Like on the 360 controller, the Gem Pad's thumbsticks are concave, giving you an easy grip with your thumb. An important change with the thumbsticks, though, is that they are noticeably longer than those found on the PS3 or 360 controllers. When playing, I found this tended to make my controller motions more precise, and I made far less input mistakes than I usually do. You are also able to change the thumbsticks' sensitivity to better suit your play style.
As with the thumbsticks, the D-pad on both versions of the Gem Pad is concave in shape — with each directional button shaped like a quarter-pipe ramp. This means when pushing down, for example, it takes only the smallest roll of your thumb to do a down-to-forward command. It's stunning how well this works. However, due to the new shape, I found that I was keeping my thumb further toward the outer edges of the D-Pad — meaning I kept hitting the thumbstick by accident as I played. Of course, as the D-pad and thumbstick locations are swapped on the Xbox 360 controller, I didn't have this problem with the Gem Pad EX.
Besides the stick/D-pad placement, there are only two major differences between the 360's Gem Pad EX and the PS3's Gem Pad 3. The first is that the Gem Pad EX has a rumble pack while the Gem Pad 3 does not. The second is that the Gem Pad 3 allows you to set individual buttons to turbo and also decide how many times per second the turbo mode will push the button. While I found it to be a rather useless feature for a player of my level, no doubt more hardcore fighting gamers will find a use for it.
When it comes down to it, the biggest design change between the Gem Pads and the official controllers for each system isn't the length of the thumbsticks or shape of the D-pad; it is that the trigger-style buttons (R2/L2 on the PS3 and RT/LT on the 360) are no longer pressure-sensitive triggers. Instead, they are normal shoulder buttons like those on PS2's controllers. While this is a boon in fighting games (and let's not forget that this controller is designed for such), it means that the Gem Pads are unsuited for many modern games — mainly any game that ties the throttle to a trigger button. In the case of Grand Theft Auto V, for example, I only had two options for acceleration: all or none.
In the end, as a non-hardcore fighting gamer, I found that playing with a Gem Pad definitely improved my fighting ability. I was far more precise with my stick/D-pad movements and was thus better able to focus on strategy. While I wouldn't buy it for use as a normal controller, if you're looking to improve your fighting game skills and prefer a pad to a stick, Hori's Gem Pads are an affordable place to start.
Of course, you could always just spend countless hours practicing instead.
The Hori Gem Pad 3 for the PlayStation 3 will be released on November 18, 2013, for a suggested retail price of $US19.99. The Hori Gem Pad EX for the Xbox 360 will be released on November 25, 2013, for a suggested retail price of $US29.99.