The Best Video Game Control Pads

There have been many different ways of playing video games on a console (and sometimes PC) over the years. Some have been better than others.

Image: Daniel

How do you figure that out? For starters, I think you need to distance them from the console they were part of. The PlayStation's original controller was not as sexy as the console's marketing. And just because the NES is many people's starting point with a lifetime of Nintendo fandom doesn't mean its controller was as well-designed as Mario's jump.

In assessing these controllers on their own merits, then, I've taken a number of things into account. Comfort and durability are top of the list, but I've also examined how innovative they were. Not in gimmicky terms — the Wii's motion controls seemed pioneering at the time, but how did that shake out? — but in more substantial ways, like overall design patterns that would be copied for generations of consoles to come.

I've also weighed those innovations against the rest of the controller's qualities. The N64, for example, will forever be remembered for its introduction of a proper thumbstick, but there's little else about that pad's design that made a lasting impression.

Finally, I've considered the controller's place in time. No pad from the 80s or 90s is going to compare with a DualShock 4 or Xbox controller in terms of comfort or features, nor be suitable for the games we're playing today, but that's not the point: the point will be how well did a controller reflect the games and needs of a player at the time?

Basically, I think the best controllers are the ones that did a little bit of everything I just mentioned, and did them all very well. Able to innovate, endure years of punishment, be comfortable for the player and do everything the player needed to do in the console's prime.

Here, then, are the best of them (note that they're not ranked in order):

Image: Evan Amos

It's shoulder bumpers helped introduce the idea that not every button had to do something important, and opened up new options for the way we interacted with games that traditionally only let us press "A" or "B". Its coloured buttons looked great (especially on the JP/PAL version, pictured, which copies the colours of the Super Famicom logo). And its soft, rounded corners created a timeless look that was a lot easier on gamer's wrists and fingers than the NES controller.

Image: Evan Amos

If the modern console controller had a family tree, its roots would be planted firmly on Sega's final home console. From its bulky design to its thumbstick on the left, the Dreamcast's controller laid out — as it did with so many other things — the foundations for Microsoft's entry into the console space, and while its VMU gimmick never took off elsewhere, it was a fun and well-used novelty for the Dreamcast.

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Image: Evan Amos

Not only was the GameCube controller unbreakable, but it had two very cool features that were well-used by a lot of games on the platform. The first was a "guide" around the thumbsticks which let you lock them into certain directions. The second was a peculiar button layout that actually made sense the more you used it, creating a GIANT GREEN BUTTON out of the one you used the most, and relegating other buttons to smaller sizes (and less striking colours) the less frequently they were required.

Image: Evan Amos

There's little about the Xbox 360's controller that was new. Carrying on from the Dreamcast's lineage through to the S controller on the original Xbox, its stick and button layout was already very familiar to gamers.

But it just... perfected it. It perfected almost everything about video game controller design. The Xbox 360 controller was so good that not only did it work flawlessly for Xbox 360 games, but its compatibility with the PC did something that no other peripheral manufacturer had ever been able to do on the platform: usher in an era of controller universality. This consistency allowed console games to be ported to (and played properly on) the PC with a minimum of fuss, a small but vital contributor to the success of Steam (and action games in general) on the PC today.

Even the Xbox One controller, debuting nearly a decade later, is basically the same deckchairs, rearranged only slightly (and some will argue, like with the bumpers, not as well).

Image: Evan Amos

The Neo Geo brought arcade games into the living room. And the Neo Geo's arcade stick brought arcade controls with them. While companies like Mad Catz have made a living catering to hardcore arcade gamers with third-party sticks, no first-party stick has ever come close to matching the sleek design, feel and durability of SNK's official offering.

Image: Evan Amos

It may seem premature to add a controller from the current generation to this list, but I think the DualShock 4 deserves a spot here. Partly because it solved a decades-long design flaw with the line's design, finally creating a PlayStation pad that's truly comfortable in the hands, but mostly because of that "SHARE" button, which we don't need the gift of hindsight to realise is a game-changer.

The sharing of our screenshots and clips isn't some passing fad, it's a cornerstone of video game culture and communities. To be able to do that on a console with the press of a button is just the best.


A few shout-outs here at the end to controllers that didn't quite make it: the Wavebird (maybe my personal fave, though its lack of rumble for Animal Crossing fishing was a disaster), the Xbox Elite (my "daily driver" on PC) and... the Wii Remote. Not as a motion-sensing device, but as a standard controller (those buttons and d-pad were amazing).


Comments

    the Wii Remote. Not as a motion-sensing device, but as a standard controller (those buttons and d-pad were amazing).Getouttatown. The only (Nintendo) d-pad that outdoes that one for terribleness is the DS Lite. And maaaybe the original 3DS, though I think I'd probably still rate that one above the Wii Remote.

    Nunchuk setup is the only Wii Remote configuration that deserves praise, sideways remote is pure trash.

      The DS Phat had a pretty good Dpad.

        Damn straight. Best one around til the 3DS XL, and even then I'm not sure whether that bested it or just came close enough.

    The Xbox 360 controller is ultimately my favourite overall... except for that abysmal d-pad. If it wasn't for the d-pad, I would say the 360 controller is perfect. I still use mine for Rocket League on PC.

      I quite like the D-pad on the newer revisions of the 360 controller. Ive got a 'transforming' Gears 3 controller, so dreamy.

      The fact the B button didn't sit squarely on the face of the controller always annoyed me about the 360 controller. Just take a look at it...the B button is actually angled slightly sideways due to the shape of the controller, the button follows the curve. I never liked that. And yeah the D-Pad got pretty uncomfortable after a while...I think I actually got a blister on my thumb from it once, something that's never happened with any other controller I've used.

    The Wii Remote being reduced to "Wiimote" when talking about one of the most influential controller ever always bugged me, so props to Plunkett here. That, and "waggling". You can instantly read the tone of something if the author uses those two.

    The N64 controllers looked like Barney the Dinosaur's feet when you hold two of them together.

    I can't play NES platformers if the B/A buttons are oblique (ie Super Mario All-Stars is quite difficult, but I'm more at home with the originals) but I can't play SNES platformers without an oblique Y/B setting. I think it's muscle memory, I have tried but can't unlearn it.

    Authentic controllers are a necessity, which is why I am a strong opponent of old games being ported or otherwise made available without the proper care taken first.

    I preferred the PS3 Dual Shock controller over the current DS4, really. The latter hurts my paws after a long period of use.

    The 360 controller is pretty much perfect yeah, but marked down for messing with the Y/B/A/X diamond that Nintendo had always used. Confused the hell out of me I can tell you.

    You know what I've found though, my Wii Super Famicom controller (it plugs straight into a Wii Remote) works great for a lot of Wii U games.

    Last edited 05/10/16 11:27 am

      Influential? The PS3 copied motion controls with SIXAXIS and quickly dumped it to the side. It spurred on Move and Kinect, and it was undeniably a hit controller. I'm not saying it's unimportant but is there anything about it that went on to become a staple of controllers? It left no lasting impression on the games themselves beyond seriously burning the idea of alternative control schemes.

        I didn't say it was a positive influence.

        The six axis was so bad that in hindsight, I wish they'd stayed with the batarang. At least that would have been interesting.

        Everything about the six axis felt cheap, poorly designed and poorly constructed. The PS4 controller is the first one Sony has ever made that wasn't utter shite.

      (ie Super Mario All-Stars is quite difficult, but I'm more at home with the originals)Uh... you know SMAS had a setting so you could specifically alter this if you wanted before starting any of the games, right?

        Of course, but that was the clearest example I thought to use.

        I can't very well use the Wii Classic or Wii U Gamepad set-ups to play my favourite NES VC games is what I am getting at.

        And another thing, 12 year old Leigh would have called you out to a fight behind the bike shed for accusing him of being such a bonehead.

        Last edited 05/10/16 12:02 pm

    I think the Dual Shock controllers are the most versatile, but when it comes to general gaming the XBOX One's controller wins out.
    The Dreamcast had some good ideas, the cord coming out the bottom then optionally clipping back was interesting, but even at the time it felt horrible to use. It sucked so bad at the fundamentals that I'd actually compare it to using a steering wheel controller.

    For nostalgia and being pretty revolutionary, I've got to say the Dreamcast controller.

    From a pure ergonomics and usability standpoint I'd say it's the Xbox One Elite. That being said, I did just receive my Battle Beaver Customs PS4 controller. Do modded controllers count? If yes, this has got to be up there.

    Uses an actual first party PS4 controller as a base (unlike Scuf), lets you change the sticks and stick tension, reduce the trigger travel, add buttons on the back etc.

    The elite x1 controller. The missus got me one for xmas last year and now I can't go back. By far the best controller I've every held.

    I always hate this topic because there's always something arsehole that thinks their opinion is the best & that everyone who disagrees is either too young or bases their choice on nostalgia.

      I always hate articles that are recycled from less than 2 months ago on the US site: https://archive.steve.ly/live/http://thebests.kotaku.com/the-best-video-game-control-pads-1785680071#_ga=1.131482764.2004214378.1475630135

    I don't think you can separate every controller from the systems they were designed for - the wiimote suffered more from being pressed into unsuitable roles than it being a bad design or difficult to use. With the upgrade to the wiimote, they got very good at the things that they were supposed to be good at. The IR pointing function was never as good as it should've been which prevented more point-and-click heavy games, like RTS, being viable on the console. Additionally, developers couldn't say "look, get a gamecube controller and plug it in, because the wiimote will not work for this style of game", so the wiimote often got pressganged into controlling games it had no business in.
    N64 was a strange one - I get the feeling Nintendo needed the D-pad as a backup, in case the thumbstick didn't work as well as they hoped? In hindsight, I'd like to believe that they would've produced a two-handled controller.
    I think you can probably compare the playstation and xbox controllers pretty fairly though, since they share so many similarities - but I suspect people will tend to go with what they're familiar with. I prefer the trigger configuration from the xbox controllers, but it's not enough for me to claim that the sony controllers are 'bad'. In either case, KB+M is my go-to.

    Neg-Con!!!!

      JogCon >:D

      Anyone who hasn't played Ridge Racer 4 with JogCon has missed out on a spectacular experience. The wheel on that controller gives all the same feel of steering (with two thumbs instead of two hands) but without taking up all the space and needing a table to clamp a rig to.

      I dream of a day when a peripheral company makes a 'spiritual successor' to the JogCon and adds rumble (although the wheel shook if you hit a barrier in RR4 anyway which was just fine), two joysticks, a better D pad, pressure triggers (better than the awful ones we have today), flap paddles for gear changes and of course a newer better wheel that's interchangeable. And easy-to-substitute buttons/sticks too is possible.
      The only trouble may be a position clash with the wheel and the right stick.

        I approve of the neg-con and jog-con. Rage Racer and Ridge Racer Type 4 all the way! :D

    At the end of the day, I might be one of the weird ones, but I feel like the DS3 was the best controller I've used. It was the final version in a long line of great controllers I've gotten used to. It did everything great, plus also removed the cable. The DS4 by comparison is relatively uncomfortable for me. The sticks are rubbish and get too slippery all the time. I also dont really like the new trigger buttons so much. I dont think I've ever used the Share button other than accidentally pressing it, and that touch pad/Faux start/select button in the middle is probably a bit too big for what it actually does. Which in most games is nothing. Dont get me wrong, I can play happily with a DS4 if given one, but at the end of the day I dont feel like it was a progression on the DS3.

    Never tried the Dreamcast to be honest but I cant see the appeal. The XBox360 is really good, however after playing Sony forever and then having the left stick in that spot was actually annoying to get used to. Also that d-pad is garbage. Have not tried the Elite, but it's getting rave reviews and I wouldnt mind trying it as my next PC controller.

    And every ninty controller has some glaring weakness that made. The Gamecube and crap triggers and the 2 sticks chaffed your thumbs like crazy after prolonged use. Also, rather than be unbreakable, I've found a lot of controllers had the C-Stick break on them.

      Haha, I don't think we could be more opposite in opinions. I've always disliked the PS controllers, but really liked the DS4 when I got to try it. Because I always found the previous convex sticks awful and slippery, while the new ones better shaped and more comfortably spaced apart. And also found the triggers to be a huge improvement over those stupid convex analogue ones on the DS3 :P

      And then just over the weekend when getting some Cube action on, remarking to myself "damn these triggers feel so much better than everything I've used since". And have only seen a broken GCN controller once, in a shopping centre that was right next to a school so its control stick was thrashed to hell and only registered movement to about 50% of max, if that. Dunno about the chafing thing, cue some remark about soft girly hands or some such :P

      Actually the Dreamcast's control stick felt really weird. The action on it kinda felt like you were tilting it like a regular control stick for the first 75% or so, but then that last quarter of movement it felt like the stick stopped tilting and you were flexing it instead. I have no idea what the mechanism inside was like compared to other control sticks, but it's one of the strangest I've felt.

        Let me put it this way, I needed to put end caps on the sticks, and button covers on the triggers of the DS4 because they were so slippery and bad. Never had to do that before.

        When Smash Brothers came out on the Wii-U, we dug out a bunch of my mate's old Cube controllers, and out of 10 controllers accross 3 people, 8 of them had busted C-Sticks...

        Oh and my hands are plenty manly! Maybe you're not moisturising enough though! Yeah...thats right... >___>

          For sure, I mean I try to remember to do it after every shower but still I manage to forget half the time.

            Nah, see I replaced my taps with Moisturisor dispensers so I never forget...I save a ton of money on water cause I never use it anymore! Although now my food tastes funny...

    I think the next big thing in Controllers will be the ability to reconfigure them, change parts and adjust tensions, alot like the Elite but on cheaper level. I'd love the ability to take the circles off my XB1 pad and put in Gamecube style guides for some games.

    The best thing about the GC controllers was that because each button had a unique shape, it made it so much enjoyable when you had games with context sensitive areas. Whenever I was over at a friends and a button popped up I either press the wrong button (frequently resulting in my own death and ridicule) or I'd have to stop and look at the controller to find which button was X.

    The GC however, I never had anyone have that problem as it would show the shape of the button, leaving you in no doubt where that button was on the controller.

      To this day I still have to look down every time I use a PS controller. Xbox I can deal with the "sort of SNES but different" thing, even if I still hit the wrong buttons sometimes, but those damn Sony shapes just mean nothing to me no matter how many times I visit friends' places.

        And if they've imported a game, enjoy X and Square having different results.

          U mean x and o, x being cancel and o being accept (or wrong way round in au)

          The same could be said for Nintendo: imported PS games have X and O backwards, just like in Nintendo games: the only difference is that Nintendo doesn't change layout for its exported games, so it's always a bit confusing to pass from Nintendo to "western" and from western to Nintendo.

        It's just a matter of getting used to. I had a PS1, PS2, and Xbox360, and I'm used to both layouts, the only problem is that sometimes people get confused when playing with Xbox360 and I say "X" but I really meant "A" .

    Super NES Mouse...

    Alright maybe not, but you really can't beat a modern gaming mouse for FPS, surely?

    i still love holding Game Cube controllers. i dont have big hands, so they fit perfectly for me and they are o so comfy and just work. i see so many complaints about the button layout, but there, just werent any issues with it. its not an ideal layout for street fighter type games, but you can still definitely make it work.
    my other favourite was the Sega Saturn controller. had curves in the right places and the 6 face buttons plus 2 shoulder buttons were a dream for games like Street Fighter Alpha 2 among many other genres.

    i also really like the feel of the xbox 350 controller. i use one for PC gaming.
    playstation controllers feel the most uncomfortable ones to use for me, but hey, what ever shakes your tree right?

      Except for the fact that I have huge hands, your post could be my post.

      Even with big hands, the cube controller was a masterclass in great design.

      After using the ps4 controller, I'm convinced that Sony have finally (after six tries) come up with a really good controller. Sucks that they kept the design that requires your thumbs to be on your wrists, but they made it work eventually.

    just got another x360 controller off ebay for $30 new in box. You can't go wrong if you only want a controller for a few games like forza or rocket league ,etc.

    The PS4 controller is pure garbage, most uncomfortable piece of crap I have ever used... Wish they would bring back the DS3 controllers

      I never tried it, but from the pictures it seems too big. I had to give-up on the Xbox360 controller because it was too big for my hands, I suppose that this will be even worse.

    The gamecube controllers are great, and the Wavebird wireless versions were the best option. We still use ours on the WiiU when there's lots of people who want to play smash. Also a fantastic controller for very small people, with that big green button.

    I would have to say the PAL SNES (or famicom) controller is the best solely because every controller is pretty much a copy of it just with a extra thumbstick or 2 thrown on for analogy-goodness

    "The N64, for example, will forever be remembered for its introduction of a proper thumbstick, but there’s little else about that pad’s design that made a lasting impression."

    Are you kidding??!!!
    - 1st standard (non 3rd party) controller to give a sh!t about ergonomics
    - 1st controller to include haptic feedback aka "rumble"
    - 1st controller to feature a trigger button

    but yes, the 3-prong thing was stupid.

      " -1st standard (non 3rd party) controller to give a sh!t about ergonomics"

      what about the first Playstation controller?

    Liking the HORI Fighting Commander. (PS4)

    Looks like a Megadrive controller and feels great when playing anything 2D

    The Switch Pro Controller is comfy as flip, and I rather like the heft it has to it. The soft touch plastic on the wings feels real noice, too. Sticks feel smooth and the d-pad is a very nice size.

    I know it's silly to get upset over a list, but I would of liked to seen the Sega Saturn controller get a mentioned. It had a great dpad and was perfect for the Saturn's vast library of fighters

    The answer, really, is all three of the current-gen systems controllers. The DualShock 4, Xbox One controller and Switch Pro Controller are all excellent. They sit in the hands well, are a good size and weight, the buttons are in the right places and accessible with good feel, and everything has the right level of precision and accuracy.

    We've basically hit the point where controllers are essentially a 'solved' design and everyone has converged toward the same shape and layout. It's just minor refinements at this point.

      They could have more buttons: there's space for another 2/4 buttons in the rear.

        They *could*, yes. And the Xbox One Elite controller does. But whether that's actually a useful innovation that people need and will use remains to be seen since it's currently only available in a stupidly expensive optional controller.

    I'm surprised by the absence of the first playstation controller, sure at the core it just followed the SNES layout adding 2 more buttons, but the shape was quite unique, and was so effective that it remained unchanged for many years (and consoles) to come.

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