Control Me – A Look At Retro Gaming Controllers

I’m not one to do ‘TOP 10’ lists. It’s too easy. It’s all subjective so rather than truly offer anything definitive, it becomes a list which provokes both anger and support. I prefer to do things a little different. With the birth of my son in April, I felt compelled to do a list of babies that stood out to me in gaming, and I did so with inclusions from Silent Hill, the Mario series, and Among the Sleep. All games I’d played. No entries forced in that I hadn’t experienced but had merely heard of. So when I was asked to do a piece on ‘best videogame controllers’ I preferred to go a different route. MY experiences. I’ve used a lot over my 30 years playing videogames, and some of those pads have been amazing while some… well, I’m gonna have to talk about the CDi in here at some point so yeah, I’ll also be covering the shite.

My gaming life started back with the Commodore 64, in the mid 80s. Games such as Ant Attack, Wanted: Monty Mole, The Last Ninja, Nebulus, Grog’s Revenge, they all contributed to the formation of my love for all things gaming. The C64 was essentially a plug-n-play keyboard, your standard QWERTY layout. I was always using a joystick at 3 / 4 years of age however. Unless you were playing simulation games, there was next to no need for the keyboard. There were 3 controllers that truly stood out in my mind, and my preference definitely lay in this bad boy below. Now, I don’t remember the name of the manufacturer of this little fella. I don’t even know for sure that is definitely 100% the same stick, for the simple reason that there were so many variations released for the C64. But it was so satisfying to use. The click of the buttons being pressed was akin to the same feeling you get when pressing in the shoulder triggers of the Gamecube pad. Heavenly.

There was also the flight stick style joystick which was fairly popular at the time, but not so great to use for arcade games. Stick was too big. It was great for simulators though, going hand in hand with the keyboard overlays at the time.

And then there was this monstrosity. I HATED this stick. Poorly made, I remember us going through at least 2 of these because of that horrendously placed side button breaking. I look at it now, and honestly can’t remember how you were supposed to hold it to get that button in the right place. An absolute travesty and yet again, it was hugely popular at the time. Maybe it was cheap.

I used a Master System control pad around this stage, with Alex Kidd in Miracle Land being just about the only game I remember playing. The d-pad was a disaster, very loose and never feeling like it was truly arriving at any of its 8 destinations. The buttons were buttons, 2 of them, and they were what they were. Oh, and in case you didn’t know what you were holding, it tells you right there above the D-Pad.

From Commodore 64, I can’t remember if we had the Mega Drive or Amiga 500 first. I do remember playing an Atari ST at some point but for the life of me have no recollection of the pad/stick I would have used. Let’s go Amiga first. The Zipstick. This bad boy looks nearly identical to what we were using on the C64 and guess what? It played just as well. I became the Sensible Soccer genius that I am today by using this joystick. It was a fantastic thing to hold. The grip was perfect, the buttons had that same amazing ‘click’ feel to them, it was a great tool in your arsenal. Sadly, the keyboard was required more often for Amiga games and as a child, this just didn’t feel like an option. It was joystick, or nothing at all. Oh, and mouse of course.

This is the Powerplay Cruiser. This was the bastard mud-child of the Zipstick if the Zipstick decided to take a big dump after eating a family-sized bag of Skittles. It just didn’t feel right. The stick didn’t move as well as the Zip, and the buttons felt a little loose in comparison. Look at it there, just strangling itself, hating how bad it is. There were countless other sticks you could get for the various Amiga systems, but these were the 2 I remember most.

Mega Drive next and, if you can forget about the pads of today, d-pad plus 3 buttons worked perfectly well. The pad used buttons which didn’t so much ‘click’ as they did settle in when you pressed them. Very soft response. The d-pad was a little loose mind you, but was quite large, so you had a good level of awareness of where you with it. What baffles me nowadays though, is how the Mega Drive got away with just 3 buttons. The same game would release for the SNES at the sametime, and the SNES would utilise all 6 of its play buttons. The Mega Drive would get away with 3. Give credit where it’s due, developers of the Mega Drive were truly limited when it came to their control scheme, but they still managed to bypass the limitations and crate some truly classic games. Sonic 1, 2, and 3 with it’s use of 1 button was testament to this. What an ugly bastard it is though.

Speaking of the SNES, this is my favourite control pad ever. I absolutely LOVE this pad. It was perfect size, upped the face buttons of the Mega Drive by 1 and added a Select button next to its Start, and also brought in the now staple shoulder buttons. I don’t think there has been a control pad since the SNES that hasn’t utilised shoulder buttons. Rubber Start / Select buttons, small face buttons which were easily separated with their vibrant colours, and a great pair of shoulder buttons which felt awesome when pressed. The SNES pad was the forefather to pretty much all game-pads that have been released since. The PAL SNES pad was also a hell of a lot  better than the NTSC variant because it didn’t use Parma Violets for its buttons. Boy did the US get screwed over with their colour scheme there. A wonderful pad that has not been bettered since.

Remember the Philips CD-i? Now here was a disaster. It’s where the infamous Zelda games with the terrible cut-scenes and hammy acting originated. The weird thing about the CDi where I’m concerned, is that I only ever played games on it using the dreadful remote control that came with it. The CDi did have pads with it, but my dad’s friend who brought it round for us to ‘play’ only had the remote control for some insane reason. The stick itself was VERY resistant, and it would hurt my little 8 year old thumb when I was using it. I remember playing some crappy golf game on it, and Dark Castle too. Dark Castle was a bitch to play on it. The game was difficult enough as it was, but doing it using that remote control was akin to two one-legged people trying to run a three-legged race.

It was around this time I would have also used the much maligned Atari Jaguar joypad. Now, this pad has gotten a HUGE amount of flack over the years regarding its layout, but at the time, I liked it. It was effectively a gamepad which had had a numerical key-pad attached to the bottom. I didn’t play a wide array of games on the system, there weren’t many to be fair, but I liked the pad, with it’s weird layout of buttons which seem to be almost turned round 90 degrees more than they should be. No shoulder buttons here which was an odd choice but hey, that was the Atari Jaguar for you.

Playstation. Man, this was one hell of a control pad. Pretty much a SNES joypad with an extra two shoulder buttons on it. Sony even used 4 different coloured face buttons, and rubber Start / Select buttons like the SNES had. Sony would eventually re-release their pad as the Dual Analog controller, with a pair of sticks which would feature concave tops which I absolutely adored. There was something about those 2 bowls which I much preferred over the later Dualshock design which simply filled in the hollowed out tops with rubber pads. No matter which variant you went with, they were all phenomenal pads and if I had one complaint about it, they were a little ‘chunky’ for my own liking. I preferred the flatness of the SNES pad myself, otherwise I’d probably be rating Sony’s pads as my all-time faves.

The Nintendo 64 was next for me, and the pad quickly became a love it or hate it deal for everyone. A lot of gamers didn’t get it. 3 grips for your hands? It was an odd design choice but games like the WCW / WWF AKI series utilised the left / right scheme perfectly, which used the actual stick simply for your in-ring poses. Nintendo knew what they were doing, but they were maybe trying a little too hard to be unique here. And whilst I like the pad, it does two very important things wrong; it gives you a very loose and poorly made stick which over the years would lose its central position and you’d eventually be screwed trying to use it. Secondly, it also gives you a very poor D-Pad which never feels like you’re really pushing it when you are. It’s ‘fat’ feeling. The other buttons all do their jobs well, but yeah, those directional functions left a lot to desire over time. When it was a brand new purchased pad however, the stick played like a dream. The D-Pad was simply never good.

I tried a few for PC in the mid 90s. Man they sucked. I remember having this crappy SNES ripoff, all grey and white it was, a miserable old soul. Then I managed to finally get my hands on a Microsoft Sidewinder, which I happened to feature as the main article image. This was a revelation for someone like me who had never really been able to truly enjoy PC games using just the keyboard. Tomb Raider felt incredible, this was specifically what I was trying to play at the time. The pad still stands up now really, though that D-Pad was a bit too bumpy for my liking. It did everything else very well though. Still a great pad if you need a simple fix, especially where retro gaming is concerned. A friend in school (who shall remain nameless for being such a freakin’ idiot), mocked my Sidewinder Pad, and bragged to me about his Sidewinder Dual Strike. I’m just going to show a picture here for you and leave it at that.

I was so excited when I first got the Dreamcast. The console featured graphics which were absolutely stunning, and would eventually feature a very respectable library of titles. That pad though. The size of it. It was huge and made the Atari Jaguar pad feel tiny in comparison. With a hulking huge section hollowed out in the middle for inserting the VMU units, it either felt really heavy or very light depending on if you had one inserted or not. The stick was very loose with an extremely irritating dotted plastic grip to its face. The D-Pad stuck out way too much and so wasn’t very pleasing over prolonged play. Face buttons were all responsive enough, and the shoulder triggers were satisfying enough, but the size and weight of the pad and its poor directional functions left a lot to be desired. A slightly lesser brother to the N64 pad I guess. Oh, and I only just remembered that wire coming out from the front!! I don’t care if you could tuck it under, THAT SUCKED.

The PS2 was out next and it was essentially the same pad as the PS1’s Dualshock, but the one major difference was that all of the buttons were analogue now. Yeah, those x buttons, shoulder buttons, even the d-pad itself was analogue. This is most noticeable when playing Metal Gear Solid 2 & 3, though plenty of other games used these functions too. Not a lot of gamers seem to realise the buttons were all analogue and while the PS3 pad also featured them, it has largely passed gamers by and become a relic of the past. If you weren’t aware of this, go play MGS2 and used the D-Pad to manouver Snake. Push just a little bit and he’ll walk. Push hard and he’ll do that odd jog that makes him look like he’s shit his pants. You’d be surprised how many games used the feature. You may have even done it and not realised!

I missed the Xbox altogether which I hear was a blessing in disguise where the original pad was concerned, and so Gamecube was my next bit of joy. I love, love, love, LOVED this pad. It felt great sitting in your hands, the two sticks were brilliant fun to use, if a LITTLE loose, and those shoulder triggers… heaven in a wild flower. The button layout was a little off, with its jelly bean shaped Y and X buttons, but I found it quite easy to get used to. The pad wasn’t faultless though. It had a tiny and very awkwardly placed D-Pad. It was horrible to handle, and thankfully very few games used it. The Z button was the biggest problem though. This tiny little slither of a key which sat between the right shoulder trigger and the face of the pad, it was just an absolute waste of a button, placed in the most awkward of spots. It could have been used as a good ‘Start’ button I guess but yeah, such an odd design choice, and one I could never get along with. Other than that, a fantastic control pad which felt solid when holding it.

I played Xbox 360 a few years before the PS3, so it very quickly became my favourite pad to use, moreso due to the fact I could easily use it by simply plugging it into my PC. The pad will be seen as a classic in years to come, with everything in just the right place. If they could have nailed the D-Pad down, this would have been the absolute perfect pad. The D-Pad is a total blunder though. It’s not fun to use in ANY game as it’s so finicky. You never know if you’re pressing in the right spot, and it feels like it’s hanging on by a thread. Everything else on the pad is spot on, face buttons, shoulder buttons and triggers, and the later releases of the pad resolved issues that the earlier ones faced, like tacky rubber coverings on the sticks. A great pad, but yet again, a terrible D-Pad.

The Wii came along not long after the 360, and was a revelation. Everyone could pick up the Wii-Mote and begin to play as if it was second nature. Youngsters could play, OAPs found it easy, about the only ones complaining were ‘hardcore gamers’ who saw it as a child’s play-toy. This was a pathetic comment to pass, and the Wii had some fantastic games, a lot which fully utilised the features of the Wii-Mote and the Nunchuk which supported it. Buttons were solid all-round, the Nunchuk stick was a pleasure to use, and the motion controls which were the heart of the scheme were great. Very rarely did Nintendo and the 3rd party developers get the controls wrong, and games like Skyward Sword, Mario Kart Wii, and especially the Wii Sports double showed the Wii at its best. Don’t let the mass of shovelware which stained the later years of the console fool you, or the ‘hardcore gamers’ who shrugged it off. The Wii was a fantastic release with the best downloadable content of any console that has been released yet.

I snapped up the PS3 a few years after it was released and it was the same old controller again, only wireless this time. Not much to say really. It did feature the afore-mentioned analog buttons, and proper shoulder triggers for the first time. It also included the ‘Sixaxis’ feature which was essentially Sony’s effort at motion control. But using the pad. It was a disaster and felt terrible in the few games that included the feature. As a pad, it did the job, but bizarrely never felt as good as the original Dualshocks. It just felt a bit tacky to me with the numbered LEDs, and those shoulder triggers weren’t very convincing.

Nearing the end now, and I got to use the Wii U a little through the job I was working in. I hated it. The gamepad was so clunky and huge, the controls felt tiny in comparison. I may have gotten used to them more had I played it more, but for the short time I experienced the U, I despised those controls.

Xbox One was next for me, and it was effectively the 360 pad, but with an incredible D-Pad. I adore the D-Pad here. It’s so bloody clicky, so satisfying to use, and I am using the pad on the PC all the time when I play Rocket League, The Long Dark, and Doom. The D-Pad also makes retro gaming a pleasure. It’s definitely a top 3 contender for my favourite pads, with the SNES firmly ensconced at number 1, and the Dualshock 2 in there with them too. The weight of it is perfect, and if I have one complaint it is that the shoulder triggers are a little too chunky. A great pad. The PS4 pad on the other hand, I have no real love for. It was Sony’s first major departure from the tried and trusted Dualshock design, and it didn’t really do much for me. With a touch-panel on the front, and some poorly angled shoulder triggers, I’m not a fan. Better than the PS3 mind you, and Sony fans probably dig it massively, but I’d go with the Xbox 1 pad anytime.

Finally I finish up with the Nintendo Switch, which is similar to the Wii in that it can be played with two halves of one control pad separately. Don’t do it. It feels too light to be of any fun, and I would highly recommend using the grip that comes with the console that you can attach the two halves of the Joy-Con to, or just play it when they’re attached to the actual tablet. I must have played it as a tablet for 95% of the time I have owned the console, with the other 5% attributed to big screen playing. I don’t know if I’m in the minority or not but I simply love carrying it round with me to bed, when I’m on the sofa and she’s watching some crap on the TV, or even when I’m in the shitter curling one off, Link and his Master Sword is there with me all the way. The pad is tiny though. The buttons are tiny, the plus and minus keys are miniscule, and the sticks are small. I’ve gotten used to them, but I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for a person with over-sized hands to play it. Even when the 2 halves of the Joy-Con are attached to the grip, it still feels awfully small. I have small hands too. I hope the Switch fulfils it potential though, it could do some wonderful things with the games that are showing up on its release list. Nintendo really need to get this one right.

There we go, a life-time of various control methods and what makes it all work well is the fact that control schemes from 25+ years ago still feel as natural to me now as it does to just pick up the XB1 pad today, which is what I use more than any other. Bad controls always feel bad. No matter how hard you try, they can never feel good enough to use repeatedly. I’ve experienced a few lows, a lot of highs, and luckily enough avoided the Power Glove all these years. I never played Saturn, Neo Geo, Mega CD / 32X, Xbox, and was never going to include handheld consoles here as for the most part, they’re all pretty solid.

You know your hands are holding a good pad when you don’t know it’s there. When the game you’re playing almost feels like an extension of you, when you’re no longer pressing the ‘X’ button, but simply jumping. Because that’s what your character is meant to do, and he’ll do it. You’re tip-toeing because that’s the sensible plan of action, and you’re forgetting that you’re doing it because you’re lightly holding the control stick upwards, instinctively. You’re holding the stick, while using your forefingers for the shoulder functions, and using your right thumb for another action. And maybe you’re even holding the pad in such a way as to utilise the motion functionality in the game you’re playing. You can be doing 5, 6, 7, even more actions with your hands, and not even realise it because it’s become second nature. Or you could be that kid playing with ‘that’ pad that was always the last one to be chosen because of how simply shit it was.

Treat those pads, control sticks, remotes, whatever you’re using, with respect. They do the job for you, don’t go letting dirt get in those annoying cracks. Don’t go rotating the shit out of the stick because you were silly enough to buy Mario Party on the N64. Certainly don’t go eating Doritos whilst playing your game if you don’t intend on keeping your hands clean, big NO NO. My SNES pad still works after 25 years out of the box. Doesn’t feel anywhere close to dying, and that’s because I treasure that little device that has granted me so much joy, especially through my senior school years. If you don’t intend on keeping your hands clean, big NO NO. My SNES pad still works after 25 years out of the box. Doesn’t feel anywhere close to dying, and that’s because I treasure that little device that has granted me so much joy, especially through my senior school years.

Respect the pad. And tame the game.

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