Controllers are arguably the most iconic symbol of gaming. Ever since gaming’s inception, they have single-handedly define how we experience our games, for better or for worse. A poorly made controller can make a game all-but-unplayable, while a comfortable, well-designed one can keep you gaming for hours on end.
Controllers have gone through countless iterations over the years. At this point, we seem to have finally landed on a reliable formula for good controller design, but it was a long road getting there. Let’s look at some of the best controllers in gaming history!
This list will take two things into consideration — the overall design/build quality of the controller, and its impact that it had on the industry relative to the era.
This list is one writer’s opinion only — if you don’t disagree with the list, sound out in the comments and let’s get a discussion going!
10 – N64 Controller
Ah, the N64 controller. Ever will this three-pronged monstrosity hold a place in our hearts. This bizarre gamepad debuted in 1996, and you can bet people were just as confused about it back then as they are now. “How do you hold it? Should I be using the stick or the d-pad? Why are there four yellow buttons?” Indeed, the N64 pad was a huge departure from the SNES controller, and while the latter has aged much better, it’s impossible to deny that the N64 controller was a game-changer.
The N64 pad was the first controller that introduced an analog stick to the mainstream. This, of course, revolutionized games, offering players a great deal more control, which was essential in a 3D space. Admittedly, the N64’s analog stick was terrible (RIP to all the controllers that died in the noble service of Mario Party), but it was a proof-of-concept, and every single controller henceforth adopted the design. N64 also had some other fun quirks, such as being offered in several different colors and accommodating attachments like rumble packs and memory cards.
9 – Atari Joystick
Sometimes, less is more, and though it’s exceedingly simple, it’s hard to think of a controller that’s more elegant than the old-fashioned Atari joystick. This bad boy had two components: a stick and one single button. Back in the day, that was all you needed, and many players spent hours mastering their games with precise movements that the joystick afforded.
The joystick may seem dated now, but it never truly died. Some gamers still see joysticks as the de-facto control method for certain games, and there are still companies that sell arcade-like interfaces for fighting games and so on. While the stick and single button setup wouldn’t fly with most of today’s titles, the Atari laid the foundations for all of the video games that would come after it.
8 – NES Controller
For the record, the SNES controller improved on the NES pad in nearly every single way. By all means, it’s the better controller. But the NES pad is on this list, and the SNES isn’t, for one main reason: the almighty d-pad.
You see, before the NES rolled out, the aforementioned joystick was “the way” to play games. That’s just how it was. But along came Nintendo, and they had a special little controller that didn’t have a stick at all — just some weird cross. Well, this was the d-pad, and it quickly became apparent to the masses just how useful it was.
The NES controller had TWO whole buttons, Start AND Select, and it had that glorious, glorious d-pad. The NES may not seem like much now, but it’s the granddaddy of all modern gaming controllers.
7 – Wii Remote
Despite the fact that I’m a huge Nintendo fan, I was never terribly fond about the Wii. I don’t particularly love its controller, and I’m glad Nintendo’s grand experimental phase of motion control is finally done and over with. But, it’s impossible to deny that the Wii Remote brought some cool stuff to the table, and when it was used to its full potential, it really did create truly unique and memorable experiences.
I appreciate the Wii Remote because it covers all the bases. Yes, it was designed to usher in a new era of motion-control gaming, but it could also be turned sideways to be used as a fairly traditional NES-like pad. Or, you could attach the nunchuck accessory, which basically turned it into a weird, unorthodox version of modern controllers. If the Wii Remote put all its eggs in the basket of motion-play, it may have been deemed a failure, but its sheer versatility kept it relevant for all kinds of gaming experiences.
And let’s not forget how great it was when it was at its best — Metroid Prime 3 is the obvious example, providing an incredible motion-based FPS experience that simply couldn’t be replicated with other controllers. Even though motion control never took off like Nintendo planned, it never totally died either. The Switch’s Joycons keep motion control alive and well, and the PS4 also has some motion capabilities, albeit underused.
6 – Xbox Controller S
Anyone who was around for the original Xbox launch remembers “The Duke,” the comically oversized controller that was largely dominated by a huge, pointless Xbox logo. This controller was serviceable, but no one would seriously argue that it was better than Sony’s Dualshock II or Nintendo’s Gamecube controller. But all that changed when the Xbox Controller S rolled around. Suddenly, Xbox had one of the best controllers on the market. What the heck?
The Xbox Controller S was a redesign of “The Duke,” and it did everything right. The four main buttons were in a standard cross configuration, the analog sticks had better grips, and the entire shape of the controller was reconfigured into something far more comfortable.
Perhaps the biggest achievement of the Controller S (and “The Duke” before it) was the asymmetrical placement of its analog sticks. The Gamecube did it first, but Microsoft’s implementation was a bit more elegant, and it became the model for many copycat controllers in the future.
5 – The Dualshock
The original PS1 controller was groundbreaking for two main reasons — it had prongs for comfortable gripping, and it introduced the idea of multiple shoulder buttons. But these changes weren’t really enough to be game-changing or revolutionary. However, when the Dualshock came along, everything changed.
The original Dualshock was essentially the same old PS1 controller, but with two fancy analog sticks added on. Analog sticks weren’t new, but having two of them was. Today, it’s easy to see how influential the Dualshock was. In 2019, It’s a cardinal sin to not have dual analog sticks, and we have this controller to thank for that.
Sony would continue to improve on the Dualshock with the PS2 and PS3 controllers, named the Dualshock 2 and Dualshock 3 respectively. While there were slight improvements in each iteration, the design was nearly identical across all three generations, so it’s the original controller that takes the honored spot on our list.
4 – Joycons
For the record, the Joycons aren’t strictly the best controller out there. In terms of build quality and comfort, they are outclassed in almost every way by “real” controllers, including Nintendo’s own Pro Controller. But the Joycons aren’t on this list for their quality, they’re here because of their brilliant innovation. Without the Joycons, the Nintendo Switch couldn’t exist; they’re at the heart of what makes the console/portable hybrid what it is.
Because of the Joycons, the Nintendo Switch can be truly portable, while also providing a full controller at no extra cost for players who want to play on the TV. Their detachable design makes this possible, and if that weren’t enough, their ability to function as little micro-controllers on their own is brilliant. This not only makes it exceedingly easy to play multiplayer games on the fly, but it also elegantly represents one of Nintendo’s core philosophies — gaming is better when it’s shared with other people.
Joycons are also future-proofed with tech such as motion control, leading to crazy unique gameplay experiences such as the Nintendo Labo, and Nintendo’s funky new fitness experience, Ring Fit Adventure. The Joycons are Nintendo at its best. If it weren’t for their so-so build quality (Joycon drifting, anyone?) and their ludicrous price point, they might even be higher on this list.
3 – Gamecube Controller
Man, this is a good controller. There’s something about it that just works, and it’s hard to put my finger on why. It’s just got everything: it’s supremely comfortable to hold, has a unique-but-effective button layout, and almost all the trappings of what is considered to be a “good” controller in today’s industry. That is to say, four main buttons, two analog sticks, a d-pad, and shoulder buttons.
Unlike all of Nintendo’s prior controllers, the Gamecube pad didn’t do anything particularly new, unique, or game-changing; but the things it did, it did very well. Not only that, the controller just has a charming design to it, evoking that weird Nintendo quirkiness while not being overly ridiculous like the N64 controller. In fact, I’ll argue that its quirky main button layout is still better than the cross configuration we have on controllers today.
Many gamers today still swear by the Gamecube pad. Yes, they’re mostly Smash Bros players, but the point is that this controller has stood the test of time. Even now, you can use it for most Switch games if you have the right adapter. Unfortunately, the Gamecube controller has been outclassed in the many years since its time in the sun, so even though it’s high on this list, it doesn’t reach that coveted #1 spot.
2 – Dualshock 4
Sony didn’t make major changes to its tried-and-true Dualshock controller until the PS4 rolled along. They finally decided to make prominent changes to the controller’s form and functionality, and for the most part, they all hit the mark.
While many gamers were sad to see the iconic “shape” of the Dualshock get reworked, the change was for the better. The Dualshock 4 is far more ergonomic and comfortable than its predecessors, with redesigned prongs and superior analog stick grips. Its triggers and button layout are all pleasing to the touch, and overall, it’s just a satisfying controller.
The Dualshock 4 controller attempted to go above and beyond with even more features, but unfortunately, some of them kind of missed the mark. The touchpad is a cool concept, but it’s seldom ever used for anything besides being a giant, glorified button, and its motion capabilities are half-baked since Playstation Move never really took off. The Share button is a nice touch though, and so is the rechargeable battery… even if its lifespan is absolutely abysmal.
1 – Xbox One Controller
Finally, we arrive at the top-dog on this list. The Xbox One controller feels like the peak evolution of gamepad design. All of the changes and innovations we’ve seen in controller design have led to this, and even though the Xbox One controller doesn’t do anything unique or ambitious, it’s basically the perfect execution of everything that’s already been experimented with.
The controller is extremely comfortable to hold, it has immensely satisfying buttons and triggers, and it’s exquisite from a visual design standpoint. Nothing is wasted on this controller, and I don’t find myself feeling like I need anything more. Whenever I pick up the Xbox One controller, it just feels right.
It’s not a perfect controller. Its reliance on AA batteries is maddening, and it’s absent of any kind of tilt functionality of motion control. It also doesn’t have the “share” button which is pretty cool and now standard on PS4 and Nintendo Switch. But despite its weaknesses, I can’t deny that controlling a game has never felt better than it does on the Xbox One. Even though XB1 is perhaps my least-favorite console between the three big guys, its controller has absolutely stolen my heart.