The Burning Question: What is the best first-party game controller ever made?

I’m fortunate that I have access to just over 30 consoles and that I get to play all the weird and wonderful games using some of the classic and also most bizarre controllers known to mankind. Whether it’s the simple controller layout of the Atari 2600 or the more advanced controllers you’ll find today, filled with buttons, there s always a favourite controller you’ll go back to.

The only question is – which of all the controllers released over the last few decades are the best? I’m talking about official controllers that you can buy from the manufacturer, so no third-party nonsense (like Madcatz, Logitech, etc). I’ve split my personal collection up into categories that I feel works for me, but that doesn’t mean you’ll agree with it. Firstly, it’s likely you’ve never played with some of the controllers or you just prefer something else, and that’s all good – it’s all personal preference.

Comfort – GameCube

Yes, it’s still the most comfortable controller I have ever held in my hands. Back in 2002, when it launched, it looked like something out of a futuristic spaceship. Considering that most the buttons were brightly coloured it really stood out. However, it’s the mould of the controller that falls perfectly into the palms of your hands that is just untouched all these years later. A long session of Super Smash Bros. is still best played using the GameCube controller to this day, to such an extent that they released an adaptor for it on the Wii U. The button layout is questionable and really only works for first-party games, but there’s nothing as comfy as this.

Durability – NES

You can drag a NES controller to hell and back and somehow it’ll continue functioning like nothing happened. The design is simple and comes with a D-Pad, A and B buttons, as well as a select and starts set of buttons. As simple as the design might be, it’s just extremely durable to all forms of hazards. Be that dropping the controller from an unexpected height, spilling liquid over it or just leaving it in the hands of a child (children are the epitome of controller punishment) – it’s going to take what comes its way. It also goes without saying that over 35 years later and there are still plenty working NES controllers.

Best D-Pad – SEGA Mega Drive

Yes, screw it, I have this category in here because I love me some 2D game action. The D-Pad is therefore exceptionally important. For whatever reason the current generation systems have some terrible D-Pad options, though the Xbox One’s clicky version isn’t too bad. For the best D-Pad you would have to return to the 16-Bit era with the SEGA Mega Drive. It might be tough for some to recall just how fantastic this D-Pad was, but I recently played Doom on a 32X and it reminded me why it was heralded as the best D-Pad in the business for years. It’s exceptionally responsive and doesn’t require you to press your thumb right through your controller to get it to activate anything. We’ve not had a better D-Pad since.

Button Layout – Dualshock 4

There’s a reason Sony took so many years to actually change their controller from what it once was – the button layout has for years have been just about perfect. The positioning of the iconic X, square, circle and triangle buttons have stuck for years now. It’s however taken the Dualshock 4 to finally fix the terrible trigger buttons on the PS3. I’m personally still of the opinion that the shoulder buttons on the Dualshock 2 were better, but it’s at least way better than the Dualshock 3. Everything else, like the touchpad, share, options and D-Pad works just perfectly… if only the analogue stick positioning would change.

Analogue Sticks – Xbox Elite

Sorry PlayStation fans, but if you’re choosing symmetrical over asymmetrical then you’re unfortunately wrong. Asymmetrical is by far the best way to go about playing any game using analogue sticks, and that’s where the Xbox controllers have shined since day one (and even Nintendo recently caught up with that on the Switch). These controllers have always had the best deadspots and the positioning is sublime. Include the ability to set everything up perfectly using an Elite controller and there just isn’t that much that’ll touch it if you’re after precision.

Features – Dreamcast

Oh SEGA, you deserved so much more love. Consider for a moment where you were in 1999 (were you even born?). That’s when SEGA released the Dreamcast and along with it came a controller so far ahead of its time that its still got a feature on it that’s not been copied to this day. Yes, one analogue stick sucked in a world of 3D games, but it’s the VMU that made it something very unique. These little memory cards had a LCD screen built in that would show you interesting details while playing a game. Remove it and you could play some games on-the-go and then return to add the stats (or money and other interesting things) to your main game. The Nintendo Switch now allows you to take your games everywhere, but it’s just not quite what SEGA had on offer. One of a kind and a controller that ultimately led to the design of the Xbox controller family.

Overall – Xbox One

I find it exceptionally tough to choose just one controller that I love more than any other one. However, if pinned into a corner, I’ll probably go with the Xbox One controller. I do find the Dualshock 4 more comfortable than the Xbox One controller, but just about everything else is better on the Xbox One controller. The asymmetrical positioning of the analogue sticks play a big part and so do the much-improved triggers. The newer Xbox One controller bumper buttons aren’t as stiff as it used to be either and the D-Pad’s clicky configuration works just fine for side-scrollers. In my opinion, Microsoft just about perfected controller design, though there’s always space for improvement. The best controller for old-school 2D gaming will have to go to the Mega Drive controller, for me personally. A game of Sonic or Mortal Kombat shouldn’t be played any other way.

So, what do you think is the best controller ever made?

Married to a gamer and she kicks my ass at most shooters. If the game is enjoyable I'll play it, no matter the format.

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