14 March 2011

On Game Controllers

So let's get this straight from the outset here: in the great battle between the current generation of video game consoles, I'm firmly in the PS3 camp (although I do still have an XBL gamertag, but that's beside the point).

The first console I ever got was the PS2 (15th birthday), and during that gen I also got the GameCube and then the Xbox (mostly so I could get all three versions of Soul Calibur II). My PS2 was my family's first DVD player (much like my PS3 is now the family Blu-ray player), and it still works perfectly, despite it now being ten years old (say that about any piece of modern technology, and you know you've got a winner). For me, there really wasn't much of a decision as to whether I would go PS3 or 360; I was always going to go with the PS3, although it took me until last year to be able to purchase one. I've played on both the 360 and the Wii with friends, and have enjoyed them both, but when it came down to buying one for myself, I knew the PS3 would be the answer.

Important note: everything from here on down is largely my own personal opinion.

Why? Put simply, it's because I'm a fighting gamer. Fighting gamers gravitate toward the PS2/PS3 for a number of reasons. Firstly, there are more titles to choose from, although a lot of the formerly Playstation exclusive series (Tekken comes to mind) are no longer so. There are notable Xbox-only exceptions: Dead or Alive (although with the 3DS version it's no longer Xbox exclusive), Samurai Spirits Sen (disappointment and not missing it at all), Tao Feng (flop of a failure by former Mortal Kombat people, played the demo and wished I hadn't), and the online version of NeoGeo Battle Coliseum (first released for PS2...would have preferred that over the NeoGeo Station, but I still have hope), to name...all I can think of at the moment. Even so, the history is behind the Playstation for fighters, especially with the long list of port compilation titles released in the waning days of the PS2.

On top of that, there's the issue of the controllers...ah, here at last we come to the post topic. I contend very strongly that the DualShock line of controllers, in use from the PS1 through the PS3, is the superior controller, especially for the fighting gamer.

Let's look at the competition:

Exhibit A: Original Xbox

Original Xbox controllers. Source: Wikipedia

Insert jokes about t3h hug3 ecksbawks contrlolr lolz here at the beginning just so we can get past them and move forward. Instead, let's analyze:

Face buttons: The first series had six face buttons of oblong shape and arranged in a rather awkward pattern on the highly convex controller. The later versions weren't much better, although the rounder buttons in the more "Playstation-like" layout did make it easier to use. Still no easier to use the black and white buttons, of course (although third party controllers did sometimes have these two buttons as "shoulder buttons," much like the L1/R1 buttons on the DualShock. The highly convex face and raised, rounded buttons means that an individual button can be pressed relatively easily, but combinations (X+A or Y+B, etc) become quite hard marginally more difficult to do, and the large shape almost forces one to hold the controller in the double-under position, with both hands underneath the controller, which again hampers button combinations (more on that later...just bear with me). Oh, and also, with the newer version it's very possible to hit the black & white buttons accidentally if you grip too hard with your right hand.

Shoulder buttons/triggers: Two triggers, located underneath. Again, forces the user into a set grip, which isn't always optimal. Still, they work pretty well for shooters...

D-Pad: Horrible. Okay, maybe that's too strong. It's not as bad as, say, the GameCube's d-pad, or the Dreamcast's d-pad...but still, it's small and cramped in down at the bottom.

Analog sticks: I find the position of the Xbox controller's two analog sticks quite interesting. They had a job to do differentiating themselves from the DualShock, and one of the major differences is that their analog sticks are not parallel, like on the DualShock, but with the left near the top outer edge and the right near the bottom center. Very different feel, but for games that rely a lot of analog stick movements (say, to aim the crosshairs for a FPS game), it's very handy to have the left analog stick, which is standard for movement (since the other hand's using the face buttons for action functions), easily accessible near the top. The controller's grip design puts your thumb more or less right on top of it, so there's little wasted effort. Also, in situations where you're using both analog sticks, there's much less chance of becoming thumb-tied, since they're in two very separated positions. Good design, but for fighting gamers the D-pad is the better choice for fine control, since a good d-pad is faster and more accurate than a thumbstick (although an arcade joystick, held with the whole hand, is also very accurate).

Exhibit B: Xbox 360

Xbox 360 controller. Source: Wikipedia

This design is so much cleaner than the original Xbox controller design that I'm going to have less to say; I really do like this controller, but I still believe the DualShock is better.

Face buttons: Pretty much the same as the second version of the original Xbox controller, minus the black and white buttons. The buttons themselves are also now on a more level surface, and still, like the original, more raised than on the DualShock, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your viewpoint and your situation. On the one hand, it makes them easier to feel when you're playing and looking at the screen, rather than your hands. The other hand really comes from the fact that they're convex, not flat like on the DualShock. It's easier to half-press a convex button, and one's can more easily slip (Note: "more easily" does not mean that it happens all the time).

Shoulder Buttons/Triggers: The black and white buttons are gone, having morphed into the shoulder buttons, located above the triggers (much like L1/L2 and R1/R2, although to be fair, the Xbox had the button/trigger combo before the PS3). I like this configuration; much more sensible now, and makes it actually possible to use the 5th and 6th buttons, as opposed to having them squeezed onto the face. As always, the triggers make it very good for shooting.

D-pad: Same story, bro...I never found much change in feel between the Xbox and 360 D-pad. If anything, the leap backward to a single-piece D-pad is a bad thing.

Analog sticks: Really same story...just see above.

Exhibit C: Nintendo Wii

Okay no...no, the only Wii exclusive fighting game is Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, which was basically thrown as a bone to them so they could have a decent fighting game...still hoping it gets ported to PS3. Also, when playing games like Smash Bros (not a fighting game!) on the Wii, I found it much preferable to plug in a GameCube controller. That's right...I'd rather take a step back to the GameCube controller than use the Wiimote/Nunchaku. Don't own a Playstation Move, not really planning to get one. Sixaxis for the win, but pointing a Wiimote for the awkward.

Now, finally, for the DualShock:

Exhibit D for DualShock 1,2,3

DualShock 1. Source: Wikipedia DualShock 2. Source: Wikipedia DualShock 3. Source: Wikipedia

I mean, I really don't have to say much. This is a tried and true design. The only major changes were with the DS3 to give it Sixaxis functionality, triggers instead of buttons for L2/R2, and the PS button in the middle. But, because I'm making a comparison, here's the run-down:

Face buttons: This is by now a classic. Square, Triangle, X, Circle. The iconic button set for the Playstation controller has mostly-flat buttons placed in a cross/diamond arrangement, far enough apart to avoid accidental button presses but close enough to facilitate both rapid movement from one button to the next but also button combinations. These have not really changed or needed to change since the original Playstation controller (which was without analog sticks) and the Dual Analog controller (which lacked rumble capability). Their smooth, flat surfaces make them very good for fighting games, being well suited to agile and quick movements. It's worth noting that the Xbox controller design started off very different but gradually changed to an almost identical button configuration. Really not much else to say here.

Shoulder buttons/triggers: Also classic, these buttons fit right underneath the index and middle fingers, allowing for easy access (although you can also just use your index finger for both upper and lower). The trigger version of L2/R2 with the DS3 takes a bit of getting used to at first, but it adds the capability for designers to set up control schemes such that holding the trigger halfway does one thing, and holding it all the way does another.

D-pad: The Playstation D-pad, while it's certainly not perfect, is pretty close in my opinion. The separate directional buttons, while they may seem at first awkward, actually make it more accurate, and it's really no more difficult to do diagonal directions than with another controller. Quick, precise movements on the d-pad are very important to a fighting gamer (try doing Geese's Raising A Storm motion on another d-pad...it's madness). The DualShock d-pad is big and accessible, right under the player's thumb.

Analog sticks: This is what separated the Dual Analog and DualShock series from the original PS controller. The Analog sticks also function as L3 and R3 buttons when pressed in (a feature shared by Xbox controllers, but which the DualShock had first), and the "cup" in the middle of the analog sticks holds the player's thumb steady very well. I personally prefer the DualShock's analog sticks over the Xbox/360's any day. They just feel better. The DS2 also made them more accurate, which, although fighting games rarely require them, can be all-important in other genres.

So I promised to talk about the "under-under" position earlier. For a lot of games, you really only need to hold the controller in the way that seems natural, with both palms supporting the controller from underneath. However, with fighting games, one often must press two or more of the face buttons together, which can be awkward, if not impossible, while holding the controller in this manner. A lot of fighting gamers (myself included) thus use what I'm calling the "under-over" position, with the left hand as normal but the right hand held on top of the controller, using the thumb to hook under the right handgrip for support. In this way, the fingers can easily access all four face buttons in any combination much more easily. With the DualShock controller, this is pretty trivial; the shape of the handgrips allows the thumb to hook under it easily. With the Xbox controllers...it's possible, but not as much, especially with older models that have a more convex face shape. The handgrips flow more smoothly into the center of the controller, which can hinder holding the controller in this way.

Let me throw out some overused, clichè buzz-words: all in all, at the end of the day, in summation, in conclusion, it just goes to show that, so we can clearly see. Now let me start to wrap up this incredibly long post. I'm not saying that the Xbox controllers are horrible. They're good at what they do. For all the FPS-ers out there who need fine control, the Xbox control is very good (although I never really got the hang of it). For all those action-adventurers who just need two analog sticks and some action buttons...they're about mixed. For fighting gamers, it's really all about the DualShock.


P.S. You'll notice I didn't say anything about the rumble feature...I never use it. Just a distraction.

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