The Best and Worst Game Controllers in History

Some changed gaming, some just stunk

Key Takeaways

  • Yes, the Xbox Elite is probably the best controller ever. It’s also one of the dullest.
  • Nintendo designs its games around innovative controller ideas.
  • The worst game controller ever is not even a controller.
Closeup of retro game comtroller.

Derek Story / Unsplash

It doesn’t matter how well-designed a video game is if you can’t control it properly, and history is as full of terrible controllers as it is great ones.

Most people play games on their phones, which means that most of us play using touchscreens, which are truly awful game controllers unless the game is designed for touch. And that’s the main point.

Nintendo, the all-time hall-of-fame champion of game controllers, knows that the controller dictates the kind of games that get made for a console.

The Wii, for example, would have been just an underpowered also-ran, easily beaten by the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. But its Wiimote motion-sensing controller made a whole new class of games possible and turned the Wii into a runaway hit. Controllers, then, are a big deal.

The Best Game Controllers Ever

From the first game controller ever to today, there have been some great devices that help us spend hours lost in a game. These are some of the best.

SNES, or Super Nintendo, or Super Famicom (1990, Japan)

The SNES controller perfected the gamepad that came with the previous NES console. It added two extra face buttons and a pair of shoulder buttons.

The Super Nintendo Famicom Set.

Wikimedia Commons

These shoulder buttons made it easy to press two or three buttons at a time, making games like Super Mario Kart—with its "drift" cornering dynamic—possible.

It also was indestructible, bouncing off thick CRT TV screens unharmed. Ask me how I know.

Playstation Controller (1994)

The original PlayStation controller added an extra pair of shoulder buttons and popularized the two conical grips that became standard on most controllers since.

The original PlayStation with controller.

Wikimedia Commons

Later, Sony added analog sticks and rumble, but this first version (literally) changed the shape of game controllers.

N64 (1996)

The N64 controller (1996) brought another Nintendo innovation: an analog joystick and a rear trigger button that fell under the forefinger. These were both mounted on the center prong of the three-pronged controller.

A Nintendo 64 controller.

Wikimedia Commons

It looked weird but felt great and made the iconic Goldeneye shooter game possible. You also could buy an optional Rumble Pak that slotted into the back and added vibrations. The analog stick also made 3D games like Super Mario 64 possible.

Microsoft Xbox 360 (2005)

The Microsoft Xbox 360 controller was a decent controller, notable for being the model for pretty much all controllers since—including Nintendo’s Pro Controller for the Switch.

The Xbox 360 S Contoller.

Wikimedia Commons

Two analog sticks, one for each thumb, plus a standard d-pad on the left and four buttons on the right. It also had two shoulder buttons and two analog triggers for pressure-sensitive control.

It’s also the first wireless controller on this list (although it came in a wired version, as well). Unlike today’s rechargeable controllers, the 360 controller used AA batteries or a rechargeable battery pack.

Wii Remote or Wiimote (2006)

The Wiimote allowed Nintendo to introduce motion-controlled games. Players could wave it around to play tennis, golf, and fitness games, as well as add interesting controls to more usual video games.

Nintendo Wii console with controller.

Wikimedia Commons

It also used a wrist strap, which might seem like it was added by a lawyer, but is essential when you’re deep into a sports game and lose your grip.

The Worst Game Controllers Ever

If you have a "Best" category, you have to have a "Worst," and though these controllers tried to be good, they just...weren't.

Nintendo Joy-Con (2017)

These little controllers unclip from the ends of Nintendo’s Switch. When mounted on the Switch, they’re not too bad. When detached and slotted into the supplied grip, they’re acceptable. But when used alone, either singly or in a pair, they are ridiculously bad.

Nintendo Joy-Cons.

Wikimedia Commons

The little Joy-Cons have motion controls, but when used like the Wiimote, the tiny controllers are hard to grip without accidentally pressing the buttons that seem to cover every surface.

You also can turn one Joy-Con sideways to use as a regular controller. This is great in principle, because it lets you play against another person without buying a second controller. In practice, though, they’re too small for most adult hands.

Atari CX40 Joystick (1977)

Say what you like about the Joy-Cons or any other modern controllers; they’re all better than Atari’s awful CX40. This thing was a wrist breaker.

A strong spring made it impossible for a kid to use for more than a few minutes, and the thick, square base was so hard to grip that the whole unit would slip from your fingers.

An Atari Joystick.

Wikimedia Commons

It probably worked great for the adults who designed it, but back in the 1970s, video games were for kids, and kids could not get along with this thing.

"We're fortunate to live in a time where even the cheapest plastic doodads have a minimum standard of ergonomics," tech journalist Vlad Savov told Lifewire via Twitter, "if only because they're copying more expensive stuff that's had the benefit of ergonomic research."

Touch Screens (2007-today)

If you’re slashing melons in Fruit Ninja, then a touch screen is perfect. But for racing, shooting, platforming, or any other kind of game that requires precision and not looking at where your hands are the whole time, a touch screen is the worst.

Someone playing a game on a smartphone.

Nopparat Jaikla/EyeEm / Getty Images

Nintendo has made some decent attempts to use the touch-screen in Mario Kart Tour and Super Mario Run on the iPhone, but they're inadequate compared to their console counterparts.

Special Mention—Xbox Elite

The Xbox Elite is the ultimate evolution of the influential Xbox 360 controller. Pretty much everything on it is adjustable, customizable, or replaceable. Pro gamers can tweak thumb-stick tension, swap out both sticks and paddles, and more.

Xbox Elite Controller

Microsoft

It also looks pretty neat, in a black-Cordura-nylon-Dell-laptop-bag kind of way, and amazingly comfortable.

But when it comes to exciting control methods, it brings nothing. It’s also $180. The Xbox Elite Wireless Controller Series 2 is probably the best controller you can get, but it’s a refinement of existing designs. That’s cool, but it’s hardly the stuff that entertaining best-of lists are made of.

So, the best game controller ever? N64, no question.

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