The controller is something that we often take for granted, until we encounter a bad one. Then, we realize just how much time, effort, and work goes into making them ergonomic, usable, and well-designed. My favorite controllers are always going to be the 360 controller and the PS1's DualShock. These two controllers were so perfectly designed, and equipped with exactly the right amount of buttons, placed in exactly the right positions, that barely any games felt onerous to control. My least favorite, personally, are the GameCube and Nintendo 64 controllers. I don't know what made Nintendo so eager to break with an established convention, and roll out two controllers that look as though they were designed for aliens rather than human beings.
In this list, we're going to take a look at some of the best controllers ever designed, as well as some of the absolute worst. The list ranges from sublime gaming experiences all the way to crippling agony, social awkwardness, and misjudged motion controls, and I'm not even talking about the Kinect. You see, back in the early days of consoles, before the tech to do motion controls had ever been considered, some people still tried it. You'll find out more about that later, though.
If you want to revel in memories of joyful experiences with joyous joypads, or simply cringe into a singularity at the horrific nature of some of these, then read on! Got a great or painful memory associated with a specific controller? Let us know!
24 Best: Atari CX40 Joystick
The Atari CX40 was the joystick that came bundled with the Atari 2600. Its simple design, just a stick for movement and a single button, cemented its place in gaming's collective memory for all eternity. It was so popular that even non-Atari platforms adopted the Atari joystick port, allowing users of systems such as the Amiga and MSX to use the CX40. If you grew up in the 80s or 90s, you probably used one of these at some point, without ever complaining. That's why it's our #10.
23 Worst: The Nintendo 64 Controller
Right, I'm going to get some hate for this one, but let's be real. It's shaped like an M, for no conceivable reason. It has one analog stick, placed right in the center of the controller for maximum awkwardness, and it has too many buttons on its face. A D-Pad, one analog sticks, and six small buttons are not a comfortable combination, and playing a fast-paced game on this was an exercise in frustration. I don't care what anyone says, I'm glad this was consigned to the dustbin of history.
22 Worst: The Atari 5200 Controller
Oh boy. The leap from the 2600 to the 5200 was not an elegant one, let's be honest. Looking like someone took a phone's keypad and shoved a stick on the top of it, this is baffling design at its worst. Prone to breaking, the analog stick's rubber boot broke all too often, as it was designed far too cheaply. It also featured weird design in terms of how the stick handled acceleration. About the only plus point of this controller was that it featured a pause button.
21 Best: The Xbox's Duke
The Duke was an amazing controller. Yes, it was massive, competing with the N64 controller in terms of sheer size, but it was well designed. It took the DualShock's analog sticks and changed their position slightly, into what is, in my opinion, a more ergonomic one. This would become the gold standard for all Xbox controllers to follow. It was beautiful, and aside from the strange white and black buttons that thankfully got chopped on the 360, it didn't require much in the way of change.
20 Worst: The Power Glove
This is an iconic awful controller, as far as famous hot garbage goes. In addition to it not coming packaged with a game, the controls were fiddly to use, and when they did work, extremely imprecise. It could be used to play any game on the NES, if you really truly hated yourself, and felt as though you needed punishment. It was expensive, looked ridiculous, and hard to use. That's really the trifecta that you don't want when you're making peripherals.
19 Worst: The Nokia N-Gage
Is it unfair to class a whole system as one of the worst controllers ever made? Normally, I'd say probably not, but the N-Gage really was woeful. Released back in the days of everyone and their mother having a Nokia phone, it tried to hybridze a phone and a games console. It didn't work. Like, really didn't. Featuring some quite astonishingly poor controls based on a phone keypad and an awful d-pad, you had to take the bloody thing apart to put a game in.
18 Best: Genesis Controller
I may be biased here. The Genesis was the first games console that I ever owned, and ever since I unwrapped it on Christmas morning and started playing Sonic, I've loved the controller. It's simple as heck, with just three face buttons and a solid D-pad, and if you want to play some retro platformers or something, it's the best control scheme you can get. The NES and SNES controllers are great, but for me, the Genesis' is king.
17 Worst: Sega Saturn 3D Controller
Look at that. Please, take a long hard look at that, and tell me how Sega let this sneak through the net. Yes, it does feature an analog stick, but take a look at the shape of this thing. It looks like someone's taken a CD drive and stuck some buttons onto it. The analog stick does kinda work as intended, so it's not as bad as the 5200's, but it was not at all ergonomic to hold, and has mercifully been forgotten about.
16 Worst: Turbo Touch 360
It's not a first-party controller, and boy, can't you just tell. Made by Triax for the NES, these are some of the straight-up ugliest controllers that I think I've ever seen. It featured no d-pad, instead of rocking a plate that could detect the eight cardinal directions. It could not, as you might have guessed, detect 360 degrees of motion, instead featuring movement in just eight said directions. Despite being endorsed by a surgeon, who said it could reduce muscle strain, it was just bad.
15 Best: Super Nintendo Controller
I never owned a SNES as a kid: they were far less popular in Europe than the US or Asia, but in retrospect, I recognize how good its controller was. Featuring a D-pad and four well-positioned buttons, it made playing the SNES' superb library a joy, every single time. When you have controls this simple, you end up almost unable to design a poor control scheme, and it's accessible to just about everyone. We love the SNES controller here at The Gamer, and I'm prepared to rank it above the Genesis controller because of that.
14 Worst: Intellivision Disc Controller
The control disc ranks up there as one of the worst controllers ever made. Allegedly featuring both a paddle and a stick, it was a jack of all trades, failure at every single one. A phone/brake disc lookalike, connected to the Intellivision with a noodly little phone-style cable, it was absolutely terrible, and did nothing right. The disc had different functions, but when you tried to use one, it was an exercise in frustration, nothing more. If you're going to try some Intellivision games, just use an emulator.
13 Worst: Atari Mindlink
Want to see something weird? Check this out. It was a little headband that controlled games by reading the voltage of your brainwave activity. Only three games were developed that used the Mindlink, and none of them worked very well. The most well-known of these was Bionic Breakthrough, that was effectively Breakout, but using the power of the mind. Players frequently got headaches because they were wiggling their eyebrows too hard. When a controller gives you a headache, you know that something is quite seriously wrong with it.
12 Best: Neo Geo Arcade Stick
One of the greatest arcade sticks ever made. The controller is simplicity itself, but when you use it to play a fighting game or something similar, its brilliance is obvious. The stick moves fluidly, and the four buttons on the stick's face offer great feedback. It's an exercise in simplicity, but that's all you need sometimes. It doesn't try to be anything it's not, and as a result, is probably the best arcade stick ever made. Definitely worth picking up, if you find one in the wild.
11 The Sega Activator
You know earlier, when I talked about early experiments in motion controls? This was what I was talking about. An add-on for the Genesis, the Activator was an octagonal strip that you put on the ground, and that you could then use to control various games. Among these were the legendary Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II: Special Championship Edition. However, when you tried to use it, you found that the input was massively inaccurate. It was also fantastically expensive, so barely any sold.
10 Worst: Konami LaserScope
Oh boy, check this thing out. You strap it to your head, turning yourself into a Terminator-lookalike, it allegedly worked with any game that supported the Zap gun, but it didn't really. You fired the gun by saying "fire," but like many voice-recognition systems, even now, it did not recognize what you said half the time. So not only did it offer poor control, but it also made you look like a right fool. Oh, and you needed to play it in a basically silent room, as almost any sound would cause the LaserScope to fire.
9 Best: The Wavebird
While I'm not a big fan of the GameCube controller's layout, the Wavebird was a massive innovation in the world of gaming. By making wireless controllers mainstream for the first time, it gave us a more flexible way to play. No longer were we tied, quite literally, to the console, now we could sit on the sofa a clear 10 feet from the TV, and happily play our games. A massive improvement over the default GameCube controller, we all love the Wavebird.
8 Worst: The Tony Hawk Ride Board
If you don't really remember Tony Hawk: Ride, don't worry, that's probably for the best. The game's gimmick was that you would use this little skateboard peripheral to control your onscreen skater, which sounds fine in theory. Then you think about how well specialist peripherals usually work, and you realize quite how bad an idea it was. If you can get it working, you'll find that not only do the controls barely recognize what you do, but the board itself is terrifyingly slippy. If you have a hardwood floor, you'd better be good at ice skating, else you'll be down on your butt.
7 Worst: Atari Jaguar Controller
Another barely-remembered controller, this time the whole system is largely forgotten. The Atari Jaguar was intended to compete with the Sega Saturn and the PlayStation, and it did get some things right. The system cost $100 less than its competitors, but the controller was very poor. It featured 12 buttons on the base, in a phone-like layout, as well as six face buttons, a D-pad, and two shoulder buttons. The controls worked fine, but oh my goodness, it was such a massive controller, and so cumbersome, that it's never been really redeemed by retro fans.
6 Best: NES Pad
Like the Neo Geo Arcade Stick, the NES Pad does nothing outrageous. What it does do is offer players a simple controller that can fulfill any variety of criteria. With just two face buttons, you don't get any complexity, but that's perfectly enough for most any classic games you can think of. It's a massively archetypal controller that's remembered fondly by everyone who ever had an NES. Simple, superb design, that's never truly aged. For many people, this is what comes to mind when they think of a game controller.
5 Worst: The U-Force
Much like the Activator, this is another early attempt at motion controls. Made by Broderbund, two IR panels would read your movements and translate them into controller inputs. In theory, anyway. Not only did it barely ever work, but take a look at it and tell me that looks like a controller. It spits in the face of design simplicity. You end up with a janky little pole sticking out of the panel, and a whole host of issues that face anyone who tries to use it.
4 Best: Xbox 360 Controller
The logical follow-up to the Duke, this took the excellent ideas put forth by the Duke, and the form factor of the DualShock, and combined them into one of the best, most ergonomic controllers ever made. Essentially an evolution of the legendary Sony controllers, this is perhaps the perfect controller. I've tried the Xbox One controller, and found that it just doesn't feel right in the same way that this one does. So too does the PS4 controller just not feel as good as the 360 controller. MS absolutely nailed this one.
3 Worst: The Wii Bowling Ball
The thing about this peripheral is just how plain unnecessary it is. The Wii already has decent motion controls, probably the best that I've ever used, but putting it into a God darn bowling ball is not going to make it better. Not only that, but the build quality is absolutely awful. Yes, it works, but so does the original controller. It's such a stupid purchase, and I have to question why anyone would ever willingly spend money on this thing.
2 Best: The DualShock
The original DualShock is perfect. There's not really any other way to put it. When you first used it, whether it was to play Ape Escape, or simply to play Twisted Metal, Fifa, or absolutely any other original PlayStation game, you knew it worked beautifully. The thing about it is that it's not only fantastic to use, but it was revolutionary at the time. It was the first time that analog controls had ever truly been nailed, and we've never looked back since.
1 Worst: The Phillips CDI Controller
Much like the DualShock is my favorite controller ever made, the Phillips CDI Controller is, in my opinion, maybe the worst. While it didn't condemn the system to failure by itself, it certainly didn't help whatsoever. The idea seems to have been that you'd use your right thumb to control basically everything, but that's taking simplicity a bit too far, even for my tastes. When you try to make everything controlled by just one button, you know that there's going to be conflicts. Even if the CDI had any games worth playing, this would have made them unplayable.