We’re spoiled when it comes to controllers in the modern era. 

Sure, there’s still debate around the merits of the Xbox Series X controller vs the PlayStation 5 controller, and there’s rightful criticism about the fragility and complexity of the internal components of modern offerings (Joy-Cons, looking at you), but overall, the big three have settled into a comfortable, functional path of iteration and design. Two sticks, a home button, a D-pad…no one is stepping too far out of the box these days. 

That was not always the case. 

What follows are the worst video game console controllers; ones that even at the time were rough, and in retrospect are truly baffling.

We’re not going too far into the weeds here, we’re sticking with the well known offerings (the Phillips CD-i surely would have been #1 otherwise) and we’re staying away from weird peripherals like the Power Glove or the insanity of unhinged 3rd party controllers universally loathed by younger siblings the world over.

A note: I love these consoles. I love the games on these consoles. But the controllers…well…you’ll see. 

Image of a Virtual Boy controller.

5. Virtual Boy – 1995

Do you like how I immediately broke my own rules by not talking about a mainline console? 

To be fair though, the Virtual Boy was supposed to revolutionize portable gaming and it was made by Nintendo. It was designed to be a mainline console, even if it ended up a woefully misguided abomination that combined the worst parts of the Game Boy and the Super Nintendo. 

Just look at it. The elongated handle. The bulbous curves. The bloated box underneath. The two D-pads?! For the nine unfortunate people who had to use this thing, you have my condolences. 

While this controller is one of Nintendo’s worst, it didn’t help that it was tethered to the eyeball-exploding monstrosity that was the Virtual Boy. As with every console, there is fun to be had, Virtual Boy Wario Land is great, but that’s despite the design of the console and the controller certainly not because of it. 

While the Virtual Boy deserves to be remembered as a fun oddity in Nintendo’s experimental history, the controller should be forgotten in the ash heap of gaming failures. 

Image of an Xbox controller.

4. The Duke (Xbox) – 2001

While this gargantuan controller has its ardent defenders and has achieved cult classic status in the same way The Room did, it’s a clear contender for this list. 

This bubbly titan does have a certain charm, and for those with larger hands it was genuinely comfortable. Still though, even Microsoft acknowledged their error when they updated the console with the much more manageable Controller S version after only a year.

From a visual perspective, it’s prettyyyyyy rough. The bulbous Xbox logo is a relic of its time if ever there was one and the ludicrous size, especially when compared to the Playstation 2 controller, was a misguided attempt at making a statement that seemed to backfire immediately. 

It did fit with the console’s aesthetics though, which was also a massive, neon-green and black box of 2000s cheese.

The Duke is fun, but it’s just too big, too bulky, and too over engineered to be used in the modern era. 

Nintendo 64 controller against a white background.

3. Nintendo 64 – 1996

Look, we love the Nintendo 64 around here, for obvious reasons. And the analog stick, while not the first, did a lot to push us into modern gaming. It’s an ambitious, influential controller, no question. 

It’s also a nightmare.

Much has been written about the bizarre dinosaur-claw inspired design of the thing. The idea seemed to be that providing an option for players to switch between holding it to easily access the D-pad and then moving their hands for access to the single analog stick would be beneficial to the play experience.

This is ludicrous in retrospect. Most developers simply abandoned the D-pad in favor of the stick, or relegated it to four awkwardly placed additional input options. 

Add to that the fact the D-pad was not good, and the analog stick seemed to dissolve the more you used it, and you’re looking at a controller that serves better as a conversation piece in a modern art museum than as a fun way to play Goldeneye.

Dreamcast controller against a white background.

2. Sega Dreamcast – 1999

Before you start, yes, I agree, the VMU is awesome. It was incredibly ahead of its time; the idea of a small screen in your controller that doubles as a memory card was, and still is, brilliant. 

The controller itself? Not brilliant.

The emphasis on a curvy aesthetic makes it feel like you’re holding a dinner plate. The triangular start button is never not awkward, and the pointy, tiny “handles” and bulging top are a woefully inadequate attempt at “modern” design (for the late 90s anyway). 

The analog stick is very uncomfortable, as though it was intentionally designed to dig into your thumb. The awkward placement of the cable at the bottom requires you to fold it underneath to make space for the VMU slots. One question: WHY?!

The D-pad was nice though, and it is a sturdy, durable thing. Even with the brilliant VMU though, the Dreamcast controller was a real weakness in an otherwise elegantly designed system.

1. Sega Saturn 3D Controller – 1995

It might seem unfair to pick on Sega here given these were hard times for the company and these final two controllers share so much in common that they could almost be included in one entry, but that’s sort of the point. 

The fact Sega made such a colossal error with the 3D Controller only to follow it up with an evolution that was barely an improvement provides a tragic insight into a directionless company that was in dire need of better management.

The original Saturn controller was perfectly fine, a nice update of the Genesis (or Mega Drive for our friends across the pond) with its quality D-pad and six nicely laid out buttons. Simple, straightforward, functional.

Then came the 3D Controller, released in 1995. As you may have ascertained from its wildly creative name, this new controller was designed specifically for a new crop of polygon-pushing games in the third dimension, games like Nights into Dreams.

While it was remarkably forward thinking to recognize the superiority of a stick over a D-pad for controlling a character in a 3D space (keep in mind, it beat the Nintendo 64 to market by 8 months) there was one big problem: it’s absolutely horrible.

It feels like what it is: a prototype Dreamcast controller with none of the charm. It’s known in some circles as the Hamburger controller, but that’s unfair to hamburgers, as holding hamburgers is an extremely fun and rewarding activity.

It feels deeply unpleasant in the hand. The analog stick is of remarkably poor quality. The fact it’s a giant circle with some goofy fins stuck haphazardly underneath is a desperate cry for help, and the results are as unpleasant to use as to look at.

The Sega Saturn is great. The Saturn controller is great. The Saturn 3D controller is a crime against gods and men both.

image of a PlayStation 4 controller against a colorful background.

Control Freaks

I’m very fond of all the above consoles, even the ludicrous Virtual Boy. Part of loving something means embracing everything it is, flaws and all. Many of these controllers are important feats of engineering that ushered us into the modern age, and for that, they should be applauded. 

Alas, the relentless march of time has not been kind to these relics of gaming history, and though comfort and aesthetic preferences are entirely subjective, there’s little doubt these five controllers would be very difficult to go back to.

So think about the Hamburger next time you complain about the Series X controller D-pad. 

Things, after all, could be much worse. 

A contributor to the Forgotten Code collective.

View all posts

Add comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *