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Despite the propoganda you may have read, the Xbox 360 has one of the least comfortable controllers I’ve held. It tries to be ergonomic, and is molded to hands that aren’t my shape. My knuckles bang. My fingers are cramped. Of course, my hands are irregular. And I hate every ergonomic input device I’ve ever encountered. This is like the split keyboard of game controllers.

For those unfamiliar with the changes, the 360 controller is basically a remolded Controller-S with the “white” and “black” buttons moved to the shoulders and turned into triggers, with a big “ON” button in the center, and (usually) without a cord. I’m not even going to get into the cordless issue, as far as typical controllers go; this is just about the corded version.

Now. Controllers are probably one of the major things holding back videogames. I hate them, as a whole. You’d think, with controllers being the most direct interface people have with videogames, people would put more thought into their design. There aren’t any good standard controllers right now; the GameCube one is clever, though it has too many compromises to do what it really wants to. And I can’t even think of many positive examples, historically. The only “good” ones I come up with are simply practical and competent, like the Genesis six-button and the (Japanese/version 2) Saturn pad. The S more or less falls into this category. Unambitious, but solid and distinctive.

As for the next generation, well. The Revolution should be interesting, at least. Other than that, ick. You can trace the mentality behind the systems by looking at their interfaces. Sony’s desperately trying to make the PS3 seem different, but not too different, by making the controller exactly the same except shaped like a batarang.

Similarly, Microsoft has decided to take the Controller-S and mangle it without any particular direction. The “on” button is… sort of interesting, I guess. It feels misplaced on a traditional controller. The thing that distinctly bothers me, though, if it’s possible to get over the ergonomic issues, is the button arrangement.

The white and black buttons (and indeed the start and select ones) get a lot of flack for their uncommon placement on the S. People aren’t really thinking this through, though. They do work, and work well, because they’re used for uncommon functions and because they’re placed in an out-of-the-way corner of the pad. If you need to access them, they’re at hand; yet otherwise there’s no confusing them.*

Anyway. Shoulder buttons are primarily useful for state changes; things you need to hold down while you access the face buttons. Four shoulder buttons is overkill in this regard. I see no purpose for them, especially since I have yet to encounter a person who is not constantly pressing the wrong shoulder button in PS2 games. (Notice this! Did a bell not ring?) They’re hidden, too similar, and secondary in your attention, and therefore easy to confuse.

Iif those extra two triggers are used at all, they’re usually for toggle functions or other things more suited to an out-of-the-way face button, like “select” in NES and SNES games. So, you know. In most cases, that’s the wrong place for them. Leave the shoulders uncluttered for things that actually need the placement.

Since removing the face buttons unbalances the start and select (OOPS, I MEAN “BACK”) buttons, they’ve been moved to the center where, whoops, suddenly they’re ripe to be hit accidentally again — never a problem on the S. Yes indeed.

The other thing that bothers me is, the original Xbox isn’t that bad a system. Yes, it’s big, not too imaginative, and it’s too firmly positioned as the tits-and-beer console. It’s really well-made, though, and there are some good ideas in its device and execution. And for a while, Microsoft was doing a good job patching the holes (fixing the controller, starting up Live). There was real potential for the 360 to be its own beast, and use past success as a foundation for something neat, as far as mainstream consoles go. Something with personality, and with balls (to go with its testosterone).

What we’re ending up with is a timid, sterile system designed by focus testing. And the pad’s an example of that.

I don’t think I need to explain how much Sony’s controllers now and have always sucked. And yet the PlayStation line is one of the biggest commercial successes in the history of videogames — so clearly Sony must know what’s going on! They’ve got four shoulder buttons on their pad, so let’s put four on ours! We didn’t really know what to do with those face buttons anyway.

Again, nobody’s thinking. The only reason there are four triggers on the PS2 pad is because the PS2 pad is the same as the Dual Shock, which is the same as the original PlayStation pad except with two analog sticks. Why two sticks? Because the N64 only had one. Likewse, the original PlayStation pad is the same as the SNES pad except with four shoulder buttons. Why four? Because the SNES pad only had two!

And now Microsoft has crawled up and inherited this idiocy, just showing how desperate they are. They’ve lost whatever vision they had; all of the creative people behind the original Xbox are long gone, leaving Microsoft with a body and no brain. All they have to go on now is high-definition displays and removable faceplates. Just — fuck you, you know. If you’re going to waste our time, then go away. Leave videogames to the professionals.

*: I understand some people hit the one on the left accidentally. This puzzles me a little. Perhaps again it’s just my hand shape; it’s never been an issue for me. However, even should my thumb somehow stray, that they are a different size, feel different, and are sunken into the pad should send me a signal. Fundamentally, I just see no reason why my thum should stray down and to the right from its “home position” on the bottom point of the diamond.