The Impact of Controllers: When do Specialized Controllers Matter?

Earlier this year I purchased an arcade stick with which to play fighting games. I’d wanted to do this for a while, but it was only recently that I was able to convince myself of the value in the purchase. Buying my first arcade stick felt like a right of passage and I’ve really enjoyed using it over the past few months. There is a certain kinetic joy that comes from the rhythmic clicking of the stick as you swivel it for motion inputs while tapping buttons for combos.

While the arcade stick hasn’t improved my ability to play, it has increased my enjoyment of fighting games. That’s not to say that I wasn’t enjoying them before, but I’m having more fun playing with an arcade stick than I was on a keyboard. It’s like having a little slice of the arcade experience in the comfort of your home.

This got me thinking about the impact that controllers have on our enjoyment of the games we’re playing. More specifically, what experiences were made better through the use of specialized input methods. The standard console controller has a fairly homogeneous design and this has almost certainly influenced the narrow selection of genres which developers focus on for big budget console releases. So, let’s take a quick look at some games where having unconventional or specialized input methods has helped to create a more enjoyable experience like my cited fighting game example.

Guitar Hero is probably the easiest example to point to, though depending on your age this craze may have entirely passed you by. It was a rhythm game where you pressed buttons in time to the guitar portion of a piece of music. Despite the simplicity, Guitar Hero was a huge success and that came in no small part because of the controller the game was played with.

Instead of using the controller we all know and love today, Guitar Hero shipped with a guitar shaped controller. Along the neck of the instrument was five buttons and there was a switch located approximately where you’d strum. In this way instead of simply pressing buttons in time to the music, you were playing a faux guitar where you had to orient your fingers like you were playing chords and strum along in time to the music. Obviously playing Guitar Hero isn’t analogous to playing an actual guitar, but it did a convincing job of selling the fantasy of playing a guitar. It was so successful that guitar sales actually increased during the height of Guitar Hero’s popularity.

Moving swiftly on we have steering wheel controllers. I myself am not a driving game fan, but I can understand the appeal of a steering wheel. It would help to really immerse yourself in the experience of driving as you’d be turning an actual wheel rather than simply thumbing a control stick. Bonus points if the controller includes pedals for gas and brakes to further enhance the experience. My friend Will actually owns one such controller and used it for numerous long haul deliveries in Euro Truck Simulator. If you aren’t going to be driving an eighteen wheeler anytime soon an appropriately convincing stand-in is the next best thing.

If driving simulations aren’t your speed then why not check out a flight stick? These are commonly used with games focused on flying jets, helicopters, and spacecrafts. Like driving games, these feature a variety of different vehicles we aren’t likely to pilot in our day to day lives and thus a convincing simulation is the next best thing. Plus I know there are a bunch of Star Wars nerds out there who would wet themselves if given the opportunity to fly and X-Wing or Tie Fighter and a flight stick is a major component to making that an engrossing and authentic experience.

Finally, we have dance mats. I know these from arcades, but I believe the home editions of Dance Dance Revolution also shipped with one. This is a titled mat that features a three by three grid adorned with arrows and symbols. Players are meant to follow along with what they see on screen by stepping on the corresponding tiles in time to the game’s music. I believe you’re also meant to dance while doing this, but as an incredibly rigid and awkward human being I have never managed to do this. Still, these games can usually be found in arcades and were quite popular for a spell in the console market owing to their unique take on a classic rhythm game formula.

While specialized controllers don’t work for every game, they’ve certainly helped to provide more enjoyable or authentic experiences for a handful different genres. I won’t dispute the somewhat limited appeal of most of these games, but part of that appeal may stem from using specialized controllers. I know that personally I wouldn’t have enjoyed some of the cited examples were it not for their novel input methods, which created radically different experiences than what would have been possible on a standard controller.

What about you? Are there any games that you found more enjoyable when played with a specialized controller? Let me know in the comments as I’d be interested to read about your experiences.

7 thoughts on “The Impact of Controllers: When do Specialized Controllers Matter?

  1. Honestly I can’t think of any controllers that would help me enjoy the games more.

    But that I think comes down to me not caring much for immersion to begin with.

    Lost opportunity to mention the shit fest that was the move controller, Rollin rocker and the Joy cons.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That checks out.

      Holy lord jesus. The rollin rocker looks like a complete shit show. What on earth was this used for?

      I can’t actually think of a legitimate use case where the joy cons have been used to make a game that couldn’t otherwise exist without them. The same is true of almost the entirety of the games that Nintendo put out on the Wii and Wii U. There is a use case for motion controls as a way to make minor adjustments to precision aiming that auto aiming usually accounts for, but Nintendo has rarely done a good job at exhibiting the merits of motion based controls.


    1. The dream of everyone who has ever wanted to pilot a giant mechanized robot. I’d forgotten this thing existed, but it really is the quintessential example of a game that only works with an incredibly niche controller. Even looking at the pictures of the controller it’s hard to wrap one’s brain around this ever being a commercial product that people could pay money for.


  2. I actually remember wanting to talk about a topic like this maaany years ago, except as a video using TTS for a channel project that I basically abandoned back then lol; it is understated how much controllers can become THE experience for players depending of the game, not just the special ones (though almost any arcade game can be taken for examples about this, like motorbike racing games, racing games with wheels, light-gun games, and so on), but also games that are designed for the controllers capabilities (Super Monkey Ball for the analog stick, Ape Escape for the Dualshock dual sticks, several Wii games for the motion sensor and IR sensor, and so on).

    I’ll say that when I saw this here, it put a huge smile into my face 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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