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Bad Controllers– The Xbox 360 D-Pad

Posted by nfinit on March 22, 2010

In a lot of ways this is the absolute best time to be a console gamer.

I don’t mean that simply in the the games constantly improve upon themselves.  I mean that in this era of console gaming we have access to a wealth of classic console gaming experiences from the past.  Whether it be via compilation disc or services like Virtual Console and Xbox Live Arcade, every system on the market today is a retro gaming jukebox, with over three decades worth of content accessible beneath a gamer’s thumb.

Microsoft is set to take this retro jukebox concept even further with the introduction of Xbox Live Game Room, where the Xbox 360 can expect to receive over a thousand classic titles, seven games per week until Microsoft runs out of games the 360 is capable of legally emulating. This idea looks to best even Nintendo’s Virtual Console experiment, provided you’re comfortable with the fact that Xbox Live Game Room will see a disproportionate amount of American-developed arcade and pre-Crash console titles.

Of course none of this is a comprehensive as a MAME client, but that’s not the point.  The point is that at some point the Xbox 360 is going to become the retro gaming console of choice, if it is isn’t there already– and every retro game on the system, from Bionic Commando ReArmed to Mega Man 10 to Combat and quasi-retro stuff like Metal Slug XX will be expected to control using this goddamed thing
XBOX360_Gamepad__49afb8761276f-1.jpg picture by bigredcoat

Now, I’m going to start with a rather obvious caveat:  For the purpose of playing modern 3d action games, such as Gears of War clones, first person shooters and racing games, the Xbox 360 gamepad is quite good, if not the finest pad ever created.  It takes the best elements of the Dual Shock, Dreamcast gamepad and Xbox  Controller-S and puts them together in one usable, ergonomic package.  But for the specific purpose of playing 2d games– stuff that depends on pixel-perfect spit-second digital control– the 360 pad is not just the hands-down worst gamepad of this console generation, it is perhaps one of the worst gamepads ever conceived, and its entirely because of this:
xbox-360-controller-2-2.jpg picture by bigredcoat

Saying something like “worst d-pad ever” is a subjective argument.  Some people don’t like the Playstation segmented d-pad, some don’t like the Torquemada-esque torture device that is the Nintendo standard d-pad, some sick bastards even claim to dislike the Genesis floating d-pad, (but these are unstable individuals and not to be trusted.)  So its hard to say that the Xbox 360 d-pad is the worst ever to grace a console, especially when somewhere in the world there exists an engineer who thought this was a good idea:

Triax-TurboTouch--MD-360.jpg picture by bigredcoat

But still.  The 360 d-pad does two things that should never have happened.  One, it us a featureless disc plastic with the faintest hint of a compass rose embossed upon it.  This makes it difficult to tell by feel where your thumb is resting.  This by itself wouldn’t be too bad.  Not ideal for a system with a selling point of a large back catalog of 2d goodness, but not a deal breaker.  But there’s something else that carries the Xbox 360 d-pad to the upper crust of awfulness, and its this:
This raised white ring of plastic that surrounds the disc of the d-pad keeps the d-pad from completing a natural arc of motion.  While its enough travel to allow the d-pad to make contact, it prevents solid  movement, resulting in a mushy, incomplete feel.  As a result the player is never quite sure where their thumb is travelling.  More often than not you wind up hitting a diagonal rather than left or right.  As 2d games largely rely on a combination of pixel-perfect timing and twitch reflexes this is not a trivial concern.

It’s obvious that the 360 d-pad was created as an afterthought, that its main purpose was to switch between weapons in first person shooters.  But it’s not like the 360 2d catalog is inconsequential, either.  Any 2d games appearing on the 360 are negatively affected by the standard gamepad, to the point where they’re all but ruined by the experience.  God help the poor bastard expected to perform a dragon punch using this thing, and I remain convinced that the lack of usable digital control on the 360 was responsible for Pac Man CE’s failure despite being utterly brilliant.

The Xbox 360 2d experience is so awful that retro-savvy gamers have been forced to rather ridiculous lengths just to ensure that Mega Man goes to the right when you press “right” instead of staring blankly ahead while falling into a pit of metal spikes.  My solution was to simply buy a new gamepad
b0bde482c9782463e05155791fd95ad2126.jpg picture by bigredcoat
Which, extra expense aside (the gamepad above cost an extra $40 I’d have much rather spent on a new DS game or quite possibly pants), 3rd party gamepads for the 360 carry their own drawbacks in that they’re not wireless.  Microsoft’s wireless gamepad signal is proprietary and they’re unwilling to license it out.  But the Fighterpad has its own problems in that it’s obviously not a total solution– its only suited for 2d games, you can’t begin to use it as your main pad.  It also feels entirely too cheap and light for a $40 product.
Hori has taken a couple stabs at the 360 gamepad, with typically excellent results.
pa1651762.jpg picture by bigredcoat
But they’re pretty much impossible to find in stores.  Truth be told, had I known the Hori Turbo 2 was going to be released I’d have never bothered with the Mad Catz Fightpad, never mind the coquettish and slightly embarrassing Chun Li artwork adorning the gamepad’s face like some demented 4chan advertisement.

Razer– famous for creating PC gaming mice that can be best described as “excessive”– will soon release a 360 gamepad of their own, but I’m unconvinced it’ll be much of a solution for retro enthusiasts.

Like all Razer products the ergonomics and build quality will undoubtedly prove outstanding, and it’ll probably be the best 360 gamepad available when it’s released, but I do not relish the thought of performing a dragon punch on that thing’s D-pad, much less traversing the bullet hell pathways of Ikaruga.
There are other, more exotic solutions.  Take for instance this thing:

xbox-360-mods-dpad.jpg picture by bigredcoat

Which is in actuality the control pod for the Rock Band Hero portable drum kit.  It turns out that if you don’t mind playing with a gamepad  that’s hideous and riddled with extraneous headphone jacks, you wind up with what may well be the best dedicated 2d pad released for the system.  You’re hosed if you want to play anything released after the SNES, but for the majority Game Room stuff it looks like a fine solution, provided you’re okay hooking something into your 360 that looks like it escaped a Soviet nuclear power plant control room circa 1974.
But let’s say you’re one of those weird Dual Shock fetishists.  There’s a way around that, too.
Which allows for a PlayStation gamepad to attach to the 360, provided you’re willing to also attach a 360 to -that-, like some sort of maniacal gamepad remora.

But let’s say you don’t want to spend any money and/or you just want to keep using a wireless 360 pad. In that case you can keep your old pad and TAKE  A FUCKING DREMEL TO IT!

Well okay you can get the same effect by working at the ring around the d-pad for a couple hours with sandpaper but it lacks the same punch of “TAKE A FUCKING DREMEL TO IT!” in big block print and I am if anything an artist with words.  Also do not take the above picture as an endorsement of the awful PlayStation d-pad, this was simply the only photographic evidence I could find of someone performing grievous physical modifications to their 360 pad without resorting to crazed console hacker
But doesn’t  all this seem like a stupid way to go about doing things?  I mean, why do we have to start physically cutting away on our gamepads just to get a decent retro experience?  The 360 pad has been around for four years now and Microsoft knows full well no one is happy with this thing.  Why not just release an official wireless gamepad?  Or failing that, just remove the damned ring already.

6 Responses to “Bad Controllers– The Xbox 360 D-Pad”

  1. Alec said

    The worst part is that they’ve gone and made a new revision with a transforming D-Pad which still sucks. I’d love to see a follow up article to this!

  2. Andrew said

    ^^Agreed, what he said

  3. Quartrez said

    Meh, the PS3 dpad ain’t that bad. Sure it’s horrible if you use it like you’d use a Nintendo Dpad, but it certainly isn’t bad. Just put your thumb on it in a way so your thumb covers the whole pad, and voilà, decent dpad.

    Although I have to say, the PSP dpad (at least the PSP-3000 dpad) is much MUCH MUUUUCH better than the PS3 dpad. Hands down. No contest. If anything, it’s almost on par with the SNES dpad.

  4. best snes games…

    […]Bad Controllers– The Xbox 360 D-Pad « Bigredcoat[…]…

  5. Anonymous said

    You know, we probably wouldn’t have to put up with this shit if all the game hardware companies didn’t patent their D-Pad designs.

  6. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on new video games coming out in 2014.


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