The GameCube had the best controller ever

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GCThe GameCube was a weird looking little purple box with an inexplicable handle. Yes, it was really purple. It also came with one of the most unique controllers to ever grace gaming. It had a quasi-dual-analog-stick thing going for it, strange asymmetrical shoulder button layout, and the “A” button that was about the size of the rest of the face buttons combined. It had one of the worst feeling analog sticks ever aside from the N64 that preceded it (talk about goofy layouts…). Speaking of feel, something about the plastic Nintendo used made it feel really cheap to me. It really does make one think you’re playing with a children’s toy. Being purple doesn’t help that impression. The GameCube controller is, simply put, probably the most perfect console controller ever made.

Yes. The GameCube controller is very likely the most perfectly thought out controller you will ever hold onto. There has never been, before or since, a controller that was so thoroughly engineered to suit it’s system. The thing is an engineering and design masterpiece. There have been more pleasing controller to actually use, the XBOX 360’s is easily my favorite, but never has anybody been able to top what Nintendo did with the GameCube’s goofy little purple input device. To understand what I’m talking about, you really need to sit there and study the thing in context. Put it next to a N64 controller for reference and focus on this controller’s intended use: to play GameCube games.

Let’s start off with the basic shape. The GameCube controller’s multifaceted, swoopy design is at complete odds with the cube it plugs into. In a sense it’s almost reminiscent of a Dual Shock combined with the PS3 “Boomerang” concept controller that we never got. It looks unique, which makes it really stand out with its’ own visual character. Marketing departments love that sort of thing. More importantly however, is that it’s comfy. I have large hands and hate the Dual Shock because I can’t grip it comfortably without feeling like my hands are going to cramp up. While the GC controller has some similar design characteristics, and is a roughly similar size, I can comfortably hold the GC controller for hours on end without a thought. The shape of the grips, button layout, deep finger grooves in the triggers, it all just feels so right. It even seems to angle your wrists in such a way as to minimize fatigue. Suddenly, you forget all about that horribly cheap plastic feel, which I should point out is actually extremely durable, and only think about how wonderfully it fits in your hands.

Then there are the analog sticks. Well stick and “stick”. They feel downright horrid. The “main” stick is uncomfortable to me, it has terrible resistance (although still better than the Dual Shock IMO) and that completely insipid octagonal border. The N64 you’ll recall had the first controller to really feature an analog stick as we know them today. Nintendo pioneered what we all take for granted now. The N64’s analog stick was honestly a travesty: great idea, horrid execution. The GC sought to improve upon it with better feel, sturdiness, and ergonomics. However they wanted to keep some parity between the two, to keep it familiar to people moving from the N64. So it kept the stupid octagonal range of motion which persists in their controllers to this day. It is utterly perfect in design and execution when you keep this philosophy in mind, just kinda crappy to actually use.

Of course then there’s the infamous “C” stick. Worst thing ever in practice, but brilliant on paper. It was intended to both give gamers a second analog control, and take the place of the N64’s “C” buttons. There’s that transitional thing again, that careful evolution where they kept the familiar, while improving upon it and giving you something new. Keep in mind, the idea of dual analog sticks was a fairly new concept, so Nintendo probably wasn’t sure if it would catch on and wanted to hedge their bets a bit. It was functionally an analog stick with the thumb pad broken off, which meant it could serve two roles: it could be used as a second stick if developers saw fit, but was simultaneously used as a creative way to retain the 4 “C” buttons that were on the N64. It was a logical hybridization of new technology and maintaining familiarity. Again, it’s a perfect solution for the design philosophy, but also somewhat atrocious in real world use.

On top we find the triggers of the Gods. I am not kidding; the GC has what I maintain to this day to be the best triggers ever. I can’t believe nobody else has ever used the design. The fact that the WiiU Gamepad and “Pro” controller don’t use these triggers is just beyond comprehension. For one, they are the most comfortable thing ever. Your fingers just feel like they belong there. Secondly, they don’t really pivot the way you’d expect, rather than just slide straight back, and the resistance on them is perfect. Plus the travel is huge, they go a LONG way back and feel really accurate. The feel really is sublime, but that’s not even the best part. The best part is the “click”. Unlike every other not-nearly-as-awesome trigger since, they don’t just bottom out: they actually click back into place at the end of their travel, which acts as another button altogether. Sheer brilliance right there.

Good ole “Z”. It was intended, once again, to be the natural continuation of the N64 controller. The “Z” button on the N64 was necessary to supplement “R” and “L” since Nintendo decided to let the dude with 3 arms design the thing. On the GC , just like the “C” buttons, it made sense to carry it over; again to ease that transition for both gamers and developers, while moving it into a position where it was more useful. Keep things familiar, but better. Would have been nice if they had thought to include two of the things, but remember that the triggers’ “click” was the GC’s R2/L2 analogue, so “Z” was an extra button, rather than the one on the left being missing.

Moving back to the face we start with the D-pad. Nintendo really had the right idea here. They realized on the N64 the analog stick was used almost exclusively, rendering the D-pad useless for everyone except Mr. Tri-Hands who designed it. They moved it someplace usable, while keeping the analog stick the primary input. It was also the beginning of Nintendo’s habit of making D-pads that are way too small, but hey, it still feels better than the 360’s. Notably, it was the first to have offset analog sticks with the D-pad below, which Microsoft would go on to repeat with the “S” controller for the original XBOX.

When looking at a GC controller for the first time, the first thing you notice (aside from the purple) is the GINORMOUS “A” button. This giant green button looks ridiculous, but is absolutely GENIUS. Just think about it for a second: pretty much every game on every system has one button that you press constantly. Selecting menus, jumping, reloading, whatever. Probably 75% of your face button presses are a single button, so why wouldn’t you make that button the focus? Make it big, centralized, and easy and comfortable to press. It’s something that from a design standpoint is undeniably obvious as the “right” way to do it. Just looks weird.
The rest of the face buttons are just as elegant. “B”, which is the second most often used button is a bit smaller, and a different color. It is offset in a position that perfectly lines up with the natural arc of your thumb’s movement. It’s easy, obvious and comfortable – sound familiar?

That leaves “X” and “Y”, which are a lot more subdued – plain grey instead of brightly colored, small, positioned up out of the way a bit, and even a completely different shape. This has the effect of reinforcing their status as being secondary buttons; not used as often, not as important. Once again, this makes sense since typically the remaining 2 face buttons on any controller are used less often; especially back when the GameCube was being designed and there were a lot more games that didn’t even use all the face buttons. There is also a single “start” button. No “select”, no “back”. Simple and to the point. Since “select” wasn’t really used all that often, I think they intended for “Z” to take up some of that slack. It was efficient, which is another common theme in the design. Little wasted space, multifunctional inputs, etc. They were really trying to pack as many inputs into as few physical interfaces as possible.

Now that we’ve broken it all down I’ll get into why all of this, glaring flaws included,adds up to the best designed controller of all time. It’s all about the approach really, the design goal. Nintendo wanted to retain a lot of familiarity and parity with the revolutionary (for its time) N64 controller, only without the need for a genetic mutation to actually use it. They also wanted something efficient, something that offered gamers and game makers alike a plethora of options while not feeling overwhelming; something easy to learn and memorize. They wanted the layout to be logical and geared towards what they expected its real-world use to be. They pulled all of these off perfectly. When you sit back and look at it, you can see why they built it how they did; what problems they were trying to solve, and solve them they did. Elegantly.

Trouble is some of the problems weren’t really the right ones to solve. They shouldn’t have tried so hard to carry over N64 features (although at the time I’m sure it made sense to do so), they should have gone all the way with the second analog stick, and they got a little shortsighted when they didn’t give the “Z” button a partner. All of these are things that we can talk about in hindsight, but at the time, with the goals they had, they executed it flawlessly. No controller since has been so finely tuned and specific to its console. It could really only work on the GameCube, with Nintendo’s game design ethos; but no other controller could ever work so well on the GameCube. It was perfect. Nowadays, the 360 controller reigns supreme in usability in my eyes, but when it comes down to design, detail, and sheer engineering? I hold up the GameCube controller as the absolute pinnacle. Besides, the thing is freaking purple, that’s awesome.

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  • ashlar

    Agreed. The Big A button was genius. The Wiimote is stupid. thats why you can plug a GCN controller into it.