Controllers are a fickle thing. in the world of gaming input devices controllers are by far the most ubiquitous but also the most polarizing. Most gamers can agree the Logitech G27 is a good wheel. Jumping into an online forum and stating as much wont start a flame war, but get on the topic of console controllers and things change pretty quickly.
As long as I can remember there have been bitter arguments over which controller offers the superior gaming experience. Some say Sony’s Dual Shock is the benchmark for controllers. Others prefer the ergonomics of Microsoft’s controller for the 360. And then you have the weirdos who think the golden age of controllers was the Sega Saturn 3D controller…..I normally ignore those types. One thing I am sure of is that when it comes to good modern controllers, one name you never hear is Nintendo.
Why is that? Well put bluntly Nintendo hasn’t had a good controller in a long time. I would go as far as to say since the SNES actually. For some reason 3D gaming controls seem to confound Nintendo. The N64 controller required 3 hands, the GameCube controller was design by someone with a hangover and the Wiimote was made by someone on lsd.
The Wii U’s pro controller is an honest attempt by Nintendo to rectify this massive flaw and it looks like they may have redeemed themselves. Unlike their past attempts this one is a very conservative and contemporary take on gamepads. It’s so contemporary it almost looks like they used Microsoft’s old molds for the 360 controller. The resemblance goes pretty deep, as far as my hands can tell the weigh the same, are the same size, almost exactly the same shape, and aside from the location of the right analog stick and face buttons have exactly the same layout.
Not to say that’s a bad thing. The 360 controller is a good one and not a bad place to draw inspiration from. In fact the Pro is better in a few areas. For starters the D-Pad is a proper D-pad. The 360 had a monolithic D-pad that had a very vague and squishy feel to it. Most controllers use a similar membrane switch system for their digital buttons and as someone who uses an 80’s vintage IBM Model M as his personal keyboard I think they all suck. The question then is to what degree they suck? The pro definitely comes on top here, Even though its still a membrane (as far as I can tell) switch with a single mold key it does feel firmer and more direct than the 360. The other place where the Pro shines is with it’s face buttons. Unlike the 360 which used glossy jelly beans that had a habit of sticking the Pro has rougher matte face buttons that provide a good griping surface. They are also better raised from the face of the controller making them easier to feel out with your fingers.
Now remember when I said they may have redeemed themselves? Well the Pro is not perfect, in fact its very flawed and these flaws prevent it from not just being good but great. The first complaint I had was almost immediate. The controller face has a gloss finish, not only does this expose my amateur photography skills but it also attracts finger prints like you wouldn’t believe. What started the night as a handsome controller ended up as a shiny smear. Many companies have tried this, even Apple the masters of making electronics look cool, and they all failed. Glossy plastic just doesn’t work for something you are meant to touch. They would have been better off with a normal finish.
The second irritating flaw was the obvious corner cutting. The shoulder and trigger buttons are digital, not analog. Anyone who has played a racing game with a gamepad knows having analog input for all of your controls is necessary to achieve proper control. To achieve this Sony gives you pressure sensitive face buttons and Microsoft gives you analog triggers. Both work well, but with the Pro its another story. While playing Mario Kart I found myself really wanting that fine grained control. Sure Mario Kart isn’t exactly Forza, but it doesn’t have to be to notice the loss.
Now both of these complaints are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things and if they were the only flaws I would declare the Pro a great controller in a heart beat. But they aren’t, and they are dwarfed by the third and final flaw. The controller’s system integration sucks. I don’t know how Nintendo pulled it off, but they did. On the PlayStation and Xbox if you want to disconnect a controller what do you do? Hold down the center button and wait for the system menu to pop up. The Pro has no such ability. If you want to disconnect a controller or reorder your controllers then you have to back out of the game completely back to the home screen and resync from there. The Power button does not turn off the controller, well it does but it also turns off the WiiU and the other controllers as well and you don’t even have to be P1 to do this! How Nintendo could manage to screw up such a simple and well established interface convention is beyond me. Over the period of the evening our group managed to accidentally power off the WiiU at least 4 times because of muscle memory from the PlayStation and Xbox. It’s a really frustrating and baffling flaw in the controller. I’m not sure what Nintendo’s goal was. Even the Wiimotes can be resynced from the controllers.
So after a drunken night of nearly friendship-ending shenanigans over Smash bros and Mario Kart I walked away with mixed feelings on the Pro controller. It is a step in the right direction and generally a massive improvement over other Nintendo controllers but it has a massive flaw with its power on/off function. That, mixed with a few other minor annoyances kept me from falling in love with it even though I would choose it over the alternatives on the Wii U in a heartbeat.