Way back when the Playstation was Sony’s way of saying “fuck you” to Nintendo, there was the original Playstation controller. The method behind it was simple; take what Nintendo made and make it bigger. The controller had the same layout as a Super Nintendo pad, with some added handles and two extra shoulder buttons. Not at all original, but entirely functional, Sony would begin a trend of copying and improving that they follow to this day.
Nintendo of course wouldn’t be beaten, and with the N64 they added not only an analog joystick, but the option for force feedback. Sony replied just as they did before; their new controller would have two sticks and two rumble motors, without the need for batteries. Thus the Dual Shock was born.
Thanks to its popularity and the ubiquity of the Playstation, the Dual Shock became the closest thing to a controller standard the industry has ever seen. It has been a source of inspiration for other consoles, and has been copied whole hog for generic PC controllers. It frequently tops lists of the best controllers of all time in major gaming publications, while also making it to many lists of the worst controllers. Love it or hate it, the Dual Shock won’t go away, so why not take a look at why we love or hate it, by taking a glance at all three Dual Shock models.
General Dual Shock Observations
Why we like it:
When I first saw the controller, my Sony hating adolescent self thought it looked like like a very unergonomic pad. Say what you will about the N64 controller’s shape, but it always fit comfortably in my hands. The Dual Shock however, looked completely utilitarian. You can easily describe it in shapes; two handles connect to two cylinders, which are connected by a rectangular bridge in the middle. Despite this, I have found that the controller is rarely uncomfortable to hold. The fact that there are four shoulder buttons also makes it easier to play games which require the use of both joysticks. The symmetry and number of inputs make the controller versatile if nothing else.
Why we hate it:
The flaws in the Dual Shock are not immediately apparent, but they very much exist. The one that most gamers may not notice is the D-pad. While once the primary input for movement, the D-pad has been largely phased out, now often used to toggle between weapons and items or other such utilitarian tasks. There are a few genres where it is still used for movement, one of them being fighting games. Fans of the genre will quickly find that the Dual Shock D-pad will kick the shit out of their thumb. Not only that, but its segmented directions are actually quite inaccurate when registering diagonals, at least compared to a circular, Saturn style D-Pad.
Furthermore, despite its general lack of use Sony has yet to take a cue from the Gamecube and Xbox and switch the left stick and the D-pad’s positions on the controller. While the locations of the two sticks is nice and symmetrical, it isn’t the most comfortable position for all hands, at least when your thumb is on it for the entirety of a game. After three console generations, the D-Pad is still getting in the way.
Also, while these days we often discuss controller buttons by their function in each game, there was a time when you had to read codes and fighting game combos as “Square, square, circle, triangle, circle, triangle”, which is about as complicated as you could get.
Dual Shock 1
The original. While Sony made a huge buzz about it during release, only a few games took great advantage of its rumble abilities, namely Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil re-releases. Joystick support was also hit or miss.
Why I like it:
The original Dual Shock is good and weighty. Whether this is due to better build quality or simply heavier parts, the pad feels like isn’t going to fall apart in your hands. Each piece feels strong and sturdy. If you attempt to disassemble one, you will find the Dual Shock 1 is locked down tightly. If you unscrew the bottom half, you will find the circuit board and buttons to be screwed into the top half from inside. The L2 and R2 buttons are also secured. This makes it a pain in the ass to take it apart, but also means that individual pieces aren’t going to move around a lot, and makes putting it back together much easier. Overall, I want to say the Dual Shock has a good build quality, but the right stick on my last one is broken, though this is likely due to dirt and gunk messing it up.
Why I don’t like it:
The analog sticks on this one are the worst Sony has ever made. They have no tension whatsoever, so using the sticks to move anything (such as characters in Final Fantasy VIII) always feels sluggish and awkward, and so I largely ignore them as directional inputs in any PS1 game
Dual Shock 2
The sequel. The ‘Shock 2 is identical in shape to its parent, though there are differences to the inputs. The face buttons are now pressure sensitive, and the analog sticks have an adjusted tension.
Why I like it:
The joysticks work much better now for control purposes. When the pressure sensitivity is used correctly, like in racing games, it becomes a great idea.
Why I don’t like it:
The pressure sensitivity is usually a load of hooey.
In all seriousness though, while I have used the Dual Shock 2 more than any other controller in recent years, I feel it is the shoddiest in the family. I have had two Dual Shock 2’s break on me, which is my current record on any console.
This means I have also had to take it apart, and the while the guts seem largely the same as before, they are put together quite differently from those in the Dual Shock 1. There are no internal screws to secure any of the parts. As soon as the bottom half is off, chances are pieces are going to fall out. The shoulder buttons are also held together by some flimsy plastic framing that I have yet to ever get to without breaking. Putting it all back together when reassembling the pad is a bear of a process. If you place the bottom half onto the top, R2 and L2 will probably fall out, and if you do the opposite, you have to make sure the shoulder buttons and their contacts fit in. The fact that each piece inside the pad is held together by nothing more than pressure is why each button seems to jiggle around a bit in a fully assembled controller, and is probably the cause of my woes.
On a whole, the Dual Shock 2 feels too flimsy and light, which is why I am taking extra care with the ones I have left. I once heard claims that the controller was made differently with the arrival of the PS2 Slim, which is where all of my controllers have come from, though I have been unable to verify this.
Dual Shock 3
Fairly new, the Dual Shock 3 is really the Sixaxis with rumble motors. We almost didn’t get this one, as Sony’s original PS3 pad looked like a batarang.
Why I like it:
The Sixaxis (and thus the DS3) was a much more ambitious change than the DS2 was. It uses Bluetooth Wireless and a rechargeable battery, and adds a new Home button in the center for use in navigating back to the PS3 main menu. The L2 and R2 buttons have no plastic casing around them, and now operate like analog triggers rather than normal buttons. Finally, the analog sticks have been tinkered with yet again. They are less stiff than before, but aren’t quite as bad as the DS1.
Why I don’t like it:
So far I don’t have any gripes about the Dual Shock 3, aside from the aforementioned D-pad issues that plague all models. All these years of evolution have payed off, as the controller has the most balanced overall feel. Both the stick sensitivity and controller weight have found a middle ground between the last two models, the new shoulder buttons are nice, and it is convenient to be able to recharge it via any USB port (it is also nice that the battery is replaceable. In a perfect world we should expect this kind of finesse, but in the console manufacturing world there can never be too many revisions.
This long post at selectbutton.net details some criticisms of the right analog stick and how controllers have become unnecessarily complex, a trend started in part by the Dual Shock. It is a point I can get behind. As much as a Dual Shock may make sense to my eyes, the amount of buttons and directional inputs, as well as their positions on different faces of the controller, could be boggling to many. When Sony continued to add more buttons on top of old Nintendo designs, it seemed natural and useful. But that also added complexity. As a reply in that SB thread states, GTA IV has separate controls for being on foot, in the car and to manage your cell phone. We have buttons that need two words rather than a letter to describe them, and yet we still cannot fit a game’s entire control scheme onto a pad.
And yet perhaps the Dual Shock is really a sign of control. After all, the only extra button added to the scheme isn’t even related to gameplay, meaning the controller has remained the same for ten years. Developers have added layers of context to each and every button, but is that Sony’s (and Nintendo’s and Microsoft’s) fault? Clearly developers and some gamers want more, while companies like Nintendo want less. Something has to give, and it will be interesting to see if the Dual Shock comes back for a fourth round sometimes next decade.