If you’re anything like us you’ve spent thousands of hours holding game controllers during your life, playing your fave console du jour. And, as a result, you probably hold strong opinions about your favourites – which means we’re about to make you hate us. Here’s our pick of the best-ever gaming controllers of all time.
Choosing the best console gamepads and joysticks is no small task. Controllers have become more complex and capable over the years, but also more polished and refined – yet the classics are hugely influential and are firmly lodged within some of our top memories.
Weighing all the variables isn’t easy, but we went ahead and did it anyway: here’s a look at our 10 favourite game controllers of all time. Hope we didn’t miss yours!
10) Atari 2600 joystick (1977)
One stick, one button: that’s all you needed to enjoy many games on the Atari 2600, and that simplicity has secured the original joystick’s place in history as games have become more complex and ambitious.
The CX10 and CX40 models of the joystick both featured the same core design, and while there have certainly been more comfortable and capable sticks over the years, nothing is more iconic.
9) Nintendo GameCube WaveBird (2002)
Of all the gamepads on this list, Nintendo’s GameCube controller is surely the weirdest of the bunch. It looks like a deformed evolution of the N64 controller, with deep analogue shoulder buttons, a curious C-stick, an octagonal guide around both sticks, and a big green button on the front.
In fact, it’s brilliant, worked amazingly well for first-party games and remains a favourite of Smash Bros. junkies. The wireless WaveBird model, meanwhile, was beloved for its strong reception and meatier build.
8) Xbox Elite Controller Series 2 (2019)
The standard Xbox controller feels great in the hand, making smart tweaks to the winning Xbox 360 and Xbox One gamepad design – but the Elite 2 is next-level. Sold for a staggering $180/£160, the Elite 2 is made from higher-end materials and is designed around customisation, offering interchangeable D-pad and analogue stick options, along with paddles and other perks. It’s utterly fantastic, assuming you’re willing to spend for it.
7) Wii Remote (2006)
Gripe all you want about Nintendo’s casual console, but the Wii Remote is a brilliant bit of design. In one slim, TV-like remote, Nintendo managed to bundle button, motion, and pointer controls, and it can be held like an old-school NES pad as well.
Furthermore, the add-on Nunchuk enabled more advanced games with its analogue stick and extra buttons. The Wii wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the Wii Remote ensured it could be played by anyone.
6) PlayStation DualShock (1997)
Once the N64 established that analogue sticks would be the new standard for console gaming, Sony followed suit with its Dual Analog gamepad – and then refined it further with the first DualShock pad.
That core design set the template for modern gamepads, and was so spot-on that Sony barely tweaked it all the way through the PS4 era, only making serious changes for the PS5’s DualSense. It’s comfortable and precise, and honestly, pretty much perfect.
5) Super Nintendo controller (1991)
There’s a world of difference between Nintendo’s original two-button NES controller and this sweet six-button SNES gamepad. The added buttons helped unlock new kinds of gaming, allowing for more engrossing experiences on your TV, while the rounded shape provided the comfort needed for extended play sessions. Sadly, US players were robbed of the colourful face buttons that nearly everyone else got.
4) Sega Mega Drive six-button controller (1993)
The Mega Drive became the system of choice for fighting game fans in the 16-bit era, and it wasn’t just because of Nintendo’s censorship rules: this six-button beauty deserves a lot of the credit, as well. Not only did it double the buttons from the original Mega Drive controller, but putting them all on the face made it more like the arcade setups, which helped Street Fighter II soar. Unsurprisingly, the Saturn kept the same basic design.
3) Nintendo 64 controller (1996)
While the three-pronged shape never really caught on past this one, the Nintendo 64 controller was massively influential for introducing the analog stick that helped launch proper 3D console gaming.
Thanks to that, we had brilliant experiences like Super Mario 64 and GoldenEye 007, and spent hundreds of hours glued to the telly. Truth be told, it’s not the most comfortable controller around, but it was incredibly formative.
2) Xbox 360 controller (2005)
The original Xbox controller was an overlarge misfire, while the Controller S thankfully addressed its problems – but the Xbox 360 controller was pretty excellent from the start, even becoming the closest thing to a standard controller for PC games. It fills your palms without feeling bloated, while the analogue sticks are well-positioned and responsive and the central home button was always handy. Shame about the floaty D-pad, but otherwise it’s a champ.
The pads for the Xbox One and Xbox Series consoles might have tweaked the formula slightly, but the controller ain’t broke, so doesn’t need fixing.
1) PlayStation 5 DualSense (2020)
Other gamepads on this list are obviously more historically influential, but when it comes to refinement and sheer excellence, it’s hard to top the PlayStation 5’s DualSense pad.
Building upon the classic DualShock design from previous PlayStations, this is a controller you just don’t want to let go of: it’s perfectly contoured to your hands, yet packs in a ton of functionality (including a touchpad, haptic feedback and motion sensitivity). As far as traditional gamepads go, it’ll be hard to ever top this one. But we’d love to see them try.
Bonus: Speciality Hall of Fame
We focused on classic gamepad and joysticks for the rankings, but couldn’t help but add a shout-out to some of our favourite extra accessories over the years: the controllers that went above and beyond the norm to deliver one-of-a-kind gaming experiences. Here are three of the best.
NES Zapper (1984)
Nintendo’s formative light gun tech might seem prehistoric now, but it was an absolute blast back in the day thanks to Duck Hunt and Hogan’s Alley.
Guitar Hero Guitar (2005)
Later instruments upped the precision and build quality, but the original PS2 guitar controlled helped fuel so many great memories of faux-rock fun.
Steel Battalion Controller (2002)
Capcom used to take frequent risks, and never was that so obvious than with Steel Battalion‘s massive and expensive robot command centre, which had 40-ish buttons and foot pedals. Madness.