The Xbox Series X marked a big step up in Xbox gaming hardware, speaking as someone who upgraded from a regular Xbox One. But despite all of the console's changes and upgrades, the controller stayed almost exactly the same.
Meanwhile the PS5 came out with the DualSense, a controller that was noticeably different from what came before. Sure, it may share some of the same DNA as the Dualshock 4, but it showed us that Sony is willing to experiment and try new things. Meanwhile, the Xbox controller has remained largely unchanged since 2005.
Or rather, the general design of the controller has remained unchanged. Microsoft has made some refinements to the Xbox controller over the years, and for good reason. The D-pad on the Xbox 360 controller was absolute trash, and the Xbox Series X controller has a much better one.
Other changes include adding an extra button (for sharing screenshots), shifting the position of the Xbox logo, switching to more sensible ports and fine-tuning the general aesthetic. During this time, the general shape and purpose of the controller has remained the same.
Heck, the Xbox controller still runs on AA batteries, rather than some kind of internal battery pack. The only other product in my house than run on AA batteries is the light in the cupboard under my stairs.
Meanwhile Sony has done more with its controllers, adding features and altering the design in a bunch of different ways. There are people out there who don’t like the DualSense controller for a variety of reasons. Tom’s Guide gaming editor Marshall Honorof is one of them, and has said some harsh things about it over the past two years.
Personally, I feel that features such as the adaptive triggers and large touchpad are helpful, even if they’re not entirely necessary. But most of all, I like the fact that Sony is willing to try new things and change up its controller design. I wish Microsoft would do the same thing with the Xbox Series X, even if those new features are exclusive to some future version of the Xbox Elite controller.
You can argue that there’s no need to mess with a good thing. Nintendo’s controllers, for example, have been all over the place throughout the years. The NES and SNES controllers were simple and effective, but then came the ergonomic nightmare that was the N64 controller.
The GameCube was a massive improvement, which may help explain why the same basic design is still in use on the Switch. But then the Wii and Wii U came along and changed the formula yet again. To me, it feels as though Nintendo built those consoles around their controllers, rather than the other way round, and with wildly different levels of success. It’s the perfect example of why change for change’s sake isn't necessarily going to work out. But change is inevitable, and progress only comes through the trial and error of innovation.
What the Xbox Series X controller gets right
Granted, there's a lot to love about Xbox controllers. The design is pretty comfortable, and in the past, they were much better than the DualShock controllers that PlayStations came with during the ‘00s.
Likewise, there’s little I’d change about the physical layout. While I wouldn’t claim Microsoft “invented” the Xbox controller button setup, it’s telling that there are so many other controllers that employ a very similar design. The Nintendo Switch Pro Controller is among them.
Unfortunately, being the default means that your traditional controller is the safe option. And "safe" can easily become "boring" if you’re not careful. I’d love for Microsoft to take a page out of Sony’s book and say, “this works, but let’s see what else this controller can do”.
Let’s see the Xbox controller equivalent of glow-in-the-dark ice cream (opens in new tab). Totally unnecessary; certainly not for everyone; but something you’d sure as heck like to try out for yourself.
The Xbox shouldn’t end up with a like-for-like copy of the DualSense’s extra features, as much as I’d like to try adaptive triggers on an Xbox. But Microsoft still needs to show a willingness to experiment. The company should throw some new features into the mix and see what’s worth keeping around.
Oh, and fix the upload button while you’re at it, Microsoft. I can never remember how the darn thing works. That's another thing the PS5 manages to get right.