Is The Dreamcast Controller Really That Bad?

One of the recurring criticisms I see levelled at the Dreamcast is that the standard controller is rubbish. It's almost become the de facto response when people discuss the Dreamcast - it's a great console...but that controller! Urgh! From complaints about the trigger travel distance, to the lack of diagonals on the d-pad, to the cardinal sin of having only one analogue stick, the evidence is overwhelmingly damning for the humble HKT-7700. If something is repeated enough times, it eventually passes from the realm of hearsay and into law, right?

With this article, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the Dreamcast's standard controller and investigate whether it really is all that bad, or if it is just a victim of hindsight. In the grand scheme of all things gaming, the Dreamcast's controller is one of the less heavily lambasted - the Atari Jaguar and Nintendo 64 controllers have come in for far more criticism than Sega's offering ever has. However, with the aforementioned examples, gamers who have spent any amount of time with these examples will usually attest that even though they might look a bit unwieldy they're actually pretty comfortable to use. Without going too far off topic, the Jaguar controller is labelled as heavy and cumbersome; but in actual fact is very light and very ergonomic in the hand. Likewise, the Nintendo 64's unorthodox tri-pronged design draws derision in this age of dual analogue sticks and built-in rumble, but back in the day the design of the thing was revolutionary.
But what of the Dreamcast controller? It's true that it is very easy to look back at hardware of the past and casually pour scorn on it, and there are countless listicles on clickbait sites about 'the top 10 worst controllers,' usually written by people who have never even used said hardware; simply basing their opinions on photos they found on Google. As someone who played a Japanese Dreamcast shortly after launch (it wasn't mine - a friend bought one), and then got my own about a week after the UK release in October 1999, I think I'm pretty well qualified to talk at length about the Dreamcast controller. I dread to think how much of my adult life has been wasted spent with a Dreamcast controller in my hands, and so I have some opinions on how it sucks but also on how it's actually pretty good. I also threw this topic open to the good people of the Junkyard's Facebook group and I'll share some of the best comments later on in the article. For now though, let's kick things off with a good look at the controller, its origins and its various parts.
It's pretty clear from the basic design of the unit that the origins of the Dreamcast controller are a derivative of the Sega Saturn 3D controller. The button and analogue stick placement, twinned with the general bulbous two-ponged aesthetic are clearly throwbacks to the earlier concept, and placement of the triggers and d-pad only amplify this. While there is an image floating around online (and this magazine scan) that shows a multitude of alternative prototypes for the Dreamcast controller, it's pretty obvious that someone thought the 3D controller design was the one to go with and so it was adapted and updated.
In truth though, the subtle changes made to various aspects of the 3D controller as it evolved into the Dreamcast controller are somewhat puzzling, and while some offer improvements, others are clearly a step back. For instance, the d-pad...

The d-pad
The d-pad on the Dreamcast controller is an odd little thing. It's a perfect cross sticking up from the body of the controller that has no diagonals and is - and I know I'm going to get called out for this - pretty uncomfortable on the thumb with extended use. See, the edges are actually pretty severe and while there's no issue when using the d-pad to navigate menus, once you start grinding down on it while playing a fighter, for example, the edges can really dig into your thumb. Quite why Sega decided to ditch the almost perfect d-pad of the Sega Saturn controller is beyond me, but they did and it's a bit of a shame. Naturally, there are dedicated fighting controllers available for the Dreamcast that nullify this complaint but this is about the standard Dreamcast controller, and not fight sticks or Ascii pads or Total Control adapters.
On top of this issue with the edges of the d-pad, I've always found the thing to be a bit 'mushy,' and even though I own 20 - 30 controllers of varying ages and colours, they all seem to be the same. They work fine, but I don't really have much confidence in their accuracy simply because of the general fuzzy, squashiness of the d-pad feel...if that makes sense. Overall, the d-pad (for me, at least) is one of the weakest aspects of the Dreamcast controller simply because of the slightly stark dimensions and lack of true diagonals.

Face buttons
The same cannot be said of the face buttons on the Dreamcast controller. All four of them - A, B, X and Y are pretty crisp in their response to being jabbed by digits and there really isn't a lot that can be said about them, other than that they work just fine. Sega's move away from the standard 3 in a row A, B, C (or six in two rows if you also count X, Y, Z) is intriguing, especially as their previous two consoles used these layouts.
Maybe the decision was taken to adopt a more PlayStation-esque diamond layout as a way to really remove the Dreamcast from the general public's perception and association with the relative failure of the Sega Saturn, 32X and Mega CD. It's still an intriguing set up when you consider the sheer number of 2D and 3D fighters on the Dreamcast, all of which would have benefitted from a six button layout that came as standard on previous Sega controllers. Either way, the four here work well, and the basic digital inputs used in favour of analogue face buttons as seen on the later Dual Shock 2 means that user maintenance is incredibly easy.

Analogue controls
On the topic of analogue controls, this is one area that usually divides opinion on the Dreamcast controller. There are three analogue devices installed on the peripheral in total - the left and right triggers and the lone analogue stick. First, the triggers. Unlike the PlayStation Dual Shock controller, the Dreamcast controller eschews traditional shoulder buttons in favour of a single analogue trigger on each corner. These are actually pretty good for racing games where analogue acceleration is a necessity, but for things like first person shooters they are way less preferable to having a digital shoulder button to simulate a trigger pull.
On top of this, the positioning of the triggers can present issues with extended use as the placement and travel of them can make it pretty uncomfortable for index fingers to be constantly held in certain positions. Speaking from experience, there have been times where the degree of travel has lead to slight hand cramps or 'trigger finger' in the left hand because of the placement of the analogue stick directly above (almost) where the left trigger reaches the limit of travel. It's quite an unnatural position for a human hand to find itself in, when you actually think about it. That said, for the most part the triggers work really well when their correctly implemented in a game's control scheme. Apart from the noise of the springs screeching and echoing as they compress and recoil in their plastic housings, moaning about the analogue triggers seems like nitpicking in truth. There are a number of different revisions of trigger mechanisms, here are a couple you might be familiar with:
Now, on to the main event and the main criticism that I see more than any other levelled at the Dreamcast controller. The analogue stick...or rather, the lack of a second analogue stick. The one that's on the controller is actually pretty decent - it's far better that the one on the Nintendo 64 controller and due to the design is less prone to developing a huge dead zone through use. That said, there are a couple of different mechanism designs and some work better than others. The earlier Dreamcast controllers - specifically those released in Japan - tend to employ an almost steam punk mechanical mechanism housed inside a metal box (that looks like something out of Hellraiser), and over time these can become pretty hard to use with any accuracy. The up/down/left/right movement remains fine, but diagonal movement becomes a tad rigid. I've included some images below so you can see what I'm talking about, but the later plastic analogue mechanisms that implement a sort of 'ball and socket' system seem to retain their smooth movement and rotation, even with heavy and sustained use.
The convex shape of the thumb pad atop the analogue stick can lead to particularly sweaty thumbs slipping off in the heat of the moment, and the circular arrangement of the grip dimples doesn't really help matters because of the non-porous, plasticky nature of the material. Modern controllers tend to use more rubberised materials for their analogue controllers and quite possibly for this reason. However, when it comes to the crunch the Dreamcast analogue stick is perfectly functional and robust. There has been a recent rise in the popularity of replacing the analogue stick entirely with rubberised PS4 or Xbox One sticks, but if you aren't fussed about this there's nothing inherently wrong with the standard stick. The main issue many people have with the stick though, is that there's only one of them.
See, the Dreamcast launched in Japan at the end of November 1998 - almost a full year after the release of Sony's Dual Shock controller, a peripheral which was itself released in the same country in mid November 1997. The Dual Shock was the first mainstream controller to feature two analogue sticks as standard and it pretty much paved the way for the design of modern console controllers, the vast majority of which have twin sticks, and this in turn has had a knock on effect on the way games are designed for consoles.
First person shooters, sports sims, some fighting games and a whole range of other genres take full advantage of the twin stick standard now in force (on consoles, at least) and with the Dreamcast controller it's almost as if Sega ignored the way things were going. While twin stick games were in no way as ubiquitous as they are today back in the late 1990s, if Sega had taken a quick glimpse at the Dual Shock and produced a revised Dreamcast controller with two analogue sticks (piss-poor artists's impression above), then there's the smallest chance that a whole range of games could have come to the console. First person shooters would certainly have been easier to play with the standard controller for those who didn't have the space for a mouse and keyboard. To expand on this a little more, Roel van Mastbergen of Senile Team offered the following insight:

Perhaps it would be interesting for your article to know that the Dreamcast internally supported controllers with more buttons and axes than were actually ever used. When you connect a controller to your Dreamcast, it sends data over the Maple Bus to tell the Dreamcast which kind of hardware it is and which buttons and stuff it has.

Interestingly that data may contain 6 analogue axes (two triggers and two analogue sticks) and even two d-pads. The maximum number of digital buttons is actually eight: A, B, C, D, X, Y, Z and Start.

So it seems that in principle, the Dreamcast could have supported controllers with an array of features comparable to the current generation's, but sadly such controllers were never actually produced.
Maybe some tech-savvy fan could design one that supports all the potential features? Can't be more difficult than the GD-EMU and wireless controllers that have already been invented!
- Roel van Mastbergen, Senile Team

While it's also true that the vast majority of Sega's first party titles don't really suffer for not having dual analogue sticks at their disposal, there are still those gamers who decry the lack of a second stick, and they do make some good points. Here's regular contributor Martin Hinson with his own take on this mono-sticked approach:

Well, what an odd thing this is. I can’t imagine how this actually came into being. I mean, it’s Sega, leaders in 3D technology in the arcades, creators of the stunning Sega Saturn pad and of incredibly diverse gaming experiences. Yet they somehow release a pad that was effectively out of date on launch day!

So what’s wrong with it? Well, the most incredible omission is the right analogue stick. It seems baffling considering the launch of the Dual Shock a year before and the N64 pad, which featured its ‘C’ buttons in 1996. How did Sega plan to allow you to fully manipulate 3D videogames?

Many argue it is fine for the type of games on it. I disagree. Trying to walk around in Shenmue is a total disaster. It didn’t control especially well on release due to mapping movement to the digital pad, but it’s even worse when using the same thumb to manipulate the camera too!

Factor in another important issue too - multi-format games. The Dreamcast was at an immediate disadvantage with its rivals because games like Quake simply don’t work as well without dual analogue. Of course a mouse and keyboard is best here but that is extra expense.

Talking about buttons, the Dreamcast controller fares a little better here. The lack of buttons is a big problem because again multi-format games suffer, especially as games became more complex. But what is has is decent. Face buttons are superb to use, feel tight and clickly and do not leave the ache that the 360 pad buttons leave on my bony fingers. Triggers are generally decent. Certainly good for the time but I did find they tend to dig in after too many hours on Shutokou Battle and they aren’t positioned all that well - it feels like you’re holding a tray.  In all honesty though, I’ve never been fully comfortable with triggers until the sublime Xbox One triggers. 

The d-Pad is pretty average. It is responsive but hitting diagonals accidentally is an issue. The edges tend to dig in a bit too but there are worse out there. Of course after the Saturn pad it should be the best d-Pad ever but hey ho! I quite like the analogue stick too. It’s positioned too high but it’s smooth and comfortable.

Overall then is the Dreamcast pad awful? Well, it lacks seemingly obvious features and is a little clumsy to hold. Sometimes I’m not sure if I should be using it for gaming or balancing my dinner plate on it. No, it’s not the worst pad I’ve ever used but given the ambitions of the console, it just doesn’t help it fulfil them. Given we were balls deep in the 3D era in 1998, Sega scored a spectacular own goal by not having a right analogue stick so I’m going to have to say yes, the Dreamcast controller is in fact, terrible. 
- Martin Hinson

Personally, I've never really found the lack of a second stick to be much of an issue in the games that came to the Dreamcast. The vast majority of them managed to make good enough use of either the standard controller or any of the other specialised peripherals that they're still perfectly playable. However, one can't help but think 'what if...' when it comes to the subject of a redesigned, twin stick controller.
Microsoft redesigned the 'Duke' controller and brought out the smaller Controller S, and even Atari redesigned the Jaguar's controller and released a Pro Controller that added much-needed shoulder buttons to the base peripheral. Would a twin-sticked Dreamcast controller really have been that much of an effort for Sega? Sure, adding backwards compatibility to games designed before the new controller emerged would have been nigh on impossible, but there was plenty of time between the Dual Shock launch and the Dreamcast launch to at least look at the issue.

Wire placement
Moving away from the analogue stick issue for now, the other main gripe a lot of people have with the Dreamcast controller is the placement of the controller's wire. It protrudes from the bottom of the controller, closest to the player, rather than from the top like with most other wired peripherals. This is most probably down to the placement of the apertures for the VMU and rumble accessories and routing the controller wire through the housing and out through the top (either above or below the expansion ports) would potentially have presented two issues for Sega.
One of these being more complex assembly methods; and the other being a less aesthetically pleasing appearance. Again, I don't have any issues with the placement of the controller wire and the little groove in the underside of the controller does a good job of gripping the cable and keeping it out of harm's way. However, everyone is entitled to an opinion and for some people it just feels plain wrong. Oh, and there's a start button that pauses stuff. It works great.

The shape
Here's another aspect that splits opinion. The overall shape of the controller (as alluded to earlier) is a derivative of the Saturn 3D controller. The difference is that the bulky handles and chunky nature of the earlier peripheral have been slimmed down and streamlined for the Dreamcast. I've seen it said that the edges of the two 'prongs' can cause hand pain if held for two long, while I've also heard of people just outright saying the configuration of the controller makes it painful to use.
Personally I've had nothing like this happen to me, but it does raise a concern. This aside, the controller does fit in the hands quite well and the face buttons and analogue placement does allow for the thumbs to naturally rest on them, while the triggers encourage index fingers to be curled around them almost instinctively.
Other opinions
In the course of creating this post, I wanted to get the opinions of Dreamcast owners on the overall perception of the Dreamcast controller; and so I threw the question open to the members of our Facebook group. The general consensus from those who use the controller regularly is that it performs its function in a more than satisfactory manner, although it isn't all universal praise. Here are a selection of the comments I received, both positive and negative...

The only real issue I have is that the triggers are too low down, especially when using the analog stick. It’s not so bad with the d-pad. - Daniel Turner

In comparison it was an abomination after the wonderful Japanese Saturn controller. Does the job, but that's about it. - Bill Mitsis

I think it is a brilliant controller. The d-pad is strong, the buttons more than responsive. It works perfectly for the games that were designed to work with it! - Scott Ashton Perry

I think the DC controller is almost fine, but the Saturn one was perfection and the DC's triggers feel a bit awkward. - Carlos Oliveros

I think it's SUPER comfortable to hold and works brilliantly for the games on the system. Love the VMU. Probably one of my favourite controllers. However, it does have a few downsides:

- Cable too short (especially when you lose a few inches because it comes out the bottom of the controller)
- Lack of second analogue stick (though it did come out around a time when only the PS1 had it and not many games needed it - but it would have been very helpful)
- Also lack of two additional buttons, like on the NiGHTS controller, N64 and PS1... and all other future controllers since.

So, generally I really like the controller and love playing games with it. But a few changes and it could have been perfect. - Graham Cookson

The controller is largely well designed. My only gripes are the d-pad and the feel of the thumbstick. Never enjoyed how the thumbstick seems to drag but also has a lot of give at the same time. - Jamie Sweeney

They should have kept it closer to the Saturn 3D one, or at least copied the second analog if going after the Sony design (that d-pad screams Sony rather than Sega). That being said, it's still better than some current ones,  especially when it comes to the buttons. Sega's buttons always felt more precise and responsive. - Antonio Do Rego Barros Neto

Overal fine controller, but not without flaws:

- The standard analog stick cap is definitely not the best: it's very hard, not concave and can hurt the thumb over time, plus can become very slippery.
- The D-pad edges are pretty sharp, they should have kept the round Saturn D-pad design.
- Really could have benefited from shoulder buttons at the top.
- Might feel uncomfortable to people with big hands unless they are operating the triggers with the middle fingers instead of index fingers.
- Should have had internal/built-in rumble: for the few games that supports the microphone, you can't have a VMU, rumble pack and microphone attached at the same time. - Thomas Elias

I think it's one of the worst. Analogue stick is convex, to make matters worse it's small and hard plastic so is slippery, it has a huge dead zone, it doesn't move smoothly so very subtle movements for racing games in particular are very hard, the d-pad is poor, very spongey, not the worst in the world but a downgrade from the Saturn one and something I would except to find on a cheap 3rd party controller. The triggers are good though, it's about the only thing I would give it pass marks for, the buttons are poor, the rubber membranes used for them are weak and small and lack pop so it never seem like you have that reassuring click as you press it down like you had with the Mega Drive and Saturn buttons, the general comfort of holding the controller isn't good, it feels like the analogue stick is in an awkward position, although I acknowledge this is subjective. So all in all one of the worst I've used.

I'm not just saying this retrospectively, which is why I'm not even mentioning about the lack of second analogue stick, I thought it at the time also, they should have stuck with the large 6 face button layout giving you 8 buttons in total and concave analogue stick and superior D-Button of the nights controller. - Gaz Cormak

So as you can see, opinions are divided even among the members of our Facebook group. Thanks to everyone who took the time to answer my question.

Conclusion
So there we are. Do we have a conclusive answer as to whether the Dreamcast controller is really that bad? I think it comes down to personal preference in all honesty, but the one thing I'm sure of is that the humble controller isn't really anywhere near as heinous as some people make out. It performs its function well, and although it is far from perfect (for that, see the Xbox 360 controller) it doesn't deserve the negative press it sometimes receives. An extra analogue stick, a couple of extra shoulder buttons or face buttons and a better d-pad could all have improved the overall usability...but is the Dreamcast controller bad? I certainly don't think so.
Agree with these points? Disagree? Want to chuck your two penneth in without reading this fucking laborious essay? Then leave a comment below or get involved in the conversation over in our Facebook group or on Twitter. We also have a Patreon here, a YouTube channel here and you can listen to the latest episode of our podcast here.

Thanks to Martin, Roel and everyone who took the time to answer my question in the Facebook group!

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10 comments:

Hasami Age said...

The vast majority are accustomed to playing Sony's joystick, which has also been adapted by Microsoft and when they change a different joystick they say it's bad because it's different.

DCGX said...

My issues with the controller are much like Tom's. I don't think it's a bad pad, merely okay with need for improvement. Moving the cord, a slightly better D-Pad (though I've always used the arcade stick for anything that really needed it or a D-Pad), and a second analog stick.

To me the second analog stick was always the most puzzling omission, because of the reason Tom lays out that the first Dual Shock had already been out for a bit.

The contours and how the controller feels in my hand was second to none until the Xbox Controller S was released. The DC pad is still really comfortable in my hands, even with the improvements Microsoft and Sony have made to their mainstays. The pad does get a little top heavy, though, with a jump pack and VMU inserted.

hoogafanter said...

I've always found the Dreamcast D-pad to be the best in the industry. It's so funny how fingers can feel things so differently...

But in general it was a good controller. Not great, not bad, but good. It did the job and very few games suffered from it's limitations(but those few certainly did).

Florian Wallin said...

Nice article Tom !

I think that the design is really nice tbh. When it comes to the controllers functionality i love almost everything about it, from the imo perfect grip to the D-pad (i agree with hoogafanter). The only thing i simply cant understand is what has been stated a thousand times , the "missing" second analog stick.

All in all , the controller makes my top 5 list (where the new xbox controller takes the lead)

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks for your comments all. I hope people don't misconstrue my own thoughts on the controller - I personally quite like it. Plus, I've been using it for so long now it feels like a familiar old friend haha!

Anthony Harrap said...

Great Article. I hate all the DC controller bashing that seems to have sprung up recently. Funnily enough I used to dislike the controller but now I kind of live it. Duel analogue would have been nice, but the games are designed around it so it's not an issue mostly. I love having the cord out of the top. Means I can plop it on my lap and still look at the VMU.

Anthony Harrap said...

Lol, cord out the bottom I mean.

Furious Furian said...

It was light, chunky enough to feel comfortable in my hands and you had the VMU! Miles better than the switch controller...

Grezzo said...

Seriously, one of the worst feature in the PS dual shock controller was the terribole position of the left analog stick. The anaolg stick of the dreamcast was in perfect position, later standard for the great controller of the Xbox and xbox 360 (as well as the analog triggers and Xbox one too). I can't believe someone think dreamcast pad was terrible, I've played even the fantastic Quake 3 Arena with that, and although the combination keyboard/mouse was the best solution for FPS, it wasn't bad at all. I can't imagine playing the same title with dual shock.

On Quake 3 Arena, I've played with the 4 split screen in local against friends who never used the controller at the time, and they learned how to play really fast without any problem

Schmidt said...

when you look at 99, the dreamcast controller is not too bad, but people compare the technology of today with the technology of 15 years ago. Good controller for the games made, and bad for modern 3D games, and cam style.Back to the past, in 99 I was not thinking about the controller, I just played.