Recently I’ve been using a new controller to play video games. It has buttons on the top, and triggers on the back. It also has buttons underneath.
“Buttons underneath?” you might be saying. “That is madness! What will they think of next??” Or maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “Sheesh, this guy is only now learning about underbuttons? What kind of ‘journalism’ is this?” To people in that second group: I’m going to assume that a fair number of our readers have heard of underbuttons but not actually really used them.
In the past I’ve ranked controller buttons, debated the best game controllers, and dedicated substantial podcast discussion time to the subject. I’d been intrigued by Microsoft’s new-ish Xbox One Elite controller ever since reading Mike Fahey’s review and hearing to some of my other colleagues sing its praises. Last weekend, in a fit of post-Black-Friday extravagance, I went ahead and bought one. I’ve been using it for PC games all week.
Quick takes up front: Yes, it is a good controller. No, I don’t think it should cost $150. Yes, I’m concerned about the number of people leaving negative user reviews on Amazon and elsewhere that report hardware failure after a few months of use. No, I don’t play all PC games with a controller; I really like mouse and keyboard, too. And yes, despite generally preferring the DualShock 4 to the Xbox One controller, so far I prefer the Xbox Elite controller to the lightly modified DS4 I had previously been using.
Most reviews I read of the Elite controller focused on its build quality, customizable thumbsticks and triggers, and pleasing heft. But what’s completely freaking me out about this controller are its four customizable “paddles,” two under each grip. You can assign these to any button on the controller. In less than a week, they have noticeably changed the way I play video games.
After plugging the controller in, you can open an app on PC (or on your Xbox One) and rearrange the buttons on your controller however you want. That’s how you assign other buttons to the left and right paddles. I’ve made custom layouts for a few games, but by default I assign the top paddles to their respective bumpers, and the bottom paddles to their respective thumbsticks. (For some reason, Microsoft does not allow you to bind non-controller keyboard shortcuts to buttons on the Elite controller. I paid $150 for this effing thing and would like the option to use it to quicksave or take a screenshot. Come on, Microsoft. Anyway.)
I’ve been impressed with how different it feels to play a game using underbuttons. In Dishonored 2, I’ve got the top-left paddle assigned to the “lean” command, which makes it much easier to organically lean around objects in the environment than it had been using the Y button. In Watch Dogs 2 I can hack people with a paddle instead of a shoulder button, which makes hacking feel much more seamless. In first-person shooters I can remap jumping to a paddle, converting the “bumper jumper” controller layout into a superior “paddle jumper” setup. In most games I now run or perform a melee attack by flicking a paddle, not clicking a thumbstick. Turns out clicking a thumbstick is a pretty garbage input method.
Dark Souls 3 has been notably transformed, as I have immediate access to the shoulder buttons for attack and defense. That game is inextricably tied to its specific controller layout, and playing with paddles smoothes things out significantly. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst also plays very differently, given how much that game uses the shoulder buttons. In No Man’s Sky, my melee attack is tied to the upper-right paddle, which makes it even easier to pull off the melee + jump-skate move. In The Witcher 3, I can switch between signs much faster. I’ve remapped the paddles to fire off abilities in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, which works far better than the D-pad. The list goes on—every game I’ve played has opened itself up to interesting custom layouts.
There are downsides, of course, mainly in that the paddles are pretty sensitive. I accidentally press buttons regularly, and it’s difficult to put the controller down without accidentally pushing them. It doesn’t work all that well with how I operate, given how often I rest my controller on my knee or leg instead of a desk or table.
The Xbox Elite controller isn’t the only controller with underbuttons, it’s just the first one I’ve owned. Valve’s Steam Controller has a pair of programmable grip buttons on its underside. Companies like Razer also make custom controllers with underbuttons. Lots of pro streamers use Scuf controllers, which do, too. Each company’s got their own twist on how to best implement the concept,and it’ll be interesting to see if the best ideas will win out over time. I’m also curious if underbuttons could eventually become a standard like the D-pad or shoulder buttons. Given how useful they’ve already proven to be, I could see it happening.
Now that I’ve had this underbutton awakening, I’m curious how many of you out there play with these sorts of controllers. If you do, what do you use underbuttons for? Are any custom controllers in particular worth checking out?Is this the first step toward finally getting a squeezable controller? Discuss.