D-Pad vs Thumbsticks

I grew up in a time where characters/objects in games only moved in four directions (Up, Down, Left or Right). The D-Pad (aka Directional Pad) was the way to move in any game. It wasn’t until my third or fourth console where I was introduced to the concept of the thumbstick (Nintendo 64). And we now have dual thumbsticks on many of our controllers.

Back in the D-Pad only days, three-dimensional games had yet to arrive.

It wasn’t until 1996 that the Nintendo 64 gave us the thumbstick (just one). My first 3D FPS (first-person shooter) thumbstick experiences were in games like Goldeneye and Perfect Dark on the N64. It began as a mix between one stick and directional buttons. You used the thumbstick to move your character and the four directional C buttons to look around. Later on controllers gave us two sticks and we had to learn to combine both to move and look around.

It’s funny that I never really thought about the learning curve for someone coming into games today for the first time (or the first time since the old days of gaming). When my girlfriend started playing games with me last year, we started out with Rocket League and Mario Kart (two driving games) which were pretty simple to understand. They both only used either the D-Pad or a stick for movement, and had some pretty straightforward controls.

I later had her try Splatoon 2. It took some getting used to for her to learn how to walk and look around. The motion controls also make it a little tough to understand. I still have trouble with the Splatoon motion controls, and I’ve been playing since Splatoon 1 on Wii U. Today, she’s a Splat-rollin’ fiend. She rolls over and splashes down on fools.

Today, there are many different types of games. While I mostly use my thumbsticks in games today, there are still some where I choose to use my D-Pad. There are even some games where I combine a combo of the two (D-Pad + thumbsticks).

The D-Pad today has been demoted in many games to emotes, commands and other side hustles. It may be used as a shortcut to grab specific weapons. And sure there are still many games today where the D-Pad and thumbsticks are interchangeable. Here’s some of those games and how I play them:

TONY HAWK PRO SKATER 1 + 2 REMAKE

I spent so much time knocking out sick scores in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 (the blue cartridge) on my N64 as a kid. It was always a D-Pad game for me back then. The flips, grabs and grinds were just easier to perform that way. Also, leaning with the D-Pad was just better.

Today, playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 Remake I find myself doing the same. When I first got the game I thought maybe it’s time to use the thumbsticks, but I was wrong. Tony Hawk games will always be D-Pad skateboarding.

EA’s Skate games were different though. Skate created a new mechanic where you would flick the joysticks as if they were the skaters feet. It was a much more realistic skating sim experience. Tony Hawk games are fantastical, arcade-style skateboarding while the Skate games are realistic, skateboarding sim.

CRASH BANDICOOT N. SANE TRILOGY

I just started playing the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy last week on my PS5 (since it was given to me for FREE). Before this I had only played Crash in Uncharted. I was thinking of buying Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, but I decided to first go back to the N. Sane Trilogy for FREE.

This is one game where I choose to use both the D-pad and thumbstick for movement depending on the level design. Also, I may change based on what I’ve been using and how much I’m currently failing. Crash Bandicoot is an extremely hard game (I’m still stuck in game one of three). I have seen the spooky “Game Over” face plenty of times.

I find myself primarily using the D-Pad, but failing over and over so I instead try out the thumbstick to see if that helps (I play this way in many indie/8-bit and 16-bit type games: Celeste, Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac…). I am enjoying Crash after so many years and I’m excited to make it all the way to It’s About Time (Crash 4) one day.

PICROSS

In my Picross games I can use both the D-Pad and the Thumbstick to move through the boxes, however I choose the D-Pad in this game. Why? Because I make less errors that way.

Picross is a puzzle game that’s all about speed and solving puzzles quickly. The D-pad allows for precision, by clicking the amount of spaces I want to move. 

The thumbsticks are a free-for-all where I just hold it, hopefully long enough but not too long, to get to where I want to go. I have failed so many times trying to be quick with the stick, so I will continue to stick with the D-pad in my Picross games.


Today’s controllers continue to have their version of the D-Pad, along with usually two thumbsticks. I was sad to learn that Nintendo Switch Joy-Con wouldn’t come with a D-Pad, although I understand the reasoning behind it. Since you can use a single joy-con as a controller sideways, it wouldn’t make sense to have the thumbstick and D-Pad only.

I’m happy with my Nintendo Switch Pro controller and it’s D-Pad. I’ve heard of some problems with the D-Pad registering the wrong direction, but I haven’t really experienced that. There is a third-party joy-con by Hori, but since it doesn’t have any kind of battery in it it eats your Switch battery faster and won’t work when not attached to the Switch screen.

The Playstation 4 and 5 D-Pads are great but not traditional, cross-style D-Pads. Instead they are broken up into four separate buttons (one for each direction). They do respond and feel great and I use them in plenty of my games. Even though the two are almost identical in shape the new Playstation 5 DualSense D-Pad feels stronger and better to me.

image from eurogamer.net

Xbox now has the coolest looking D-Pad on the market. It sort of reminds me of the old school Sega Genesis D-Pad. I have not tried out the Series X|S or the new Xbox controller, but I hope to try out all of these one day.

The Xbox One controller of last generation had a full D-Pad like the Switch Pro controller which I love using on my PC. The new Xbox Series X|S controller has a totally new D-pad, it’s an octagonal-like D-pad that has not only the four traditional directions (up, down, left, right), but also four in-between diagonal buttons. This is like a hybrid between the D-pad and the Joystick.

D-Pads definitely are a representation of the old school games I grew up on, but I’m happy that new controllers and games still implement them and I don’t think they’ll be going away anytime soon.

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