Unblockable: Controller Theories from a Musician

Unblockable is a series of argumentative pieces that seek to challenge the ways we think about competitive games. In this piece, I take ideas about controller usage in fighting games and dissect them from the perspective of musical instrument design.

Unblockable is a series of argumentative pieces that seek to challenge the ways we think about competitive games.




I was shocked when my band director told me that “the trombone is the fastest instrument in the concert band.” If you’ve ever had the chance to try playing one, the instrument feels awkward to hold and requires a strange looseness of the embouchure compared to the trumpet or other smaller brass instruments. Yet, when we see a solo performance of Flight of the Bumblebee, the trombone indeed seems to have more than enough finesse to play a notoriously tricky piece as this. The premise is that with a slide, you can reach all necessary positions with merely a flick of the wrist without any resistance. Alternatively, the valves on the trumpet must reach their neutral position to hit the majority of notes. To make an analogy, valves have recovery, while a slide does not. Of course, Flight of the Bumblebee can be played on nearly any instrument, but this theory puts the trombone on top as far as instrument response speed goes.



Players getting in to fighting games often labor over the nuances of different controllers, and with the innumerable variety of controllers, sticks, and boxes, all with unique button and lever setups, everyone wants to know which one is unanimously best. Ultimately, the most important factors of controller choice are comfort and hand-healthy practices, but applying this theory may clear up the costs and benefits of different controller choices.






Stick purists will deny the viability of controllers for a multitude of reasons, but one such reason would be button response. Ultimately, all controller buttons are different, but they fall under the same category as trumpet valves. Buttons must spring back to their neutral position before you can hit them again. That said, not all buttons are created equal.



While it may seem that the advantage of your stick’s Sanwa buttons over a Dualshock 4’s is the response rate, I actually look at them as if they are the same. However, the digit-to-button ratio is much higher on a stick than a controller, especially given most fighters utilize six separate normal attack buttons, and most sticks have a total of eight buttons, the extra ones allowing some binding options. With a normal grip on a standard controller, your one right thumb is responsible for four normal attack buttons. Though controllers with six face buttons designed for fighting games are available, the real advantage would be changing to a claw style grip. Though not many choose to play this way, it’s not uncommon to see a Melee player utilize this to maximize button and c-stick efficiency.






In regards to left hand movement, both Dpads and hitboxes suffer from button response rate. However, hitboxes utilize for separate buttons for movement, while a directional pad is often a single piece of plastic on a fulcrum point. The key difference here is that the directional pad is not capable of hitting opposing directions at the same time, while a hitbox can shuffle between them as fast as the buttons respond. This also opens up various tech that would be potentially impossible to perform on a Dpad.


Analog sticks and joysticks function like slides, as the player has full control over their placement in relation to the space afforded by the individual controller/restrictor gate. While they have the potential dexterity advantage over button based control, the hitbox still affords the ability to input opposing directions. 



This begs the question, which movement control method is the strongest? At this point, it comes down to what you are playing. Assuming we are all human playing without machine-like precision, we can see a unique advantage to choosing a hitbox over an arcade stick or controller. Street Fighter V’s input lag and relatively low execution standard means that this choice could be all but meaningless at the highest levels, and Gooteck’s hitbox performance at ELeague did little to convince anyone of its benefits. All the while, Hax$’s use of the hitbox solely for hand health in Melee has lit the community on fire, with accusations flying over the apparent competitive edge the device may potentially have. Tournament legality is yet another factor one may consider when weighing these options, and those standards are entirely game specific.




This discussion serves to merely theorize the values of different types of controllers, but does little in practice for the average fighting gamer. Regardless of what you choose to use, you’re playing the same game with a human being at your side. The decision boils down to personal preference, taking into account comfort, hand health, and your games of choice. One day we may have a controller that mimics the responsiveness and precision of a guitar, trumpet, or trombone. If anything, this may be an inspiration for a designer or an engineer to look deeper into what methods we could potentially use to control our games.

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