New Xbox 360 Controller
Has the notoriously rubbish d-pad turned the corner?
If there's one thing wrong with the Xbox 360 (apart from being about as robust as a pillar of flour in a hurricane), it's that the directional pad on the otherwise-excellent controller is useless. It's hard enough to navigate the dashboard menus: scrolling through lists, the cursor flies off to adjacent boxes as the d-pad decides it's been angled left or right; and inputting text with the on-screen keyboard is like driving one of those carnival bicycles where the handlebars and front wheel turn in different directions. For games like Pro Evolution Soccer, Street Fighter II and Pac-Man Championship Edition, it's necessary to fall back on the analogue stick - a weaker option for precise, reflexive directional combinations, but in the 360's case still a dramatic improvement.
That's why Microsoft's decision to rejig the Xbox 360 d-pad for a new version of the controller, due for release in October, drew so much attention when the pad mysteriously appeared on Konami's PES stand at Games Convention in August - and why the manufacturer's apparent disinterest is baffling. It wasn't just announced with little fanfare; it wasn't actually announced. We had to drag a statement out of Microsoft to confirm it was even new, and at the time of writing the company has been unable to give us a detailed explanation of how the pad's reported 32-direction input will be implemented in games, whether it will be available for developers to patch for retrospectively, or even whether PESFan's claim that the new d-pad will be included in all future Xbox 360 controllers - not just the limited-edition lime-green version due out next month - is true.
We have, however, been given the actual controller, which gives us the chance to answer one question, at least. In software terms, we don't expect it to make any difference in existing games - because presumably they won't have been programmed to look for its additional directions - but there is still the question of whether it's physically different enough to have any impact on games that weren't designed to make use of the extra angles. With the help of Pac-Man Championship Edition, Street Fighter II' Hyper Fighting, Pro Evolution Soccer 2008, Lumines Live and Tetris Splash - where gameplay suffers under the rule of the old d-pad - that's what we're here to find out.
Street Fighter II was one of three we really cared about. Your humble guide isn't even that good at SFII, but give me a SNES pad or an arcade stick and filthy Ken (no honour) and no amount of sweeps and blocks will withstand the fireballs and dragon punches that I shall rain down upon you. Unless you've played the game before, obviously. It's never worked out like that on the original Xbox 360 d-pad and, as we settled in for a couple of tours of the arcade mode with old blondie, it became apparent that nothing's changed. Fireballs are easy enough on both pads, but dragon punches are a lottery, and the new d-pad - though it requires less thumb force to depress - is no better or worse. Failure.
Moving on to Tetris Splash (unfairly maligned in Ellie's excoriating 3/10 review, I thought - but then I like fish more than her), the story's much the same. Positioning blocks precisely in both games is paramount, and accidental lateral shuffles can be devastating (or at least very frustating). In Tetris' case, the fact that you push the up direction to slam pieces instantly to the ground - often moving thumb from the bottom to the top of the d-pad, in a motion that easily picks up sideways nudges - felt like a good test of the new d-pad. But if anything, we were given pause about the old one. In a dozen games of the 40-line mode - six apiece for each controller - scores and times were roughly the same. Moving on to Lumines' 60- and 180-second Time Attack levels, scores remained within the same bands for each pad. Another game, another failure. Is this pad really only going to be relevant to people who buy Pro Evolution Soccer 2009?
One way of testing that is to play PES 2008, which was our next stop. Taking control of the mighty reds of Anfield against last weekend's opposition Manchester United, again it was difficult to notice a change. Precise movement is important when turning out of a tackle or manoeuvring through a packed penalty area, but in another dozen games - five minutes long, alternating between the two controllers - the number of mistakes we could attribute to the d-pad was no greater for the original controller than for its lime-green replacement.
But just as we were about to give up hope, we threw on Pac-Man Championship Edition. After all, what better way to test a new d-pad than a game that uses directional input exclusively? As before, we picked a timed mode - the five-minute championship run - and started swapping between the two controllers between rounds. And something amazing happened: the scores were very different. Our first attempt with the old controller was a pitiful 116,000, followed by 170,000 on the new d-pad - and while we made fewer wrong turns and got in less of a flap with the new d-pad, the difference could still be down to a rusty thumb; we haven't played Pac-Man CE for over six months. Going back to the old d-pad, the next score was around 87,000.
But the next score for the new d-pad was 149,000. Then 91,000 on the old, and 211,000 on the new. 151,000 on the old, 195,000 on the new. Finally we managed 185,000 on the old d-pad - probably our best score ever with that lousy instrument - only to notch up 246,000 on the new green pretender. After all of which, there's no arguing with the stats: Pac-Man Championship Edition is easier to play on the new Xbox 360 d-pad. As you reach junctions with the old one, there are too many occasions when you move your thumb from one direction to the next, but the game registers the opposite. And while the new d-pad is no more or less equipped with software to exclude these aberrations, either the d-pad is housed differently, or the additional directional inputs are cushioned in a new way, which reduces the frequency of problems. Which is great news.
Until you have a go with the analogue stick again and post a score of 290,000. Because while the new d-pad is better for Pac-Man CE than the old one, they're both still limping, and the analogue remains the better option. Oh dear.
If you ask us, whoever designed the Xbox 360 d-pad in the first place was having a bad day. Or perhaps they didn't realise what it was for. But after a couple of days testing, it's clear that the replacement will need software designed to take advantage of whatever magical advances live beneath its bright green exterior, because while it feels a bit different beneath your thumb, the physical change alone is insufficient to improve your average Xbox Live Arcade game. Although for some reason we do like the colour.
The new Xbox 360 controller is due out on 24th October and will probably be bundled with Pro Evolution Soccer 2009, which is out on 17th October.