An Oral History of the Third-Party Video Game Controller

You have to use the Mad Catz

Looking at my two official Sony Playstation 4 DualShocks, it’s hard to remember a time when such uniformity was unheard of amongst game controller collections. Decades ago, any given console’s set of game pads would likely be composed of a mishmash of official models and misshapen, third-party monstrosities. We all had at least one controller reserved for guests — a plastic accident with sticky buttons, unresponsive joysticks, and an ironic name like The Dominator or The Professional.

Those days are long gone. Third-party controllers still exist, but the decline of same-room multiplayer games and the increasing complexity of console controllers mean it’s now more of a niche market. But while these mechanical monstrosities may be a thing of the past, for the people who lived with them, the memories will — unfortunately — last a lifetime.

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1. My family owned an SNES, which came with one controller. When the time came to buy a second so that my sister and I could play Super Mario Kart together, we were lured in by the futuristic spectacle of the Triax Turbo Touch 360 on a family trip to Costco-like BJ’s. Not only did this thing have turbo switches for every button, it also had a touch sensor instead of a traditional d-pad. Remember, this was the early 90s. Manipulating glyphs with our fingers via a capacitative screen was decades away. Hell, my friend’s father’s Palm Pilot seemed like witchcraft to me. The controller was terrible and functioned alternately as a punishment or a handicap for the unlucky second player in Super Mario Kart.

2. Companies marketed their controllers in a variety of ways. Some sought to undercut console manufacturers, while others presented themselves as higher-end products with additional features. Some attempted to invent problems for which they were solutions — the Triax Turbo Touch 360 claimed to resolve “numb thumb” through its touch sensor. Nobody I knew growing up ever complained about thumb pain from playing video games.

3. The Triax Turbo Touch 360 commercial — which features a Vanilla Ice-esque actor portraying the product opposite a less suave gentleman playing a conventional controller —predates Apple’s “Get a Mac” ad campaign by 14 years.

4. Atari and Commodore home computers didn’t come with official joysticks, so third-party offerings proliferated. These ranged in quality, and players quickly discovered that some were far more responsive than others. As Andrew recalls, “my friends and I would play Kick Off 2 at each other’s houses, doling out our dud controllers to the visitor. We each had our horrors, from an unwieldy arcade stick to the very floaty kind of flight sim controllers. So it was like playing an away fixture, with the natural advantage with the home team.”

5. The Atari 5200’s controllers were notoriously fickle, with the joystick frequently failing. Thus, third-party controllers actually became the premium choice for a time. One of these, the Wico Command Control Joystick, was once described by James Rolfe as “the butt plug controller.”

6. In the days of same-room multiplayer, controller assignment amongst friends and siblings typically reflected hierarchies of age, skill, or social standing. For Tony Highwind and many others, “You have to use the Mad Catz,” became synonymous with being at the bottom of the ladder. “If you were truly in a situation where you were the worst player in the mix,” Tony adds, “you had a way out: Get better. It was a long road, but it had a destination you could arrive at.”

7. The advent of analog sticks provided new and exciting ways for third-party controllers to fail. rusticloaf says that the Nintendo 64 controller they were stuck using as the youngest sibling had lost the thumb pad and was reduced to “just a metal pin sticking out.” Cameron had a similar experience, taking the thumb-destroying controller when his older sister agreed to play with him and his brother.

8. By my estimation, the most ubiquitous third-party controller of the Nintendo 64 era was the Superpad 64 by Performance. What this product presupposes is that the stock controller is too long and not thick enough. Hence, this chode of a joypad. Total tuna can.

9. There was another Superpad for the Nintendo 64, this one produced by InterAct Accessories Inc. for people who couldn’t get their heads around the console’s three-handled style. But both Performance and InterAct were owned by Recoton, an American electronics company founded in 1936. It’s possible that Performance was a sub-brand of InterAct, but nobody seems to know. The company went bankrupt in 2001, its sole legacy being the GameShark cheating device brand — which was sold to Mad Catz.

10. Recoton’s manufacturing subsidiary was named STD.

11. This happened.

12. Some of us were fooled into believing the hype, perceiving more buttons as signifying a corresponding increase in raw power. Billie Blossom owned a Mad Catz controller for the Dreamcast, and even though they enjoyed the authority of being the older sibling, they ended up using it most of the time, convinced they “could unlock secret combos in Soulcalibur with the extra buttons.” They didn’t realize until much later that the extra buttons had to be “programmed” to be of any use.

13. I owned the same controller. To program the extra buttons, you had to first hit another, additional button. Once you did, the controls would become unresponsive until you left “programming mode.” By the time you realized what had happened, it was likely too late. This could also have been the “lose round of Power Stone” button.

14. Seemingly everyone had at least one Mad Catz controller for the Nintendo Gamecube. The build quality of these left something to be desired: Alex Shea‘s “literally fell apart in someone’s hands playing Smash.” pat adds that it “actually hurt to hold it.” alyssa kai recalls playing with a friend’s, which “had that see-through lighting display and an analog stick that stuck heavily.”

15. On the subject of clear plastic, literally everything was made of clear plastic in the early 2000s, and controllers were obviously no exception. In what sounds like the leadup to a creepypasta story, Dolly Leigh says that her transparent, light-up controllers gradually became filled with bugs: “They’d fly around in the controllers, and being dumb kids, we thought it was cool.”

16. The Wii era was a godsend for controller manufacturers. They didn’t even have to make the actual controller anymore — they could just ship a piece of plastic shaped like a steering wheel or sword or half a Williams-Sonoma and call it a day. And boy, did they ever.

17. Mad Catz went out of business in 2017. A Hong Kong-based company acquired the Mad Catz brand in 2018 for a line of headsets, keyboards and mice, but they no longer manufacture console controllers.

18. Third-party controllers for consoles do still exist, but primarily in the high-end competitive niche. Hori, for instance, produces Gamecube controllers for Smash players on the Switch, while companies like Scuf and Razer manufacture high-end, customizable controllers that can retail for twice the price of the official models. The ecosystem has changed, and third-party controllers . But hey, don’t cry because it’s over — cry because you had to use the Mad Catz whenever you played Goldeneye and it left indelible scars on your self-worth that you’re still working on resolving twenty years later.