Thinking back to my childhood, back when the only gaming devices I owned were my Game Gear and the family PC, I always remembered having a specific issue with my PC games. No matter how many joysticks or gamepads I bought, I could never get any of them to work. Plug them into the proper printer port, trying to program the controls in the settings menu, nothing really helped. So I had to suck it up and use old reliable: the keyboard for those games. This was especially rough on the fighting games I owned for PC when I was a kid: the only special moves I could ever pull off on that thing were Shoryukens and Spinning Lariats back in those days, it literally took me years to learn the proper motions for simple stuff like Hadoukens reliably on keyboards. Thankfully the tyranny of printer ports is over and USB ports have made using all kinds of controllers on PC so much easier. That’s not to say that keyboards made everything impossible, but there are just some genres where controllers are superior and others where mouse and keyboard set-ups are necessary. But which are which?
When I began planning out this article, I had some difficulty determining the format. I was originally going to split it into two articles, with each paragraph delving into a control scheme’s advantages and disadvantages in each genre. However, fellow writer SNES Master KI pointed out that there would be certain cases where advantages and disadvantages wouldn’t exist for specific genre/control combinations. So I decided to trim it down to a single article. I’m going to looking at 10 different genres, naming the superior control method for each genre and delving into the advantages, disadvantages and in some cases, maybe even some subversions if they exist. Also, for the sake of this article, I’m sticking to first-party pack-in controllers only. In most cases, I will be making my decisions based on the characteristics of modern traditional controllers, seen with the Dual Shock 3, the Xbox 360 controller and even the Wii U’s Pro Controller: two analog sticks, one d-pad, four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, two triggers and the good ol’ Start and Select/Back buttons.
Well, let’s start with an obvious choice. As much as I may have been completely happy playing games like Commander Keen and Duke Nukem (the original!) on a keyboard, let’s face it: controller is king when it comes to platformers, regardless of what my childhood tried to teach me. Controlling your character with the D-Pad, having all the buttons you need within thumb’s reach, it’s something we take for granted nowadays. Platformers rely more on reflexes than anything else and it’s easier to control two thumbs over the five or six fingers you’d need to properly control a platformer on your keyboard. So that’s 1-0, controller.
First-Person Shooter: Keyboard/Mouse
Another obvious choice. Don’t let Call of Duty or Halo fanboys fool you: nothing tops the precision a mouse gives you in an FPS, least of all an analog stick. In its purest form, the FPS is the anti-thesis of the platformer in terms of control: having the fastest reflexes in an FPS doesn’t mean anything if you’re not able to aim well. Many connoisseurs of the genre scoff at how entering the console market has really dumbed down the once-mighty FPS and one of their major concerns is dumbing down controls for use on consoles. Put a keyboard/mouse user up against a controller user in a deathmatch, and 9 times out of 10, the guy who’s going to be dominating is the one with the mouse. So that’s a tie, 1-1.
No, that asterisk is not a typo. When it comes right down to it, I consider keyboards and the DS3 et al. to be terrible when it comes to most fighting games. Being forced to choose between using analog sticks and a crappy D-Pad (yes, the Dual Shock’s D-Pad sucks and it’s always sucked. Deal with it.) is equally as bad as using a keyboard’s arrow keys or WASD. So, in most cases, they would tie by default. Except there’s one little loophole that allows the controller to take this: I said that ANY first-party pack-in controller for a video game system counts and as it just so happens, there’s one that fits the bill: that of the Sega Saturn, a model so perfect for the genre, it serves as the basis for so-called “fightpads” to this day. So if you really want to enjoy a fighting game, take my advice: save up for a fightpad or an arcade stick. You’ll thank me later.
Real-Time Strategy: Keyboard/Mouse
Another obvious answer, it’s considered almost blasphemous to imply that an RTS could even be produced with a controller in mind without severely dumbing down the control scheme. While turn-based strategy games can easily be handled by controllers, their real-time counterparts rely on the ability to sift through menus with the speed only a mouse and keyboard can offer (at this point in time, anyway). You’d be lucky to make it to the actual game using an analog stick. And don’t get me started on multiplayer: you’d get eaten alive.
Again, not a typo. I’ve always hated using “Action” as the genre for a video game, almost as much as I hate “Adventure”, but the only other suggestion I got was “Character Action”. So yeah, for the purposes of this article, I’m talking about games like Devil May Cry, God of War, Bayonetta, God Hand, you know, those games that are effectively the modern-day equivalents of the classic beat-‘em-ups from the arcade era. Same basic idea as fighting games when it comes to controls here, with the added benefit of not needing a competently designed D-Pad to perform special moves and not having nearly as many attack buttons. While keyboard’s not really a slouch here, controllers just have the advantage overall.
For the most part, this is a wash. I always had a preference towards using the arcade-style steering wheel/pedals, which is kind of funny, considering I’ve never felt comfortable driving. I did like go-karting when I was a kid. Anyway, I’ve kind of gone off-topic. The point is, this decision boils down to personal preference: I’m sure that many people like using their mouse or keyboard to play racing games, but me? I like the feel of the analog stick and triggers. Just feels right to me, especially when the triggers are pressure-sensitive.
In this case, I’m talking about tile-matching puzzle games. You know, Tetris, Puyo Puyo, Magical Drop, that kind of thing. In this case, there really isn’t an advantage in either case. You just need something to move the blocks (D-Pad/arrow keys) and a button or two to manipulate the blocks. A controller, a keyboard, even a damn mouse can handle that on its own.
Turn-Based RPGs: Keyboard/Mouse
This one might be a little controversial, but I stand by it. 99% of the gameplay in turn-based RPGs are menu-based. There’s no reason why any PC versions of turn-based RPGs shouldn’t take advantage of this and code in mouse support. Even in cases where there’s some kind of reflex motion (like Paper Mario, Costume Quest or the upcoming South Park: The Stick of Truth) in battles, it’s rarely more complex than timing a button press, mashing a button or manipulating the analog stick. Sure, in some cases the controller gestures feel a bit more natural, but it’s a fair trade for mouse support in a genre where the majority of gameplay is handled via menus.
This is one of those cases where it really depends on the games. I mean, in some cases, rhythm games require their own unique controllers. Dance Dance Revolution has the dance pad, Guitar Hero and Rock Band have those various instrument controllers. Then again, there have been quite a few DDR clones for PC that people play exclusively on keyboards, so who knows. Excluding those, it’s usually just hitting the correct button in sync to music, so it doesn’t really require that much. There typically aren’t many buttons to push, so a controller can handle it. Honestly, anything can handle it. Elite Beat Agents was played entirely on a touchscreen and there’s a PC clone of that as well, which I believe is played using the mouse. You can pretty much literally use any input device imaginable to make a proper rhythm game, so there’s no single winner here. Everybody’s a winner.
Another one of those cases where personal preference is the only thing that matters. I mean, I think using a mouse to play shmups is disaster-prone, just due to the movement controls being far too responsive. But with regards to keyboards, yeah, it’s workable. I’ve played many a shmup on my PC with my keyboard and for the most part, it’s been alright. The controller’s the same way. Even touchscreens are workable, albeit I find those to have the same degree of success as mouse-controlled shmups.
Of course, this list is by no means comprehensive. I didn’t even touch on sports (mainly because I can’t stand sports games if they’re not arcade-style), but there are some patterns when it comes to which control methods are better for specific genres. Reflex-based games do far better with controllers, while more precision-based pursuits do better with the keyboard and mouse. More importantly, today we have even more viable control options than ever before. Every major platform has their own form of motion controls (even PC!), touchscreens are becoming far more ubiquitous via tablets and smartphones and Valve is working on a new style of controller, which boasts the functionality of the keyboard/mouse combination in genres never thought possible. If the Steam Controller can deliver on these promises, who knows what other amazing peripherals we may see in the future.