The next-gen console rollouts from Sony and Microsoft this year have been, for lack of a better word, soporific. But after weeks of spec comparisons and hardware boasts, Sony finally gave things a shot in the arm with the reveal of its new DualSense controller. It’s the most interesting announcement surrounding a next-gen console yet, and for Sony, in particular — which has barely updated its controller design in over two decades — the most exciting controller yet.
The DualShock line of controllers has long been one of the constants of the video gaming world. The original PlayStation controller set the standard for modern controller design, and its successors — the 1997 Dual Analog Controllers and the rumble-equipped generations of DualShock models that followed for the PlayStation, PlayStation 2, and PlayStation 3 — would codify that design.
The advances were revolutionary: the Dual Analog Controller was the first to offer two analog sticks for navigating 3D environments. The DualShock was the first major controller to feature integrated rumble feedback. (The N64 technically beat it to the punch, but it required a separate Rumble Pak accessory.) But even as Sony piled on new features across the generations, the overall design of its controllers remained the same.
Look at a controller from the original PlayStation, the PS2, and the PS3 from a distance, and they’re virtually indistinguishable. Even the PS4’s DualShock 4 — which, until the reveal of the DualSense, held the crown for the largest departure from the original 1997 design — hewed more closely to “tweaked PS3 controller” than “revolutionary new device.”
That’s very much not the case with the PS5’s DualSense controller. From the first time you look at it, it’s clear that this is a new thing, one that’s wholly different (and, hopefully, better) than past PlayStation controllers. The two-tone color scheme! The sleeker, less angular design! USB-C! The glowing blue lights! Even the fancy new PS-shaped logo button. The internet lit up after the announcement with comparisons to the futuristic robot EVE from Disney’s WALL-E, to BMW’s i8, to the redesigned Enterprise from the 2009 Star Trek movie.
The DualSense isn’t just a cosmetic redesign, though. Sony is also putting in a wide array of new features, like its adaptive triggers that can adjust resistance, new haptic feedback technology that the company claims is far more advanced than the old-fashioned rumble hardware, and even basics like an integrated microphone.
Will all of these experiments work? We’ll have to wait to try out the controller — and, more importantly, see if developers adopt them. The history of PlayStation controllers is littered with unused ideas, like the PS3’s SIXAXIS motion sensing or the PS4’s gesture-based touchpad. But the key thing here is that Sony is trying to move things forward.
And yes, Microsoft has also revealed its console and controller designs, and I commend the company for revealing them early on in the process. But neither the lightly tweaked controller nor the featureless gray tower seems to have elicited the same excitement.
In fact, you can look at the two controllers as almost emblematic of the approaches Sony and Microsoft seem to be taking with their next-generation consoles.
Microsoft wants the Series X to blend in seamlessly with the rest of its Xbox One and Xbox One X lineups. Accessories are cross-compatible, games will support cross-buy, and backwards compatibility of past purchases is a key selling point. The Series X will play the new Halo the best and offer the most impressive graphics, but your original Xbox One will play it just fine, too. The goal is a more refined version of the current experience — not a new one.
Sony, on the other hand, seems to want to pitch the PlayStation 5 as the next step forward. New games that won’t work on old consoles. New hardware features that will be exclusive to the PS5. Even things like the faster SSD are being touted as ways to unlock new types of gameplay experiences that weren’t possible on older hardware.
The DualSense controller’s new design and functionality encapsulates that goal. It’s an exciting first step into the future of gaming. Now... how about showing off that console, Sony? Or maybe even some games?