I have always been a keyboard-oriented player. Growing up with PCs this was the natural option, as no extra hardware, such as joysticks or gamepads, was required. I never got into console gaming, and the few times I did try it, the controller felt awkward, like a handicap, compared to the keyboard I felt comfortable with.
Similarly, people growing up with controllers will swear by them, for many types of games – maybe not RTS/FPS, where a mouse + keyboard rule, but pretty much everything else. Preferences probably have to do a lot with whatever you are used to, but is it possible that one control method really is better than the other, if you are equally adapted to both? It seemed natural that analog controllers would rule in game genres that actually utilize analog controls (such as driving/flying simulators), but what about the others? Platformers, fighting games, etc?
To test it out, and also to get over my long-lived “fear” of using gamepads, I decided to get an inexpensive controller to try it out. Like often happens to me, the experiment turned out into a temporary obsession, during which I obtained and tested no less than 6 different controllers, and reached a few conclusions about their collective and relative merits. A discussion of the specific gamepads is available in a this roundup. Here I would like to summarize my conclusions about the general merits of a gamepad versus a keyboard, in various game genres.
If anything, my feelings that a keyboard is generally superior got even stronger. Really, for most games, they are pretty much equivalent and you will feel more comfortable with whatever you are accustomed to. Do you prefer to use different fingers for different controls, or just your thumb? Do you prefer to sit with the controller in your lap or with your hands resting on a table in front of you? Etc.
Overall, I feel that the early gamepads (think NES, Genesis), with buttons only on the top face, are not a good choice, as they basically put all the strain on your thumbs, and the other 8 fingers do almost nothing. Now with the addition of shoulder buttons and triggers, it’s somewhat more balanced, but is still heavily thumb-oriented. However, in general action games (platform, RPG, sports), you can probably use either control method with great success. Whatever method you grew up with will have the upper hand, as the control patterns are well set in your brain; there is no inherent handicap to either controller that I can see.
In fighting games, the situation actually favors keyboards more than I originally thought. In tap-oriented games, like Mortal Kombat, which frequently have special moves like “Forward→Forward→Back→Attack”, it is generally much easier to execute the moves using different keys for different fingers than tapping the D-Pad, but that was obvious to me already. What surprised me is that even in Street Fighter with its crazy diagonals, quarter-circles, and half-circles, I found the keyboard more reliable. I almost never miss a “Hadoken” or “Shoryuken” with a keyboard, but I was missing them left and right with the gamepads. This may be a limitation of how MAME processes the gamepad inputs, as it seemed that I was hitting the motions more easily during the controller testing in joy.cpl. But at best, it would put the gamepad “on par” with the keyboard. Really, it is known that Street Fighter needs to be played with a good arcade stick, as it’s the only device that can reliably execute crazy moves like Charge DB→DF→DB→UF→Kick. The analog sticks on gamepads are actually not an adequate replacement, as their analog sensitivity is very likely to mix intermediate directions into the sequence.
Short of an arcade stick, a keyboard could be almost, or even just as good, if the game allowed you to assign individual buttons to diagonal. Then the above crazy move could be executed on the numpad as Charge 1 → 3 → 1 → 9 → Kick. Nothing too fancy for an expert keyboarder. Unfortunately, not all PC games allow this. I think I could have been much better playing the DOS version of Super Street Fighter II Turbo if it had this feature.
That leaves us the games that utilize analog precision, like driving, flying and, possibly, modern sports simulators. Even here, I was surprised to see the advantage of the analog sticks to be smaller than I imagined, as I could play Outrun 2006: Coast to Coast nearly as well with the D-Pad or the keyboard; however, Outrun is known to be a rather forgiving game, and also I did not try to compete with any good human players. I know for a fact that you must have analog control (and the constant partial wheel turns that it allows) to achieve the absolute best times in games like Need for Speed. With that said, die-hards of such games will probably choose specifically tailored controllers, like steering wheels for racing, flight sticks for flying, etc.
While it’s true that many 3D platform games utilize analog precision as well (in speed of movement and exact direction), it is rarely crucial in those games, as accurate timing and frequent direction changes play a far more important role than maintaining a fixed direction/amplitude of motion for prolonged time.
So where does it leave the modern digital/analog gamepads? I guess – “Jack of all trades, master of none” describes well how I feel about them. Hours and hours of gameplay using different pads in different games only made me appreciate my trusty keyboard more.
I realize that this is probably not a popular opinion, as most gamers grew up with consoles, and there are more adept controller players than keyboard players out there. There is also an advantage to being proficient with gamepads – you can utilize the same (or similar) control methods on most consoles, as well as on PCs, whereas a keyboard pretty much limits you exclusively to PCs. However, that is not an inherent limitation of the device.
If you think I missed other important points that would tip the scales toward gamepads, feel free to leave your comments. 🙂
A very important closing remark: keyboard adequacy for gaming depends heavily on its ability to register multiple keys simultaneously without jamming (the so-called “rollover”). Cheap keyboards have really bad ones. Good keyboard have much better ones, and many mechanical keyboards have full “N-key” rollover. Do not forget this important point if you consider a keyboard as your primary gaming device.