Let me preemptively say that this article was almost entirely written before Hax’s video came out. Thus, it doesn’t focus on what he says in his recent video but is similar in themes. It was initially entitled “In Defense of Armada,” but as I added a couple paragraphs at the end, the tone and message of the article shifted.
There have been two topics that have recently elicited an alarming amount of misguided discussion—Hungrybox’s defensive play against Chu and Armada’s decisions to drop out of tournaments. The former has had plenty of discussion and quite a few top players voicing a rational argument in defense of HBox, so there is no need for me to chime in on that topic. However, I’ve seen relatively few top players come out in defense of Armada. Both these topics have been subject to shockingly idiotic and scrubby armchair spectator/redditor discussion. Armada’s controller problems conveniently tie into something that I’ve been meaning to write about for six months, and now with Hax’s video, I’ve been spurred to finally make some content. Controllers are the most frustrating reality of competitive Melee. They are a much bigger factor than people realize. Many top players, such as Mew2king, Westballz, and Armada (myself as well but obviously I am not a “top” player in the same vein as that list) are constantly frustrated by controllers but choose not to voice their frustrations because they don’t want to listen to people spewing off “No Johns.” It may not even be possible to create an exhaustive list of why controllers are frustrating to deal with, but I’ll try.
There are two main categories of vices that come with playing with controllers. Let’s start with the obvious topic of tech skill. There are numerous concerns here that can each affect your play in different ways. Most obviously, sometimes you can’t just do things that you are accustomed to doing. Who remembers when Plup wanted to forfeit from Evo 2015 before dumpstering Leffen? We are all glad that he didn’t because we got to see his Samus wreck Leffen, but it was really sad watching his Sheik struggle. His platform movement was severely hindered because shield drops had become so integral to his movement. Hearing the spot dodge sound on the platform several times per game (really, pretty much every time he tried to shai drop) was tragic. Now take into account that we have ever increasing repertoires of tech skill that become ingrained in our play. What was a “good” controller in 2009 would probably be considered bad now.
Let’s take for a given that the vast majority of controllers are bad at dash back. Then let’s also consider that pivots have been proven to be inversely correlated with dash back. For some character mains, this immediately makes it an incredibly tall order to find a suitable controller. Shield drops are bad on most controllers, especially to the right from my experience and those I talk to, but at least that can usually be fixed by mods, or by using an alternate method for performing the technique. That still doesn’t fix snapback (capacitors exist but can mess with deadzones). And then there’s even more obscure things that can go wrong, such as bad wavedash angles, insensitivity for fast falls, bad movement out of crouch, etc. Christ, as a Falcon player, I swear, I’ve had two otherwise fantastic controllers that just will not fucking throw properly no matter how much effort I put into uthrow and end up bthrowing repeatedly. I’m now trying to practice a second playstyle that doesn’t use pivots at all, which I normally use dozens of times per game. I used to even play on a different controller for singles and doubles based on which techniques I found more important in each format. For a player at Armada’s level, who relies on extreme technical consistency and precision, it’s no wonder that he’s always struggling to find adequate controllers.
Now consider muscle memory. Being good at Melee is largely defined by having the muscle memory to perform things without putting in conscious effort to do so. If you have to consciously focus on performing tech skill during the match, you are losing focus that should be used on the opponent. It’s a PvP game afterall. Not only does having controllers that are bad at things make you have to focus on execution where muscle memory is normally adequate, but it also messes up existing muscle memory. For instance, take dash back after aerials or grabs. Technically, this can be done in a way that’s not controller dependent because dash back in these situations can be buffered for a couple frames during the lag. However, if you have a good controller, you may not execute it in the way that works on every controller. Therefore, when you’re put onto a bad controller and it starts screwing up, you start trying to alter your timing to dash earlier. Then when you inevitably mess this up because you are not used to dashing at that timing, you are messing with your existing muscle memory, and it’s harder to be confident about whether you are missing it due to controller problems or your input errors. Switching back to a good controller will likely take a small adjustment time to regain your previous muscle memory.
Controllers are also not perfectly consistent. If you do the same exact input for 20 hours straight, they will rarely read the input the same way every time. The resting joystick values are different when you plug them in. Even if you reset your controller, I’m sure many people have noticed things aren’t working exactly the way they were earlier in the day or earlier in the year. They get broken in, peak, and degrade. Some controllers feel good for a while but stop working quickly. Hax said that no one would put forth the effort to consistently check their shield drop values, but Laudandus said on the Scar and Toph show that he checked his shield drop values EVERY DAY. So just because you can pick up someone’s controller and shield drop in a handwarmer doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to work consistently for them for an entire weekend of continuous play at a national. On top of the inherent inconsistency, think about trying to implement new techniques on a crappy controller. You get misconceptions about how difficult things are and get discouraged from trying to do things that might actually not be that challenging, like how people felt in the era before shield drop notches.
Now let’s talk about what’s more important as a competitor: how bad controllers affect your competitive mentality.
It’s competitively demotivating to lose because of your controller. Melee is a game that specifically appeals to a demographic of extreme competitive tryhards. I consider this a good thing and I am in that demographic. Melee is a beautiful test of skill, where you get to see how you measure up against competition on an amazingly crafted mental plane. When you are playing and you know you lost because your controller malfunctioned, you question why you are playing. Not only do you have to suffer through the frustration of defeat, but you also might face real world consequences with people criticizing your results. And in our community, we go hard with the “No Johns” mentality. If I were Armada and I thought there was a significant chance of me losing because of my controller, I would not want to enter either. I want to win or lose because of me, not because of some external factor. Competition is supposed to be you versus the opponent, or your team versus another team.
When you are fighting your controller, you don’t even feel like you are fighting the opponent. You have to expend focus on frustrating trivial shit that you are probably used to doing effortlessly. When a controller detracts from your focus, it’s a reasonable cause to tilt. I want to play the fucking game, not some minigame where I have to think to myself “hit the stick back REALLY hard” after I back air the opponent every single time. As Melee players, we cultivate our mental fortitude. Even though I try to always give it my all and maintain equanimity, I cannot accept the idea that I should readily acquiesce to my controller fucking up. I don’t think I will ever cease to get mad at controllers being bad, and I know that Armada is with me in believing controllers are the most frustrating part of the game. I’m legitimately in awe that, my late 20s, having random luck with controllers is something that affects my livelihood and mood on a regular basis.
The final topic that I want to bring up is ergonomics. I was planning to switch to the hitbox this year before that became a controversial and dramatic topic. The reason wasn’t because of wanting to pivot easier or anything like that. It was because I wanted to alleviate my hands from the stress of having to constantly be fighting against a controller, trying to force my will upon it. I just wanted something that reliably did what I input without any variation so that I could relax my hands and know that whenever something did not unfold on the screen as I attempted to input, it was my fault. When your muscle memory goes out the window, you become more tense. You fight the controller and try to impose your will on it instead of using it as an extension of your body and mind. My controller broke in tournament on Monday. I carry around a Mew2king box of controllers, so I’ve been playing on a backup since then. I played every night this week, for probably about 3 hours on average, and my hands feel like shit. This isn’t because I can’t play for 15 hours in 5 days. It’s because my backup controller sucks at dashing back (relatively speaking) and is very insensitive to the fast fall input. Having to jam the joystick with extreme effort every time you want to move is awful for your hands. And not only is that motion bad, but it compounds the tension with which you hold the controller. On top of all this, jamming the stick really fast increases the chance of getting snapback… Christ… FML.
Controllers suck. I understand that there are many legitimate concerns about the fairness and legality of mods. I don’t want an unequal playing field. But Hax is right and we do have an unequal playing field. I am constantly jealous of players like Armada who have enough TPP to get good readily obtain good controllers. I just want to be free of the constant struggle to find and maintain a good controller. Spark keeps telling me that I should do what he does and bring a Melee setup to Sm4sh tournaments and try to buy theirs, because they don’t know when they have good ones. The controller struggle is ridiculously tiresome and has made me want to quit for years now. I don’t want to keep having hand problems because controllers suck. Melee community leaders, please free me from the oppression of shitty controllers. We don’t need to accept this as a reality of being a Melee competitor. Even Mango and players who haven’t stopped playing because of hand problems do talk about how Melee fucks their hands. Preserve our hands and let us play the game we love until we are six feet under.