Xbox Series X controller design evolution: a history of Microsoft controllers from the Duke to the Xbox One and beyond

Xbox controllers have come a long way, from the Duke to the Xbox Series X Wireless Controller!

by Daryl Baxter

‘Use the Duke, Luke.’ – an actual quote from Obi-Wan Kenobi.

20 years ago, the Xbox was predicted as a flop. Similar to the Phillips CDI or the Sega Saturn, the Xbox could’ve been looked back on as a failed retro console and an experiment by Microsoft which didn’t pay off.

But here we are, impatiently awaiting the Xbox Series X to blow our socks off, excited for the next-gen games which the fourth iteration of the Xbox will offer.

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It’s come a long way ever since ‘The Duke’, so as we did with the PlayStation controller design history, lets go into the history of the Xbox Controller…

Xbox controller: It began with the Duke

Not a great controller design, from a certain point of view.

Released in 2001-2002, ‘The Duke’ as it was nicknamed was a HUGE controller, which was criticized almost as soon as it was announced.

Right away there’s some similarity with the Dreamcast controller, except there’s a couple of extra buttons and the expansion slot was only for a four-megabyte memory card.

It was an oversized, chunky peripheral which was far too big for most people to play Halo on. But for those with big hands at least, it did feel comfortable and the buttons felt tactile and responsive enough that you could live with it for a bit at least.

Oddly enough, it was re-released in 2018 through a partnership with Hyperkin. Now the Duke could work with a PC and an Xbox One, and the logo of ‘Xbox’ was now an OLED screen, simulating the Xbox start-up screen whenever it would switch on. You can buy one from Amazon if you like.

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Xbox Controller S came next

Much better!

Thankfully, Xbox gamers didn’t have to put up with the Duke forever, and a better option came around quick quickly.

Almost a year after the Duke was released, the Xbox controller took a cue from Homer and started working out, eating power bars and transforming into the ‘Controller S’, which was bundled into the console in 2003.

Right away it felt comfortable to hold. The ‘black’ and ‘white’ buttons were much easier to reach, more than the others on the controller, and it just felt like a marked improvement, especially with it being released just over a year since The Duke.

By now, the Xbox had solidified itself as being here to stay, and after the success of Xbox Live, people were excited about what could be coming next, while others were fearful of a Duke 2.

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Xbox 360 controller goes wireless

Are the memories flooding back?

Thankfully those fears were allayed, as the next Xbox controller was more of a ‘Controller S 2.0’ model than a Duke 2.

Released in 2005 alongside the Xbox 360, it featured wireless connectivity and a softer design, the buttons were almost the same, but instead of ‘black’ and ‘white’ buttons and two other function buttons, they were reduced to three this time: Start, Guide, and Back.

As the OS had its own ‘Guide’ now, with the iconic ‘Blades’ UI and metal sheen across the whole system, the console needed a controller that could fit most hands; especially when playing an intense online match of Halo 3.

The look is more curved here, with a design that comfortably lasted the whole of this generation with no huge changes. One peripheral that did stand out was the ‘Messenger Kit’, a small keyboard or ‘chatpad’ that attached itself to the bottom of the controller.

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Introducing the Xbox Kinect

Not quite the future of gaming, as it turned out.

This motion-controlled peripheral launched halfway through the Xbox 360 lifecycle in 2010, it was originally created to rival the Nintendo Wii; to see if it could eliminate the Xbox controller completely, and have this in its place.

Known as ‘Project Natal’ first before it became known as ‘Kinect’, it really made an impression when a tech-demo, lead by Peter Molyneux of Bulldog and 22 Cans fame showed a child being fully interactive, using the Kinect system

The possibilities were endless it seemed at the time. It was way before ‘virtual reality’ of Half-Life Alyx was even viable and possible, but this new tech caused rumours aplenty: could Halo be controlled with Kinect only? Would players be waving a lightsaber around? The end result was not something many could’ve predicted…

This was only a precursor to what was coming next; it was a taste as to what could be used if there was more powerful hardware to help drive this motion-sensing world that Microsoft seemed to have total confidence in.

Xbox One controller: If it ain’t broke…

A beauty!

The controller and the Kinect peripheral for Xbox One go hand-in-hand here, as it originally came packaged in with the console.

But first; the controller. The layout was the same here, but everything had been redesigned: the feel of the analogue sticks, the backlit ‘guide’ button, the more ‘angular’ shape of the controller, and Menu and View replaced the previous Back and Start buttons of the 360 controller.

A big highlight was reduced latency of the wireless connection; it had been a staple of the 360 generation that the wireless feature wasn’t great for long distances across living rooms, so there had been significant effort to make sure that the connection was faster and more reliable, which certainly was achieved here.

Everything felt refined and of a high quality, more of an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ methodology to this generation. It also marked a time where customisation was possible. Using their ‘design lab’ page, one could choose the colour of the controller and even inscribe their Xbox Live ‘screen-name’ for an added price.

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Xbox One Elite controller: The ultimate upgrade

Phwoar.

This generation also introduced the idea of the ‘Elite’ controller, a premium variant where parts could be changed and set to better suit the ergonomics of the controller to better suit the player.

Priced at around £150 on Amazon, it was and still is aimed towards more experienced gamers who want to make sure that they’re best prepared for Call Of Duty, or Halo, or any other game of their choosing.

There have been improvements since the 2013 launch of the controller as a whole; such as a headphone jack in 2015, and bluetooth support with better-textured grips in 2016.

Overall it’s a controller that has become the ‘go-to’ peripheral, especially thanks to it being natively accessible to PC owners, and in-turn Steam players, where compatibility is easily accessible there.

Read more: The best Xbox One controllers to buy

Xbox One Kinect: Meet HAL

The new Kinect seemed to be placed as the ‘HAL’ of customers’ living rooms, harking back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and letting gamers switch on the console by saying ‘Xbox On’. It was a cool feature, and it worked with some success.

It was a peripheral that was praised for its hardware specs such as its cameras and detail on players when tracking them, but there was a problem of privacy that wasn’t really put to bed by Microsoft during its lifecycle.

Eventually, customers turned away from it, especially when Kinect stopped being bundled with the console. It was relegated into a developers’ mind-map of ideas of what could be done ‘outside of games’, something which is still being looked into today.

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Xbox Series X controller – coming soon!

With the coming console of the Xbox Series X this year, there is no ‘Kinect 3’, but small improvements all-round for the controller.

From the images, you can glean quite a lot: it looks slightly smaller; the D-pad has been borrowed from the ‘Elite’ controller; better trigger grips appear to be available; and you’ve got a ‘capture’ and ‘share’ button, again replacing those two buttons on the controller. Microsoft is also adding a USB-C port this time.

It’s refinements aplenty and they’re all very welcome. Something that would have been a total redesign is not needed now; the controller is what gives you an introduction almost into the console and the experience itself, so why replace a layout that’s been well-known since the ‘Controller S’?


All in all, there were small improvements across the generations, and it says a lot to the design that it’s all been about ‘refinement’, to improve on a good thing since 2003.

And with the Xbox Series X controller seemingly being an amalgamation of past generations, there’s plenty to look forward to when it launches later this year.

Read more: Xbox Series X console’s massive size explained

Daryl Baxter