Tech Review: Xbox Adaptive Controller is remarkable tech made for remarkable people

Gaming and physical disabilities have a long history of not working well together. Back in the early days of arcade joysticks and two-button controllers, the hurdles disabled players had to overcome in order to enjoy a video game were fewer. Even if you didn’t have great dexterity in your fingers, you could rest your palm on a joystick and still have a modicum of control. As time has gone on and video games have become more complex, so too have the controllers we use to play them.

Take the standard Xbox One controller as an example. It has ten buttons in different sizes, two control sticks, two triggers and a four-point d-pad. If a person doesn’t possess a nominal level of manual dexterity, trying to manipulate this controller would be an exercise in both frustration and futility.

For most hardware manufacturers, this problem hasn’t been one they’ve felt any urgency to solve. It must have seemed too hard. No one controller could ever be all things to all people. And so, they would run with controller designs that left millions of disabled players out in the cold, exactly the kind of people who could really use the experiential escapism modern video games provide.

Over the years, certain craftier individuals have taken it upon themselves to gin up homebrew control solutions for disabled family members and many of them are still available today. Some are as simple as small plastic modifications to existing controllers. Some are entirely separate machines. But for all this garage creativity, none of the major hardware makers had ever come to the table in a meaningful way. Until now, that is.

Ever since the rocky launch of the Xbox One in 2013, Xbox has found itself in a position of reflection. People howled down the launch model version of the Xbox One because it didn’t give them what they wanted. Instead of looking for features its audience actively craved, the 2013 Xbox One told users “you’ll get the machine we give you and you’ll like it.” The resounding success of the PlayStation 4 told Xbox exactly how wrong they’d been.

The years since haven’t been easy but, under the stewardship of new VP of Gaming Phil Spencer, Xbox have been quietly remaking its console, with the goal of turning it into a platform for everyone. The mission is very simple — figure out what people want from a world class video game console and then do those things better than anyone else. Open it up to everyone.

Including people with disabilities.

The Xbox One Adaptive Controller has been built with disabled players in mind. It is a large rectangle of moulded white plastic that built with accessibility in mind. It actually resembles a NES controller, if someone had played with the proportions a little. An oversize d-pad sits to the left hand side with enlarged Menu, View and Xbox buttons above it. There is a battery indicator light and a blank button that allows you to switch between controller configuration profiles created in the Xbox Accessibility App. The centre and right side of the controller are dominated by a pair of large, round A and B buttons.

All of these buttons are easy to reach and easy to press. The A and B buttons in particular have a pleasant, tactile click to them when pressed. Their size makes them both extremely easy to manipulate and easy to see (don’t worry, gamers with reduced vision, Xbox hasn’t forgotten about you either). The left side and right side of the controller sport USB ports for a joystick (like the One-Handed Joystick For Xbox One Adaptive Controller by PDP we were provided with for this review). The left side also features a headphone jack. The bottom of the controller features three different screws for mounting.

The rear of the controller features a 5V DC power port in case you need to power an external device, a USB-C port for connecting the controller directly to your Xbox One, a sync button for a wireless connection and a long row of 3.5mm connection ports bound to each button of a standard Xbox One controller. Like the DC power port, these 3.5mm ports are for connecting to an external device.

This brings us back to those garage homebrewers I mentioned earlier in the review. All of those machines, all of those wonderful inventions that allowed disabled players to get to grips with their favourite video game, are compatible with the Xbox Adaptive Controller. As in, out of the box. If you can connect it to the Xbox Adaptive Controller, problem solved, your homebrew disability controller now works with the Xbox One and Windows PC platforms, no questions asked.

Take, for example, the StealthSwitch3 FS-2 foot pedal (which Xbox Australia also provided for this review). The FS-2 is a hands-free accessory for Windows PC that allows people to control their computer with their feet, the sort of thing that would be perfect for a person without a lot of mobility in their hands or arms. I connected it via its 3.5mm cable to the Adaptive Controller, binding it as my A button. It worked. No messing around, no setup, it just worked. If you’d like a bit of further information on this, check out the list of devices the Adaptive Controller supports on the Xbox’s support page.

Xbox Australia recommended three games for us to try over the course of this review — Forza Motorsport 7Minecraft and Super Lucky’s Tale — and we took them all for a spin. These are fairly simple games in terms of their mechanics. Minecraft involves a lot of player movement and use of the right trigger and A button, and is probably the most complex of the three due to the sheer amount of things for the player to do. Super Lucky’s Tale is a simple platformer that involves player movement and a lot of jumping with the A button. Forza 7 uses player movement, with vehicle accelerate and brake on the L and R triggers, and rewind on Y.

It works, and well, across all three titles. These games represent a kind of baseline — something for kids, something for family and something for enthusiasts. The idea behind the Adaptive Controller is that your setup can be as simple or as complex as the needs of the person you’re catering to. If they want to go the whole hog and map all the buttons and sticks to their device, they’re welcome to do so. Every button, even the handful on the Adaptive Controller itself, are fully programmable using the Xbox Accessibility App. Bind whatever control you like to them, its your party.

It’s exceedingly clever design, and it should be. I don’t know if any first-party hardware maker has ever put more thought or effort into the construction of a controller. Even the packaging it comes in has been crafted with the same thoughtful design — a series of sturdy pull rings allow the box to be unsealed and opened easily. Microsoft can’t be expecting to sell many of these controllers compared to their standard-issue cousins, but profit isn’t and shouldn’t be the point with a device like this. You make devices like the Xbox Adaptive Controller because if you have the ability to do so, then you should. It’s a remarkable piece of tech, for remarkable people, built with obvious care and attention to detail. I’m genuinely glad it exists, and I hope it leads to a precipitous jump in the availability of products like it.

FIVE STARS OUT OF FIVE

Highlights: Clever, thoughtful design; Incredible compatibility with existing devices; Plug-and-play
Lowlights: That it took the industry so long to get on board, and I think Xbox would agree
Manufacturer: Microsoft
Platforms: Xbox One, Windows PC
Price: $129.99 AUD
Website: Microsoft.com,au

Review conducted on an Xbox One X using an Xbox Adaptive Controller, One-handed Joystick for Xbox Adaptive Controller by PDP, a StealthSwitch3 and game codes provided by Xbox Australia.

David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously worked as a freelance games journalist and critic, appearing on PC World Australia. He tweets at @RhunWords and plays the odd game at twitch.tv/RhunWords when the internet works.