Through a series of articles, I detail the history of the video game industry in regards to specific companies, consoles, and pieces of hardware.
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NES Max (NES-027)
Although it never came as a pack-in with the NES console, the controller was offered as a device that would help provided "maximum control" with its "radically designed" Cycloid d-pad (more on that later) and included turbo buttons
Aside from the obvious difference with the Cycloid in contrast to a standard NES controller's D-pad, the NES Max features standard Start, Select, B, and A buttons in a similar layout to the original NES controller. Under the B and A buttons are two dark grey turbo buttons. Unlike the NES Advantage joystick, the turbo buttons are set at a fixed rate and are not adjustable; although, the rate of fire on the turbo buttons is said to exceed that of the NES Advantage's turbo buttons on the maximum setting.
The shape of the controller is radically different than that of the standard NES controller. The NES Max was one of the first controllers to feature two "wings" on the bottom that were designed to aid in gripping the controller. Such devices are now standard on many controllers, including most notably all generations of PlayStation controller.
Physically, the NES Max is slightly smaller than an NES controller (sans the wings), with the distance between the action buttons and the D-pad being approximately 20mm closer together. To bring this in to perspective, the distance on a standard NES controller is approximately 3 fingers-width, and on the NES Max is only a single fingers width. Players with medium to large hands will definitely find the NES Max's controller layout cramped.
Build quality is typical Nintendo. The controller feels solid and even after almost 25 years, all of the buttons on the NES Max I own are still crisp and still feel solid.
Unlike the traditional NES controller, as well as every other Nintendo controller released since the NES, the NES Max lacks a traditional D-pad. Instead, it has a circular control pad called a "Cycloid." The Cycloid doesn't act like a traditional D-pad or joystick in that it is free-floating in its base, so simply moving the Cycloid in any direction in its own right does not cause corresponding movement in-game.
In addition to moving the Cycloid in a direction, you must additionally push down on the Cycloid for the directional input to register. The whole process sounds unnecessarily complicated, but in practice feels somewhat similar to using a standard D-pad without the Cycloid built in.
The black ring, visible around the Cycloid, is actually functional as a large, round d-pad, similar to the d-pad found on a Sega Genesis controller. Ignoring the Cycloid, pushing directly on the black ring in any direction results in on screen movement in that direction.
In practice, the Cycloid is usable, but feels somewhat strange. Anyone who is used to modern controllers will notice that the red disc on the Cycloid does not self-center. (This behavior is normal) This is because, as described above, moving the disc without pushing down on the whole mechanism like a standard d-pad doesn't do anything. Having no experience with the NES Max, my first reaction to picking one up was that the Cycloid was broken because the disc didn't self-center.
The NES Max was not very popular due to its radical Cycloid pad and cramped design. Critics of the Max often cite both of these things as being negative points of the controller. Another common complaint is the location of the turbo buttons. Many reviewers complain that the turbo buttons are too close to the action buttons and are therefore too easy to press accidentally, which can mean the difference between life and death in many platform games where timing of jumps is essential. Although I can see validity in this claim due to the cramped nature of the controller, I didn't find this to be an issue when using the NES Max.
Growing up, I didn't know a single person who had an NES Max, and all of my friends had NES'. Somehow I think the NES Max flew under a lot of peoples' radar. Even though the NES Max was featured in many Nintendo commercials and on the box of the Nintendo Action Set (the most common version of the NES sold), the controller was not popular.
Rarity and Collectability
The NES Max, although not popular, is far from rare. NES Max controllers in good condition can be had for anywhere from $5-$15 US depending on condition. I picked mine up at a local vintage game shop for $5 and it works and looks great. I've never seen less than 30 of them concurrently for sale on eBay, and even boxes and manuals for the NES Max are fairly common and can be obtained cheaply. A few new-in-the-box NES Max controllers pop up every now and then, and even in that condition typically sell for less than $100.
Given the cheap price, I encourage anyone who owns or collects NES related items to pick one up and try it out. I don't really have feelings for or against the NES Max. I wouldn't say it's a bad controller, but I definitely don't prefer it over the standard NES controller. For run-and-gun games and SHUMPs, the NES Max is a good option (and pretty much the only option) if you want a first party controller with turbo buttons and you don't want a giant NES Advantage sitting on your lap.
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