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The Sony Access Controller is great for aging gamers (like me)

The Sony Access Controller is great for aging gamers (like me)

Written by Eric Hauter on 1/5/2024 for PS5  
More On: Sony Access Controller

When I was a boy, I had two first cousins around the same age as me. My mom’s brother’s kids, they were both born with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a disease that causes progressive degeneration of a person’s musculature. When we were in early elementary school my cousins were confined to wheelchairs, which over time changed from the kind you push yourself to the kind that were battery powered. Then bit by bit, they lost more control over their bodies until they were completely immobilized.

This was in the Atari/NES period of the '70s and '80s, and we were all huge fans of video games. I never had a home console as a kid, but my cousins had them, so I would go over to their house to play. As we got older and the disease took away more and more of their mobility, gaming became an even more important outlet. No longer able to easily leave the house, my cousins would enthusiastically dive into games like Contra and Ikari Warriors as a means of escape (they were huge action fans – stuff like Final Fantasy was emphatically not their jam).

Time eventually took its toll though, and first one then the other of my cousins lost their ability to manipulate the buttons on the tiny, rigid NES controller, leaving them unable to enjoy their favorite pastime. On the few occasions that they talked me into playing for them, I was a poor surrogate, and they would good naturedly hurl abuse at me while I struggled to meet their stringent gaming standards. The bottom line was, my no-NES-having self sucked, and there were no products on the market that would allow my cousins to continue playing on their own. 

By the time the SNES arrived, both of my cousins had completely lost any fine motor control in their hands. With no other viable options to play, they moved onto other pursuits (there were a lot of Highlander movies and Pantera music). Time went by, and the disease continued its devastating course until they eventually passed away when we were in our twenties. I often wonder what my hilarious and rambunctious cousins would think about the advances made in gaming, particularly considering the relatively recent focus on accessibility.

Now, thirty years later, I’m surprised to find myself in need of some accommodation to allow me to continue gaming. I’ve always been able to game with no accessibility issues, but in my fifties, I’ve found that my hand dexterity has decreased to the point where it is about nil. A delightful combo platter of degenerative nerve, tendon, and bone conditions have conspired to both numb my hands and lock my thumbs in place to the point where my doctor told me that either I stop gaming, or I lose what little grip and motion I have left. Let’s be real: I’m getting old, but I'm not going to stop gaming. Since holding a standard controller is now out of the question, I’ve had to look for alternatives.

Enter the Sony Access Controller, a new device developed by Sony with a great deal of input from disabled gamers. Sony announced the release of the Access Controller right around the time that my hand issues were coming to a head, and I latched onto the idea of using one like a drowning man latches onto a life ring. 

I’ll be honest, for the first couple of days after it arrived, the Access Controller and I just kind of sat there in the living room giving each other the stink eye. The controller was giving me some serious “Who do you think you are, you’re not a person with disabilities” vibes, and in return I was sending it some “I really want to play Gotham Knights now that it is on Plus, but I can’t believe I’m going to have to use you” sneers. It can be tough coming to terms with new physical limitations, even those as minor as my own. In some ways, unpacking the Access Controller felt like admitting to myself that I was moving into a new phase in my life, and I did not like it one bit.

Still, Gotham Knights wasn’t going to play itself, so I bucked up and got to work. Unpacking the Access Controller was a lesson in deliberate, thoughtful packaging. The package is sealed closed, but a nice zipper-like pull tie with a ring on the end breaks the seal. Inside, players will find the base of the controller itself, a few different sized and shaped knobs for the analog stick, a nice variety of button replacements of various sizes and shapes, and a strip of cardboard to which are attached a bunch of PlayStation Controller button icons. The Access Controller is designed to be used by gamers with varying degrees of dexterity, and I quickly saw how the design of the packaging could make the unpacking and assembly of the controller more manageable to those with more limited hand function than my own.

Setting up the Access Controller was a fascinating project, and one that was surprisingly involved. Not to say that it was overly difficult, but the interface for assigning button values to the ring of buttons on the controller allows for easy changes to the configuration, which led me to experiment a lot with what felt “right” to me.

By default, the large center button on the controller is assigned to the Cross button, with another button assigned to the Circle. This allows players to navigate the interface that pops up the first time you plug the controller into your PS5. Including the center button, there is room on one Access Controller to assign nine buttons, with the additional “PlayStation” button being built in near the adjustable analog stick.

The idea is that you can easily pop off all of the buttons and replace them with others of varying thickness and “feel.” Then through the interface, you can assign values to those buttons in “Profiles,” which are saved configurations that are unlimited in number. Once you have figured out which button you would like to do what, you pop the little icon nubbins into place to keep track of what’s what. The entire process is very intuitive and easy to perform, but I found that committing to my own decisions was difficult. I fiddled around with things, a lot.

You can literally disassemble and reassemble the Access Controller as many times as needed to get it feeling right, even going so far as to create a new Profile for every game you play.

The configuration of the Access Controller became a brain-tingling challenge for me. With nine buttons, I could put the Cross, Circle, Square, and Triangle buttons across the bottom. Then the top four buttons would be taken up by the L1, L2, R1, and R2 buttons. So, then the middle button would be the Options button. This would sacrifice the Create button and the big Touchpad button. But then, what about the D-Pad. I was gonna need a D-Pad, right?

This is where the second Access Controller comes into play. I’m pretty sure the idea behind a single Access Controller is that players will be able to assign the most critical buttons needed to play a game to a single controller and then save that as a Profile. You could feasibly create a profile for each game you play, focusing on the most relevant buttons. But there is an option to configure two controllers in conjunction with each other, which opens up the configuration with the addition of another analog stick and nine more buttons.

So, there I was, sitting for hours, popping off buttons and nubs, experimenting like a mad scientist with two Access Controllers, trying to get to something that felt good to me. And then finally it struck me – nothing was going to feel “good” to me. I was going to have to start from scratch. I was going to have to unlearn years of accumulated muscle memory that I have been building since the days of PS1, and completely retrain my mind to adjust to this new controller configuration no matter how I set it up. The Access Controller is never going to be configured to feel like a DualSense Controller – that’s the whole point.

I realized that I was never going to be able to jump into the deep end of the video game pool without first learning to doggie paddle. Before I could play Gotham Knights, I was going to have to learn to play Pac-Man on this thing.

I decided to start with Zen Studios’ Pinball M. I wanted to play a game that uses minimal buttons just so I could get used to the feel of the Access Controller in my hands. While I was accustomed to activating the game’s bumpers with my forefinger, I got used to using my thumbs in a reasonable amount of time.

After that, I decided that a non-action-based game should be next, so I fired up Baldur’s Gate 3. This turned out to be too much, too soon. Even though the game is evenly paced with plenty of time to decide on moves, there are so many buttons and controls (and combinations of buttons – like “hold down this button and tap that other button”) that I quickly became frustrated. So I scaled back a bit and redownloaded a few of Square-Enix’s Voice of Cards games. This was the pace I was looking for – a game that would have me repeatedly using the same buttons in order to train my brain where they were on the new controller configuration.

I won’t take you step by step through the evolution of games I’ve played (or tried playing) while practicing with the Access Controller. I will say that even after some surgery over the holidays and with a bunch of stitches in my hands, I was able to play about ten hours of Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader with a reasonable amount of success. The Access Controller doesn't yet feel natural to me, exactly, but I am adapting to its use reasonably well. I’ve not yet been able to fully go in on action games like Gotham Knights, but I’m getting there. I’ve created a few different profiles, and have found that I prefer to only use a single controller when possible, as using two in conjunction with each other feels unwieldy to me.

That said, I've seen some videos online of some folks playing with two Access Controllers in some pretty surprising and spectacular ways. The strength of this product is that it allows gamers to configure - and even innovate - how the controller is used, based on their individual needs. Obviously, the spectrum of accessibility needs is very broad, and so reactions to the Access Controller will vary widely. Different people will have different perspectives in accordance with their unique experiences, and I can only speak to my own. But my experience has been on the positive side, and I find the Access Controller to be a well-made, thoughtful product. With time and enough practice, it's going to be pretty great for me.

I do know that there are a lot of gamers of a certain vintage out there, who may be aging out of gaming due to a variety of newly encroaching limitations. For folks like me, the Access Controllers are an interesting and ultimately viable way to extend our console gaming shelf life. Hell, some gamers might enjoy using the Access Controller just because it is a well-made piece of tech that feels pretty good in your hands. I could easily see fighting game or arcade fans using the Access Controller, just because it is so configurable.

Obviously, the gaming ecosphere has come a long way since my cousins used me as their NES surrogate/verbal punching bag. Accessibility in gaming didn’t become a topic that anyone was willing to discuss until decades after my cousins lost their ability to play games. Are solutions like the Access Controller going to be perfect for everyone? No, probably not. But damn it, at least some of these companies are making an effort, and the fact that the Access Controller exists at all means that Sony is doing more than simply paying lip service to the varied needs of its fan base. Progress is progress, and I for one am very grateful that products like the Access Controller are coming to market, because it turns out after all these years that I need them too.

Just don’t ask me to play any NES classic-style games with the Access Controller. We’re on good terms, but we aren’t there yet. And I don't want to provoke my cousins, who sometimes visit me in my dreams to taunt me and tell me how much I suck at Ikari Warriors.  

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

The Sony Access Controller is great for aging gamers (like me) The Sony Access Controller is great for aging gamers (like me) The Sony Access Controller is great for aging gamers (like me) The Sony Access Controller is great for aging gamers (like me) The Sony Access Controller is great for aging gamers (like me)

About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories.  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 and PS VR2 to my headset collection.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on Xbox Series X, Series S, PS5, PS VR2, Quest 3, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, (RIP Stadia) and a super sweet gaming PC built by John Yan.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect. I also co-host the Chronologically Podcast, where we review every film from various filmmakers in order, which you can find wherever you get your podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @eric_hauter, and check out my YouTube channel here

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