The Duke, original Xbox controller/doorstop, returns at CES

We chat with proud Xbox papa Seamus Blackley about the revival of his infamous gamepad, back in March for $70. And we go hands-on with the new version.

Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Sean Hollister
5 min read

The Duke. Will it fit in your garage?

Sean Buckley/CNET

In June, we brought you the horrendous news that the original boat anchor was back -- the hideously large OG Xbox controller, affectionately known as "The Duke," had been plucked from its watery grave. 

Somehow, for some unfathomable reason, father-of-the-Xbox Seamus Blackley secured Microsoft's blessing to bring The Duke back from the dead as a fully functional Xbox controller for gamers with a misplaced sense of nostalgia. In other words, gamers like me.

That's why I'm excited to exclusively reveal this: The Duke will cost $70 when it arrives this spring. (That's roughly £50 or AU$90 converted.) Manufacturer Hyperkin (also see: this dreamy new Game Boy) says it's shooting for a March release for the Xbox and PC-compatible pad, but say it might be late March. So FYI.

We got to check out a near-final version of The Duke here at CES 2018 in Las Vegas, plus had a chat with Seamus Blackley himself. Here's everything else we learned in no particularly good order.

Editor's note: Quotes have been lightly edited.

The OLED screen totally works

Yes, the original Xbox controller "jewel" now has an OLED screen underneath that plays the Xbox startup animation whenever you press it. 

Blackley says he'd love to let game developers use the screen for other purposes, but Microsoft hasn't yet approved. Still, all that's keeping you from tapping into that screen are six Philips-head screws.

Sean Buckley/CNET

It's a feature Blackley wanted to be in the Xbox controller from the beginning, and one he says he still had to push through today: "I built a prototype myself, because I knew if I said we should put a screen behind the jewel nobody would ever go for it," he tells me.

One interesting note: While the bootup animation you see here is technically a video file, Blackley says there was never any such video on the Xbox itself. The startup screen was procedurally generated by the Xbox graphics chip. It's code, not video.

Blackley says that at one point, Hyperkin contacted Microsoft looking for a startup video, without going through him first. "These Microsoft guys are all running around trying to find it, freaking out ... and I'm laughing my ass off because it's all procedural." 

The new shoulder buttons aren't too much of a stretch

The Duke is designed to be a perfect recreation of the original in size, shape, materials and feel, except for four things: the OLED screen, the USB cable, the lack of memory card slots, and the addition of two tiny shoulder buttons above the triggers so it can play Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC-based XInput games. (You know those PC games that pop up Xbox button prompts when you plug in an Xbox controller? Those.)


The Duke's new right bumper. You also might notice the face buttons are weirdly transparent: this near-final prototype doesn't have its doubleshot keys quite yet. 

Sean Buckley/CNET

And while they're a little jarring to look at and definitely a little small, they're placed well -- landing perfectly under the tips of my index fingers.

For Blackley, it's personal

Blackley takes the blame for the original Duke being the size it was. "I'd taken my eye off the ball when it came to the controller ... and the circuit board was given out to a vendor who was a friend of somebody or a brother of somebody. So the circuit board they came up with was the size of a dinner plate," he half-jokes.

"My good friend and industrial designer had to get a controller around this damn thing, so she did ... she was in tears and I was the person who had to deal with it.

"I had physical things thrown at me as a result of this controller," he says. 

Sean Buckley/CNET

Blackley says the huge gamepad was one reason the original Xbox didn't get a lot of support from Japanese developers. 

"The controller was the size of most kids' bedrooms in Japan! I saw this petition of Japanese game developers who said we had to make a smaller controller. When 'Controller S' got approved, I thought [the S stood for Seamus] -- I figured it was to mock me because they thought it would fail," he says.

Blackley says it was  "very cathartic to cut that m*********** open" when he was building the new Duke's first prototype.

Twitter made Duke 2.0 happen

And yet, Blackley didn't exactly go on a crusade to bring The Duke back -- he says it all started when he was sorting through moving boxes, found a stash of old controllers, and tweeted a picture of one on a lark.

"I discovered to my horror and fascination that The Duke was an object of nostalgia and comfort and happiness and childhood memories, and all these people with big hands saying it was the only controller that was comfortable," he says. "One of the guys who follows me on Twitter tweets that we should reissue it ... it got nearly 2,000 likes and retweets."

"I contacted Phil [Spencer, head of Xbox], who was a buddy of mine, and asked, 'Phil, is this crazy enough to do?' and some of the hardware guys who were there when the Xbox was on the drawing board said we should absolutely do it."

He calls it 'miraculous' that Microsoft signed on.

"It's unlike anything that's happened in games before," Blackley says. "It's f****** remarkable.

"I don't know a lot of brands that would rerelease an unpopular product from the past ... and Phil, I think correctly understands that it sends a message. He understands that it sends a message about how serious Xbox is about its heritage, and about the fans.

"Nintendo and other companies have released nostalgia products but those are ... different types of exercises, and I don't want to criticize them but this is a much purer thing. This isn't a nostalgia trip where you can play all your 8-bit games, this is the place we started from. You can play the most modern technology we've released with the most modern games we've released with this controller.

"There is not inconsiderable resistance and politics inside of Microsoft about this," he adds. "The idea of a retro exercise like this, you get an allergic reaction with the marketing team."

We're looking forward to giving you a full review of The Duke for Xbox One (that's the proper name), from Hyperkin, as soon as we nab a review unit.

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