A Cult Hero: The mystic power of the original Xbox “Duke”

The release of the Xbox Controller “S” was accompanied by wild cries and applause from all of those for whom the original whopper-sized controller didn’t fit into their hands.  Understandably too, it was a bloody handful that while technically ergonomic wasn’t really designed with the average 2002 human’s hand-size in mind.

But amongst my friends that Xbox “Duke” was a thing of legend; a controller that held mystic powers that were beyond our comprehension.  It was our “Ark of the Covenant”, something we all wanted to hold but never understood its real power.


But before I go into that story, it’s best to start at the beginning.

By 2003 Microsoft’s XBOX had well and truly become the multiplayer gaming console of choice for my friends.  Not really because it held any clear advantage over the other but rather because a friend whose parents had rather lax rules and regulations governing the teenager and his friends comings and goings had one in his larger-than-average bedroom.  Days turned to nights turned to weeks in the company of that particular friend, and if we weren’t at the oval at the school across the road playing a hit of cricket in 44 degree weather, we were inside playing fiercely competitive multiplayer games.

Gatherings of friends crowded around the small CRT TV became cornerstones of our summers.  Year after year there would be that game that hooked us and has us playing, laughing, yelling and punching each other in the arm as we waged battle on the television screen.  Controllers, including the one “Duke” controller, were passed or thrown between sometimes six or seven guys over the course of hours as we played Halo, Jedi Knight, Jedi Outcast or Dark Alliance.

But not all controllers were considered equal, and having the Duke Baton passed to you was akin to the poisoned chalice – in the beginning.  The look on the face of the receiving party was not unlike what you would imagine the expression of someone who has been told that their one-night-stand was pregnant with their child would be.  The colour drained from their faces and their pupils dilated as they took hold of the whopper-sized controller and fixed their eyes on the screen.

But then something started happening.  The person holding the Duke controller began winning irrespective of who it was. Watching people slowly become accustomed to the controller, alter their grip and gain a comparative advantage through doing so was like watching a child take its first steps, which while gradual was certainly marked.  As if a symbiotic relationship between the player’s hands and the controller had occured the performance benefits of using that controller over the ‘new and improved’ S were there.

We slowly picked up on all of this and as we did, tried to psych each other out with mind games, hoping that we were the only ones that knew, and trying to keep the pro-Duke club as exclusive as possible.  We were like Jedi trying to keep control of the force as with it absolute power, using our jedi mind tricks to alter the perceptions of each other.  In the background you’d hear “oh dude you’ve got the duke”, “man you’re stuffed with that controller” and the less than subtle “love this small controller it is rad”.  Soon we could no longer maintain secrecy over our secret weapon and it was obvious to all that the Duke had magical powers and whoever had that controller in their hands wielded near infinite power.  It became the Ring and we were all beholden to its power. Matches were thrown, tantrums had and the onset of anarchy began as the rules governing how controllers were allocated and how games were won or loss were thrown into disarray.

The Duke had worked its magic on us and we were turning on each other to wield its power.

Our Precious.