CLARIFICATION: This review is of an early proof of concept model of the SmashBox; the current iteration as proposed in the Kickstarter has incorporated feedback from players, from me, and from other medical professionals.
There are several important disclaimers to make at the beginning of this review:
- I received an early proof of concept version of the SmashBox for free in exchange for providing feedback on its ergonomics.
- My ability to playtest the SmashBox is limited by the fact that I am a relative low-skilled player and don’t routinely play high APM characters.
- I reviewed this product specifically in comparison to a standard Gamecube controller.
According to the maker of SmashBox, this controller was designed with two purposes in mind: to address ergonomic/injury concerns inherent to the Gamecube controller, and to allow for more precise inputs. I am not qualified to talk in any capacity about inputs or about the tournament-legal state of this controller, so I won’t attempt to. Instead, I’ll look at the ergonomics of the SmashBox relative to a Gamecube controller.
The primary issues players deal with as a result of the ergonomics of the Gamecube controller are thumb pain (e.g. median nerve irritation, DeQuervain’s tenosynovitis), forearm pain (especially in the wrist extensors), inflammation in the elbow (epicondylitis), and neck/upper back pain associated with poor posture. The latter isn’t a direct consequence of the controller itself, but the way the controller is held and stabilized tends to result in a forward-leaning posture.
The SmashBox allows for all 10 fingers to be used for inputs as opposed to just thumbs, index, and possibly middle fingers, while the ring and pinky fingers are used for stabilization. This distributes stresses more broadly, reducing the risk of repetitive stress injuries to the thumbs, index, and middle fingers. Hands and wrists are rotated 90 degrees and aligned in the horizontal plane, as opposed to the vertical plane. As a result of this and of the SmashBox’s fightstick-shaped structure, it’s impossible to bear weight through the elbows while leaning forward, as above.
Instead, the SmashBox promotes an either upright or posterior-leaning position. It allows you to use the same posture you’d (ideally) want to use while sitting at a computer: chin tucked, chest up, back supported, feet planted flat on the floor. In that regard–the posture it more easily allows you to maintain–the SmashBox provides an improvement relative to the Gamecube controller.
However, while the SmashBox’s design reduces some of the stresses inherent to the Gamecube controller, it also increases stresses that the Gamecube controller doesn’t.
While testing the SmashBox, I made a distinct effort to trial tech skills that I may or may not be able to consistently hit based on my level of skill. I also tried to focus on the kinds of movements and inputs you might see during a pre-match warmup, as well as anything that tends to be repetitive: wavelanding, shffl aerials, moving around platforms, shine/doubleshine/wavedash. (Please note I’m not claiming I hit these skills on any kind of consistent basis, just that I repeatedly attempted things a higher APM player might have to consistently deal with). I also sought out the input of higher-skilled players for additional feedback.
The primary concerns that were expressed to me by those players were that flat (not curved) alignments of the buttons were difficult for repetitive techniques and whether the analog and D-pad positioning would negatively affect hand movement at high APM.
Unsurprisingly, as APM increased, so did muscle strain while testing the SmashBox. My hand is fairly average-sized relative to most Smash players, and moving between the analog pad and the D-pad was fairly easy. However, the fact that the D-pad is most easily controlled by the thumb puts stress on it in a manner different from the way a joystick on a Gamecube controller stresses the thumb. A joystick only requires motion in one plane: horizontal. A D-pad requires both horizontal and vertical plane motion (lift thumb up -> move over -> put thumb down).
The primary area I noticed strain and stress in while playing on the SmashBox was in wrist and finger extensor muscles on the back of the right forearm. This included tightness in the muscles themselves as well as tension in the back of the hand.
There’s a concept I’ve discussed in my Evidence-Based Esports series that applies here: namely, that in order to get mobility, you need a stable base. In this case, my forearm, wrist, and hand have to remain stable for my fingers to be mobile. With this particular configuration of the SmashBox, that requires significant muscle activation in a way that causes tension. The fingers remain extended at their base and flexed through the distal finger joints to be in the readiest possible position for input. Over time, this resting tension and active use add up, even more so as APM increases.
Overall, the design has both improvements and drawbacks relative to the standard Gamecube controller.
- Distributes forces across all 10 fingers
- Promotes improved back/neck posture
- Reduces need for prolonged grip
- Significant resting tension required in forearm/wrist to support input-optimal finger position
- Additional plane of motion for D-pad = additional stress
With minor changes, such as curving the input buttons on the top right, the SmashBox has the potential to significantly improve on the ergonomics of the Gamecube controller. For players who are already experiencing significant hand issues with the Gamecube controller, changing playstyles entirely to the SmashBox may be worth consideration (with the caveat that rehab, then prevention, then maintenance will still be required to address underlying injury issues).
The SmashBox is not a miracle solution to eliminate all repetitive stress injuries. While it ameliorates some of the ergonomic concerns inherent to the Gamecube controller, it also generates ergonomic concerns of its own. In my opinion, one controller is not more significantly ergonomically sound overall; good ergonomics can be developed around either controller.
On both a personal and professional note, I’m excited to see the continued development of the SmashBox and alternative controllers like it. There’s significant potential for improved ergonomics in a specialized controller, and the possibility of making the game more accessible to players with conditions that make a standard controller unusable.