There was a time when third-party controllers were a cheap alternative to the gamepads included with consoles, and saved for visiting friends during multiplayer battles. Thanks to companies like Scuf, that’s no longer the case. Its controllers not only match the quality of OEM offerings, they’re also highly customizable. The new Instinct and Instinct Pro for the Xbox Series X|S adds features that companies like Microsoft should have included with their own hardware.
In the past we’ve named Scuf’s offerings some of the best controllers you can buy if you’re looking to take your gaming experience past what comes in the box, and while the new Instinct line isn’t a complete re-imagining of Scuf’s hardware, the company has taken the opportunity to refine and improve the usability of several features for its first Xbox Series X|S controller. As a result, the Instinct and Instinct Pro (which we had an opportunity to test) are not only a compelling upgrade over Microsoft’s controllers, but Scuf’s past offerings too.
Back in the days of the Super Nintendo, N64, Sega Genesis, and PlayStation, third-party controllers were easy to spot because companies went out of their way to release different, and sometimes weird, designs that made their products stand out on shelves, ergonomics and functionality be damned. Companies like Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft dump mountains of money into R&D to ensure their controller hardware is as ergonomic and accommodating for a wide variety of users as possible. In other words, what comes in the box is already very good, and Scuf has no interest in re-inventing the wheel.
It’s hard to tell the Scuf Instinct Pro apart from an OEM Microsoft controller if you’re not intimately familiar with the hardware, and that’s a good thing. Most gamers start with the included gamepad when they get a new console, and there’s no reason to retrain that muscle memory.
It’s only when you flip the Scuf Instinct Pro over that you see the differences. The biggest reason to upgrade to a third-party controller from companies like Scuf is the extra buttons included on the back. They don’t magically add new inputs but instead can be remapped to emulate existing buttons on the front of the controller so they’re potentially more easily accessible, or a combination of buttons so a specific function can be accessed with a single button press.
A good example of where these buttons can be useful is Microsoft Flight Simulator, which is finally available on the Xbox Series S|X. Since it debuted on PCs, where keyboards are a standard accessory, many functions are only accessible using button combinations on the Xbox controller, and they can be hard to remember. That’s where the remappable extra buttons on the Scuf Instinct Pro come in very handy.
The buttons aren’t a new feature for Scuf, but they’ve been redesigned with the new Instinct and Instinct Pro. Previously Scuf implemented them as long paddles on the back that required gamers to adjust how they held an Xbox controller to reach them. It altered the ergonomics of the gamepad, and required gamers to retrain their muscle memories. With the new Instinct and Instinct Pro, these four extra buttons (Scuf still refers to them as paddles) now sit directly beneath where a gamer naturally holds an Xbox controller, making them much easier and more comfortable to press in the heat of battle.
Companies like 8BitDo offer third-party programmable controllers as well. But reassigning what the buttons on those gamepads do requires the controller to either be synced to desktop software or a mobile app running on a smartphone or tablet. It works, but having to reach for another device to remap a controller is far from ideal. The four additional buttons on the back of the Scuf Instinct Pro can be remapped directly on the controller itself in a new process that’s now even easier.
Previously, remapping the extra buttons on Scuf’s controllers required the use of a magnetic key held to the back of the gamepad. It ensured buttons didn’t get remapped by accident, but it was also an accessory that was easily lost. For the new Instinct controllers, the magnetic key has been replaced by a Profile button on the back of the controller. After holding it down for a few seconds, any of the rear buttons can be remapped by holding them down while simultaneously pressing the buttons on the front you want them to emulate. The process is easy to remember and replicate, and I mostly prefer it over 8BitDo’s use of a connected app, although the latter approach facilitates a remapping to a series of button presses that the Instinct does not. (This is ideal for fighting games where certain moves require two or three button presses in sequence.)
Like the 8BitDo Pro 2, the Scuf Instinct and Instinct Pro also allow three custom profiles to be individually remapped and recalled on the controller. Pressing the Profile button on the back of the gamepad cycles through all three which are differentiated with red, green, and blue LEDs on the front. Scuf suggests using red for sports, green for racing, and blue for FPS games, but you can of course use them however you please.
There are some drawbacks to using the same controller for every type of game, and the new Scuf Instinct manages to remedy one of them by improving a feature it introduced a while ago. Unlike the rest of the buttons, a modern controller’s shoulder triggers have a larger range of movement. That makes them great for use as an accelerator in racing games where you want precise control over acceleration, but not so great in first-person shooters where you need to pull the triggers all the way to fire a shot.
On the back of the Instinct Pro (it’s a feature not included on the cheaper Instinct) you’ll find a switch that locks each shoulder trigger button in place so there’s no more travel and each one feels more like a clicky action button instead. Older implementations of this feature still resulted in shoulder buttons that had a small bit of travel, but on the Instinct Pro the switch has been redesigned so the triggers immediately click when pressed. It now works very well (to the point where I almost want to crack the controller open to see how the switching mechanism works) and will be a much appreciated upgrade for competitive FPS players looking for an advantage.
Customizability has long been a hallmark of Scuf’s controllers, and the new Instinct line is no different.
The faceplates are held in place using strong magnets but easily pop off if you want to customize the look of your controller. The design of the faceplate we were sent is known as Energon. The faceplate also provides access to all of the swappable buttons and joysticks inside. There are no special tools or keys needed to get in there and perform upgrades or hardware swaps.
Out of the box the controller comes pre-installed with a pair of short, concave-topped joysticks. But in the box Scuf has also included a sampling of the alternatives, including both tall and short domed-topped joysticks that can be swapped in and tested. Given the Instinct and Instinct Pro’s pricing, I’ll admit I would have liked to have seen a full set of at least the joystick alternatives included in the box, instead of having to buy them aftermarket from Scuf’s website, because unlike colored faceplates and buttons, they can genuinely improve the functionality and usability of the controller.
Also included is a surprisingly high-quality braided USB-C cable for competitive gamers looking to skip wirelessly connectivity in order to eliminate as much controller lag as possible.
The only real complaint anyone could possibly have with the Scuf Instinct and Instinct Pro controllers is the price. A standard Xbox Series X|S controller is $65, so $170 and $200 (for the Instinct Pro) is a very expensive upgrade—even more so when you consider Microsoft’s own customizable controller, the Xbox Elite, is $180. Is the Instinct Pro worth the extra $20? At those price points you’ll want to go hands-on with both before making a decision, but the new switchable instant-action triggers on the Instinct Pro work surprisingly well, and the ability to remap the additional buttons on the back of the controller directly, without having to first connect it to an app, might be the feature that gives the Instinct Pro the edge.