Retro Fighters Brawler64 Gamepad Review
Nintendo 64 diehards have long sought after a suitable replacement for the system’s un-durable and unwieldy controllers. In 2017, aftermarket accessory newcomer Retro Fighters set out to create a brand-new gamepad for the system that solved those issues by rethinking the joystick’s construction and putting it inside of a controller more in-tune with modern design sensibilities. The result: the Brawler64 Gamepad.
I received the Brawler64 as a backer of the company’s initial Kickstarter campaign. My expectations were null, but at the price of $20 plus shipping it was worth a gamble (note: the MSRP for the controller is now $29.99). Like many gamers, I have been painstakingly searching for a viable alternative to the system’s factory controllers for two decades. Design qualms aside, the controller’s joystick just wasn’t up to snuff for years of heavy gameplay.
In that regard, the Brawler64’s ultimate value is unknown at this point. Having received mine only a few days ago, it is hard to discern how well its joystick will endure over the coming years. That said, the joystick feels solid and handles very well. My go-to litmus test for N64 controllers is Turok 2: Seeds of Evil and I am happy to report that the Brawler64 gamepad was up to the task with the N64’s best shooter (yeah, that’s right).
In Turok 2, the joystick is used exclusively for aiming, so accuracy and control is an absolute must. I’ve tried many aftermarket replacement controllers and none of them could replicate the feel of a tight, out-of-the-box N64 joystick. Retro Fighter’s new pad managed to pull it off nicely. Turok 2 was maddening to play with an old, wobbly joystick and even more so with Hyperkin’s Gamecube-style replacement that massacred any hope of precision control. With the Brawler64 Gamepad, those damn dinosoids didn’t stand a chance.
I was initially concerned that the joystick would not provide adequate grip, as it appeared it was made entirely of plastic in promotional pictures. Thankfully, the top of the joystick is coated with non-textured rubber that does a good job preventing any unwanted slippage. In my experience thus far, a lack of grip has not been an issue.
It is a relief that the joystick seems to be a winner so far, but time will ultimately tell. The rest of the controller, however, is a mixed bag.
You’ll notice that the layout is similar to what you’d expect from a current-gen gaming controller. The Brawler64 brings with it the advantage of having two additional decades of design innovations over the original “trident” design. Suffice to say, if someone at Nintendo had introduced this design when constructing the Nintendo 64, it probably would have won out. While the Brawler64 unsurprisingly lacks the weight and build quality of say, the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, gamers today will feel right at home with how the controller feels in their hands.
Obvious form factor changes aside, there are a few key differences that might not be noticeable at first glance. The Brawler64 features two trigger buttons that sit under the L and R buttons respectively; both serving as the pad’s Z-button. It probably wasn’t totally necessary to put one on each side, but it’s a nice touch. Strangely, these aren’t the simple digital triggers that the system’s original controllers were outfitted with. Rather, Retro Fighters decided to utilize analog triggers instead. I’m honestly not sure of the thinking behind this design choice, as the triggers feel awkward, mushy, and don’t really provide a tangible advantage over the quickfire “on-off” functionality of the original digital Z-button. The analog triggers don’t really make anything noticeably worse, however, so it’s a change I can tolerate. It merely feels like change for change’s sake.
The C-buttons are larger than on the original controller, which is a welcome alteration. As game developers began utilizing these buttons for more than simple camera controls, the tiny C-buttons on the original pad didn’t fit the bill, especially for gamers with larger hands. The Brawler64 remedies this problem nicely with adequately-sized buttons that are properly spaced.
The box lists a “responsive and high-quality D-Pad” as a key feature, but I can’t help but call shenanigans on that. While the Brawler64’s D-Pad isn’t awful, this is one aspect in which the original controller is the better choice. In fairness, this is hardly a deal-breaker as the D-Pad is so infrequently utilized in most of the system’s better-known games. However, in cases of “D-pad heavy” titles like WWF No Mercy, it’s best to stick with the N64’s original controller.
I must make note of a recently discovered engineering flaw with the controller that, in this case, is mostly inconsequential. The issue occurs when the joystick is pushed in the “up-left” direction while the L button is pressed. Due to the controller’s internal layout, the joystick’s inner-workings will make contact with the L button, causing it to be pushed upward and lose contact. On any other controller, this would have been a massive oversight worthy of negating any other positive elements the controller could boast. However, due to the original N64 controller’s design, there aren’t really any realistic scenarios in which the L-button is held while the joystick is in motion. Therefore, a massive design blunder is rendered a minor annoyance at worst. That said, Retro Fighters has addressed the issue and is planning to fix it for future production runs.
Overall, the controller exudes an inherent cheapness that befits a $20 investment. Thankfully, it mostly hits the mark where it counts. Compared to other widely available alternatives, it’s probably the best option currently on the market. The Brawler64 does feel a little awkward in my hands, but it wouldn’t be fair of me to transpose this to other gamers' preferences.
The Brawler64 is a competent and affordable reason to finally shove those old, broken N64 controllers in the drawer for good. While it isn’t close to perfection, it’s a firm step in the right direction. The Nintendo 64’s longest-lasting legacy will be its universally likable multi-player offerings and Retro Fighters has finally provided a way to fit your setup with controllers worthy of those memorable late-night contests.
The Brawler64 is currently available for pre-order on Retro Fighters’ (http://retrofighters.com) website for $29.99, with orders shipping later this month.
Andy Reierson is a co-host of the Super Podcast Bros. Retro Gaming Show (http://superpodcastbros.com ).