The Search For The Perfect Retro Gaming Controller
There have been a few questions thrown at the Emulate This crew over the last few years relating to the best controller for retro gaming, and specifically what the guys reach for to save the Princess when they have time to game. The first email I actually sent the show was about what controllers they used, and what their thoughts were about the new trend of new controllers aimed at retro gaming. That fateful day that I received my nickname, and I found out that the boys preferred their trusty Logitech F310 controllers. I however was about to go down an expensive controller purchasing streak ranging from cheap clones, to slick modern throwbacks that improve on the classic designs. In this article I want to use the money and time I have “invested” in controllers over the last few years to help you decide what you should pick up to play through the games of your childhood.
Before we get into specific models of controllers we need to identify the two schools of thought when it comes to retro gaming controllers. The first option is to be a purest and have a collection of exact replicas of the original hardware. This is one of the biggest draws to the “Classic” systems that come with quality recreations of the original controllers. While nothing feels quite like playing on the original plastice, it becomes a bit unwieldy if you look at your game library and picture how many controllers you would need just to play single player games, let alone having multiple controllers for each system you are going to play. There are exact copies of classic controllers on this list, but I am reviewing them on how they handle all games, not just the games they were built for.
The other option is finding one controller to rule them all. Finding a controller that can handle games from Atari 2600 (Pitfall) to Dual Shock required PS1 games (Ape Escape). This is the dragon I have been chasing for a while now and I think I have finally found what I would call the “perfect” retro gaming controller. Let's see if we can find the best option for you!
RetroLink NES Controller ($15-Amazon.com)
Best Used For: Geeky Hipster decoration around your gaming setup
Not Great For: Controlling a video game character on a screen
Recommended System(s): Those shitty Tiger handheld games from the 80’s/90’s you had but never enjoyed
Rank: 8 out of 8
This was the first USB retro gaming controller I got, and it is an insult to anyone who has fond memories of playing an NES or watching the movie "The Wizard". The D-pad is awful, the buttons are spongy and there is an unreasonable amount of input lag. The proof of how bad this controller performs is how poorly it does controlling Mario. Playing through the first level of the Super Mario Brothers is a struggle to make it to the end. This is the level that got most of us into gaming and considered one of the greatest pieces of game design of all time for how intuitive it is.Not being able to nail a jump i have been making for a solid 25 years is beyond madening. I honestly only included this one on the list to hopefully prevent anyone from making the mistake of buying this waste of plastic. If you have to have the NES look for a controller, 8Bitdo makes several recreations of the original that are far better than this travesty. Buy this instead! (8Bitdo N30-$29.99)
Kiwitata SNES Controller ($9.99-2 Pack-Amazon.com)
Best Used For: Platformers, Sports Games, Brawlers/Fighters
Not Great For: PS1/N64 games, Arcade Games
Recommended System: Atari 2600(+), NES, SNES, GB, GBA, Genesis, Gamegear, Neo-Geo Pocket
Rank: 7 out of 8
This is probably the most commonly bought controller on Amazon for a fresh Retropie build. When I build a Pi setup for a friend, this is what I recommend they start with. Don’t let the price fool you, these are passabel tools for your retro gaming sessions. They will allow you to pilot Mario or Sonic across whatever obstacles are thrown your way. The D-pad is responsive, but does have a little “wiggle” to it. The face buttons feel just right and even retain the concave X and Y buttons, and the rounded A and B buttons. There is nothing here to ruin your good time, unless you are dead set against a cord tethering you to your retro system of choice. The most impressive thing to me about this controller is the apparent lack of input lag, I have never felt like I could notice a delay from a button press to what happens on the screen. If you picked up this controller and did not inspect it too closely, you would not immediately know you are holding a cheap knock off of the original SNES controller. $9.99 gets you two of these and they should be in every retro gamers collection for those times that you just want to play Mario Kart with your friends and you do not want to bust out the more expensive options that are higher on this list. This is for sure one of the best value buys on this list.
Sony Playstation Classic Controller ($30-Amazon.com-Complete system with 2 controllers)
Best Used For: Sports Games, Racing Games, Shooters
Not Great For: Platformers, Anything that relies on a great D pad, Arcade Games
Recommended Systems: Atari 2600(+), NES, SNES, GB,GBA, Genesis, Gamegear, Neo-Geo Pocket, PS1
Rank: 6 out of 8
This one could have swapped places with the SNES controller on this list, but the build quality and functionality of this controller is just solid enough to put it at number six on our list. I grew up playing hours and hours of Tony Hawk Pro Skater and Gran Turismo on one of these things, and the best compliment I can give it is that it feels just like i remember it. I have always disliked the D-pad on these controllers, but the face buttons and the additional shoulder buttons make this a great fit for a wide range of gaming, not just Tony Hawk and Twisted Metal. I always like to have a controller that will be at least usable for any game on my system, and this falls just short for anything that requires an analog stick. It is also not amazing for fighting games with the Sony style D-pad, that could be a personal preference though. These controllers are worth buying a PS Classic for and yes they work on the Raspberry Pi no problem.
8Bitdo M30 ($29.99- Amazon.com)
Best Used For: Platformers, Fighting Games, Sega Saturn/CD Games, Arcade Games
Not Great For: Anything that needs L2/R2 or analog sticks
Recommended Systems: Atari 2600(+), NES, SNES, GB, GBA, Genesis, Gamegear, Neo-Geo Pocket, MAME/FBA, Neo-Geo, Nintendo Switch (retro/indie games)
Rank: 5 out of 8
This controller was probably a splurge that was not really necessary, but it has earned its spot in my controller lineup. It does a lot of the same things that cheaper controllers do, but just does everything better, and this is the first controller on the list that features Bluetooth. It also has a “USB-C” connection on top of it to use wired if the battery is dead, or if you do not want to mess with using Bluetooth on your Raspberry Pi. I did pick up the Bluetooth adapter from 8bitdo and it connects effortlessly on my PS Classic. The D-pad is the classic Sega style with the diagonal directions being made easier to hit, which is amazing for fighting games. They also brought in the classic 6 button layout that made the original a beast for fighters. Street Fighter is just more fun on this controller than a SNES pad. Playing Sonic 2 on this controller just feels right, withthe easy to hit D pad and springy buttons. I even tested out “Greatest Heavyweights” on Genesis after listening to Rory and Ryan talk about how awesome the game would be with a 6 button controller on the latest episode of “Bits and Balls”. The 6 button layout also works really nicely for Neo-Geo and MAME/ FBA games. For games that only have 3 button mapping, you can use the top or bottom buttons. I like the smaller top row buttons since they are a little more responsive and easier for my giant thumb to navigate. This controller has never let me down, but it does have its limitations with only having the D-pad and one set of shoulder buttons. If you keep to the classics, especially with anything Sega related, you will enjoy your time with this controller. This is the controller that you need if you bought the most recent Sega Genesis mini system. The last positive for this controller is that it can be used with a Nintendo Switch for the excellent selection of classic and 2d indie games available on the Nintendo E-Shop. Playing Super Mario World with a 6 button Sega controller, on Nintendo hardware is oddly satisfying.
DIY Arcade Stick Controller ($55 of parts from Amazon)
Best Used For: Arcade Games, Shooters, Shumps, Fighting Games
Not Great For: Any game that needs shoulder buttons/D-pad, Classic Console Games
Recommended Systems: MAME/FBA, NEO-Geo
Rank: 4 out of 8
Most of us who are into retro gaming have thought about building an arcade cabinet at some point in time. As soon as I started looking at plans for a custom Pi powered cabinet, and the cost and space requirements that are involved, I pivoted to just “emulating” the experience of an arcade cabinet. So I hopped on Amazon and found that you can build a pretty capable “arcade stick” for about $55. I have really enjoyed having an arcade stick for games like “Metal Slug”, “Turfmasters” and “Marvel vs Capcom”. Really any Neo Geo or MAME/FBA game is going to feel just right on a setup like this. This is also the best controller for little kids to get into classic gaming. The joystick and big buttons make playing older games easier for small kiddos. If you want help building your own arcade stick, shoot me a message on Discord for a parts list/how to build one. Trust me, anyone has the skills needed to put this together. This type of setup does allow you to go wild with customization on what color buttons you have, or have them back lit with LED’s. I went clean and simple on mine, but would like to add a couple more buttons on the sides of the box to simulate a pinball table.
8Bitdo SN30 Pro ($44.99-Amazon.com)
Best Used For: Anything you can run on a Raspberry Pi 3B+
Not Great For: Extended play sessions, big hands
Recommended System: Atari 2600(+), NES, SNES, GB,GBA, Genesis, Gamegear, Neo-Geo Pocket, MAME/FBA, Neo-Geo, Nintendo Switch, PS1, N64
Rank: 3 out of 8
This was the first “high end” controller that I purchased for my Raspberry Pi. The first thing I noticed was that the D-pad is better than anything below it on the list. It also has dual analog sticks to play any game that uses dual sticks, or if you get fancy, you can map the “C” buttons on the N64 to the right stick which makes Goldeneye play like a modern shooter. There are your traditional shoulder and trigger buttons around back and it has the same Bluetooth and “USB-C” port that the 8Bitdo M30 features. This controller does everything well in either wired or wireless mode and as an added bonus can be used with the Nintendo Switch if you have one. This controller even has motion controls built in for various Switch game functionality. The only downside of this controller is the overall form factor which can feel a little small in the hands and will become a bit uncomfortable for long play sessions.
Current Generation System Controller ($49.99-Xbox One-Amazon.com)
Best Used For: Anything that takes advantage of having analog sticks and lots of button options
Not Great For: Games that benefit from D pads placed higher on the controller/ 6 button layouts
Recommended Systems: Atari 2600(+), NES, SNES, GB,GBA, Genesis, Gamegear, Neo-Geo Pocket, MAME/FBA, Neo-Geo, PS1
Rank: 2 out of 8
Some people do not think about using a modern console controller for their Retropie systems, but they work surprisingly well. I like to use an Xbox One controller or a Nintendo Switch Pro controller. I have not tried a PS4 controller, but i'm sure they would work well too. These could be seen as expensive if you do not have one lying around, but there is a good chance you have a controller from a modern system sitting next to your retro gaming setup so this could be the best value on the list. These controllers do everything well, with various levels of D-Pad performance. I would say the Xbox One D-pad is better than the Nintendo Switch Pro controller's, but the Bluetooth setup inside the Xbox One controller does not play nice with the Raspberry Pi so you are stuck with a wired Micro USB cable. The Nintendo controller hooks up over Bluetooth just fine. I don’t think anyone would have a bad time with any of the current gen controllers.
8Bitdo SN30 Pro Plus ($49.99- Amazon.com)
Best Used For: Platformers, Sports Games, Shooters, Brawlers, Fighting Games, Panic Restaurant (NES)
Not Great For: Really does not do anything poorly, but you may want something with a 6 button layout for some games
Recommended System: Atari 2600(+), NES, SNES, GB,GBA, Genesis, Gamegear, Neo-Geo Pocket, MAME/FBA, Neo-Geo, Nintendo Switch, PS1, N64
Rank: 1 out of 8
My journey to find my favorite retro gaming controller led me to the 8Bitdo SN30 Pro Plus. This is the follow up to the SN30 Pro that landed at #3 on the list and they took their time refining this controller, releasing this one a couple years after the original. The D-pad is the best on this list, the sticks are buttery smooth, and the buttons are firm and responsive. The Bluetooth works well and I have tested it with a Raspberry Pi, Android phone, and a Playstation Classic with the 8Bitdo adapter. This controller also comes with software that allows you to remap buttons, trigger sensitivity, and even load macro’s for games like Street Fighter. Like the other 8bitdo controllers, this is Switch friendly as well. The added handles on the controller make it much more comfortable than the SN30 Pro. I would say the worst thing about this controller is the confusing name that really does not do it justice as the next step in a line of great controllers that the SN30 Pro Plus really is. Also they must have matched the SNES purple a little too close for comfort on the original SN30 Pro that is pictured above, because they changed the hues quite a bit for the Pro Plus and it does not look nearly as good. That is why I went with the all black model, which I think looks pretty slick.
Bonus Controller- Nintendo Switch “Flipgrip”
This one was another splurge pickup for me, and I have not used it extensively yet. It is meant to “flip” the switch vertically to make pinball games, and arcade games more natural to play. This is a pretty specific controller, and can obviously only be used for the Switch, but it really does enhance the experience. Support for the Flip grip has been ok with game devs, but not every game you would want to play vertically works with it. One of the best experiences with this gadget has been “Downwell” the addictive indie game where you fall down a well...There are some missed opportunities, but support could improve as time goes on. I am surprised this is not something Nintendo has put out themselves. They love cheap plastic accessories like the “Flip grip”
I hope I could help someone out there learn a bit more about the options that are available to them for controlling their retro games. I would say find something that looks good to you and stick with it. Like the old saying goes, “The best camera is the one you have with you” the same holds true for a retro controller. Whatever you can get used to and map some muscle memory to is going to be your best bet. Just avoid anything that fundamentally changes how you play the game by adding in delay, or unintended button presses. I am probably guilty of falling victim to the “collecting” bug vs buying what I needed to have a good time. Swing by the “Emulate This” Discord and post a picture of your retro gaming controller of choice!