Retro USB Controller Roundup, Part 1

I was perusing the stock of my local retro games store a few weeks ago when I noticed something peculiar – brand new NES controllers available in a box I’d never seen before. I picked up the box and gave it a second look to find it was actually an NES controller mock-up with a USB plug, allowing the user to play PC games with an NES controller – or something that looked an awful lot like one. A retro-style USB controller….awesome!

Being a huge fan of emulation, this appealed to me immediately. The legalities of emulation are pretty clear, if you don’t own the original game in some form, you shouldn’t download the ROM, because it is most CERTAINLY illegal to download games you don’t own. Fortunately, this has not been an issue for me for some time – you can find most retro games available for $10 or less either online or in your local retro game store nowadays. And my collection is fairly substantial. Not to mention, emulators make it a lot easier for me to capture game footage for the videos I make for Leviathyn.

I’d previously had a pretty simple system where it comes to controllers for games – the Xbox 360 controller for pretty much any PC game, a PS2 controller with a USB adapter for emulators. The PS2 controller can be adapted for use for every old system I can think of, the only awkward one being the N64, but it’s possible to work around it. And while it’s a fine solution, and I’ve never had any problems, the idea of having the authentic feeling of holding an NES or SNES controller while playing NES or SNES games on my computer was too alluring to resist.

There was just one minor problem – the price tag. My local store was selling these controllers for $25 a pop. And no matter how many times I went back to that store, one time deliberately planning to buy one of them – I could not shake the feeling that I’d be paying too much, that I could do better online. A simple Google search revealed that I could, feasibly, do better. So I went on Amazon instead, where I managed to purchase 3 retro USB controllers for $25. Was it a better deal than my local game store? Well, yes and no. Let’s take a look at each controller individually.

NES USB Controller

First up is the Classic USB NES Controller for PC, by Gtron. The box doesn’t inspire confidence, but the controller itself seems solid. Aside from the obnoxious “Made in China” indent on the back, holding it in my hands feels just like holding a genuine new Nintendo controller. The casing feels sturdy, and unlikely to break. The buttons feel responsive, and the d-pad feels just right.

I plugged it into my Windows 7 laptop, and it installed just fine. Strangely, it installed as a ten-button controller, even though it only has four buttons. I didn’t think anything of it at first – maybe that’s a generic USB controller driver that most manufacturers use, as long as it works, what does it matter that there’s extra buttons? Now, though, I’m not so sure.

I open my favorite NES emulator, FCEUX, set up the controller, and load up Bionic Commando. And things go smoothly for about two minutes, at which point, I notice that there appears to be a problem with the d-pad. Pressing up seems to register as up and left. I exited the emulator, went to my Control Panel, and calibrated the controller. No matter how many times I attempted to calibrate, pushing straight up on the d-pad always put the dot in the upper-left corner.

Sadly, that’s a deal-breaker. Every other button on the controller, every other direction on the d-pad works just fine, but not being able to press straight up would make a number of games unplayable, Bionic Commando included. 4 out of 10.

SNES USB Controller

Next up is the Classic USB Super Nintendo Controller for PC by Gtron. Again, the box does not inspire trust, like the NES controller box. But inside is a perfectly crafted replica of an SNES controller. They even nailed that little detail of the X and Y buttons being concave, and the A and B buttons being convex. The cord is weirdly white instead of grey, but its generous 9-foot length easily satisfies.

I’m crying on the inside.

The controller itself feels light. Not I’m-afraid-of-breaking-it light, but uncertain-of-long-term-stability light. I remember the original SNES pads being heavier, but the weight of a controller to a younger boy would naturally seem less to a grown man. The buttons all feel right, and again, the d-pad feels right, but as the NES controller proved, feeling right and being right are two different things.

Again, plug in and install go smoothly, so I load up ZSNES, configure the controller, and start up Super Castlevania IV. And it is near-perfection. I am literally having flashbacks to being 12 years old, sitting in my bedroom, playing Super Castlevania IV in the wee hours of a Saturday morning. For a second, I thought there was another problem when I couldn’t whip up and to the right, but further attempts were successful, the problem may have been thumb placement on my part. I didn’t have any further problems.

I am extremely pleased with this purchase. The sensation of using a genuine SNES controller is about as authentic as anyone could ask for, and the long cord length is an excellent bonus. The only complaint I have is with its weight – I wish it were a little heavier, sturdier. It may hold up well over time, but I’m not certain. Still, 9 out of 10.

Saturn USB Controller

Last, we have the Retrolink USB Sega Saturn Classic Controller [White]. The box in this case is a little more impressive, easily as deep as the other two combined. It boasts that it “gives the look and feel of the original Sega Saturn controller.” Which may be a problem, I didn’t think too highly of that controller.

Removing the controller from the box confirms my suspicions, in fact, it’s even worse. The controller is ridiculously light and feels like it was made from very cheap plastic. The buttons and d-pad are a little better than the casing, but not by much. Still, they feel springy and responsive, so I’ve got my fingers crossed.

First I tried a three-button game. I started up Fusion, configured the controller, and loaded up Contra: Hard Corps. The d-pad proves to be accurate, but the A and B button presses occasionally don’t register if I press them too lightly. If I want to be sure they’ll work, I have to press them down hard. Then I tried a six-button game, Street Fighter 2: Special Champion Edition, and the X, Y, and Z buttons were perfectly okay, though again, A and B occasionally failed to register unless I pressed them down with more force than normal.

All in all, it works better than the NES USB controller, but I don’t like that I have to press the A and B buttons so hard, especially considering the exceedingly light feel of the controller – it feels like I’m going to break it. While I should be able to successfully enjoy using this controller for any game I would like, with some added frustration for missing jumps because the button press didn’t register, I don’t have any faith in the controller having a long life span. 6 out of 10.

That’s all for part 1, stay tuned for part 2, where I’ll review three more retro USB controllers!

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