What to Look For in a Retro Controller in 2022
There are so many video game systems to choose from that the “perfect” controller doesn’t exist. If you want an authentic retro gaming experience, you’ll generally want to go with a controller that replicates the feel of playing retro games on the older system.
Starting with the NES generation of consoles, the controller became relatively standardized. If your general interest in retro gaming is from this era onward, buying a single gamepad that adequately covers multiple systems is possible.
That includes the modern controllers you already have, but modern controllers have a major flaw that makes them less than ideal for retro gaming. Specifically, they tend to have mushy D-pads.
Most retro games extensively use the D-pad to control the game. Modern games use the D-pad for tasks such as using items or switching between in-game modes — so they don’t need to be as accurate. Therefore, a good retro controller must first have a sharp, accurate d-pad with good feedback.
The next thing to look for is compatibility. Most modern retro controllers will work with anything that has Bluetooth or USB, but only a select few are compatible with original hardware. In this article, we’re not specifically looking for controllers to use with the original consoles, but some offer this option as a bonus.
Finally, button layout and quality are paramount. If you want to play a game designed for a controller with six face buttons, using one with just four can be an issue. Buttons also need to be comfortable enough and give good sharp feedback. In retro games, button presses tend to be more frequent and intense, so any controller has to stand up to this.
With a laser focus on making retro games play as well and authentically as possible, let’s look at some of the best retro-style controllers you can buy.
Best Retro Overall Controller: 8Bitdo Pro 2
- ✓ More comfortable than most retro controllers
- ✓ Suitable for any gamepad-era retro gaming
- ✓ Rumble support
- ✓ Back-paddle buttons
- ✓ Custom profiles
- ✗ A mishmash of different controller designs
If you don’t have the budget to buy multiple retro-style controllers, then the 8Bitdo Pro 2 is the one we’d recommend. It has all of the controls for retro gaming up to the modern 3D era, where analog sticks came onto the scene.
Although it lacks the six-face buttons Genesis or fighting game fans would prefer, it does come with two additional back buttons, so you can compensate for that when mapping buttons for these titles. These back buttons can also help in games that are hard on your fingers, but where you don’t want to resort to a turbo function that spams keypresses.
Ths 8Bitdo controller doesn’t match any particular retro console in design, unfortunately, so if you’re looking for a controller that’ll match your console aesthetic, you might be a little disappointed. However, the Pro 2 makes up for it with modern grips, which makes it more comfortable than most controllers that adhere strictly to the old-school design.
The Pro 2 is officially compatible with Switch, PC, macOS, Android, Steam, and Raspberry Pi.
Best Retro Overall Controller
8Bitdo Pro 2
The Retro Pro 2 tries to be all things to all retro gamers and by and large succeeds at it. If you need one controller to play games from multiple retro systems, this is the one.
Best Budget Retro Controller: 8Bitdo SN30
- ✓ Great quality, affordable
- ✓ Wirelessly compatible with original SNES
- ✗ No Bluetooth
- ✗ Must use USB cable for non-SNES devices
The SNES-style 8Bitdo SN30 controller lacks the analog sticks, rumble, and additional shoulder buttons of the SN30 Pro, but it comes in at a significantly lower price. The SN30 uses a proprietary 2.4Ghz wireless standard that allows it to work wirelessly with original SNES or modern SNES reproductions such as the Analog Super NT.
That does mean that this budget retro controller lacks native Bluetooth. If you want to use the SN30 Pro with a different system, you’ll have to plug it in with a USB wire. But this does guarantee compatibility with a wide range of devices while offering a way to play with your original SNES.
The original SNES controller design was already great, but the SN30 manages to maintain what made it special while giving it the right amount of polish for modern gamers. The old-school semi-transparent plastic is a nice touch.
If you’re not concerned about wireless connectivity to the original SNES or SNES-compatible consoles, then a better alternative would be the wired version of the SN30 Pro. It costs the same price and adds all of the features of the SN30 Pro, just without a battery or wireless function.
According to our research, the SN30 should be compatible with any device that can use controllers via USB.
Best Budget Retro Controller
- ✓ Six-button layout makes it perfect for retro fighting games
- ✓ Generous cord length
- ✓ Officially licensed
- ✓ Xinput and Dinput compatible
- ✓ Works with almost anything with a USB port
- ✓ Great price
- ✗ Only two shoulder buttons
- ✗ Does not work with original Genesis or Saturn
Having a wireless controller is a nice modern convenience, but the best latency and responsiveness are still to be found with wired controllers. Many of the wireless controllers you can buy also let you use a wired connection, but if you’re only going to use it in wired mode, why pay for a battery and Bluetooth radio you’ll never use?
The Retro-Bit Official Sega Saturn USB controller is a reproduction of one of the most respected controller designs in history. The original Genesis six-button controller was already well-loved, but the Sega Saturn version refines it into something even more comfortable. So whether you want to play Genesis or Saturn games, the Saturn controller is the best choice overall.
This wired USB version controller obviously won’t work with an original Saturn, but Retro-Bit does make a wireless model with a Saturn connector. If you want to play on an original Genesis, you’ll have no choice but to go for the Genesis model with the original connector. Whichever model you choose, it will with a generous 10-foot cable.
While this is a quality replica of the Saturn controller, it’s quite modern under the skin. In particular, you can switch the controller between the modern Xinput and older Dinput standards, so it should work with both new and legacy titles on PC.
This controller is officially compatible with the Sega Genesis Mini, Switch, PS3, PC, Mac, Steam, RetroPie, and Raspberry Pi.
Best Wired Retro Controller
- ✓ NES-style control with better comfort and quality
- ✓ Includes turbo buttons
- ✗ Requires additional dongles to work with PC, Raspberry Pi, or original NES
- ✗ Can only be used with NES or other two-button games
The original NES controller was never the peak of ergonomic design, but there’s nothing like the authentic rectangular controller to play those classic 8-bit games. The 8Bitdo N30 Bluetooth gamepad is one of the best modern NES controllers, taking the iconic design and improving it. However, there’s a bit of a catch — it’s designed specifically for use with the Nintendo Switch.
However, just as with any Switch controller, it will work just fine with other systems that support Bluetooth controllers — but we have seen reports of mixed results when it comes to latency using Bluetooth on a wide range of 8Bitdo controllers.
This is solved by also purchasing the 8Bitdo Wireless USB Adapter 1. This works with any 8Bitdo Bluetooth controller and solves any latency and compatibility issues. You can even use it with the original NES when combined with the 8Bitdo Retro Receiver for the original NES.
8Bitdo also periodically releases new firmware for controllers (including the N30) to address issues like lag and disconnections, so it may be worth trying the controller with the latest firmware before assuming that you also need the receiver to get the best out of it.
More importantly, why go through all this trouble to convert this Switch-centric controller to work with other systems? It’s because we think this is the best modern rendition of an NES-style controller. The N30 is more comfortable than other NES controllers, adds two shoulder buttons, has two turbo buttons, and has excellent build quality.
Apart from needing to purchase additional dongles, the other main downside is that you can only use this with NES games, since the two turbo face buttons can only be used as turbo buttons, and not as additional buttons needed for other consoles’ games.
The N30 should work with any Bluetooth device that supports Switch controllers, but you’ll need the additional dongle for flawless compatibility with PC and Raspberry Pi.
Best NES-style controller
8Bitdo N30 Bluetooth Gamepad
Quite possibly the best modern take on the NES controller design. Requires additional dongles to work perfectly with PC, Raspberry Pi, or the original NES.
8Bitdo Wireless USB Adapter 1
A required companion to any 8BItDo Bluetooth controller if you want perfect compatibility with Windows, Mac & Raspberry Pi.
- ✓ Mimics, improves and perfects the SNES design
- ✓ Available in both regional color schemes
- ✓ Wireless compatibility with the original SNES (With separate adapter)
- ✓ Includes additional shoulder buttons and analog sticks
- ✗ Requires additional dongle to work with original SNES
The SN30 Pro takes everything the SN30 does right and improves on it. With analog sticks and four shoulder buttons, this controller has all the same inputs as a modern gamepad, making it highly versatile. You can play your SNES games with the classic controls or mix things up by using the sticks.
Best of all, the SN30Pro can also act as a standard modern controller, so you don’t need to make multiple purchases if you’re looking for a PC controller.
The SN30 is compatible with virtually any Bluetooth system but is not compatible with the original SNES. That can be rectified by purchasing the 8Bitdo SNES Retro Receiver.
The SN30 Pro is officially compatible with Switch, PC, macOS, Android, Steam, and Raspberry Pi.
Best SNES-style Controller
8Bitdo Sn30 Pro Bluetooth Gamepad
The SN30 takes the already amazing SNES controller design and refines it for a modern audience It’s widely compatible, offers excellent quality, and can even work with a real SNES if you buy a separate wireless adapter.
- ✓ Eight buttons, six face buttons, works with Genesis and Saturn games
- ✓ Wide compatibility thanks to USB interface and proprietary 2.4Ghz wireless
- ✓ Includes SEGA Saturn Port receiver
- ✗ Not compatible with the original Genesis, only Genesis Mini
As we mentioned under the best wired retro controller section, the Sega Saturn controller design is preferable for playing Genesis and Saturn games, thanks to a more refined design but similar layout to the six-button Genesis controller.
Like the wired Saturn controller we mentioned above, this Retro-Bit Official Sega Saturn Controller is an officially licensed product. It includes a carry case with two receivers. One fits in the original Saturn, and the other is USB.
What really sets the Retro-Bit controllers apart from the competition is the official endorsement from SEGA, showing how seriously the company took its job when designing these replicas. There are numerous user reviews praising how accurate and authentic the controllers are, with improved modern materials and quality. Given how much punishment Genesis games could put a controller through, that’s high praise.
Sadly, if you have an original Genesis, this won’t work with it. In that case, you’re better off buying the Retro-Bit Genesis Wireless Controller. This controller is compatible with any system that works with USB controllers, including the Genesis Mini.
Best Megadrive / Genesis Controller