It’s the retro gaming-aissance. With high-compatibility emulators available for virtually every PC, phone, and tablet, reliving the glory days of the arcade has never been easier. The only thing that can put a damper on your nostalgia-filled trip back to the Mushroom Kingdom is a sub-par controller. Thankfully, we’ve rounded up the best controllers for retro gaming.
- What to Look for in a Controller for Retro Gaming
- Best for Sega Fans: Retro-Bit Genesis 6-button Controller
- Best Jack-of-all-Trades: Logitech F310
- Best for 8-Bit Enthusiasts: Hyperkin Cadet Premium Bluetooth
- Best for Arcade Lovers: MayFlash Universal Arcade Fight Stick Elite
- Best For Gaming on the Go: 8Bitdo Zero
- Best Overall: 8BitDo SN30 Pro 2
What to Look for in a Controller for Retro Gaming
There are many options when it comes to controllers. Do a search for “USB controller” on Amazon, and you’ll see what we mean. It should come as no surprise that many of these controllers are pure rubbish. If you’re serious about retro gaming, then you’ll want a controller that feels and responds like the old hardware you remember.
- D-Pad Accuracy – even the most talented players could be undone by a wonky D-Pad. Without an accurate one, you can forget about pulling off precision jumps required in platformers or throwing any Hadoukens in Street Fighter.
- Comfort – retro gaming is virtually synonymous with marathon gaming sessions: replaying sections of a punishing level over and over again, not to mention that if you truly want the old school experience, you’ll be shunning save states. If this sounds like you, then controller comfort should be relatively high on your list. Ergonomics, preferred button placement, and size should all factor into your decision.
- Connectivity – Bluetooth connectivity is definitely more convenient. Additionally, this means that you’ll be able to use that controller with multiple devices. Dreaded latency could be the deciding factor between a successful Ninja Gaiden run or being thrown into a bottomless pit. Wired controllers almost always use a USB-A or USB-C connection, so you shouldn’t have any problems with PCs or single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi. You’ll run into issues are mobile devices. However, this is often remedied by buying an OTG cable.
- Extra Features – things like extra programmable buttons (for pulling off combos or special moves with a single button press) and turbo functions are examples of common add-ons you’ll find on modern controllers. Obviously, opting for a controller with these features is a personal preference.
Tip: you can connect any external controller to Steam for an elevated gaming experience.
Best for SNES Purists: Buffalo Classic USB Gamepad
Dubbed “classic” for a reason, the Buffalo’s USB gamepad is a faithful recreation of the revolutionary Super Nintendo gamepad. It even adopts the same color scheme of the Super Famicom version of the controller!
Buffalo chose wisely in modeling their gamepad after the SNES controller. It is one of the most celebrated in gaming history, as its simplicity and ergonomics made it an excellent controller for a wide variety of genres. For their version, Buffalo has included Turbo functionality, so you won’t have to relive painful memories of button mashing. Yet, you will have to contend with a wire, although you can argue that’s part of its retro charm.
- Familiar design
- Turbo function
- Ergonomics have come a long way since 1991
Tip: find out how to add SNES emulation to retroarch.
Best for Sega Fans: Retro-Bit Genesis 6-button Controller
Price: $20 (wired) / $28 (wireless)
Sega was Nintendo’s main competitor back in the so-called Bit Wars, which spurred the Sonic developer to release its iconic six-button controller. It has since been considered by Sega fans to be the pinnacle of controller design – at least in the 16- and 32-bit eras. Regardless of whether you’re a Sega or Nintendo fanboy, one thing virtually everyone can agree on is that the six-button controller from Sega is the best way to play 2-D fighting games.
The six-button controller from Retro-Bit is officially licensed, so it’s as close to the real thing as you’ll get. In addition, Retro-Bit has added left and right shoulder buttons. Furthermore, there is a wireless version if you’re willing to pony up more cash. It even comes in a nostalgia-approved translucent blue or red chassis! Finally, Sega Saturn fans can breathe a sigh of relief, as Retro-bit has a Saturn controller as well.
- Officially licensed
- Choice between wired or wireless
- Fun color options
- No analog sticks
Tips: Retroarch supports Sega Genesis too. Check it out.
Best Jack-of-all-Trades: Logitech F310
The Logitech F310 has been around for over a decade. In that time, Logitech has not found it necessary to make any significant changes to the F310. That should give you an indication of how well-designed this controller is.
The Logitech F310 has all of the buttons that you would find on a modern controller. Four shoulder buttons, four face buttons, dual analog sticks, and a D-pad. If you can live with being tethered to your device via a USB cable, then the Logitech F310 is an affordable no-nonsense controller. In addition, the F310 boasts high compatibility. It supports both modern and vintage games and has the inputs to play virtually anything you throw at it. This makes the F310 a great option for those who just want something that works without fiddling with settings.
- Wide compatibility with both modern and retro games
- Supports various operating systems
- Boring design
Good to know: mobile gaming doesn’t have to be frustrating. Check out some of the best controllers you can connect to your iOS device.
Best for 8-Bit Enthusiasts: Hyperkin Cadet Premium Bluetooth
If your favorite era of gaming was when Nintendo single-handedly resurrected the video game industry from the depths of the mass grave site filled with unwanted copies of Atari’s E.T. the Game, then the Hyperkin Cadet Premium is right up your alley.
The Cadet Premium is modeled on the original NES controller and comes very close to its inspiration. However, there are a few differences. First off, the sharp bottom corners that would press into your palms when you played have been rounded off. In addition, the back of the controller features two ergonomic grips, making it much more comfortable to hold.
The Hyperkin Cadet Premium also includes a wireless adapter for your original NES console, so the controller is compatible with PC, Mac, Android and both first- and third-party NES consoles. The original NES controller only had two face buttons and a D-pad. The same is true for the Hyperkin Cadet Premium, so its compatibility with other retro systems is going to be limited.
- Works with original NES hardware (with included adapter)
- Lack of buttons limits number of games this controller is suitable for
Best for Arcade Lovers: MayFlash Universal Arcade Fight Stick Elite
Pining for the days spent at the local arcade? You’re going to want to pick up the Arcade Fight Stick Elite from MayFlash. This beast of a unit features proper Sanwa buttons and a joystick. For the uninitiated, Sanwa components are synonymous with quality.
What’s great about this unit is that it’s compatible with virtually everything. The MayFlash Arcade Stick works with the Xbox Series S/X, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Switch, Windows, macOS, Raspberry Pi, Steam, and Android. It is even complementary with mini consoles like the NEOGEO mini and Sega Genesis/Mega Drive Mini. In addition, it features a solid metal construction and connects to your devices via USB-C.
- High compatibility – including modern consoles
- Excellent build quality
- Large size
Not a fan of gaming consoles? Check out these Arcade cabinets instead.
Best For Gaming on the Go: 8Bitdo Zero
Most of the controllers on this list are full-sized. This is fine when you’re sitting on the couch, but what about when you’re out and about? Thankfully, the 8Bitdo Zero is a super portable solution made for 2D classics.
At first glance, the 8Bitdo might look a bit too small. It does have an integrated keychain loop after all. However, once you get used to it, you’re rewarded with a solid build quality, responsive buttons, and D-pad. In addition, the 8Bitdo is wireless – a must for anyone who games on the go.
- Super portable
- Very small – can be uncomfortable for some
- No analog sticks
Best Overall: 8BitDo SN30 Pro 2
Price: $35 (wired) / $50 (wireless)
8BitDo has a number of excellent products. However, for our money, the SN30 Pro 2 is the best currently available. The SN30 Pro 2 is based on the classic Super Nintendo controller; however, it features some significant upgrades.
Most notable are the controller handles. While the SNES controller was more ergonomic than its predecessor, your hands could still cramp up during longer gaming sessions. 8BitDo sought to eliminate this concern with the SN30 Pro 2’s handles, allowing for a more natural grip that requires less straining.
In addition to the handles, the SN30 Pro 2 boasts additions that make it perfect for not only retro games but modern ones as well. Dual analog sticks, four shoulder buttons, and even programmable paddle buttons on the underside make the SN30 Pro 2 a very versatile controller. Furthermore, the controller is wireless and compatible with PC, Mac, Android, Nintendo Switch, Steam, and Raspberry Pi. It even comes with its own customization and button mapping software.
- Excellent ergonomics
- Suitable for modern and retro games
- None (the reason it’s our pick for best overall)
Tip: did you know that you can use your controller as a mouse in Windows? We show you how.
There are a ton of controllers on the market, and virtually all of them would be suitable for retro gaming. Could you use a PS4 or Xbox controller? Sure, of course you can. In fact, there are some significant advantages. After all, gamepad design has come a long way in the past 50 years. However, if you’re looking for something that feels a little closer to what you remember, then you can’t go wrong with a controller from this list.
Image credit: Unsplash
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