Nintendo is apparently allergic to money. After creating an instant and profitable hit with the NES Classic, the company decided to end production of the cheap little emulation machine just a few months after its introduction. No matter: tech savvy Nintendo fans who couldn’t get a hold of one (or didn’t want to line the pockets of scalpers) have other options.
But one thing that’s not so easy to replicate is the feel of an authentic Nintendo controller. That’s where third party manufacturers come in, eagerly sating our need for classic console controls in both wired USB and wireless forms. Here are the best options for those who prefer to roll their own nostalgia.
Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) Controllers
The original Nintendo Entertainment System (or Famicom, if you’re a stickler for the Japanese version) doesn’t have the most ergonomic controller design, but the little rectangle has a lasting appeal all its own. Unfortunately, the NES gamepad is so simple that the market seems to be flooded with cheap, low-quality replicas, most of which have poor production and serious control issues. If you want the most nostalgic, square, corners-jutting-into-your-palms NES controller, this is the best one we’ve used.
However, my favorite wired option is this Retro-Link USB model. And before you cry foul on the Super NES-style bone shape, here’s a bit of video game history for you: years into its original production, Nintendo released a redesigned controller affectionately known as the “dog bone.” This updated two-button layout seems to have informed the design for the next console. Another well-regarded alternative is the iBuffalo USB 8-Button Game Pad. This model cheats a bit with “extra” control buttons, but it keeps the Japanese Famicom shape and color scheme with a more dependable build than the more “retro” USB options.
For wireless fans, the relatively new 8BitDo (get it?) NES30 controller is one of the best Bluetooth pads around. Two extra face buttons plus squared-off shoulder buttons mean that technically this is a Super NES configuration, but the aesthetics are more or less perfect, and a few more control options never hurt anyone.
Atari 2600 Controllers
The original joystick-plus-button combo is hard to beat for classic games like Pac-Man and Galaga. Unfortunately, it looks like that simplicity has made the classic Atari controller design prone to the same quality control issues as the two-button NES pad. USB reproductions all seem to be plagued with shoddy builds and substandard plastics. I’d recommend either tossing authenticity out the window and using another controller on this list, or hunting for an original controller and an adapter (which we’ll talk about in a bit).
Super Nintendo (SNES) Controllers
For SNES-style controls on a PC, the iBuffalo Classic USB Gamepad is the gold standard. They’ve been selling this design forever, and why not—it perfectly emulates the much-loved shape and button placement of the curvy Super NES controller. The design also includes a turbo button, for when you’d like to cheat at Street Fighter.
For a wireless model, once again 8BitDo seems to be at the forefront of Bluetooth-flavored nostalgia. The SNES30 is essentially the same thing as the NES30 in a more period-accurate plastic case, with options available in both the Super Famicom color scheme and the purple-tinted American SNES model. Even the manufacturer logo is printed to match Nintendo’s original—a nice touch.
SEGA Genesis Controllers
The perennial also-ran still has its fans, and there’s an option for the Genesis faithful. The alternate six button controller was the favorite of fighting game aficionados, and Hyperkin’s USB replica is the best option around. Unfortunately the Genesis hasn’t had the same lasting influence as Nintendo’s early consoles, and there doesn’t seem to be a quality option for the original three button design or a wireless alternative.
The PlayStation DualShock controller design was a paradigm shift for video games that’s still more or less intact in today’s controller designs. Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be a high-quality replica of the original version in USB flavor (and there’s no trace of the very first model, sans thumbsticks). The older Logitech F310 design emulates the button layout with quality components, and it comes in wireless with the F710 upgrade. But if you want a more first-party feel, you might as well just buy the Bluetooth-equipped PS3 controller and install some third-party driver software. It works with the Raspberry Pi, too.
Nintendo 64 Controllers
The N64’s odd tri-handled controller isn’t exactly well-regarded except by Mario 64 players, but Nintendo’s nostalgia power is strong, and there are replicas out there. The Retro-Link USB replica model does an admiral job of recreating the N64’s basic design, and again 8BitDo has released a Bluetooth version. But there’s a big fat catch: no replica controller has truly recreated the same feel of the original controller’s analog stick. Even original controllers with replacement sticks are not the same—your only hope for a truly authentic, quality experience is to find an original controller with its original stick, that isn’t worn to hell, and use an adapter. Sadly, those are rather hard to come by.
If you’re willing to give up authenticity, you might find that you have a better experience—joystick technology has come a long way since the N64, and modern controllers feel much smoother on your thumbs. Enterprising users can try installing this GameCube-style stick designed for the N64 controller.
If you aren’t comfortable with that, you’ll need to look at other options. You’ll miss out on the same button layout (few controllers have the six-button layout on the right side), but we’ve found that original Xbox controllers with USB adapters and the XBCD drivers work well with Nintendo 64 emulators. An Xbox 360 or One controller will work in a pinch, but the original Xbox controller is best, since its triggers are buttons, not axes, which tends to work better with some games.
Dreamcast, GameCube, PS2, and Later Consoles
By the time the SEGA Dreamcast rolled around (and then rolled over), the modern thumbstick/face button/trigger button layout was more or less cemented into gamer culture. If you’re emulating any of the 2000-era or later consoles, you’ll probably do just fine with something like the Xbox 360 or Xbox One controller, both of which have first-party USB adapters for easy use on a PC. The older 360 wired controller works fine in Windows and on a Raspberry Pi, and the latest Xbox One controller revision also comes with Bluetooth.
If you’re a stickler for authenticity, you can also use the aforementioned PS3 DualShock 3 controller with Bluetooth, and the Bluetooth connection on both the Wii Remote and the Wii U Pro controller mean they can be used with a PC or Raspberry Pi with only limited setup needed. The more modern PS4 controller, with its built-in trackpad doubling as a handy mouse, can be used with an official adapter or as a generic Bluetooth control pad.
Alternatively: Use Adapters for the Original Controllers
If you insist on absolute accuracy for your retro and emulated games, only the real McCoy will do. None of the original controllers for classic consoles have a USB connection (since many of them predate the Universal Serial Bus standard), but enterprising vendors offer USB adapters for basically every popular console ever made. Here’s one for your GameCube Wavebirds, plus original PlayStation and that giant first-gen Xbox controller (AKA “The Duke”). Here’s another for that tricky Atari controller. Do a quick search for almost any classic console plus “USB adapter” and you’ll probably find an inexpensive solution.