Hardware Review: Retro-Bit's Sega Genesis And Saturn Pads (Mostly) Hit The Right Spot
Fans of retro gaming who will accept nothing but original hardware are in a difficult spot in 2019. Systems from the '80s and '90s aren't getting any younger, and as time goes on, failure rates are only heading in one direction: up. These classic systems are robust, but they weren't built to last forever, and it's par for the course to expect a little bit of clean-up and maintenance if you're serious about vintage gaming in the modern era. At the low end, this might involve sanitising a well-used controller that's covered in more than 20 years of accumulated gunk, to the more extreme, which could be replacing failed capacitors on the main board or bleaching the console's casing to turn it from that sickly yellow to its original white.
Even then, there are times when even the most dedicated fix-up will only take you so far, and the element of the console which is in constant use – the controller – is at high risk. Again, these pads were designed to withstand years rather than decades of torment, and it's not unusual to find controllers from the '80s and '90s in particularly poor states today. These are products which have been subjected to untold hours of battering and we've all no doubt seen the effects that constant usage can have on these devices. As a result, pads for classic systems that are in good working order are becoming more and more desirable, especially as they're no longer in active production and can't easily be replaced, like you can with a broken Switch Joy-Con or PlayStation 4 DualShock.
This is where Retro-Bit comes in. You might remember the name from its range of clone systems which play a wide range of retro games, or from its 'new' SNES and NES releases. Retro-Bit has signed an official licencing deal with Sega to create controllers for its Genesis / Mega Drive and Saturn home consoles, and these come in both 'original' and USB flavours (before you get too excited, the USB pads sadly don't work on Switch when in docked mode). Bluetooth versions are also expected later this year which will be bundled with receivers that allow them to be used with original hardware, and they'll naturally work 'out of the box' with any device capable of Bluetooth controller support.
Retro-Bit has made a big deal of the fact that the pads have been constructed to the same standard as the real thing, and that Sega has been involved every step of the way; this isn't just some lazy attempt by Sega to gain a bit more coinage via a sloppy licence (which has been guilty of in the past, on more than one occasion). The upshot for fans is that they now have a renewed supply chain when it comes to classic controllers, meaning that it's no longer the luck of the draw when it comes to sourcing second-hand pads online.
At first glance, Retro-Bit certainly seems to have done Sega fans proud here. Both pads (which are available in plain black or in a transparent edition) look almost indistinguishable from the originals; it's only the embossed Retro-Bit logo on the back of the controller that gives the game away. When you pick them up, this sensation is maintained; they feel fantastic and possess the same kind of heft as the real thing. The plastics used are also such a close match we struggled to tell them apart at one point. It's also worth noting that both controllers come with a generous 10ft cable, which means you can play on the couch in even the most spacious of living rooms. So far, so good.
However, as any seasoned gamer will tell you, the proof is in how a pad controls. No two controllers have ever been alike in the history of gaming, and even pads which appear on the surface to look the same often have massive differences when it comes to how the buttons react to a firm press and how the D-Pad performs under pressure. The good news is that Retro-Bit has been doing its homework and both the Genesis and Saturn controllers feel like the genuine equivalents – for the most part, at least.
First things first, the rolling D-Pad on both pads is utterly, utterly superb. It's responsive and comfortable to use and is arguably the dream interface for games like Street Fighter. Because it rolls smoothly, executing those quarter and half-circle inputs is a breeze. This is perhaps one of the hardest aspects of a controller to properly nail, and Retro-Bit has passed with flying colours.
The buttons are equally agreeable, although we do have some reservations – at least when it comes to the Saturn pad, anyway. The Genesis controller's buttons are perfect, and even have the same dull 'click' that the ones on the original Sega version do. No complaints as far as the 16-bit pad goes, at least not from us. While few Genesis games support the six button layout, the pad is a million times more comfortable than the 3-button controller the console launched with in 1988, and Retro-Bit's USB version (which, unlike the standard model, comes with shoulder buttons as well) is the perfect MAME controller for your PC.
With the Saturn pad, the buttons feel great, but there's something we can't quite put our finger on (no pun intended) when compared to the original pad. The buttons are responsive but possess a sponginess that we don't recall feeling back in the day. We say 'recall' because the only original Saturn pad we have in the office has definitely seen better days; its buttons have been mashed almost to the point of being totally useless thanks to countless angry games of X-Men vs. Street Fighter. It could well be that our memory has betrayed us and this is how our Saturn controller felt way back in 1994, but it's certainly... different. Not that this has any impact on the pad's performance when it comes to gameplay; the buttons are responsive and easy to press. The shoulder buttons, however, aren't micro-switched like they were on the original, so they don't click when you press them. This doesn't affect their responsiveness but might displease some hardcore Sega purists.
One issue we did have with the black Saturn pad is that the Start button kept sticking to the sides of the case, leading to 'phantom' button presses. When pushed hard, the button actually stayed down, and wouldn't return to its 'off' position without a second press to loosen it. We're assuming this is a production issue (these are pre-release samples) and this will be addressed when the final product hits store shelves, but it's disappointing that such an issue should even exist on a controller that was, let's face it, designed and tested 25 years ago. The 'Slate Grey' pad – based on the 'Skeleton' controller that was exclusive to Japan back in the day – worked without issue, and the black USB version we were sent was also fine, so we're willing to chalk this one down to bad luck rather than an issue with all of the black Retro-Bit Saturn pads.
Retro-Bit has come under fire in the past for cutting corners on some of its products, but it's clear that this collaboration with Sega is a matter of pride for the firm; both of these controllers have been designed and manufactured to the same specification as the pads on which they are based, and offer Sega fans a viable means of replacing their ageing controllers without having to pay through the nose on the secondary market. The slightly different feel to the Saturn controller's buttons – and the (hopefully) limited issue we had with the black Saturn pad's Start button – count against it, but in practice, these are a dream to use and well worth a look if your existing pads have seen better days.