If you were a child of the 80s, you either had a Nintendo Entertainment System or wished you had a Nintendo Entertainment System. Despite many happy memories of my Atari 2600 and later my Sega Genesis, in my heart of hearts festered a Gollum-esque jealousy of friends with a NES, the gold standard of 8-bit gamedom by which all others were judged and found wanting. Thankfully, 8bitdo, a Hong Kong company that makes retro game accessories, is helping me retcon my childhood. Their recently released NES30 is an iOS, Android and Mac/PC compatible Bluetooth game controller designed to look and feel like the original NES joypad. Finally, the precious will be ours!
Here I am, taking a break from a perpetually paused game of Wonder Boy in Monster Land to hang out at a friend’s house.
Precursor to the NES30 was 8Bitdo’s own FC30, a similarly Bluetooth-enabled game controller that paid homage to Famicom’s signature red and gold gamepad. The FC30 was pretty solid – despite being small (authentic) and the plastic feeling a little cheap (also authentic), it was otherwise well made, easy to connect and, of course, looked absolutely amazing. The games from 30+ years ago might not have held up over time, but the the design of the hardware – bulky but beautiful – could give Apple’s aesthetic a run for its money.
So what has 8Bitdo done, other than give the FC30 a facelift? As you can clearly see, the NES30 isn’t an exact replica of an NES joypad, introducing two additional face buttons – arranged in a diamond formation opposite the D-Pad – and two shoulder buttons. It’s got the look of an NES with the inputs of an SNES, making it compatible with a much wider range of games than a strictly authentic setup would allow. And since all the buttons are programmable, you can configure it exactly how you want for your favorite iOS or Android games that favor physical inputs.
Of course, this retro-inspired controller really shines when paired with a phone, Mac or PC running an 8 or 16-bit emulator. There are a variety of emulators available for iOS and Android, allowing classic gamers access to some of the greatest hits in the NES, SNES, Gameboy, Gameboy Advance, Sega Master System, Sega Genesis and Playstation X libraries. And whereas switching between modern mobile titles with the NES30 can be a bit of a chore (if they’re not already rocking retro control schemes, they might require jail breaking and/or button mapping) it works flawlessly with vintage games.
The build quality is equally impressive, with buttons that feel solid rather than spongy. The D-Pad is responsive and the Start and Select buttons rubbery smooth, just like the original. It’s no easy feat to design a new controller that doesn’t have at least one major weakness, be it poor d-pad design, spongy buttons, cheap materials or awkward shape (remember “The Boomerang,” the PS3 controller that might have been?), so kudos to 8Bitdo for going with a shameless rip-off of an iconic controller, right down to the red, black and grey graphics sticker.
Of course, the NES30 is more than a carbon copy; I mean, they had to tweak it some, if for no other reason than to avoid a surprise visit from Nintendo’s legal team. Despite being a departure from the original, the addition of two extra face buttons (X and Y) feels surprisingly organic. The engraved lettering make for a cleaner design and the slightly concave shape makes for a better tactile experience. The same can’t be said for the shoulder buttons, which feel like they were tacked on at the last minute. While shoulder buttons fit nicely on the curved, dogbone-shaped SNES controller, they’re an awkward addition to this rectangular body. Thankfully, not many SNES games take advantage of the shoulder buttons, so it’s a minor issue.
The top of the controller features a centrally positioned micro USB port, so you can charge the internal lithium ion battery via your computer. Hooking up the included cable not only makes it look even more like the controller of your childhood memories, but also allows you to use the NES30 as a wired gamepad. Next to the micro USB port are two notification LEDs, which flash different colors and patterns to let you know if you’re low on battery or paired up correctly. Once you’re paired, life is good. But man oh man, getting there is the catch.
The instruction manual, with its hilarious smattering of Engrish, will walk you through all the “combos” needed to boot the NES30 up in different modes – joystick, Bluetooth keyboard, iCade, emu-touchscreen, USB joystick, and even a Wiimote emulation mode (available after you update the firmware via 8Bitdo’s website) – in order to successfully pair up with your platform of choice. I eventually memorized my go-to combos, but in the beginning of testing I had to keep a close eye on the manual, and an even closer eye on the LEDs. Was that three blinks or four? Four blinks or five? Do I need new glasses? The answers were “I don’t know,” “Dammit, I don’t know!” and “Yes” respectively. But once you get the hang of it, you could probably pair the NES30 blindfolded. It even remembers the last device it was successfully paired with; that means all you need do is hold down Start, which doubles as the on/off button, for 3 seconds to power on, and then it’s game on!
Quibbles about the shoulder buttons and pairing process aside, 8Bitdo has delivered a quality product in the NES30. Even the packaging delivers, the sturdy cardboard box – designed to look reminiscent of an NES console – opening to reveal the controller in a cardboard holder, and beneath that an 8Bitdo branded USB cable and FC30 commemorative keychain tucked snugly in their own little boxes. Seeing as you’ll likely be using it with a high end phone, it’s rather apropos that the NES30 is packaged with the same care and attention to detail as a high end phone. Another extra is the “Xtander” stand. So named for the giant black “x” that adorns it, this stand attaches to the backside of the controller when not being used. It’s not the prettiest, but it’s still a clever solution for propping up your phone or tablet like a mini monitor, leaving both hands free for the controller. It’s also super slim, so it doesn’t bulk up the form factor, and is designed so that it doesn’t get in the way of the shoulder buttons, charging port or indicator LEDs when clipped in the “stored” position.
The NES30 is great controller for on-the-go gaming, especially if you’re a fan of emulators. It’s slim enough to fit in your pocket, hefty enough not to feel like a toy, yet light enough that it won’t give you hand cramps after a lengthy play session. If you’re looking for a controller that has all the guts – Bluetooth compatibility, rechargeable battery – you’d expect from a modern controller, crammed into a classic body, then the NES30 is an easy recommendation. It’s portable (4.87 inches wide, 2.14 inches tall and .66 inches). It’s powerful (an advertised battery life of 20 hours). And it’s future proofed (an internal CPU allows for firmware upgrades to expand functionality). You can order one now on Amazon for just shy of $35, which is actually on the lower end of the spectrum for a Bluetooth controller. The sense of nostalgia, however? Priceless.
Features & Specs
- Compatible with iOS, Android, Windows & Mac OS
- Connection: Bluetooth wireless, USB cable wire both support
- Keys: D-Pad, START, SELECT, A, B, X, Y, L, R
- Battery: 480mAh Li-on battery
- Charge: USB port
- Bluetooth 2.1, CPU and Flash
- Upgradeable firmware
- NES30 Control Pad
- USB Connection/Charging Cable
- FC30 Keyring
- Instruction Manual
We wants it. We needs it. Must have the precious.
The shape, size, weight, and even the feel of the NES30 is near identical to the original NES joypad, except it has the four face buttons and two shoulder buttons of the SNES controller. Aside from the mostly superfluous shoulder buttons being a little awkward and stumpy, it's a layout that feels surprisingly natural on a controller that, in both form and function, does the great gaming system that inspired it proud.