8BitDo Neo Geo Wireless Controller review: stick click energy
Analogue boy in a digital world
Today I’m going to write about one of my favourite gadgets of 2023: the 8BitDo Neo Geo Wireless Controller. It arrived a while back along with 8BitDo’s equally neat NES-inspired retro keyboard, but I didn’t use it as much because it didn’t work the way I wanted it to. Now it does. So let’s do this.
The 8BitDo Neo Geo Wireless Controller is essentially a wireless recreation of the controller that came with the Neo Geo CD. If you’re unfamiliar with the Neo Geo, it was SNK’s early-’90s attempt to develop a cutting-edge 2D arcade system along with a home version that could play the exact same games on full-size fight sticks and ~$300 cartridges.
This meant that, for example, Samurai Shodown looked a lot better than the SNES version of Street Fighter II. But since the console alone cost $650 in 1990, and since it had very little third-party support, it was largely a luxury proposition for hardcore arcade fans.
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In 1994, SNK released a more accessible CD-based version. It cost $400 and games sold for as little as $50, thanks to the lower cost of CD production. Load times were much longer, though, and at that point SNK was going up against a new contender called the Sony PlayStation, so the Neo Geo CD never really took off. But what it did have was a uniquely wonderful controller.
SNK presumably wanted to square the circle between maintaining arcade authenticity and, well, not shipping an ostensibly mainstream console with two colossal fight sticks. What the company came up with was a fully digital thumbpad contraption that looked similar to the analog sticks that would become ubiquitous many years later. The Neo Geo CD’s stick has a square-shaped gate below it, like most fight sticks, and uses microswitches to give clicky, satisfying 8-way response. SNK revisited the design for the Neo Geo Pocket and Pocket Color handhelds.
It’s like nothing else. You move the stick around as normal, but you get ultra-precise feedback when you activate one of the eight directions. Quarter-circle movements in fighting games are incredibly natural, while you’ll never have felt more confident weaving in and out of enemy fire in shoot-em-ups.
My guess is that a D-pad or a stick would still be a better option for competitive players, for the same reason that they’d eschew analog sticks. 8BitDo’s stick does require a little bit of travel before the input is registered, and maybe I’d prefer it to be a little tighter in that regard; certain complex fighting game combos leave you relying on the stick to snap back into position itself. It’s not a deal-breaker, though — for general play, this more than delivers on the pitch of “what if an analogue stick was really good for 2D games?”
The pad itself is simple and comfortable, with two chunky shoulder buttons that sit naturally under the finger. The face buttons feel substantial. My only real complaint about the product design is that the font labelling the buttons is weirdly off, like something from a knockoff NES. There’s a USB-C port for charging up top and a switch that lets you hop between Bluetooth and the included 2.4GHz adapter. Everything works as it should.
The reason it took me a while to write about this product, though, is that its compatibility is oddly limited. Out of the box it only works with Windows, Android, and the not-great Neo Geo Mini cabinet. This would be perfect for the Switch given 8BitDo’s long history of products for the platform, not to mention the huge range of Neo Geo titles that have been released through Hamster’s Arcade Archives series. There are reports of the controller unofficially working with the Switch through beta firmware for 8BitDo’s second-generation USB adapter, which makes me wonder why it isn’t in the box.
But Analogue added support for the Pocket earlier this month, and now all is right with the world. The Neo Geo openFPGA core is fantastic, and using this controller paired to an Analogue Pocket dock might just be the best way to play Neo Geo games today, short of mortgaging your home to start a collection of original cartridges. In fact, it’s one of the best reasons to own an Analogue Pocket dock at all.
I can strongly recommend this controller if you want to play Neo Geo games — or arcade games in general — on your PC or on an Android device. I would call it dang near essential for anyone who has an Analogue Pocket with a dock. For everyone else, maybe 8BitDo will release a Switch, Xbox, or PlayStation-compatible version down the line. It’s too good a controller design not to make the most of.