Review: Retrobit Sega Saturn style bluetooth controller

Nowadays it’s become somewhat hard to find new controllers for your old hardware. You mostly have options from third party producers, who may or may not have the best quality to offer. For example, you can find NES controllers that look just like the original, but then the buttons have a terrible feeling under the thumb, Start and Select are hard plastic instead of soft rubber and the contact rubbers underneath are mostly trash. It’s surprising how much a controller’s responsiveness and tactile feeling comes from how good the contact rubbers are, how well they spring up, what’s their depth and how much pressure they require to be pressed down. You can get proper molds from existing controllers just fine, or if a company still has the originals, they can use those. Nowadays it is easy to model the controller in a CAD program and mill it out, though even that costs some money. Still, faster than creating a whole new product design, and with something relatively simple like the NES controller, the costs probably are not all that high.

It’s a tall order to ask a modern replication of an older controller feel and function the same. Some materials may have been changed, some components may not even be in production anymore, things like that. However, that should be the minimum level a replication controller should be like, then have some additional bells and whistles like wireless functionality, RGB lights and the like. The Retrobit Saturn controller gets the Saturn experience almost right. It runs just short in few areas, and these areas are probably something they can’t help too much.

As a side note, the photos in this review will be updated at a later date for better ones. Embarrassingly I’ve misplaced my Nikon’s battery charger, and you’ll have to wait until I’ve found it, or my travel charger has arrived.

If you’re wondering why my copy is transparent blue, it was the cheapest option out there. At first it comes as a bit gaudy with the hard plastic casing and such, which just wants to be scratched and cracked. It’s still a neat case, easy way to keep track on your two dongles, one basic USB and for Saturn. It’d be a surprise if a controller like this would make the sync process somehow obtuse, but nothing special to mention here, except the small sync buttons on the dongles feel extremely cheap and something that could break.

Overall, the controller is seemingly the same size as the original Saturn S controller, the one that really matters. The first Saturn controller is a slight monstrosity with really uncomfortable looking D-Pad, but I’d like to get my hands on one still for reviewing purposes. Of course, the 3D Pad was a thing, but mostly good only for Nights. It feels like a Saturn controller, which always felt like built from cheap plastic, hollow and clattered when shaken. Retrobit has managed to replicate all these, thought the battery adds ever so slightly more weight. It’s weird to call this controller feeling like cheap shit, because that’s part of Sega’s original design and engineering. It just works as intended. Even the face buttons moving about and making that rattly noise is part of the design. It doesn’t feel expensive or deluxe grade, it feels like something that’s made to fulfill its task.

Even the info labels are at the same spot.

I have to confess something though; you haven’t been looking at pure Retrobit Saturn Controller here. Instead, you’ve been looking at a slight hybrid.

Now the first one who tells me I should’ve put the rubber on its right spot above the face buttons rather than leave it off-center and crooked doesn’t get any cookies. Retrobit uses some kind of coloured rubbers, in my case blue, because blue case.

Whilst on the surface Retrobit’s controller looks like Sega’s original, the function is not there. The up diagonals are slightly too touchy and easy to push. C-Button, the most rightmost button on the lower row on the controller, got constantly stuck. There are three possibilities why this happens; the button itself is intended height, the contact rubber underneath allows the button to plunge too low, or the shells have just enough height difference that the button plunges too low. It may be a combination of these three. After quick measurements, the buttons themselves seem to be more or less accurate replications, so the problem must be on the rubbers, as tightening the screws at the back didn’t work.

This gave me an idea to try out; change D-Pad and rubbers from an old Saturn controller to this Retrobit one, as the shells are effectively the same with two extra slots. This, to my surprise, didn’t just fix the D-Pad problem I was having with the up-diagonals, but also tightened the button feeling, responsiveness and no buttons were getting stuck. It’s probable that some tolerances with the new parts are just slightly off, which is probably explained by them being manufactured nowadays. Something is a bit off, and throwing in older parts somehow fixes this. This isn’t an issue with using old parts per se, as I compared to a brand new Saturn S controller, which I really should’ve used in these photos and not the one I used as my daily driver with Saturn itself.

One of the reasons Saturn controller is well praised is because of its six-button setup and the D-Pad. The D-Pad in itself is the best one any of the major companies have produced to this day. This is a combination of three elements; Disc shaped top layer, the white cross-shape underneath and the cavities both parts sit in. With a good underlying rubber, this setup is simply accurate and easy to use. It has the benefits of a round D-Pad in that it is easy to roll your thumb around and its softer corners are godsend in longer gaming sessions, but at the same time the clear cross-shape beneath makes all the eight cardinal input directions stand out as individuals. The main difference between Sega’s and Retrobit’s design is that while Sega’s design holds itself together with sheer force of friction, which isn’t a whole lot but enough, Retrobit’s parts are lose enough to necessitate a screw. Well, this lead me to change the D-Pad as well. This leads me to wonder if the main reason the controller has some issues are tolerances, things are just that sub-millimeter amount too loose.

Saturn original underneath, the Retrobit above

The most major difference in the controller, outside it being wireless, is the shoulder buttons. They simply are different. Sega’s controller has a button that has a very short throw distance, it feels like it clicks down less than millimeter down. You can brush the button and it clicks instantly. It’s pretty damn great how it feels. It’s precise. Retrobit didn’t use the same part for whatever reason, be it that the part doesn’t exist anymore or they used a button that was more readily available. The difference isn’t just in the width of the button, but also that it requires more pressure to press down, its click is far mushier and has notably farther plunge. In comparison, Retrobit controller’s shoulder buttons feel less responsive. In action, like in Street Fighter Alpha 2, I did notice how some timings were off simply because my muscles memory. While this seems like a minor problem, it is a problem in a spot that lives and dies in millimeters. That sharp click is also much more pleasant to the ear.

I can’t help but to recommend the Retrobit Saturn controller. Overall, it is an almost exact replica of Sega’s famous Saturn S controller. The diagonals and C-Button sticking might be issues just with my copy, and I haven’t read anyone else having these issues. I find it stupid that changing the the D-Pad and the rubbers from an older controller makes Retrobit’s controller is almost a perfect replica outside those issues, with the shoulder buttons being the only true gripe. Even that is more an issue of getting used to, though that can be modded with desoldered buttons from the Sega controllers. Sure, it lacks the second stick, but that’s now what this controller was designed to have. It’s best for games that don’t need a stick and should be one of your top considerations for emulation and 2D gaming.

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