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.

Looking back at the niche providers

One thing I didn’t plan during the last console generation was to buy one of the many Xbox 360’s the stores had on their shelves. In the end I never did, but as fate weaved her web I did obtain a 360 from my brother at the cost of moving him and fixing the console. Things kinda go that way sometimes.

The question afterwards was what games would I play on it? The 360 had very little titles that I would have wanted, and vast majority of the titles I saw were shared with the PS3. Games like Lords of Shadow were one of the first titles I turned my eyes on, but I soon grew very tired of seeing dozens copies of same game on two different shelves. The Wii shelf always looked more fresh with more unique titles that drew attention. I remember seeing more people in Wii aisles than the two competitors’ sections As such, the unique games that the 360 had raised their heads over the gray mass of multiplats.

But that’s where I met a point why I would keep my 360 in a good shape and go my way to prevent the Red Ring of Death. It turned out that the 360 had a large share of Shooting games and CAVE continued to provide more as all the way up until DoDonPachi SaiDaiOuJou. Next to this you have ports of Ikaruga, Rez and Radiant Silvergun, all of which are more or less portrayed the best of the Shooting games genre. I do admit, that all these three are ports of past systems, so the point goes slightly off. Just let’s discuss the machine in its respective generation for the moment.

What is the 360 most known for? First Person Shooters by far. Halo’s Master Chief is essentially and without a doubt Microsoft’s Mario. We can argue whether or not it is a good thing for a console to be recognized as the home of a genre that is most at home with PC.

History seems to remember some of the systems that lost based on their certain flavour in their library of games. I’m specifically speaking of NEC’s PC-Engine/ TurboGrafix-16, SEGA Saturn and Dreamcast. PC-Engine was known, even at the time, as the system that got all the best Shooting games. Hudson’s Soldier series found its home here and one of the best Caravan-style Shooters can be found on the system. Personal favourite would be Soldier Blade.


Man that first stage music sounds nice

In similar essence, both Saturn and Dreamcast continued on the same ideology that the Mega Drive did, that is to have the best arcade ports. Saturn, by all accounts, was the system for the Fighting and Shooting games by far with nearly arcade perfect ports of King of Fighters, Street Fighter Alpha and many Shooting games. Same goes for Dreamcast, which shared many architectural elements with the SEGA NAOMI arcade system, which made porting of NAOMI games to Dreamcast damn easy. This is why games like Marvel VS Capcom 2 were essentially arcade perfect much like CAPCOM’s previous arcade ports on the Saturn.

Sadly, Saturn and Dreamcast were at the era where the arcades began to wither and die out. A system can’t float around with games that do not draw attention to themselves to begin with. The paradigm shift, where consoles steadily became dumbed down computers where at full force at the time, and this also affected arcades. The rising cost of development was also an issue, and even more so with arcade games and their machines.

Where I’m going with this is that the Xbox 360 pretty much continued with this same path during the Seventh console generation. As mentioned, most people know the 360 for Halo and the shooting console. This is pretty apt naming for the system, as we noted how Japanese developers began to put their Shooting games on the system. In certain circles, the 360 became to be known as the system for random Japanese games, like Beautiful Katamari, Culdcept Saga, Deathsmiles, Earth Defence Force 2017, Espgaluga II, Infinite Undiscovery, Escathos, Lost Odyssey, Senko no Ronde and DoDonPachi Daifukkatsu/ Resurrection plus slew of others that don’t really need mentioning. What circles see the 360 is mostly the hardcore ones, as the common folks don’t really pay attention to these. It’s all in the Halo.

But for yours truly, the 360 allows me to put some dosh into new Shooting games that you can’t play anywhere else outside arcades. DoDonPachi Resurrection, Akai Katana and Deathsmiles were localised here in West, whereas DoDonPachi SaiDaiOuJou, Escathos and few other shooting games were completely region free and thus very import friendly.

I will completely admit that the moment 360 gets relatively easy softmod method to unlock the region, I will be on it like a hungry cougar. Much like the PS3, the 360 has its variety of niche games, mainly shooting games, that I want to play. Unlike with PS3, the region locking on the 360 is miserable fact and a number of Japanese only games enforce it to the full extent. Those, and I’d like to give that Muv-Luv Twin Pack a go just for the kicks of it.

It looks like the losing console always caters the smallest of niches and has only few games that are genuinely great all around. I’m afraid what will happen in a console generation where consoles have games that only cater these small niches rather than going for the Blue Ocean market and expanding and impacting outside the small sub-culture of general pop-culture. For some time it seemed that the Eight console generation would go to that direction, but then I realized that my assumption was pulled out of my ass seeing how early it is to say anything about how this current generation will end up to be like. However, it seems like the traditional shooting game genre will be seeing less and less high calibre games, as the production of them has been decreasing in a steady pace. Perhaps we need a paradigm shift in the genre to make it relevant again. The only question here is What should it be?

Piracy, emulators and history

First of all, head to byuu’s homepage to update your bsnes. Some time ago they finally cracked the last of the chips, and now bsnes is basically a virtual SNES for you. It also supports more consoles now, like the Famicom and GameBoy.

With every negative thing piracy does, there’s always that one thing that it excels at; archival. Without piracy most of the PC games of the 80’s and back would’ve been lost in the annals of time. For example, I believe part of Atari 520ST games have been physically lost, but thanks to the piracy rings we have bakcups of them. Originally in disk format, then later as data. Same goes for the Commodore 64 and all other computers. Partial reason most likely was that part of the 80’s computers used C-cassettes as their choice of media, like the ZX Spectrum. Some of them later gained cartridge add-ons or similar, but it still begs the question how many of these games have survived in their original form, and in what shape they are.

Piracy archives pretty much everything. The Internet has sources for some films’ VHS rips that no longer exist on the market in any form. You may find sixth or eight generation tapes that some obscure Hong Kong dealer may have, if you’re desperate for a physical copy. Physical media usually lasts long, unless it’s easy to damage. C-cassettes and floppy disks are rather easy to damage, and lower quality productions usually eroded far faster than their pricier counterparts. In comparison, a dog once ate parts of my NES cartridge away, chipping some of it off and all that, but the game survived mostly intact. It still works the same, even thou part of the lower PCB was literally chewed off.

I have no real trust on the DVD format and beyond. Piracy will archive these films and games as it has always done. I haven’t met any disc rot in my library as of now, but I suspect that in the next ten years part of my films and games will become unplayable because of it. With movies it’s not that big of a deal, as the experience doesn’t change on the format outside quality. However, experiencing games does change with a jump from consoles to emulators. This is why well coded emulators that emulate the hardware are needed.

Emulators’ first and foremost mission has always been to emulate the original platform. At some point most people lost this idea and emulators’ purpose was corrupted simply to play games. The notion “to emulate something” is a misnomer, as you don’t emulate the games, you emulate the platform they run on. This is why precise and accurate emulation is required by the core idea; to both preserve the functions of the original platform as closely as possible in digital form, and to provide as perfectly emulated platform the games run on as possible. bsnes and MAME are two emulators that still continue to follow the idea of historical archival, thou MAME has become exceedingly heavy at it’s core and partially is held together with hacks.

Hacks and plugins in emulators is not a good thing. This means that the emulator is not doing a good job at emulating the system. ZSNES still runs mostly on hacks that do not emulate the workings of a real SNES as it should, and ePSXe relies heavily on plugins and their workings. From gamers perspective anything that makes the games playable is enough, but when get over the initial excitement, you realize that lack of proper emulation affects the gameplay experience. Some emulators actually go beyond what the original system could’ve done and removes slowdowns and such. However, there are multiple games out there that use various systems’ limitations to create gameplay. For a simple example let’s use Space Invaders. The original hardware it ran on could barely run the game. Basically it ran too slow and couldn’t handle all the objects on the screen. As the player defeats the aliens one by one, the game gets faster as less and less objects appear on screen. If we take the approach ZSNES and similar emulators, Space Invaders should run on the speed that it runs when there’s only one alien on the screen. We all can agree that this isn’t how the game works, but this is what some of the emulators do; fixing what wasn’t broken via “over emulating.”

As playable emulation does not exclude accurate emulation or vice versa, the only reason people still want to use ZSNES is because they simply refuse to change their habits.

Even when games break down, the systems may survive. It’s rather easy to get games from the Internet and them to a disc. With a modded console, or in Dreamcast’s case modded disc image, you can run games on their original systems. What about cartridge systems the reader asks. To that I answer; there are flash carts like Everdrive. At some point in the future carts will erode and die. Custom cartridges like the Everdrive is then one of the answers how to play these games outside re-releases. While I applaud Nintendo and other companies on their older game re-releases with the new systems as downloadable games, we all can agree that playing Super Mario Bros. on the Wii is not the same thing as playing it on a real NES. Flash drive carts are in their infancy as there isn’t much people working on them, but I hope that at some point we will go over the threshold where the carts support all the games in a system’s library.

Ultimately, all physical systems will break down. Piracy will conserve the games in their ROM form. Emulators like bnses will conserve the platforms as closely as possible to their true counterparts. While piracy can’t be promoted, it is a necessary evil. As history has showed, companies tend to misplace and destroy source codes and protoypes. For example, Sega pretty much lost all source codes on their Saturn era games. This is why all Saturn games we see re-released, like Princess Crown, are emulated. Unless someone in Sega actually reverse engineers Saturn’s workings, we’re never going to see Saturn games on modern consoles as ports. Seeing how Saturn works, nobody really is interested even making proper emulators for it, let alone reverse engineer it.

Sega Saturn

My past with Sega Saturn is filled with conflicts, love, hatred, lust, compassion, tears and most of all, joy. Unlike most consoles, Sega Saturn has perhaps the best controller for fighting games. That is, outside arcades. Yes, the six button controllers with their perfect D-PAD feels just right for tournament 2D fighters. The two extra buttons most likely always confused the Tekken crowd. It’s also great controller in general. The machine’s itself a clusterfuck of technology that nobody wanted to program for, but those who mastered it made some damn fine games overall. Bulk Slash is one of my personal favourites.

But the games make the machine. No game system has ever stood on its own just because of its specs. Bulk of Saturn’s games were arcade titles, which sold moderately only in Japan. In the west they tried to push the 3D out as much as possible. Stupid choice.

My first Saturn has been with me barely a year and it’s basically bust. It has strange effect to play video at normal speed while audio is about 2% of its intended speed. It sounds creepy. It might have something to do with electricity leaking from modifications, but that’s something I can’t do anything about. I’ve just bought a new used Saturn. It’s an Asian model, white like the Japanese one. This one will get the better modchip and needs no herz modifications. I just hope I do not need to flash its BIOS files.
I love my black Saturn like I love all of my important consoles I’ve invested time and care into. I always hate to see electronics breaking down, especially when their time isn’t up. Sega Saturn is a console that took a lot of my time, a lot of my money, and especially took a lot of pain during time when I wasn’t my best. At that time I wanted to make myself to learn something, and with Saturn I learned more about soldering and electronics, and how delicate and sturdy they are at the same time.

And I learned of Segata Sanshiro more deeply.