If you're an Android user then you'll already be well aware of the operating system's native connectivity with wireless Bluetooth peripherals, including dedicated game pad controllers. Apple has recently introduced a similar protocol for its iOS platform, and Android-based micro-consoles like the Ouya, M.O.J.O. and GameStick also offer support for a wide range of Bluetooth pad options. As a result, the market for such devices has exploded in recent years, with offerings such as the iControlPad, C.T.R.L.R., PhoneJoy and Moga all hitting store shelves in a relatively short space of time.
However, most of these controllers have had a weakness of some description, be it ergonomics, poor D-Pad design or low-quality buttons. Designing a pad isn't an easy business — just ask Microsoft, which spent $100 million on refining its Xbox One controller — so it's little wonder that small companies struggle to get everything totally right.
Hong Kong firm 8Bitdo has struck upon a solution — if you can't come up with something original, just steal someone else's idea. That's the core of the NES30 pad, which is a downright flagrant imitation of the original Nintendo Entertainment System joypad, right down to the visuals printed on the front. It may be a legally dubious course of action and we imagine that Nintendo's legal team has a fairly dim view of such a venture, but it does guarantee one thing — a pad design which is actually half-decent for once.
The NES30 pad — so named because Nintendo's 8-bit console is now 30 years old, if you count the Japanese Famicom launch in 1983 — looks and feels almost identical to the one that gave us those terrible blisters from back in the '80s. The main difference is that instead of just two "action" buttons, this pad has four — arranged in a diamond formation — and two shoulder buttons. This makes it feel like a NES controller which has been retrofitted with SNES inputs, and naturally ensures compatibility with a wider range of systems. Build quality is fantastic, with the D-Pad providing excellent precision and the buttons feeling responsive rather than spongy.
While the NES30 pad will work with Android and iOS games that offer support for physical inputs, it's also squarely aimed at those who dabble in retro emulation. There are a multitude of emulators available on the Android Google Play market covering systems such as the NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, Master System, Game Boy and Game Boy Advance, as well as many others — and a jailbroken iOS device can run the same kind of programs. In this respect, the NES30 is going to be a very attractive proposition for avid retro gamers, as it provides a near-faultless interface for vintage titles. It even comes with a plastic "Xtander" stand which allows you to slot in your phone or tablet and then place it on the table, leaving your hands free to use the pad itself.
However, even if you're not keen on such shady undertakings, the NES30 pad provides another outlet for its excellent capabilities — it's being marketed as a Wii Remote replacement for the Wii. While this sounds like an excellent idea in principle — what could be better than playing titles like New Super Mario Bros. Wii with an authentic NES controller — in practice it's rather less compelling. Getting the pad to pair correctly is often an exercise in frustration, and because it has no pointer capability (it can only be used as a "sideways-held" Wii Remote), using it in single-player is nigh-on impossible, as much of the Wii menu can only be navigated using the pointer. After half an hour of juggling the NES30 and a Wii Remote in an attempt to get a successful connection, we were almost ready to hurl the pad at the closest solid wall. When you do eventually manage to pair up the pad with your machine the experience is generally positive, but it's clear that the process isn't anywhere near intuitive enough. We tested the NES30 with the Wii U and got even less encouraging results — while the machine detected the pad, it wouldn't register any button presses when we tried it on Super Mario 3D World.
Thankfully, the NES30 has upgradable firmware thanks to its bundled MicroUSB cable (which also doubles as the charger for the pad's internal battery), so there's a chance that in the future, 8Bitdo can tweak the procedure to make it a little more reliable. It's also worth noting that the USB connection also allows the pad to function as a wired controller on compatible systems.
While it may be totally unofficial and produced without Nintendo's blessing, the existence of the NES30 makes us wonder why Nintendo hasn't jumped on this bandwagon for the Wii U; granted, we had the SNES controller for the Wii but it wasn't truly wireless as it needed to be connected to the Wii Remote. Nintendo could release wireless replications of the NES, SNES and N64 pads, providing a truly authentic means of enjoying Virtual Console titles. The forthcoming GameCube adapter goes some way to achieving this objective, but it would be amazing to have wire-free options in this day and age.
When you consider the relatively low cost of the NES30 pad ($33.99 / £20 / €25 at the time of writing) and take into account its superb construction and excellent physical interface, it's easy to recommend this controller to seasoned emulation experts or people looking for an alternative way of controlling their smartphone titles.
The NES30 pad is available from Willgoo, who kindly provided the unit used in this review.