Despite this being a Nintendo site, we've never made any secret of the fact that we hold a tremendous amount of affection for the Kyoto company's erstwhile rival, Sega. Here in Europe – where Nintendo Life is headquartered – Sega was the dominant force during the late '80s and early '90s. While the NES, SNES and Game Boy were popular, chances are if you were a serious gamer, you had either a Master System or Mega Drive under your telly and enjoyed the likes of Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap, Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage 2 and Shining Force after you got home from school each day.
Times have changed since then. Sega's retreat from the hardware arena may have been a sad moment, but its resurrection as a third-party publisher helped keep the company alive and has given an even wider audience the chance to enjoy the firm's output of titles. However, Sega knows the value of nostalgia – it was one of the first to support the Wii Virtual Console for example, and more recently scored a critical hit with its 3D Classics series – so it should come as no surprise to find that it has regularly mined its back catalogue to generate extra revenue.
Sega Forever is perhaps the most concerted effort yet by the company to not only monetize its past glories but ensure they are available to as many people as possible. Exclusive to smart devices like Android and iOS phones and tablets, the Sega Forever range is made up of stone-cold gems – mainly from the Mega Drive / Genesis era – all of which are entirely free to download and play. For a small fee, you can remove the rather annoying adverts which are plastered over each game, and – despite a rather bumpy start – the level of emulation is now pretty satisfactory; Sega should certainly be applauded for ensuring that these games are available and accessible.
The big problem with Sega Forever – and retro games on smartphones in general – is one of control. These titles were designed to be played with a physical controller and require precise and accurate input. It seems that Sega is aware of this, as it has licenced the production of a Bluetooth pad which is marketed as the ultimate interface for the Sega Forever range (on Android, at least – it doesn't appear to be compatible with iOS devices at the moment). It's perhaps worth noting at this stage that this pad is manufactured by gift company Paladone Products, rather than produced by Sega itself.
Encouragingly, Sega has chosen what is perhaps the greatest of all its controllers as the basis for this new device. The Sega Saturn pad is simply fantastic; it has the six-button layout essential for fighting games like Street Fighter II, as well as two easy-to-reach shoulder buttons. Best of all is the rolling D-Pad which made Sega's 32-bit underdog the console of choice for fans of 2D titles. Even today, in an era where analog control is king, the Saturn pad feels amazing.
The first problem with this new controller is that it's not an exact replica of the original; it's heavier and thicker, for starters. The D-Pad is still a 'rolling' one rather than a Nintendo-style 'cross', but doesn't feel as responsive as the original. We found that the Up and Right directions were often unresponsive and needed a really hard push to register. It's possible to become accustomed to this over time, but the bottom line is that the D-Pad isn't as good as the one on the original controller – and given the fact that that was one of the most appealing things about the Saturn pad, that's a crying shame.
Elsewhere, things don't really improve. The six-button setup doesn't feel as responsive as before, with each button feeling soft and spongy. To make matters significantly worse, there's a fault with the controller involving the Z and C buttons; when any other input on the pad is pressed and then either of these buttons is held down, the controller thinks they're still depressed even after you release your finger. To illustrate the impact of this fault, imagine you're playing Sonic the Hedgehog and you're pushing right on the D-Pad. Pressing C to jump will only work once – because the pad thinks you're still pressing C when you release your finger from the button. In short, it makes many games totally unplayable. (On a side note, we installed an input tester to ensure this fault wasn't something to do with the Sega Forever range or the other titles we downloaded, and it delivered the same issue).
Despite being listed on the packaging as being compatible with all of the Sega Forever games released so far, the controller works less than perfectly with several titles. We fired up Streets of Rage in the hope that the pad would improve our criminal-busting skills, but the in-game settings refused to allow us to map the pad's buttons to exactly how we wanted, which is a real shame. The first time we loaded up Sonic CD, on the other hand, it thought that we were pushing right on the D-pad even when we weren't touching it. Clearly, some of these issues may simply be down to the rather inconsistent nature of Bluetooth gamepad support in Android, but nonetheless, they're frustrating problems that show how awkwardly controller support has been factored into these games.
There are positives to mention here; the bolt-on phone holder can be rotated a full 360 degrees, so if you've got any games which use a portrait orientation, they're perfectly playable. You can totally detach the holder the use it as a desk stand for your handset, too. The fact that the unit is powered by two AAA batteries may be both a blessing and a curse; you don't need to worry about charging it as long as you have a supply of batteries to hand, but we imagine that many users would have prefered an internal power unit instead.
When we first clapped eyes on this controller we thought our prayers had been answered, but sadly it would seem that Paladone Products has created a half-baked device which will it no doubt hopes will sell on the Sega brand alone. It's a real shame that Sega lacks the capabilities to manufacturer such a controller itself – even the upcoming Mega Drive Mini is being produced by a third-party – because we're sure if it were Sega behind the wheel, the end result wouldn't be quite as crushingly disappointing. As it stands, Paladone's controller is one to avoid, even if you're a diehard fan of the firm once known as Service Games.
The SEGA Smartphone Controller for Android is available for pre-order now, with an RRP of £29.99.