SaturnDave (Sega Saturn, SHIRO!)

A Closer Look at Retro-Bit’s Wireless Analog Saturn Pads

Pat and I got a chance to sit down with the dudes (Ron, Rich & Andy) from Retro-Bit this past weekend at Portland’s Retro Gaming Expo, and we were able to get our hands on their latest (yet to be released) product, the “SEGA Saturn 2.4Ghz Wireless Pro Controller”.

We want to give a huge thanks to Ron & Andy for being so cool to let us bring one of only 3 prototypes over to our own Homebrew Station in the Saturn Lounge for extensive testing and for taking all of our feedback and criticism with grace and understanding. These guys really did accommodate our requests as much as possible, and they were very open and forthcoming about the controller’s design and any compromises they had to make in order to get it to this stage in development. We appreciate that kind of transparency when it comes to commercial products like this.

Andy & Ron

Folks might remember that a few years back, Saturn fans caught wind of this pad in development from some very early prototype images showing a pad with 2 large analog thumb sticks and a pair of beefy shoulder triggers quite similar to those found on PlayStation 2 Dual Shock controllers. These images have circulated the web for the past couple years and folks have speculated as to whether this pad would ever see the light of day…

Fast forward to Fall 2022, and here they are, albeit with some noticeable changes (some for better or worse depending on your personal preference). Still, we had the opportunity to take them for an extended test drive both at Retro-Bit’s booth and in our own SEGA Saturn Lounge at PRGE, and we were sure to ask a lot of hard-hitting questions so that gamers can make an informed decision about whether or not they plan to pick this one up.

As you can see from the photos below, both the large and somewhat clunky looking analog sticks and shoulder triggers have been swapped for smaller, more streamlined ones that keep a lower profile and stay somewhat “out of the way”, leaving this pad feeling much more like a Saturn pad should, at least if you happen to find yourself playing a 2D game that doesn’t require the extra hardware…

That said, this change is not without some controversy, as we’ve already heard some folks on social media express disappointment in these surprise adjustments… These new analog sticks are from Japanese firm, Alps Alpine, and they seem to be a fairly common replacement for failing sticks in many other consoles ranging from PlayStation to Xbox, etc…

Our initial and overall impression was that they look and feel just like Nintendo Switch Joy-Cons, and considering that Alps Alpine is, in fact, the manufacturer of Switch’s Joy-Cons, for all we know, these could very well be the exact same thing. Folks who are familiar with Joy-Cons are understandably concerned about the issue of drift, which they are quite infamous for… We’ve been told by Retro-Bit that the thumb contact surface for each stick is subject to change, however, the stick itself is what will be in the final product. Like it or not, this design choice was made in order to keep the sticks recessed and flush with the controller’s surface in order to avoid distracting gamers when they are not needed and to keep them a bit more protected when throwing the pad into a backpack or suitcase for travel.

As for the shoulder triggers, we quite like the change to a much sleeker and minimalist design than the chunky and somewhat awkward triggers that were shown on the early prototype. These look and feel more like something that actually belongs on a Saturn controller. Both sets of triggers feel great, providing a very nice tactile feedback when pressing them down. The L2 & R2 triggers even have about 2mm to 3mm of travel before engaging in a satisfying click, however, it’s this travel that seems like a real missed opportunity, considering that these triggers are digital only (not analog).

This is where it becomes quite obvious that the SEGA Saturn hardware itself, is not the primary target for these controllers at the end of the day… There is a much broader market for folks who want to use these pads for gaming on PCs and modern consoles like the Switch for example, which does not have analog triggers itself. While the Retro-Bit guys are huge SEGA fans, and they love the Saturn, they also know that they need to focus this controller on meeting the needs of the larger market in order to get it made in the first place, and only then can they try to work in as much support for the real Saturn hardware (an admittedly niche market) as they possibly can… It’s kind of a painful reality for us real Saturn hardware enthusiasts, but I must emphasize that folks realize this when considering this new pad.

We understand that in order to retain the SEGA license, Retro-Bit has to get the price down to a pre-determined “sweet spot” that will trigger the green light on production, and making certain cuts along the way is a necessary evil in order to reach that goal. Still.., this is going to be a huge nitpick for Saturn fans who are buying this controller specifically to use on real hardware. The Saturn’s 3D Analog Control Pad had amazing analog triggers that came in real handy for racing games, and no matter how much you explain or attempt to justify the reasons behind such a design choice, it’s not going to make sense to most Saturn fans out there…

The other issue in regard to the analog sticks (aside from the potential for drift over time) is the fact that, being small, there is much less travel to these sticks than what Saturn fans are used to with the 3D Control Pad, or what most gamers are used to with standard PlayStation & Xbox controllers. This means that the ratio between the movement of your thumb and the corresponding action on screen is going to take some getting used to, and it might even be helpful to turn down the analog sensitivity, if that’s a feature available in game. (for example, games like Croc: Legend of the Gobbos did offer this feature, and we found it to be quite helpful).

One thing that is quite nice is the overall weight and feel of the pad. It’s got a nice fit and finish to it, using heavier, rigid plastics that feel true to the original pads, as well as the addition of internal rumble motors, which add to the heft of the pad. This is not a bad thing either, since the original Japanese Saturn pad has always been just a tad too light for my personal taste. Also noticeable is the fact that the entire body of this pad is at least a few millimeters wider all the way around, so it has a larger footprint than an original pad, but without feeling bulky or clumsy about it. The design is quite sleek and aerodynamic overall, and it’s actually quite clever of them to recess the analog sticks so that they never feel intrusive or spoil the streamlined profile… Whether your hands are large or small/slender, it should do well to provide a comfortable gaming experience. While there’s no support for rumble motors in any commercially released Saturn games (those are there primarily for modern systems), homebrew developers could certainly add support for them in their own games moving forward, so we’re definitely glad to have them.

Another improvement to the design is the switch over to a USB-C charging port, which is a relief, as the old micro-USB port really needs to be retired across the board. It’s just so delicate and unreliable, after all… With the new USB-C port, one can game while charging without worrying too much about the cable getting yanked, as it’s a much more durable connection.

Again, when it comes to actual gameplay I did find that it took me about 10 minutes to become acclimated to the smaller analog stick size, while Pat took to it easily, having played Switch so much that he felt “right at home” by comparison. I can confirm that with this particular analog input, NiGHTS does seem to behave more like the PS2 and Steam reissues, whereby he is unable to loop in perfect circles. Instead, it feels more like he is moving octagonally, though I admit it’s subtle, and I’ll need to investigate this further when I have more time with the pad. Still, after a few minutes of adjustment, I was playing NiGHTS at about 75-85% of the level at which I’m normally able to play it with the 3D control pad, and I was actually enjoying the experience quite a bit to be honest. (Not perfect, but night and day better than just using the D-Pad…).

DISCLAIMER: It didn’t help that we were playing on a crappy little LCD with a laggy HDMI solution, so whatever perceived lag there was (which was pretty minimal to be honest) could have been partially due to the display setup. We will be sure to lag test these pads properly when we are able, however, we still would not recommend using these (or any) wireless pads for lag testing other equipment or for playing games that only perform well with extremely low latency input.

A lot of folks have asked what the right analog stick is for and whether or not Twin Stick games will be supported on real Saturn hardware. First, I think it’s important to remind folks that as this pad is really targeted for PC/Modern Consoles primarily, that right stick is obviously there to support the thousands of games that can be played on those formats. When it comes to Saturn hardware, it’s a bit tricky, as no games ever actually used dual analog to begin with, however, it should be possible (through the use of EEPROM presets) to have the right stick mapped to certain button configurations. For example, shoulder strafing could be mapped to the right or left stick, and then the triggers could be mapped to weapon and firing… Since Retro-Bit has decided to forego analog sensors in the right and left triggers (something I’m still a little disappointed about), I think it would be good for them to use the right stick for analog acceleration in racing games. (Retro-Bit has taken note of this suggestion, and they think it’s a good idea).

Both Ron and Andy brought an analog pad over to SHIRO’s SEGA Saturn Lounge at PRGE, where developer 7Shades was able to test it out on his own game, Cubecat, and provide them with some personal impressions and feedback. This was really encouraging to see that they were so open with it and willing to hear feedback from the community. They were both blown away by Cubecat and amazed that the community has stepped it up in creating such colorful and diverse gaming experiences on Saturn, despite its well known challenges and difficult learning curve.

Retro-Bit’s position certainly seems to be that of walking a thin line between attempting to please the fans and SEGA/Sammy. This is not easily done, and we all know it’s impossible to please everyone, so it’s important to find a middle ground where they can at least make most folks happy. The analog pro controller may not be perfect upon launch, simply due to how many people it has to please at the same time, while remaining at a price point approved by SEGA. So it really comes down to a list of pros and cons, but we feel there are certainly enough pros to make it a compelling product for SEGA and Saturn fans. SHIRO! will definitely be picking these controllers up day 1, and we’ll be sure to put them through their paces and let you know everything we find. They are currently estimated to ship around Quarter 2 (May ~ June) 2023, and we remain hopefully optimistic, as they will continue to be refined over the next 6-7 months.

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