What’s the best all-around gamepad you can buy for most video games? You’d think in the year 2021, the answer would be simple. But between consoles, PCs, and smartphones, even the most comfortable, affordable, and solidly built gamepads come with a compatibility caveat.
In my 25 years of writing about video games, I have tested a lot of controllers, and my current comfort-and-performance favorite is the Xbox Wireless Gamepad (MSRP: $65, which can vary based on year and color). But it only officially works on Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android. You can buy third-party adapters to sync it with platforms like PlayStation or Switch, but that’s not necessarily ideal. There’s also a whole console-specific controller market, ranging from entry-level pads to high-priced “pro” variants, but I generally don’t review anything in the weeds of nichey compatibility.
8Bitdo Pro 2
I’ve made an exception for 8Bitdo’s controllers in the past, especially their retro-specific gems (and one bizarre, super-tiny curio). Yet I’ve been hesitant to recommend the company’s mainstream-minded “Pro” series of gamepads, which bolts modern niceties onto the Super Nintendo archetype. My tune has changed considerably thanks to next week’s $50 8Bitdo Pro 2, the hardware manufacturer’s fourth-generation controller for Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Switch, and Raspberry Pi launching on Tuesday, April 12.
It’s a sweet gamepad in isolation, and it surpasses Nintendo’s official Switch Pro Controller in terms of functionality, design, and options—at $20 less, to boot. If you’ve been looking for a great all-around Bluetooth controller, 8Bitdo is now officially neck and neck with Xbox’s $65 default.
An 8Bitdo primer
The 8Bitdo Pro 2 can trace its heritage to 2017’s “SN30” gamepad, which was designed to work on original Super Nintendo consoles. Not only was it nearly identical to Nintendo’s official discontinued gamepad—even using similar rubber membranes—it also included a rad 2.4 GHz wireless receiver, meant for an SNES-shaped port. (Its launch was conveniently timed alongside the Analogue Super NT, which requires genuine SNES gamepads.)
Soon after, 8Bitdo ran with that template and made an updated Bluetooth version called the SN30 Pro. Comparing them side by side, it’s almost comical how 8Bitdo mutated the SN30 to add two analog joysticks and another pair of cramped index-finger trigger buttons; the latter emulates the “two triggers, two bumpers” archetype found on most modern gamepads. It was a cool Bluetooth option but ultimately felt cramped, so I was glad to see the SN30 Pro+ launch in 2020 with a welcome jump in size and new grips.
I liked the SN30 Pro+ just fine, even though it didn’t send me over the threshold of heartily recommending it, and the Pro 2 (no more “SN30” branding) copies its strengths. The design language splits the difference between an SNES controller and the original PlayStation 1 DualShock. The d-pad and other buttons are quite similar to the SNES’ take, while its handles and symmetrically posed joysticks are more in line with the PS1 era. Both the Pro+ and Pro 2 include Switch-specific shortcut buttons for “home” and “share,” along with the same standard allotment of buttons for console-friendly video games. And both come with a removable 1000 mAh rechargeable battery for roughly 20 hours of play per charge. (And, yes, this battery is removable. Thank you.)
As good as before—and then some
Some Pro 2 aspects compare almost identically to other “SN30”-branded products. The d-pad still largely resembles that of the SNES pad—again, same rubber-membrane foundation—so it’s firm and responsive, as opposed to the loose, smooth, and satisfying action of a Sega Genesis gamepad or the clicky, bouncy genius of the latest Xbox options. While I ultimately prefer the feel of the latter two, I do like the Pro 2’s tight action—especially in the common use case of demanding 2D fare on a Pro 2-compatible system. It’s great for platformers, “shmups,” and puzzle games. (Unlike the Switch Pro Controller, you won’t need to take the Pro 2 apart and insert a piece of tape to guarantee its d-pad’s responsiveness.)
What 8Bitdo got right with the Pro+ joysticks, face buttons, and bumpers, it has left well enough alone for this revision. The face buttons are big, flat, and responsive as hell. The joysticks strike an ideal balance between tension and ease. And 8Bitdo’s bumper buttons jut out in a way that I’ve always preferred, as opposed to smaller or sunk-into-the-controller designs on other gamepads.
Yet this week’s Pro 2 goes a few steps further than the Pro+, and every change is for the better. The handles include a mildly redesigned curve, which fits better in my palms. The pressure-sensitive triggers (L2/R2 on PlayStation, or LT/RT on Xbox) have been tweaked to require a smidge less force to press but still have some bite to them. The backside plastic covering now has a slight texture to it, which I’ve never felt on an 8Bitdo pad until this one—and I’m a fan, especially since it’s quite subtle. (Anyone whose hands get sweaty mid-game will appreciate extra grippiness wherever they can get it.) And when you want to switch from the controller’s “Xinput” protocol (for Windows PCs) to Android, iOS/MacOS, or Switch, you no longer have to memorize and press weird button combinations. This gamepad includes a physical switch to change from mode to mode.