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Chapter 3: Gamepads

By Alejandro Rodriguez. Last revised February 11, 2021.

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This article continues from Chapter 2: Download and Setup. In that article, I discussed a few details pertaining to downloading ROMs. I also walked through some basic Windows tasks such as how to work with zip files.

Gamepads are essential for video game emulation! You're going to pull your hair out if you try to play Mario and Sonic with your keyboard.

Recommended gamepads

Bluetooth gamepads

Bluetooth gamepads are fantastic options for mobile devices and modern computers. (Obviously, make sure your computer supports Bluetooth!) I recommend these:

  • 8Bitdo SN30 Pro+ Wireless Bluetooth Controller ($49.99 US)
    Similar to the design of the Nintendo Switch's Pro controller, this gamepad is comfortable for adult hands and long hours of gameplay. It's a beast that's compatible with everything: iOS, Android, PC, and Mac.
    8Bitdo SN30 Pro+ Wireless Bluetooth Controller
  • 8Bitdo SN30 Pro Wireless Bluetooth Controller ($44.99 US)
    This gamepad has grown popular thanks to the Nintendo Switch. It's the same gamepad as above, but this model has the classic design similar to the Super Nintendo controller.
    8Bitdo SN30 Pro Wireless Bluetooth Controller
  • Razer Kishi Mobile Game Controller ($69.71 US)
    A neat gamepad that turns your smartphone into a Nintendo Switch-esk device with buttons on both sides. This is only compatible with iOS and Android. At $70 it's definitely pricey. But yet, you're paying for a quality gamepad. It won best of CES 2020!
    Razer Kishi Mobile Game Controller

Want to see more? Click here to search for more Bluetooth gamepads on Amazon.

USB gamepads

USB gamepads are designed for desktops, older laptops, and look/feel like a normal console controller. USB gamepads are nearing the end of their heyday in favor of Bluetooth gamepads. The selection of gamepads is rather scarce. Still, I recommend this one:

  • Logitech Gamepad F310 ($14.99 US)
    A nice, solid gamepad with a smooth grip and 11 buttons. Its price has gone down a lot over the years. Buy one before Logitech stops producing them!
    Logitech Gamepad F310

Want to see more? Click here to search for more USB gamepads on Amazon.

Look-a-like classic controllers

You can buy gamepads that are made to look close to the originals!

Using your classic controllers

Yes, it's possible to use your very own game controllers on your desktop computer. You can do so by purchasing a special USB adapter. These adapters aren't very popular, though, so the selection is rather limited. And I don't know how compatible these might be. I think you're better off getting a look-a-like controller. Nevertheless, here are some that I recommend:

Using an X-Box or PlayStation 3 controller

Yes, it's possible to use your X-Box or PlayStation 3 controller as a gamepad for any video game emulator. However, you need to jump through some hoops to get them to work.

Using an X-Box controller on your PC

A wired X-Box controller is supposed to work like a normal plug-and-play gamepad. The tricky part comes in if you want to connect a wireless X-Box controller. Follow this YouTube video for directions: Connect Xbox 360 Controller to PC (Wireless/Wired) - Windows XP/Vista/7/8.

Using a PS3 controller on your PC

Follow this YouTube video: How To Easily Connect PS3 Controller to PC (No Motioninjoy Required). This is a slightly older video; note that whatever they mention for Windows 8 also applies to Windows 10.

Arcade deck controllers

If you want the best experience when playing arcade games, you must get an arcade deck controller. These types of controllers are not high in demand so there's not a wide selection to choose from. Hands down, the best brand is X-Arcade. They're pricey because when I called these “arcade deck”, they are a full-size arcade deck!

If these are too pricey for you, a cheaper alternative is the 8Bitdo Arcade Stick (goes for around $90 US).

Advanced analysis of gamepads

This is the Internet, so of course, there are people out there who have gone through great lengths to find the absolute best gamepad. If advanced technical analytics interests you, check out this awesome and highly detailed gamepad list: MiSTer Controller Latency. They've done a variety of latency tests on a large range of popular gamepads. Certain gamepad models have performed better than others in the different tests they performed. The data is quite fascinating if you're a geek for this stuff.

Troubleshooting controllers with emulators

The general process for using a controller with an emulator is:

  1. Plug in the controller.
  2. Open the emulator.
  3. Go into the emulator's input configuration and configure which buttons are set to your controller's buttons.

Newer emulators such as RetroArch automatically map controller buttons so that you don't need to do anything. But what if on step #3 when you try to configure your controller, the emulator doesn't detect it or doesn't detect all the buttons?

Normally, you shouldn't have any problems with controllers. Problems are uncommon. But yet, it is possible to encounter detection problems when you're setting up a controller for the first time with an emulator.

So what can you do? First, you should figure out if your controller detection issue is exclusive to one emulator or happens with all emulators.

Scenario #1:
The controller doesn't work with any emulator

This is definitely a problem on the Windows level and doesn't have anything to do with emulators. When you plug a controller into your computer, you should see some sort of activity indicating that Windows detected new hardware. If nothing happens, your controller is either not supported by Windows or simply it's broken.

If Windows does detect the controller but it doesn't work with any emulator, try the following:

  • Try updating the driver for the controller (if a driver is available). On Google look for: “[model of your controller] download driver”.
  • Some controllers such as the 8BitDo brand controllers have different modes that change how it talks to the OS. Look at the directions and make sure your controller is set to the proper mode (if it uses modes).

Scenario #2:
The controller only works with some emulators

In this scenario, your controller works fine with every emulator except for one.

  • Try making sure controllers aren't disabled with the given emulator. Well, controllers are always enabled by default. Maybe you accidentally pressed something that disabled them.
  • Some emulators have unique modes or gamepad types in the settings. It's possible that your gamepad is set to the wrong mode or type. Explore the settings and play around with different configuration options to see if your gamepad functions better.
  • Accept that your controller probably isn't compatible with the emulator. You would need to try a different emulator or buy a new controller.
  • A workaround would be to use keymapping software to map controller buttons to keyboard keys on a Windows level. Here are some free keymapping programs: JoyToKey, Keysticks, Alt Controller.

Scenario #3:
The controller's buttons don't all work with every emulator

In this scenario, your controller works fine with every emulator except one emulator only detects some the buttons on your controller (not all of them). This is a tricky one; I'm not sure how to troubleshoot that. Maybe try the keymapping software I recommended above to map the undetected buttons.