Chapter 3: Gamepads

Last updated August 8, 2023


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

These are some of the most popular gamepads at the moment. They're all Bluetooth and compatible with all platforms. The first one, the 8BitDo Pro 2, is considered the #1 gamepad.

  • 8BitDo Pro 2 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. My link leads to the gray model - note there are other colors on the product page you can select.
    8Bitdo SN30 Pro+ Wireless Bluetooth Controller
  • 8Bitdo SN30 Pro Wireless Bluetooth Controller ($55.99 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. My link leads to the purple see-through model - note there are other colors on the product page you can select.
    8Bitdo SN30 Pro Wireless Bluetooth Controller

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

Controllers for smartphones

To be clear, the Bluetooth gamepads I listed above work with smartphones too. The difference with the following controllers is that they were specifically designed for smartphones.

  • Razer Kishi Mobile Game Controller ($44-78 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. They've continually released new models of this gamepad. The 2020 model is $44 and the newest model is $78. It's pricey, but yet, you're paying for a quality gamepad. It won Best of CES 2020!
    Razer Kishi Mobile Game Controller
  • BACKBONE One Mobile Gaming Controller ($99 US)
    Like the Razer Kishi, this is another controller that turns your smartphone into a Nintendo Switch-esk device. It's designed with the look and feel of a PlayStation controller. It's also built with support for the PS Remote Play App. Of course, it still works great with video game emulators. Pay attention on the product page - this controller has separate models for iOS and Android.
    Razer Kishi Mobile Game Controller

Look-a-like classic controllers

If you don't want to fuss with getting Switch Online controllers to work on your PC, you can buy these gamepads that work out-of-the-box. They're cheaper, too.

  • Retro-Bit Bluetooth Genesis/Mega Drive controller ($19-34 US)
    This beast is available in 4 different models. There's the regular model and the “BIG6” model (shown below). The difference is that the regular model more closely resembles a real Genesis controller, while the “BIG6” is slightly redesigned for comfort and adds shoulder buttons. And each of these offer a USB version ($19) and a Bluetooth version ($34). They're compatible with PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch, and even a real Sega Genesis.
    Retro-Bit Genesis controllerRetro-Bit BIG6 Genesis controller
  • Wireless N64 Switch Online Controller ($32.99 US)
    This N64 controller works on PC, Mac, and Raspberry Pi (Linux). It also promises to work on the Nintendo Switch.
    Wireless N64 Switch Online Controller
  • 2 Pack USB Controller for NES ($13.99 US)
    A NES controller with a USB cable. It's compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux.
    AGPTEK NES Classic Controller

USB gamepads

For reasons that should be obvious, USB gamepads have grown out of fashion. But yet, they still have their uses. They're good for PCs and RetroPie's. Or maybe you hate having to always keep your Bluetooth controller charged. In any case, I recommend this one:

  • Logitech Gamepad F310 ($17 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.

Classic controllers to USB

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 your options are limited. I think you're better off getting a look-a-like controller. Nevertheless, here's one that I recommend:

I used to have a long list of adapters to recommend, but they're all discontinued. If you don't mind importing adapters from Europe, I recommend Daemonbite. These people make classic-system-to-USB adapters for NES, SNES, Genesis, and NeoGeo. Their adapters go for around $30 US (converted from Euro).

Daemonbite's adapters are quite reputable. They're mentioned in the MiSTer Controller Latency spreadsheet as one of the best possible options for the fastest response of any gamepad (sort the table by lowest latency to see).

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 10/11.

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!

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. Connect the controller via Bluetooth. If it's a cabled controller, plug it in.
  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? The first step is to make sure you're configuring the gamepad properly to be detected by your device. Bluetooth gamepads typically have slightly different connection directions per OS. Double-check and triple-check to make sure you're following the connection directions properly. Controllers normally give you an indication of a successful connection. And on your device, you should see the name of your gamepad appear on the list of connected Bluetooth peripherals.

Secondly, 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”.
  • If you're using a PlayStation controller, X-Box controller, or any other controller from a console, look on YouTube for setup videos to make sure you have your controller correctly set up with Windows.
  • 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 typically enabled by default. Maybe you accidentally pressed something that disabled them because some emulators have a keyboard shortcut to disable gamepads. Some emulators such as RMG require gamepads to be selected in the input configuration to work.
  • Some emulators have unique modes or gamepad types in the settings. For example, Genesis/Mega Drive emulators let you set to use the 3-button controller or 6-button controller. So, 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.
  • If you're using a PlayStation controller, X-Box controller, or any other controller from a console, look on YouTube for setup videos to make sure you have your controller correctly set up with Windows.
  • 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 of the buttons on your controller (not all of them). This is a tricky one; I'm not sure how to troubleshoot that. All that I can think of is to try making sure your controller's driver is up-to-date and properly configured with Windows. Try running through the bullets mentioned in Scenario #1 and #2 above.