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8Bitdo Pro 2 gamepad review: A $50 bargain for cool features, killer performance

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

$50 at Amazon

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

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.

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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.

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The best reasonably priced backside buttons yet

Perhaps best of all, this $50 product includes a feature typically relegated to overpriced “pro” controllers: customizable back buttons. Hold the controller normally, and each of your middle fingers will graze one of the Pro 2’s two back buttons. They’re nearly flush with the controller’s backside, unlike other controllers’ bulgier versions of this feature, and I must say, their size, position, and clickiness are pretty fabulous for a manufacturer’s first stab at the concept.

Using 8Bitdo’s official controller app, I manually assigned these buttons to replicate the left and right “bumper” buttons. In high stakes online action games, I found they were in the perfect spot for my brain to immediately comprehend and appreciate. Instead of moving my index fingers from triggers to bumpers and back to pull off wild maneuvers, my middle fingers could join the action in a comfortable-yet-active position. Just as important, I never accidentally tapped either button while holding the controller in a traditional, comfortable way. Since they’re large, their “sweet spot” is pretty ample for a range of hand sizes, and their tension feels sublime, in terms of requiring enough mild force to guarantee as few accidental taps as possible.

Speaking of manual assignments: much like the Xbox Elite Controller, the 8Bitdo Pro 2 includes three custom controller profiles for every mode. That’s three for Windows, three for Android, three for iOS/MacOS, and three for Switch, all saved onto the controller’s firmware. You can switch between each custom profile, or a flattened “default” for each mode, with a dedicated front-face button and attached LED bulb.

One-tap shoryukens

The 8Bitdo Ultimate customization app, which I’ve tested on Android, is 8Bitdo’s most fully fledged one yet. I’ve seen some of these options in the official Xbox Accessories app, like turning down the rumbling motor’s strength, tuning the triggers’ “dead zones,” or reassigning every button in a custom profile (though these customizations are limited to standard gamepad buttons, as opposed to keyboard or mouse commands). But 8Bitdo’s newest app adds some trippy options that I’m not used to: Invert the X or Y axis on either joystick on the firmware level. Swap the left joystick and the right one. Turn the d-pad into a joystick and the left joystick into the d-pad. Assign up to three recorded “macro” button-tap commands to each profile, should you wish to pre-load complex fighting game moves like “shoryukens” as one-tap functions.

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Plus, 8Bitdo’s Switch mode includes a wild optional toggle that revolves around the triggers. Unlike Xbox and PlayStation, Nintendo Switch doesn’t formally support analog triggers; they’re just on-off buttons. But if you’d like to force the issue, the Pro 2 can send analog trigger-press info to your Switch as if it were the right analog stick. As it turns out, there’s at least one Switch racing game, MotoGP ’20, that anticipates this exact scenario and lets you map throttling and braking to the right analog stick. Well, how about that. Mad props to the 8Bitdo team for supporting such a niche use case!

If you’re keeping score: both 8Bitdo Ultimate and the Xbox Accessories app let you fine-tune each controller’s joysticks. Xbox’s version lets you play around with “sensitivity curves,” while 8Bitdo’s revolves around customized dead zones. I think I ultimately like the finicky Xbox version better, even though I don’t really toy with joystick sensitivity that much. Both are ultimately nice options for control freaks.

And remember, the three custom profiles per mode can also include separate tunings for things like joystick sensitivity and trigger dead zones. Want to store a Call of Duty profile for Windows, a Mega Man profile on Switch, and an emulator-friendly profile on Android? Go right ahead—that still leaves you space for nine other custom profiles in all.

Latency and connections

What’s the point of a nicely made gamepad if the performance isn’t up to snuff?

In great news, Pro 2 holds up identically to the Switch Pro Controller in wireless mode. In wireless tests of both controllers, I saw response times of 0.067 seconds, or four frames in a 60fps game, between a button tap and an on-screen game response (as measured on an OLED panel in “game mode”). However, if a controller includes a 2.4 GHz wireless dongle, its wireless performance will almost always outpace Bluetooth, which Pro 2 relies on—especially if your Windows, Mac, or Raspberry Pi system introduces additional lag via its Bluetooth controller. On my usual testing PC, the Pro 2’s taps had up to 10 frames of latency in 60 fps mode, compared to four frames on my Xbox Wireless Controller via a 2.4 GHz dongle.

But that’s arguably due to my PC’s Bluetooth controller, and the general Bluetooth latency issue isn’t unique to the Pro 2. (Bluetooth is the Xbox Wireless Controller’s fallback option, as well!) Thankfully, Pro 2’s convenient USB Type-C connector makes it easy to connect to smartphones, tablets, and PCs, should you wish to claw back precious latency for classic, hardest-core games. I used a spare Type C to Type C cable (which 8Bitdo doesn’t include) to connect the Pro 2 to my Samsung Galaxy S9, and I was pleased by the resulting near-instant performance in Retroarch’s suite of emulators.

Speaking of Switch wireless performance: as with other non-official Switch controllers, the Pro 2 can’t wake a docked Switch by holding down the “home” button; you’ll have to manually tap the console’s power button. If you’re looking for a one-and-done Switch gamepad, that small annoyance could be a dealbreaker in a largely wireless world. Additionally, Pro 2 lacks Nintendo-specific perks like “HD Rumble” functionality and an NFC sensor for Amiibo toys.

Verdict: A versatile, comfortable bargain

The biggest pain in the Pro 2’s butt is its lack of Xbox and PlayStation support. The same goes for all 8Bitdo controllers—including, hilariously, an Xbox-branded SN30 Pro that only supports Android connections. Even in its wired modes, Pro 2 doesn’t play nice with consoles outside of Nintendo Switch, which is a shame—and adapters to get it working in that direction cost upwards of $70. Yikes.

Thus, at this point, think of the 8Bitdo Pro 2 as a more useful, more comfortable, and more customizable Switch Pro Controller for $20 less. You’ll miss out on two console families, but pretty much every other gaming platform will work—and you’ll enjoy pro-tier features that rival controllers charge a silly premium for. It’s pretty awesome that 8Bitdo’s option adds cleverly designed backside buttons, custom saved profiles, and multi-device support while sticking to a $50 price point, all without cheaping out on the core proposition of solid, comfortable controls.

Listing image by Sam Machkovech