The Ultimate Guide To RetroPie Controllers

Nostalgia is a powerful thing, and there’s nothing better than sinking back into a retro video game from your childhood and exploring an 8-bit world. There are plenty of emulators out there, but using a Raspberry Pi 4 and RetroPie software makes for a really satisfying experience. The one thing that can ruin it is the controller.

Since different realtor systems used different controller setups, it can be tricky finding the perfect controller for your RetroPie gaming. Lucky for you, we’ve put together the ultimate guide about RetroPie Controllers so you can relive all your favorite games of days gone by.

Getting Started With Your RetroPie Controller

RetroPie Controller
Photo by Kamil S on Unsplash

We’re going to assume that you’ve already followed up and gotten your RetroPie gaming as ready to go as you can. Going through the basic setup process shouldn’t take too long, and you can check out this handy article right here if you need some help.

Now that your rig is ready to go, you want to get your controller connected. There are a lot of different things to consider when you are picking out your controller. What games are you most interested in emulating? Should you choose a wired or wireless controller? Should you have different controllers for different games? These are important things to answer.

No matter what controller you choose to go with, there will be a configuration process. You will have the chance to configure the gamepad and map the controller buttons to specific inputs. This is particularly important if you are using a Playstation controller on a Genesis game since the button formats don’t line up naturally.

While you could theoretically configure any controller to serve for any game, certain things will definitely be tough and not very fun. The N64, as an example, has a very unique controller design, and one that is used very specifically for many exclusive titles such as Ocarina of Time, Mario 64, and Super Smash Brothers. Trying to use a Playstation controller on N64 games is daunting and decidedly not very fun.

What Is The Best General Use Retropie Controller?

If you are just getting started and want to invest in one controller that can handle just about everything, you should take a look at the 8BitDo Pro 2 controller. 8BitDo has firmly made a home for themselves in the retro and emulator game market. They make plenty of high-quality, reliable controllers to serve every gamer’s itch.

The 8BitDo Pro 2 is one of their newer models and it is perfect for dipping your toes back into those older games. This is a high performance, fully wireless controller that seamlessly connects to your Raspberry Pi models 2 and above. It also offers connectivity to Nintendo Switch, Windows, Mac OS, Android, and Steam devices if you wanted to use it on a different platform.

The Pro 2 controller has a great custom switching feature built in that allows you to store different gamepad profiles on the device and switch between them easily. Along with all the other excellent offerings you would expect from a high-quality controller, this multi-profiled controller can handle classics with ease.

Specs8BitDo Pro 2
Battery Life20 hours / 4 hour charge time
ConnectionWireless/Bluetooth / Wired USB-C

The Best Retro Feeling Controller For Retropie Gaming

While the Pro 2 mentioned above is a stellar controller and has all the buttons you need and more, it does feel decidedly modern in design. So if you are eager for that more genuinely retro experience, you should consider the 8BitDo SN30 Classic controller.

This retro game pad offers all the high quality connection and style you would get with the Pro 2, but comes in a sleek retro style that feels just like the game pads you remember using all those years ago. It offers the same connectivity as the Pro 2, or you have the option to connect the controller to your device using a USB cable.

This controller more closely resembles a SNES controller and would be perfect for anyone looking to brush off the dust on some of those titles. While it’s possible to map the buttons to play Genesis games, getting your brain to relearn the button configuration would be difficult. There are better options for those who want to emulate Genesis games.

Specs8BitDo SN30 Classic
Battery Life18 hours / 1-2 hour charge time
ConnectionWireless/Bluetooth / Wired USB-C

The Best Sega Genesis Controller for Retropie Gaming

The Sega Genesis was the one time king of the console wars, but it was toppled by further innovation from Nintendo and Sony. The Genesis controller was another one of those very specific pieces of equipment, like the N64 controller. It featured six buttons and a D-pad, as opposed to the typical four buttons other consoles had.

We recommend the Retro-Bit Sega Genesis Controller for the best experience when emulating Vectorman or Sonic The Hedgehog. This product is officially licensed by Sega so it is a bit more trustworthy and reliable than some potentially cheaper knock-offs out there. The Retro-Bit controller comes in both a wireless 2.4GHz version as well as a USB version that comes with a 10 ft long cable so you can relax anywhere you like.

One additional change they’ve made is that they have added L and R trigger buttons to the top of the controller. These weren’t present on the original Sega Genesis controller, but the addition does afford the user some more variety in their potential use of the controller. They come in the classic black or a fun and translucent blue controller

SpecsRetro-Bit Sega Genesis ClassicRetro-Bit Sega Genesis 2.4GHz
BatteryN/A (Wired)500 mA Li-Ion rechargeable battery
ConnectionWired USB2.4GHz with both a Genesis and USB connector

The Best Nintendo64 Controller for Retropie Gaming

As we’ve mentioned before, the N64 had a particularly novel and innovative controller designed that was integral to experiencing many console exclusive games. Certain games, such as Mario Party or Super Smash Bros, involved a certain barbaric mastery of this controller shape to really be the best. Playing N64 games with anything else just wouldn’t feel the same.

We recommend the Retro Fighters Brawler 64 USB. This wired controller features the classic N64 button layout on a modern shape. It is supported on multiple devices, but most importantly, it runs smoothly and easily on Raspberry Pi devices. The unique grip and six button layout just feels so distinct. Plus, they’ve got all the different colors you and your friends used to fight over!

SpecsRetro Fighters Brawler 64
Battery LifeN/A (Wired)
ConnectionWired USB

The Best NES Controller for RetroPie Gaming

The NES was a simple and elegant gaming system for its time. The controller was specific and user friendly, with just two action buttons, two menu buttons, and a D-pad. While any of the above controllers could be just fine for NES games, there is something special about holding that simple little rectangle while you defeat Donkey Kong.

As mentioned earlier, the 8BitDo Pro 2 is a great controller for general use, and it really shines while playing NES games on your RetroPie system. As an added bonus, the layout of its buttons lends itself to multi-system use. However, if you feel the need to a hold a little plastic rectangle of nostalgic goodness, keep reading.

The 8BitDo N30 is a great, modern, Bluetooth-enabled recreation of the NES controller that captures the original shape its 1980s predecessor. It looks and feels exactly the way you remember, and it comes with two turbo buttons and a home button for modern convenience.

Specs8BitDo N30
Battery Life18 hours

What About Playstation and Xbox Controllers?

Perhaps you already have a great console that you enjoy playing and you are wondering if those controllers will work with your RetroPie gaming. The short answer is yes. Playstation and Xbox controllers will generally work with your RetroPie rig, and sometimes may offer the most comfortable experience.

Both the Xbox One and Playstation 4 controllers offer plenty of button options for you to successfully map the controller to any configuration you need. That being said, the modern style may take a little bit of getting used to while playing those older games. Old habits die hard and it may take some clever mapping and work to get comfortable with the layout.

But if you can get past the potential hurdle of a modern controller layout on a retro game, then by all means make use of those controllers. Playstation and Xbox controllers are excellent, highly reliable, and comfortable devices with great response time.

There is also the somewhat obvious choice of using a modern Playstation controller to play retro Playstation games. While the original Playstation controller didn’t feature a joystick, the dual shock analog sticks were introduced later and changed the development of console gaming. Tons of the most memorable Playstation 1 games relied on the dual analog sticks for interesting gameplay.

The analog sticks may not prove too effective for mastering your old NES or Sega games since those were designed for the directional pad, but they will be critical to enjoying some of those old Sony original gems.

SpecsPlaystation 4 Dualshock Controller
Battery Life4-8 hours
ConnectionWireless/Bluetooth / Wired USB-C
SpecsXbox One Controller
Battery Life30 hours
ConnectionWireless/Bluetooth / Wired USB-C

The Best Arcade Stick Controller For Retropie Gaming

There is something special about a traditional arcade joystick and button combo. Cabinet style arcade games like Tekken or Galaga really shine when you’re using that setup. If you want to recreate this sort of big arcade cabinet style at home, then you should consider an Arcade Stick controller.

The Switch Fighting Stick Mini is an officially licensed stick controller designed for use with the Nintendo Switch. However, it is compatible with Raspberry Pi devices and should help you reach maximum arcade fighting potential. This wired device just plugs right in for easy set up and quick action.

The small arcade stick features a large ball on top just like the cabinets and there are plenty of buttons for you to configure however you need. Different arcade games used any number of different buttons for action, so to be sure you’re never lacking this controller packs eight action buttons and five smaller function buttons to use how you please.

SpecsSwitch Fighting Stick Mini
Battery LifeN/A (Wired)
ConnectionWired USB

What’s the Deal With USB Adapters?

While many controllers offer their own potential means of connection, you may be struggling or wanting to use a particular wireless controller, but can’t quite get it to work. There are options for wireless adapters to streamline the process and allow you to use any of your existing wireless controllers you like.

This wireless adapter from 8BitDo is a fairly broad offering that covers all your bases. However, they do offer some more specially tailored wireless adapters, such as the Sega Genesis Retro Receiver. These adapters are geared towards accomplishing a more specific goal and platform, so if you have a firm idea of games you want to play, then consider one of these options.

Should You Use Wireless or Wired Controllers For Retropie Gaming?

This is a bit more a matter of preference and setup. The actual performance difference between a quality wireless and a quality wired controller shouldn’t be too noticeable really. Cheaper wireless devices may experience a delay in response time that can be frustrating, especially on a retro platformer, but any of the controllers above should perform well with or without wires.

Another consideration is your gaming setup. If you play sitting at a desk on a computer monitor or in a close proximity of any kind, then a wired controller will serve you just fine. But if you play on a larger screen and sit further away, then a wireless controller is considerably easier to manage.

Price should also be considered. A wireless controller will definitely be a pricier option than the wired counterparts. If you are looking to get your RetroPie gaming up and running for a more moderate price, then you may want to consider a wired option. But if price isn’t as important, than you can trust the wireless options as great picks.

Lastly, a wired controller may be a bit easier to connect and get going with quickly. Depending on the controller, when you connect it with a cable, the Raspberry Pi may already integrate the standard button configuration, saving you the time of configuration. Additionally, you don’t need to be worried about charging your controller between gaming sessions.

What Is The Best Configuration For RetroPie Controllers?

How you want to configure your controller is dependent on what games you are playing and what system you are emulating. But it can be frustrating switching your controller setup every single time. Consider setting up a custom profile and tying it to a particular emulator of your choosing.

  • Open a game using your desired emulator
  • Hold Select and press X
  • Chose Controls
  • Map your buttons as desired
  • Choose Save Core Remap File

Retropie Hotkey Combinations

There are a few hotkey combos you may want to get familiar with to optimize your experience. These are usually done by pressing two buttons at the same time. Below is a quick list of some popular and helpful hotkey combos.

  • Exit: Press Select and Start
  • Save: Press Select and Right Shoulder/Bumper
  • Reset: Press Select and B
  • Menu: Press Select and X

The “X” and the “B” may depend a bit on whatever particular controller you are using, but it should be daily simple to discern how it translates for your setup.

Troubleshooting a Controller on RetroPie

As with all devices, something will probably go wrong at some point. There is no one size fits all solution, but there are a few common problems and few possible solutions that we’ve laid out for you below.

Controller is Lagging or Not Responding

This issue comes around most commonly with wireless controllers, but it can happen for wired controllers too. First, try your controller on another device if possible to see if the problem persists. If it does, then there is something wrong with the controller. If not, try restarting your Raspberry Pi and reconfiguring your controller.

Custom Profile Is Missing

Make sure that you have followed the proper steps to save the custom profile. Your SD card needs to be writable. If it is not, then you may need to reconfigure it and try again.

RetroPie Doesn’t Recognize the Controller

Assuming you have verified that any wired connections are properly connected, then try to see if the controller works on another device. If it is working on other devices, then verify that your controller is in fact compatible with Raspberry Pi, and try restarting the device.

What Is The Right RetroPie Game Controller For You?

There are tons of options, and many of them are truly excellent to get a great retro gaming experience. It all comes down to preference. Think about what sort of games you want to play and what devices they were originally played on. Generally, the closer you can get to the original gaming controller, then better experience you will have.

Choosing your controller is a deeply personal choice. The best thing is that you can have as many as you like! To truly savor the joy of all the retrogaming you remember, gather different controllers for different experiences. This amplifies the nostalgia, and it is sure to bring all those retro gaming memories flooding back.


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