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Review: Retro Fighters BrawlerGEN USB Gamepad

Possibly the best controller for the Genesis Mini, but it has some issues

When SEGA released the SEGA Genesis Mini, we, in the States, unfortunately got the short end of the stick. Instead of getting the Six Button Arcade Pad like our Japanese counterparts, North America was left with the standard three-button control pad.

To the uninitiated, this doesn’t seem like a huge deal – the Six Button Arcade Pad didn’t become the de facto Genesis controller until the tail end of the console’s life cycle. When most Americans think of the Genesis, they envision the three-button layout, for better or worse. Not to mention that the Six Button Arcade Pad truly only proves its usefulness with about 10 percent of the Genesis’ library.

Still, it puzzles me on the “why” behind SEGA’s decision to pack different controllers for different regions. Especially since it’s almost a requirement to play classics like Street Fighter II: Special Championship Edition with the six-button layout. This leaves diehard fans with limited options, as we can’t just plug any USB controller into the Mini.

You vs. The controller she told you not to worry about

This is where Retro Fighters steps into the spotlight with their “next-gen” controller for the SEGA Genesis Mini: The BrawlerGEN USB Gamepad (or BrawlerGEN moving forward). The BrawlerGEN replicates the face design of the classic Six Button Arcade Pad while providing modern updates, such as an analog control stick and a pair of shoulder buttons.

It could almost come off as a contemporary redesign for the SEGA Saturn 3D Gamepad. While primarily a Genesis controller, the BrawlerGEN also features support for PC, Mac and Nintendo Switch; along with macros to modify button layouts – making this gamepad more than just a one trick pony.

Steady as she goes

My biggest gripe with the stock Genesis Mini gamepads was how loose the D-Pad feels. A simple tap on the home menu could have the cursor jump two or three slots in whatever general direction you press. And playing games where block precision is paramount, like Dr. Robotniks Mean Bean Machine, would be incredibly frustrating on harder difficulties. As someone who considers themselves a skilled Tetris player, my control over the tetrominos would quickly diminish in a manner of minutes.

These concerns quickly evaporated once I plugged in the BrawlerGEN. Each press of the D-pad feels deliberate, and I didn’t have to worry about losing control of puzzle pieces. This increased accuracy is felt throughout most titles the Genesis has to offer where precise directional inputs are key like Dynamite Headdy, Contra: Hard Corps and Gunstar Heroes.

Is this too tight for you?

I know I spent some time praising the BrawlerGEN for increased stability, but it does have an Achilles’ heel. Fighting games like Street Fighter II requires the player to enter movement commands like quarter circles and Z-motions. I struggled trying to execute Hadoukens with the D-pad and could not nail a Shoryuken to save my life. This was the only time I willingly switched back to the Six Button Arcade Pad I received with my Japanese Mega Drive Mini.

These problems persisted when I jumped to more modern games like Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2. While not impossible to land, attacks that require Z-motions proved to be much more difficult to perform. Using the analog stick can circumvent this problem, however, I personally wouldn’t use this controller for more complex fighting games.

Nintendo Does? Maybe?

Another one of the major selling points for the BrawlerGEN is compatibility on other platforms. At first, this seems to be a solid benefit to spending the $30 for the gamepad, as you’re essentially getting three controllers for the price of one. If only that were the case.

I swear, I’m not a traitor.

Starting with the Nintendo Switch, yes, the BrawlerGEN is fully compatible in the sense that everything works as intended. Games like the Neo Geo Pocket Color inspired Pocket Rumble works like a charm. Sonic Mania Plus has never felt better with a pseudo-Genesis controller in hand. Even Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was a surprising blast to play with the BrawlerGEN (after a few configuration changes).

I would say the only other grievance I have with playing the BrawlerGEN on the Switch is lack of a Home button. For the Genesis Mini, you just need to hit the left shoulder button and a menu pops up where you can quit a game. For the Switch? Not so. You must undock the switch, have the Switch figure out what control scheme you’re using, then hit the Home button to select a new game. Do this more than twice and you’ll start to feel my frustration.

What about them Macros?

Pretty much any two 2D indie game is fair game. However, 3D games are obviously a bit trickier. The BrawlerGEN clearly is missing a second analog stick, often used for camera control in most modern games. This is where the macros come in: by entering specific commands, you’re able to overlay the D-pad with controls for a non-existent right analog stick. In theory, it is technically a check in the box. In practice, however, it’s nearly unusable.

This macro would require the player to constantly switch between moving the character and shifting the camera, so games like Valkyria Chronicles 4, The Witcher 3 and Dragon Quest XI S in 3D mode are out of the question. You can also drop any hopes of properly playing Doom, Overwatch or even The Binding of Issac: Afterbirth+ on your Switch unless you master holding the controller in some obscure manner.

What I do like is the macro where you can swap the “A-B” and “X-Y” buttons. It tries to emulate a Super Nintendo layout, so if I wanted to play Dragon Quest XI S in 2D mode or perhaps Demon’s Crest, I could do so without stumbling over control scheme layouts.

Out of Steam

What is probably the most heartbreaking experience was testing out the controller on Steam. I avoided the games that obviously would not work and tried to stick with 2D games or arcade racers. Sonic Mania, Super Pilot, Death’s Gambit, One Step From Eden and Sonic & Sega All Stars Transformed – none of them worked. I managed to get the right shoulder button to function as the start button for One Step From Eden, I was able to navigate through the menu for Sonic & Sega All Stars Transformed and could even look behind me in a race.

The BrawlerGEN is considered a generic controller in Steam. You’re able to go all the menus in Steam’s Big Picture mode, so I know Steam recognizes the controller. I was able to reconfigure the button layout through the Steam overlay, but for some reason, most of my games are just simply incompatible.

There were a handful of games that did end up working. The underrated ZeroRanger, a Japanese inspired shoot’em up, with some of the most beautiful sprite work I’ve seen, played great. Wargroove, a tactical RPG in the same vein as Shining Force and Advance Wars, suffered no issues. Axiom Verge plays perfectly. SEGA Mega Drive & Genesis Classics also plays fine, which if that game didn’t work, I would have lost my mind.

Summary

Retro Fighter’s BrawlerGEN USB Gamepad may be the best controller for the Genesis Mini, but the biggest thing holding it back is that its marketed to be something more. Some of the macros do help when playing on the Nintendo Switch, but I can’t think of a single scenario where setting the D-pad as the right analog stick would ever work.

At the very least, I would have love to see the controller with an extra joystick and a pair of trigger buttons. Plus, the utter hit and miss in trying to get games on Steam to recognize the BrawlerGEN is a real disappointment.

Pros

+ Ergonomic, modern take on the Six Button Arcade Pad
+ Runs nearly flawlessly on the SEGA Genesis Mini
+ Platform specific macros for ease of play

Cons

– Users may experience genre specific issues with D-pad
– Not all macros are necessarily useful
– PC compatibility is shaky at best

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Christopher Wenzel

One half of The ScrubVerse Podcast. Hardcore retro gaming collector and aficionado of RPGs. Will do morally ambiguous things for a remake of Phantasy Star IV. Send Jameson for morale.

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