Technology

The tiniest controller weve ever tested is a lot better than you might think

Enlarge / At 73mm long, the 8Bitdo Zero 2 controller, like its predecessor, is shorter than a standard Amiibo figurine. The reason we're reviewing it? It turned out to be serviceable in a pinch.Sam Machkovech

Over the years, we've become frequent users of 8BitDo game controllers, particularly the company's "legacy" line. You won't find a much better maker of unofficial gamepads made for classic consoles' ports (NES, Genesis, Super NES), and those models also come in Bluetooth-equipped flavors, ready to run on modern consoles and PCs.

Between its classic and modern gamepads, 8BitDo clearly favors the SNES's controller as an archetype, and that goes for the company's "Zero" series as well. Hence, if you see a Zero gamepad in a photo by itself, you may wonder what's so special about it.

That's probably why people photograph the 8BitDo Zero series next to tiny objects for scale. At 73mm long and 36.5mm wide, it's barely bigger than an adult's thumb and dwarfed by an average GI Joe figurine. After receiving and unboxing my very own 8BitDo Zero 2 gamepad (the newest model, introduced one month ago to retailers), I laughed incredulously. Seriously, 8BitDo? Who in the world do you think would play games with one of these?

2mm of travel?! Nice

  • The 8Bitdo Zero 2 is so small that you can place two of them on an adult palm and still have room for spare change. Sam Machkovech
  • The D-Pad: bigger than a dime, smaller than a quarter.
  • The same goes for the ABXY array.
  • Use this photo if you want to trick a friend into thinking the Zero 2 is bigger than it really is.
  • Two boxes for two controllers.
  • Roughly 3mm of visible D-pad protrudes; rougly 2mm of this plastic depresses. It's certainly more than a comparable tiny D-pad on systems like Nintendo GameCube and 3DS.
  • These L and R buttons, on the other hand, are pretty rough. You won't want to depend on these in a pick-up session of Street Fighter II.
  • A Zero 2 in the hand…

I got my answer when I packed for a recent family getaway. After filling my modest duffel bag and barely squeezing in a low-powered laptop, I sneaked the 14.7mm-thick 8BitDo Zero 2 into a side pocket. Within days, when I sought temporary holiday reprieve from my family, I unsheathed the tiny controller, downloaded some retro games from my online collection, and said to myself, "a cramped gamepad is at least better than another political conversation with Uncle Al."

To my pleasant surprise, 8BitDo starts this gamepad off with a crucial emphasis on its D-pad. At roughly the size of an American dime, this small D-pad is comparable to some of Nintendo's smallest takes, like you'd find on a GameCube controller or a Nintendo 3DS console. But unlike those offerings, 8BitDo allows its Zero 2's D-pad to protrude ever-so-slightly farther from its body. Pressing down on any edge of the D-pad offers a full 2mm of action, and this has a satisfying sense of travel when a thumb is in its depressed, rounded center—built for the sake of neatly rocking from left-to-right or up-to-down.

The D-pad's quality was borne out by my own feverish Tetris testing, which worked whether I rapidly tap-tap-tapped in one direction or pivoted to a crucial "up to fast-drop" maneuver in newer Tetris games. When I imagine various times that I might rely on the Zero 2 as a controlling option, I think about how a good D-pad is the primary differentiator from other on-the-go options, whether that's a spare Joy-Con turned sideways, a weak laptop's keyboard, or a phone's on-screen buttons. I'd rather play Tetris or Super Mario Bros. with my thumb on this D-pad than relying on those other options.

Small size, medium issues

That's an imperative asterisk, of course. Do you have a better D-pad gamepad option nearby, one designed with full palms and comfortable grips in mind? If so, neither model of the Zero is easy to recommend. Its ABXY button array is surprisingly robust in terms of offering satisfying button depth and a perfect balance of button spacing. That means every button is close enough for easy thumb adjustment but distant enough to not feel claustrophobic. But in a game that requires regular use of all four buttons, the inability to brace the controller in a palm flares up.

My ideal Zero 2 gameplay scenario is something like Sonic the Hedgehog, which only requires one action button. Anything more than that and I would find myself in a funny constant-readjustment situation, always wishing I could better cradle this tiny thing against the rest of my hand. If 8BitDo engineered this with a pair of plastic, attachable wings, I might sing a different tune. Even crappy plastic that simulates the palm-friendly rests of the SNES controller would be better than nothing.

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