The First Handheld Controller? 8BitDo Lite Bluetooth Gamepad (Hardware Review)

  • Name: 8BitDo Lite Bluetooth Gamepad
  • Company: 8BitDo
  • Price: US $24.99|€ 29,99|£19.99
  • Works With: Nintendo Switch, Switch Lite, PC, Raspberry Pi, Android

I purchased this hardware myself.

More Than A Novelty

Late last year, 8BitDo released their “Lite Bluetooth Gamepad”. The current opinion on the controller is that it is novel, potentially useful, and just worth trying out for something wacky. However, I think it’s more than this.

I want you to know that in this review I’ll reach a point where I describe this controller as a must-have for any gamer who is interested in the long-running series’ that have migrated from previous Nintendo handhelds to the Nintendo switch. I’ll also get to a point where I talk about how this controller will be quintessential for playing Pokémon Mystery Dungeon DX and other games like it. Games which are handheld-legacy games, meaning that they got their start on handheld hardware. I’m going to take a roundabout way of getting there, but if your interest or curiosity has been piqued, stick around, I promise it will be worth it.

Handheld to Console

First, I want you to know, though I own consoles, I can say, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the majority of my best game experiences took place on portable hardware. I know the same is true for others in my family.

When I was writing this piece, I called up my sister to reminisce a bit and to get her thoughts and she brought some important stuff to the table.

We spent some time talking about the feeling of handheld hardware and the distance that it eliminates between yourself and the game you’re playing. While consoles often have entire setups, the beauty of a handheld console is that it is spontaneous in nature, you can play it where you’d like. But more importantly is having just the right feeling. For instance, we all know that an emulator on a PC is nothing like holding the real thing.

Unless state otherwise all images are provided by WikiMedia Commons

My Sister conveyed to me her hesitation in buying a Switch. She felt she had been out of the loop for too long. She was afraid technology had left her behind and that it would be too big a jump from her experience on a Gameboy Advance to now. You may be wondering, why does this matter? Let me just say, it’s not the size of the jump that matters, it’s that we have to jump in the first place. As handheld gamers, we’ve had to jump from handheld to handheld, generation after generation, and now we’ve had to make the jump, as handheld gamers, to the Nintendo Switch. My sister’s jump is really no different than our jump.

Sentiments for the Past

What makes these jumps difficult is our sentimentality, our fondness, for what we’ve known. I won’t make any effort in hiding the fact that I am a painfully sentimental fool. I’ve held on to my parents’ old dining room table years after they got a new one, despite having had a perfectly usable table myself. So, I eat my dinners at the same table I’ve eaten at since I was 3 years old. It feels nice and comforting. Food tastes better.

WOW! That’s a little embarrassing, but that’s okay.

Because, I am sentimental to a fault, and I will excuse absurdity for the sake of sentiment. Even if absurdity has meant transporting a huge glass table cross-country for the sake of sentimentality. Even if absurdity means being afraid of leaving the DS family behind.

This 8BitDo controller is also absurd but in the same sentimental way.

Well, I hope we’re all on the same page and I do want you to understand that while I am not a tech fiend, I do follow tech news. It’s critical in our current world to not find myself asking “who’s Alexa?” So, I do care, I just don’t care for every trend.

I’m trying to suggest that you can trust me. And I hope it’s working, because I’m not about to tell you to go shell out your hard-earned cash for anything less than an experience worth having. I also hope it’s working, because I don’t want to believe I just gave an odd confession about my dinner table for nothing. But, hey, reviews should also be entertainment, right?

D-Pad Power

So, we finally arrive at this controller. Let’s look at a diagram of it.

Image taken from the 8BitDo Lite Bluetooth Gamepad manual

LOOK AT IT. IT’S RIDICULOUS.

No joystick, all d-pads. That’s d-pad POWER.

That’s what I call a good first impression.

But when you’re beyond that first impression there’s a lot of time for you to then think “probably overrated” and move on. Beyond impressions we need proof, and you need to know what kind of experience it will give you. That’s why I’m here. And I think I first have to answer the question some of us might have on our minds, especially those of us who have exclusively played handheld:

How is a controller an experience??

Controllers as an Experience

Here I’m trying to talk about the controller as an extension of the game, as being critical to how we experience a game. For example, the Nintendo 64 controller is evocative of all things trident-like and Neptunian with its 3 handles, joystick on the middle one. It looks like you could hop on a small boat and go spearfishing with it. That controller is notorious for lacking in the ergonomics department, but, that’s not me, I’m not here to talk ergonomics. I’m here to talk controllers and how they’ve revolutionized our experience and how this 8BitDo controller, this little rectangle, is quietly doing the same thing.

N64: A Brief Case-Study

So, regardless of the trident-like form-factor of the N64 controller, let’s just consider the satisfaction of using the z button which was strategically positioned behind the joystick. It’s a pistol-trigger-button existing before the full and long draw of the triggers on the Xbox’s “Duke” controller. It was kinda brilliant on Nintendo’s part to incorporate such a satisfying button. A button which also evoked some arcade cabinets, just like the joystick did.

Looking at the N64 controller, we can easily see how it is that controllers are just as critical to our gameplay and critical to game development, as the hardware inside the console itself.

After all, let’s just look at Ocarina of Time’s Z-button use. In 1999, according to my google-fu, Ape Escape became the first game to utilize two analog sticks. A year after Ocarina of Time released in 1998.

Let’s take a quick look at how we navigated 3-d space before 1999.

The developers of Ocarina of Time found a way to divide the functions we now attribute to the right analog stick. They used the up-C button in order to show Link’s first-person perspective. Of course, it was from a fixed vantage point, since there was only one joystick, but you could move that lone analog stick in order to survey a room, and, in doing so, bring yourself closer into the game’s world to examine it better. This is a feature many games still carry to some degree, though its often mapped to the R3 button. To be honest I don’t know if it originated here, I’m really just trying to make a point about the harmony of software and hardware.

Well, beyond the up-C button, they also incorporated the slick z-button into their z-targeting system so that Link could have combat that felt focused and powerful, and also so that you could snap the camera right behind Link as you play. Instead of having a floating Lakitu camera that chases after you, like Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time allowed players to have a degree of control befitting the new era of polygon graphics. It was done through mechanics that were made intuitive and possible by its hideous controller. Nintendo pushed the software around the hardware to make sure they weren’t giving users a poor experience.

Again, Nintendo had the system they used in Super Mario 64, and though slightly similar, it was distinct to the one in Ocarina of Time. They were experimenting, after all, things had to be explored in the new 3D frontier.

To be clear, I don’t think any of what I’ve written is groundbreaking reporting or observations, it’s been said before. However, it needed to be brought up and made clear here. Otherwise, I’m going to sound ridiculous telling you to go get a controller which, at first glance, seems like a novelty or a collectible more than something you can really use.

A Box Named “Handheld Gaming”

Image taken from the 8BitDo product page.

There’s a reason this controller is aimed at the Switch Lite audience, shares its aesthetic and color scheme, has “Lite” in its name. It’s because owners of the Switch Lite have drawn a definite box around themselves. This box is labeled “handheld gamers”.

I’ve been in this box for the majority of my life. It’s a good box, nothing wrong with it.

It’s a box, because Switch Lite owners are inarguably limited to handheld gameplay. 8BitDo, with this controller, is banking on something here, the same underlying bet which motivates the design for their beefier SN30 Pro+.

Image Provided by 8BitDo

Birth of The “Handheld Controller”

8BitDo is betting that people love d-pads, and they’re also betting that people like holding controllers, even for a handheld console. But they’re also betting on a new idea: a “handheld controller”, a new breed of controller. While other controllers have been designed for console use, this controller is designed for something which is not a traditional console, something which has so far denied the legacy of its handheld-hardware lineage: The Nintendo Switch. They see an opportunity here, and I think it’s a valid one.

No one wants to be walking around with one spare joycon in their pocket. On the other hand, the form factor of their Lite Bluetooth Gamepad is sleek and slim. It’s smaller than my wallet. It’s smaller than my phone. I love it. It removes every reason not to carry around a controller in your pocket. Maybe I’ll put it in my pocket just in case I’m going over to a friend’s house. Maybe I’ll put in my pocket just for fun, but that would be ridiculous.

What isn’t ridiculous is how well it works. It works wonderfully, syncs easily, has a generous 18 hour battery life with 2 hours of charging. It catches people by surprise. It has a “WOW” factor no other controller on the market really has. Most importantly, it runs in its own category, this new “handheld controller” category, without falling into the infamous status of “younger sibling controllers” that used to plague consoles.

We do have to talk price. It’s definitely not expensive, but it’s not dirt cheap either. In the end this controller runs you $24.99 USD, and it’s worth every penny.

Now, do you want to know something scary?

I don’t even own a switch lite. I own a first gen Switch which I almost always play in the comfort of my apartment. It hardly leaves the dock unless I’m going on long trips. So why do I own this controller? WHY?!

I’ll tell you why.

The Legend of D-Pad: A Switch to the Past

I own this controller because I saw the potential, with this controller, to not change my life. Potential, to keep me in that same backwards sentimental state of absurdity I described earlier. I love d-pads. D-pads have been on the controller to every Nintendo console, ever. Even on the controller for the infamous Virtual Boy. Even, on consoles where they have been seldom used.

On every console. . .except on the Nintendo Switch. While the Switch Lite does have a d-pad. . .we’ll get back to that in a second.

Here’s something more impressive. Until the joystick on the Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo handhelds always used the d-pad as their only means of control.

Even after the 3DS introduced its joystick, many games still allowed for the use of the d-pad for primary controls. The reason for this is that, while consoles have long since relegated the d-pad to only be used for playing retro-games or navigating menus, handhelds have never abandoned the d-pad, until now. Because of this history of the d-pad on modern handhelds, a parallel lineage of modern games exists all using the tried and true design of the d-pad as their means of control.

This leads us to an interesting conclusion:

A Parallel Gaming Lineage

There is a huge catalog of games out there which have had their core game-play elements designed around the d-pad. These aren’t retro games, they’re completely modern. Many of them are getting new installments on the Nintendo Switch. A hybrid console, which as I just pointed out, does not have a d-pad. A hybrid console whose joysticks have had notorious issues with drift. Whose $60-dollar Pro controller has a d-pad which is equally notorious for its wobbliness and misinputs, and which is only forgivable because it is a controller clearly designed for the kind of games consoles usually run. But imagine the same level of frustration drifting joysticks gives you and then imagine that kind of frustration on the d-pads. It’s terrible!

While there are many other third-party controllers for the switch which offer great d-pads and great joysticks, like 8BitDo’s SN30 Pro+, they are not portable, they are designed for contemporary consoles. More importantly they run into another big, almost unresolvable issue that even the Switch Lite with its built-in d-pad, which I assure you I had not forgotten about, cannot overcome.

The Link’s Awakening Problem

In some critical instances the d-pads are not programmed, in-game, as a valid control input. As in the case of Link’s Awakening (2019), a game whose origins lie on handheld software (the original dot-matrix Gameboy).

In Links Awakening (2019) you can only move by using joysticks. Let’s also not forget, Link’s Awakening is published as a first-party game and even it lacks d-pad support. The 8BitDo Lite circumvents this issue by having it’s d-pads registered as joysticks, allowing you to finally use a d-pad.

This is the misstep I was getting at earlier. The Switch is the modern answer, it is combining the handheld and the home-console market, I adore it for this reason. However, as odd as it may sound, its hardware and its implementation aren’t backward-thinking enough. They went a little too far forward, wanting to make sure the joycons were able to be used independently of one another. As it turns out, they did this at the cost of the handheld experience for handheld-legacy games and gamers.

After the announcement of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon DX, I, like many others, downloaded the Demo. That’s what prompted me to go on such a serious monologue about controllers and why they matter. Because the game was great, but this review isn’t about that.

This review, believe-it-or-not, is about controllers, specifically the 8BitDo Lite Bluetooth Gamepad. I played the demo for a bit using joysticks, but something didn’t feel right. I tried the buttons on the joycon and they worked, but something was lacking. I then reached for my SN30 Pro+ and controlling the game using the d-pad felt better, felt good even, and maybe for most people that would have been fine. But this review is for all the handheld gamers out there, those of us who got the Switch because we loved the DS and 3DS, not the WiiU. So, let me tell you, I put down the SN30 Pro+ and reached for the Lite Bluetooth Gamepad, and that felt. . .just perfect. Now, I know that the Mystery Dungeon series, as a whole, got its start on the Super Famicom, a console with dedicated d-pads, but it soon migrated and made its home on handheld hardware, the rest is history.

I had been using it to play some switch online games, mainly Breath of Fire, and something felt right there too, like home, like it just worked. The size in my hand evokes the Gameboy Advance I put hours into. Though I know some people would compare it to a NES or SNES era controller, I genuinely don’t think that’s what this controller aspires towards. Let’s not forget how strongly 8BitDo has marketed this controller with the handheld-only version of the Switch, the Switch Lite.

Image taken from the 8BitDo product page.

Essentially, they found a way to produce a screenless Gameboy Advance. . .and connect it to your Switch. When I look up at my TV, holding this controller, I feel like I’m playing on the world’s largest Gameboy Advance, but it’s because of what’s in my hands.

It’s no wonder, then, that it felt like home while I ran around inside of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon DX, and I’m sure the same would be true for someone who played the original Link’s Awakening on the Gameboy and felt something off with the remake and a standard controller. This is the only controller, to my knowledge, which perfectly captures the spirit of the oxymoronic category of “handheld controller”. It does so in a manner which goes as far as to allow you to use the d-pads in software which has denied its handheld roots, denied the use of the d-pad.

Closing Thoughts

The Lite Bluetooth Gamepad will not be a necessity for everyone, but I think everyone could benefit from having one lying around, especially for those whose roots are in handheld games and are waiting for that new installment of their favorite series.

When that installment comes out, wouldn’t you want to play it on a controller that knows that what feels right matters? Even if it looks funny, even if it’s absurdly sticking to the past.

Dinner tastes best at my old table, it always has. This controller, in an odd way, is a new-old table. I say we should applaud this new handheld controller, for what it is: innovative, thoughtful, and considerate for us as consumers. It’s got my approval. I don’t want to give it two thumbs up, because it’s not a game, but I’ll give it the next best thing.

FINALY VERDICT: I like it a lot!

I like it a lot!

 

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