Monday 27 November 2017

Saturn controllers for your Personal Computing needs

So, you want to play on your PC using a Saturn controller. Maybe you’re trying out a Saturn emulator (a topic which I’ll cover in depth in a future article) and want to keep the experience as true to the original as possible, or you just want to play native PC games with one of the best gamepads ever made (FACT), perfect for titles like Street Fighter which were made with six face buttons in mind.

You basically have two options: you can either buy an adapter for your original gamepad, or buy a whole new controller with a native USB connection, of which there are many.

I myself faced this dilemma sometime ago and tried to do as much research as I could, because for me spending hours reading stuff on the internet is half of the fun of buying a new product (I'm only half joking). Unfortunately I couldn't just try every solution out for myself and in the end had to buy only one product, so my hands-on experience is limited. Fortunately our friends from the Facebook SJY group are a resourceful bunch and, armed with their feedback, I feel confident in my assessment.

So, without further ado:

The Saturn/USB adapter

It basically does what it says on the package. It's a little box with a port for your controller on one end (with most featuring other inputs besides the Saturn, like Playstation) and a USB cable on the other end that you connect to your PC. There are various brands and models, one of the most popular being made by Mayflash, a company with a good reputation for gaming accessories.


Our friend Steve Dubois owns one, specifically this model, and according to him it works like a charm. According to the product page it doesn't require specific drivers and is compatible with Windows devices up to Windows 7, both 32 and 64 bits, which makes me confident it will also work with Windows 10.

As expected it uses the old DirectInput API, so newer games that exclusively support XInput (think the 360 pad) won't recognize it, but that's also to be expected of the USB pads I'm going to talk about next and nothing that can't be fixed with third party tools like x360ce.

In the end, though, I didn't go with it for a couple of reasons:

⦁    The cheapest adapter I could find cost almost as much as a brand new gamepad (the cheaper ones)
⦁    My goode ‘ol controller (yes, I own exactly one, that’s how awesome my Saturn hardware collection is) is starting to show its age and I don’t want to stress it further with the double duty of servicing both my console and my PC
⦁    Bonus reason: I like having a different looking controller for different machines.

This is not to say that I don't think it's a good option, far from it. Spoiler alert: no USB Saturn gamepad is as well built as a genuine Model 2 (MK-80116/MK-80313) control pad. Those things are legendary for a reason, and there’s no substitute for the original. If that's important to you, by all means go get yourself one of these things.

Or, if you have a big pile of money burning a hole through your wallet and need to get rid of it, you could always get a...

SLS Sega Saturn USB Control Pad

SLS stands for Sega Logistics Service, a division of Sega that dealt with hardware in Japan. Some time around 2005 or so they had the brilliant idea of making official Saturn pads with a USB connection. Their quality is reportedly outstanding. Just do a quick google search, basically everyone raves about these things. Our friend Gaz Cormack had this to say when I asked him if he felt any differences between the SLS and an original Saturn controller:

"Seems identical, if someone handed me both controllers and didn't tell me which was which i wouldn't be able to tell which one was the  SLS and which one was the Saturn controller"

I don't know about you, but for me that's the highest praise you could give it.

But wait, it couldn't be that simple, could it? If the pad looks great and works great, where's the catch? Why isn't this article simply titled "Get an SLS now and be done with it"?

Well, try going on ebay and looking for one of these things. You'll probably stumble upon auctions like this one:

Yep, these things have gotten a little...expensive...

Rumour has it that, from time to time, you can still snag one for a decent price but those occasions are few and far between, making it an unrealistic option for most of us.

Which leaves us with one other option...

Play Sega Controller

Do you know what Play Sega is? Me neither, until I started to research these things.

From what I gathered it was a short-lived emulation service where you could play old Mega Drive games straight from your browser. Sega probably figured that a keyboard, although serviceable (I should say, played many MD games with my buddies on the school library's old PC's) is far from ideal, so they came up with this gamepad which was given away for free with new subscriptions. Unfortunately the service didn’t exactly become a success, which may help explain why the gamepads suddenly started to flood ebay.

Speaking about the gamepad itself, opinions seem to be somewhat polarized. After reading countless forum posts about it, most people seem to think it's serviceable and a good deal for the price. A few think highly of it, while on the opposite end some seem to hate it with a passion. Things become more confusing when you take into account that there's little way to know if you're gamepad is actually an original Play Sega or just a counterfeit, possible made by the same factory using the same moulds after Sega stopped with their orders. Whenever someone disagrees about its strengths and weaknesses, they may very well be talking about a different controller than the person they're disagreeing with.

Our friend Gaz, for instance, doesn't hold it in a very high regard. Keep in mind he owns a genuine SLS, though, so you can expect his standards to be pretty high.

Being the only option of this entire article that I actually own, I can give my first-hand impression and compare it directly with the genuine Saturn controller. Here's my breakdown:

Overall it feels lighter and cheaper, but not overwhelmingly so.

The D-Pad, perhaps the most iconic element of the original controller feels different and seems to be somewhat less responsive, particularly when pressing right. This might be related with a common complaint of the right part of the dpad breaking easily. Mine is still in one piece, but I haven´t used it that much either. I've also read complaints about it not easily detecting diagonal inputs, but after playing a bunch of Nights (the most diagonal intensive game I had at hand) I thought it was fine. Overall I'd say it's a good D-Pad, not outstanding like the original, but miles better than the one on an Xbox or Playstation controller.

The Start button is "mushier" than the original but, given its use (pausing, opening menus and such) as long as it works it's no big deal.

The face buttons, the most important ones for most games on par with the dpad, feel good and are responsive with the single exception of the C button (the rightmost one), with missed inputs on occasion unless I press it with more force than I'm used to. Depending on the game, and how hard you usually press the buttons, this might be a problem. I haven't opened the pad up to see if there's some obvious problem on the inside, could be that there's some easy fix for this, but so far it hasn't bothered me too much. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Last, but not least, the shoulder buttons. They suck. Really. Fortunately they don't see that much use in most games, but it's still a shame. It's not that they don't work, they do. It's the feeling. They're really hard to press down and make this annoying loud click, completely unlike the original pad.

The good news for the more technically inclined is that, according to several forum posts I've read, you can swap parts between this and an original controller. Some people simply replace the buttons on the Play Sega to get the real feel of the original, although the shoulder buttons seem to be incompatible, while other people ditch the whole exterior of new gamepad, keeping just the pcb (you know, the thing on the inside with all the electronic bits) and sticking it inside a real Saturn controller. That way you get the genuine feeling of an original controller, from the shell to the buttons, but with the USB interface. Basically a homemade SLS controller but on the cheap, specially if you have old Saturn gamepads around.

For the time being I'll keep mine how I bought it (need I remind you I own only one - thankfully in good condition - Saturn pad) but in the future time will tell.

Bonus entry

This amazing thing:

In case you haven't watched LGR's video about it (be honest, most of us had never heard of the thing before we watched that) it was a graphics/audio/multimedia card for PC's, based somewhat on Saturn hardware (also used squares instead of the usual triangles for 3D shapes). There were special ports of well known Saturn games exclusively for the Diamond Edge, like Panzer Dragoon, Virtua Fighter Remix and Virtua Cop. To go with the authentic Saturn experience (albeit on a PC) it featured two authentic Saturn controller ports, perfectly compatible with your original console pads.

I have no idea if you can use those with modern games or even if recent motherboards detect the damn thing. In case anyone reading this owns one, please try and report back.

We'll wait.

[Disclaimer: we at The Saturn Junkyard aren't affiliated with any of the products we've mentioned in this article. no referral links or any of that here]


fatherkrishna said...

Absolutely stunning stuff NebachadnezzaR! I had no idea there was so much variety or that many options! An outstandingly researched piece, and I loved the way you included the thoughts and opinions of some of the SJY community within the article. Great to have your insight and creativity back here once more and long may it continue!!
Only one problem, however... I now have MORE Saturn themed things I need to own! I've never explored playing emulated games on a Laptop... Is it feasible? It just might allow me to take my Saturn gaming on the road in my camper van...And that would just about be my idea of heaven!

Daniel Turner said...

awesome article!

Unknown said...

Brilliant write up.

I'm a big fan of the mayflash adapter also , can't go wrong with it , as an added bonus it's recognised by the PS3, so it lets you use Saturn and Dreamcast controllers on that console, even the nights pad works on it.

If I may add..

Another thing that annoys my about the play sega controller is the length of the wire, it's a lot shorter than a standard Saturn pad and SLS.

It's only 1.7meters long, whilst the Saturn controller and SLS is 2.5 meters long

This may or may not be a problem depending on your set up but for me i can't use the play sega one sitting on my couch as it's not long enough

I am near certain I've discovered the reason why the play sega D-button doesn't feel as tactile as the Saturn and SLS pad,

It would be easier to show with pictures, I'll get some up later on

Unknown said...

Great write up. I'm off to Google whether the mayflash adapter works with RetroPie, cos then I could use my Saturn pads to play MD games too! ��

The Southern Sega Gentleman said...

Great read brother!

NebachadnezzaR said...

Thank you all for the warm welcome. I didn't know how this article would go down as it's about an unusual subject, but I'm really glad you found it worthwhile. It took a while to write because I wanted to be as in-depth as possible, spent countless hours reading up everything I could find not only about each piece of hardware individually but also how they compared to each other. In the end it was worth it.

Father K, about emulation, you might want to wait for my article on that, but in case you want an answer now instead of half a year from now or however long I take to do it (lol): it depends. I think SSF is light enough that it might work, but Mednafen, which is my go to choice nowadays, is much more CPU intensive. It also depends on the games, anything 3D is much more demanding.