Friday 26 June 2020

Modern Controllers on the Saturn and Dreamcast: Early Impressions of the Brook Wingman SD

Let’s just get this out of the way: the original, Japanese-style Saturn gamepad is one hell of a controller. It’s easily one of the greatest ever crafted…for 2D games.

When it comes to 3D, the Sega Saturn’s pedigree is considerably more complicated. Sega’s initial attempt at an analog controller – the 3D control pad – was a perfectly serviceable, albeit rough-around-the-edges attempt at giving Saturn players a handle on the third dimension. But it worked well enough. As an early showpiece title for the controller, NiGHTS into Dreams drew us in with its vibrant, imaginative worlds and addicting score attack premise. Yet it was our seamless connection to the game’s smooth and blistering flow – thanks largely to the 3D control pad – that cemented Sonic Team’s soaring jester simulator among the Saturn’s most beloved and iconic games. At the very least, it was clear that analog controls were our future.
Unfortunately, like most other consumer products of the 1990s, those original 3D control pads were not made to last forever. After two and a half decades of wear and tear, their fraying rubber membranes and wobbly analog sticks are slowly becoming more rules than exceptions. Inevitably, there will be a day when our passion for 3D Saturn games like NiGHTS will outlive our ability to fully play them as intended on original hardware. In the meantime, we’ll just have to enjoy our ratty old 3D controllers while they last…

That is, unless we had a viable alternative.

It’s not for a lack of trying. A couple of years ago, Retro-Bit announced plans to produce its own aftermarket 3D Saturn gamepads. The company has since released its well-received interpretation of Sega’s original 2D Japanese-style pad, yet its 3D analog models ostensibly lie in design stasis. Earlier this year, Retro Fighters launched its BrawlerGen controller for the Genesis and Saturn. With any luck, I hoped it would be the silver bullet that saves the Saturn from an apocalyptic, 3D controller-deprived future.
It wasn’t.

The BrawlerGen’s form factor feels reasonably ergonomic and it sports an analog stick for directional input but it completely lacks analog functionality. Disappointingly, its analog stick simply mimics the d-pad’s eight-way digital input without any of the pressure-sensitive, omni-directional functionality of the original 3D pad. The BrawlerGen is still a useful controller – especially for some Genesis games and non-analog 3D Saturn titles like the original Panzer Dragoon – but it hardly remedies the Saturn’s scarcity of analog controller options.

So here we are. Unlike Retro-Bit and Retro Fighters, gaming peripheral manufacturer Brook has taken a wildly different approach to alleviating that scarcity. Instead of a brand new controller, Brook’s Wingman Converter SD is a controller adapter dongle that lets players use an array of modern gamepads and arcade sticks on both the Saturn and Dreamcast. The company sent me an early unit to test out and write about, so I tested it and now I am writing about it.

So how does it work?
As it turns out, pretty damn well…with plenty of caveats.

The Wingman Converter SD promises wireless and wired compatibility with a variety of modern first party controllers, including the PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Switch, and others. It took me a while to get some of them to sync consistently and ultimately, some worked better than others. Granted, most of the PS4 and Xbox One controllers I own are early launch-era models so it’s possible the Wingman simply doesn’t play nice with those older gamepads. At one point, Brook's website also suggested the Wingman would be compatible with some modern arcade sticks. Unfortunately, I don’t own any so I wasn’t able to test them. I’ll also note that I’m using an early pre-production Wingman SD unit so it’s possible – even likely – that some of the issues I mention here will be ironed out before release or via future firmware updates. Hell, even as I've been using this adapter, Brook has already issued a couple of updates which cleaned up some earlier issues I experienced considerably.

After syncing various modern gamepads via their respective USB charging cables (not included), I noticed some fairly major differences in their performance. For instances, my launch Xbox One controller (non-Bluetooth model) felt like it had very little dead zone in its analog stick and was a bit too sensitive, making it more difficult to finesse directional movements. The Switch Pro Controller works reasonably well with the Wingman but because its shoulder buttons (ZL and ZR) lack analog sensitivity, it poses obvious problems for driving games which rely on pressure-sensitive acceleration and braking. That left me with a newer DualShock 4 (Model #CUH-ZCT2U) which I primarily used wirelessly with the Wingman SD. For the purposes of sharing my impressions here, I’m going to focus on my experiences with particular controller.
Playing Dreamcast games with a DualShock: Heresy? Sure, but it’s heresy that works.

Despite some of the quirks I mentioned earlier, the Wingman SD has a great deal of potential to turn modern gamepads into fully functional alternatives for playing 3D games on Sega’s penultimate and swansong platforms. After syncing it with the Wingman, my DualShock 4 worked wirelessly on both consoles with little fuss. Overall, it feels solid where it needs to: it’s highly responsive while adding no discernible lag. Most crucially for games like Burning Rangers and NiGHTS, the PS4’s analog stick supports a full range of granular directional inputs that I’d expect from the original 3D control pad. The trigger buttons also share a comparable range of motion and pressure sensitivity, which is critical for racing games like Manx TT and Sega Rally Championship.

I hesitate to say the Wingman SD and DualShock 4 work better than the original Saturn 3D control pad, but at the very least, it’s a damn fine alternative. There are a couple of Saturn games I feel the Wingman SD works especially well with: Power Slave/Exhumed and Sonic R. Honestly, a lot of this may come down to the DualShock 4’s smoother and more resistant analog stick. It provides a more stable and nuanced feel for these games that is less finicky than Sega’s official 3D pad. Combine that with a more ergonomic formfactor, I really do think the Wingman/DS4 will be my preferred way to play many of these games going forward.

Additionally, the Wingman SD supports button remapping and turbo functions, which is particularly useful as the default face button assignments don't always intuitively between the Saturn and PS4 controllers. As far as I can tell, you can’t swap the analog sticks to map physical movement to the right stick (I’ll get into that in a bit). But with a few button combinations outlined in the instruction manual/website, I was able to remap the face and shoulder buttons fairly easily.
In case you’re wondering how the default button mapping works for using a DualShock 4 with Saturn games, the Wingman assigns X, Y, and Z, to square, triangle, and L1 and A, B, and C to cross, circle, and R1, respectively. This set up works well for most 3D games I’ve tried so far, though I wouldn’t recommend it for games which require equal access to all six face buttons. Honestly, you’ll still want to keep those 2D Saturn pads and arcade sticks handy for shmups, fighting games, etc.

OK, now let’s talk about the Dreamcast because that’s where the Wingman SD will have some extra value. For all of Sega’s groundbreaking and forward-thinking accomplishments, its failure to include a second thumbstick on its Dreamcast controller was almost comically shortsighted. Some developers attempted to design around this by mapping physical movement (forward/backward/strafing) to the Dreamcast controller's face buttons. This was an admirable attempt that worked to the benefit of 3D shooters like Fur Fighters, MDK2, Slave Zero, Quake III Arena, Outtrigger. That said, it was hardly a great, let alone perfect solution.

To that end, the Wingman SD manages to give players a little taste of how dual analog support might have worked on the Dreamcast. Surprisingly enough, it kind of does a solid job at it.

I say “kind of” because neither the Wingman SD nor modern controllers are not going to miraculously convert digital A/B/X/Y inputs into full analog directional inputs. However, they will let players functionally use the left stick for aiming and the right stick for basic eight-way movement for any action/shooting games with those mapping options. For those aforementioned games I’ve tested so far, it works surprisingly well. Unfortunately, the Wingman lets you remap the face and shoulder buttons but not the analog sticks, which means I was basically stuck with a southpaw configuration for my faux dual stick set up. If that’s your preference and/or you’re able to adjust to it (I eventually was), it works reasonably well.
There’s also another Dreamcast-specific feature I should mention. Unlike other controller converters (e.g. the Total Control products) the Wingman SD does not have a VMU port on the unit itself (you can load one from a second controller). However, the unit does function as its own built-in memory card with a full 200 blocks for game saves. For those familiar with Brook’s earlier PS3/PS4-to-Dreamcast Super Converter adapter, which only had a few dozen blocks of memory, the Wingman SD is a notable improvement.

Well, that’s pretty much all I have to say about the Wingman SD for now. Overall, it's an ambitious peripheral and I've encountered plenty of quirks and issues during my time with it. Regardless, the Wingman is a nifty little adapter that I see myself using fairly often going forward. As our older analog sticks grow looser and wobblier – and as Saturn 3D pads become rarer and more expensive – we’ll need solutions like this to keep enjoying those classic 3D games on original hardware. For its part, the Wingman largely succeeds.

The Brook Wingman Converter SD is scheduled to release in mid-July for $49.99.


Thanks for reading -- You can find me on Twitter (@VirtuaSchlub) where I post about random video game musings as well as occasional Junkyard write ups and podcasts.

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