UPDATED ON 04/09/2014:
After spending some additional time with the FC30, my bottom line has changed. Please read on.
What you see above is the FC30 GamePad by 8Bitdo. It arrived in the mail just the other day, and immediately after posting the obligatory Instragram pic, I was inundated with a ton of questions. And because there’s practially no reviews of it online…
Except on YouTube, but they’re all generally the same: some dork struggling to get the damn thing out of the shipping envelope for over five minutes, cuz he’s doing everything with one hand, since the other is being used to hold the iPhone, and you click off due to both boredom and all the heavy breathing.
… I figured I may as well write one up (especially since it’s been a while since I’ve done of these).
I first got of such a thing existing in the first place via Jeremiah, from his most recent trip to Japan (as featured in the most recent Attract Mode Instagram recap). I second I saw it, I knew it had to be mine. But why? Well…
Perhaps you’re like me: someone who grew up with a NES, which you absolutely loved it to death, but still got rid of anyway. In my case, was traded into Funcoland to help pay for a SNES. And ever since, you’ve had that sense of longing; sure Nintendo themselves have re-released selected titles from said system over the years, and ad nauseam. Plus it’s super easy to find ROMs of every single game you ever owned.
But it’s never been the same, without that wonderful, rectangular-shaped assemblage of plastic in your hands. Hence why you’ve always entertained the notion of buying back that piece of your childhood, yet never pulled the trigger, due to reasons like “that money could go towards far more important things” or “I’d probably barely touch it, once I got everything.”
In that case, maybe you too have considered getting a Famicom (the Nintendo Entertainment System’s original incarnation in Japan) instead. After all, it would be what you wanted, what you grew up with, but at the same time, something different and exotic enough to justify the effort and cost. For me, I’ve long been fascinated by the look and design of the Famicom, and not just cuz the red & gold color scheme is reminiscent of Iron Man.
But then I did some research and discovered that Famicoms are kinda pains in the asses. They only connect to TVs the super old-fashioned way, via RF. You could mod the thing, but who has the time for that? Also the controllers are hardwired to the system, which is weird. Sure games are cheap, but not after factor in that eBay overhead, and then there’s whole language barrier. Japanese games are cool till you can’t understand them.
… Geeze, what was originally supposed to be a quick and dirty review is already spiraling out of control, I can feel it.
Anyhow, being able to get a taste of the Famicom, the best part, the controller by itself, seemed like a perfect solution. Especially for my MacBook Pro/Air, on which I only play old NES, SNES, and Genesis games. Had been using my spare Dual Shock 3 for that, but one of the two that was dedicated to my PS3 died and needed to be replaced. Also, and as noted, playing Nintendo games with a Sony controller just felt wrong somehow.
Okay. Actual Background Information
The FC30 GamePad is a product of 8Bitdo, a company based out of Hong Kong. I assumed that the FC30 was just part of a line-up that included all manner of retro-inspired hardware, but it’s their only product thus far. The name is in reference to the 30th anniversary of the Famicom, which was last year, and that’s when the FC30 originally came out as well. Am surprised that I’m only hearing about this now, in 2014.
Many have asked where I got mine, and it was via eBay. I paid $24, which seems like quite the deal, but shipping was $19. The seller from whom I bought it from still has several others for sale; if you’re interested, just click here. Otherwise, you can find them over at DealeXtreme for $35, but that’s with free shipping. It goes without saying that I wish I had looked around a bit harder.
8Bitdo offers three different versions of the FC30: first, there’s just the lone first player variant. Next is a combo pack that contains two controllers, and each are fashioned just like they are on the Famicom. Both controllers on the original console had a roman numeral to let you which was player one and player two, and the same applies here. Though the original second player input had a mic, which has not carried over.
Finally there’s a special edition of the controller in which the gold part of the design is actually made of pure gold. Well, 99.99% of it, weighing in at 30 grams. Only 30 have been produced. 8Bitdo has a website, and the Gold Limited Edition version’s page is worth checking out in particular, especially the map that details how many are going to specific parts of the world. Man, North and South America combined are only getting 6.
And the cost? $1983. Man, gotta love all the constant pushing of the anniversary date.
What Do You Get
The FC30’s packaging is super high quality, so much so that I initially thought it was a product of Japan (the fact that Jeremiah picked his up in Akihabara made me believe it would be as well). I’ve gotten quite numerous tech related knick-knacks from China/Hong Kong over the years and none of them approach what 8Bitdo has done. it’s clear that they tried to emulate Apple’s presentation for the iPhone and are totally successful…
Inside you’ll find the controller (obviously), an instruction manual, a USB to mini USB cord, and a commemorative key chain…
Again, I’ve never seen such bling from someone that is, when you get down to it, offering copycatted/bootlegged tech…
The red USB cord is a nice touch, though the original controller cords on the Famicom were black. But an A for effort. BTW, there’s one other thing; attached to the back of the controller is a white piece of removable plastic…
It’s supposed to be a smart phone or tablet stand. Here it is holding my Nexus 7 up (can’t show how it works with my iPhone since that’s what I’m using to take pictures). Does a decent job, though the angle is fairly horizontal…
How Does It Look? How Does It Feel?
In a word: fantastic. It feels great simply holding in one’s hands. Many have asked how it compares to an actual Famicom controller, and since I don’t have one lying around, a direct head-to-head is just not possible. I want to say that it’s very close to the time I did handle on many years ago. 8Bitdo’s website goes on an on about how it’s an accurate 1:1 replica of the original, and I want to believe that there’s some truth to that claim.
The d-pad and buttons are not super snappy, but they’re far from mushy either. Honestly, they seem awfully close to how the d-pad and buttons felt on my NES controller back in the day. The buttons do jiggle somewhat when you move the FC30 around, and I don’t recall that much noise from the real thing, but it’s no means a deal breaker (whereas my iPhone 5S’s power button rattling drives me nuts). Overall it’s nice and light.
The differences between an actual Famicom controller and the FC30 are pretty obvious; the original only had two face buttons, whereas here we have four, similar to what is found on a Super Famicom/Super Nintendo controller. Though what isn’t as obvious are the two shoulder buttons, again like on Nintendo’s 16bit input…
Here comes what might be the first major complaint for some; as you can see, they’re flush with controller’s outer ring, which is what helped it stay in place of the system when not in use. As such, they’re not easy to latch onto and will take some getting used to. But again, it’s by no means a deal killer.
Though there is one thing that drives me nuts, yet which no one else will notice; the screws on the back are asymmetrical. Must won’t care, but I do. A lot. Oh, and there’s one more feature: the FC30 is wireless. I’ll get to that in a second.
How Does It Work
The FC30 is designed to work with your computer, smart phone, or tablet, all via Bluetooth. But if your computer doesn’t have wireless capabilities, it can still connect to the controller via USB. Though for the most part, the USB cord is used for charging.
Not only does the controller interact with a variety of other devices, but in a variety of different ways. Everything is (initially) boiled down to five different presets. And here they are, in detail:
- The first mode has the FC30 recognized as a joystick to both Windows and Android
- The second mode has the FC30 recognized as a Bluetooth keyboard to Windows, Android, iOS, and OS X
- The third mode has the FC30 communicating with Android and iOS via iCade, a unique joystick protocol that was designed to allow games and controllers to talk to each other with zero fuss or muss
- The forth mode has the FC360 talking to Android and iOS via a special app that 8Bitdo themselves developed, but it’s not supported by Google or Apple, so you’ll need to root or jailbreak your device.
- The fifth mode is a generic controller profile that only works with Windows, and when the FC30 is plugged in
Well, Does It Work?
Kinda. Tried using the F30 on a MacBook Air, Nexus 7, and iPhone 5S; the results were mixed.
To use a Bluetooth accessory on any machine or device, you basically need to have them both shake hands, but first they need to see each other. So the first crucial step here is to make sure that the F30 is set to the proper mode when powering up. That’s accomplished by holding down Start plus another button, depending on the desired state. Each is identified by a flashing LED light; for mode #1, it flashes once, for mode #2 it flashes twice, and so on. Sounds simple, right?
Well, in this particular case, the process isn’t necessarily complicated, just needlessly messy. After five days of regular use, I am still unable to get the timing just right. Either I don’t hold certain button combinations down long enough, or sometimes it was too long. Though I honestly believe the F30 to be pretty flakey and inconsistent in this department. It also doesn’t help that the duration of the flashing LED is super slow. So all that combined means that I can’t tell if I’m turning it on or off half the time.
WITH A MACBOOK AIR:
In the case of my MacBook Air, I have to solely rely upon the second mode. The very first time I tried booting into the necessary state, I was lucky; “8Bitdo F30 GamePad” was immediately listed under the Bluetooth preference pane (though it’s classified as a wireless keyboard, as advertised). The next task is pairing the two, and this second all important step is equally hit or miss. Sometimes when a connection is made, it remains so, but other times, the F30 will immediately disengage.
It would appear that you basically have to put the F30 to immediate use once connected. Which sorta makes sense; Bluetooth accessories will often disconnect after a certain period of inactivity, to save battery life. But you’re usually given a couple of minutes, whereas here, it can be as little as ten seconds, and that’s absurd. Though once you’re finally playing something (I use OpenEmu btw; its attempt at clumping various emulators together in an iTunes-like interface works splendidly), everything is awesome.
NES games feel almost exactly like they did back in the day. Same with Genesis games, even if the FC30 hardly resembles a Genesis pad, though it does a far better job than the PlayStation’s. SNES games feel great too, aside from when shoulder buttons are involved. Unfortunately there’s another problem that needs to be addressed: lag. Doesn’t happen always, maybe only 10% of the time. And turning the FC30 off and back on again will often solve the problem, but it’s still there. Though, as stated above, even that leads to problems.
WITH A NEXUS 7:
Next I tried seeing if the FC30 would work on my Android tablet, and while hunting for emulators, was immediately reminded once again how much of the wild, wild west the Google Play marketplace is when compared to Apple’s App Store. Managed to find a few. Because I wasn’t able to determine if they supported iCade, and because I have zero desire to root my Nexus (it’s running stock Android, why in the hell should I), it was either modes #1 and #2 for me.
The latter, which worked on the MacBook, was not successful here. Whereas the first mode did, though my Nexus 7 still considered in a wireless keyboard instead of giving it a joystick profile, as it’s supposed to. Whatever, the most important thing is that it worked. As for lag, there’s been none, at least thus far. Granted, the amount of time I’ve spent playing NES games on the Nexus 7 is not nearly as much as the MacBook Air, so it’s a bit too early to make a directly comparison.
WITH AN IPHONE 5S:
Finally, due to numerous requests via Twitter and Facebook, I tried to see if the FC30 could work with my iPhone. Now, because emulators are banned in the App Store, my only option is mode #3. But first I had to boot into it, and for whatever reason, I simply am not able to do so, despite numerous attempts. And yes, I’ve read the instructions many times over. And once again, all the problems described above has made troubleshooting near impossible. So yeah, sorry, but no dice here.
Odds & Ends
8Bitdo claims that the firmware of the FC30 can be upgraded, to allow it to emulate the Wiimote, Xbox 360 controller, and PS3 controller. Sounds interesting, but upgrading the firmware on these kinds of things are always a pain in the ass. Once got a Game Boy Advance flash cart from Hong Kong and just copying a game over was damn near impossible, plus I was paranoid that I was also creating a backdoor for viruses and exploits.
Then again, given the difficulties in just turning the FC30 on, a firmware update might also solve that annoying issue. Guess it’s back to deciphering the instruction manual. Speaking of, the one included is both in Chinese and English, but the latter is pretty hard to discern. There’s actually an online version that’s a bit easier to understand, but just barely. I’m hoping the above might fill in the blanks for some who still have problems. But if there are any questions out there, please leave a comment below.
Am pretty torn here; I really want to recommend the the FC30 GamePad everyone. It makes playing old console games on the computer so much palatable, and I’m also genuinely impressed by all the attention to detail that went into its creation.
But at the same time, there’s way too many rough edges to ignore. Odd shoulder buttons are one thing, but not being able to easily turn the blasted thing on is kinda inexcusable, especially for something that’s asking quite a lot, dollar-wise.
Anyone serious about retro gaming should give it a shot, but they need to consider the potentially bumpy road that awaits. Or, maybe simply wait for improvements to be implemented in the upcoming NES variant (via 8Bitdo’s Facebook page)…