The tiniest controller we’ve ever tested is a lot better than you might think

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

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  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 testing, which worked whether I rapidly tap-tap-tapped in one direction or pivoted to a crucial “up to fast-drop” maneuver in newer 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 or 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 , 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.

Meanwhile, the included L and R buttons are embarrassingly bad. Pressing them in isolation is tricky enough, owing to their minuscule width, but trying to do so while juggling D-pad and ABXY commands is nigh impossible without bracing the Zero 2 on a table or a knee.

Portability is the point

Joystick swap?

The Zero 2’s D-pad defaults to replicating the “left joystick” in any game you might play. This can be an issue in games that think you have both a joystick and a D-pad, like most standard gamepads do. Hold both the D-pad up and the Select button at the same time for five seconds, and you’ll switch the functionality. To return to normal use, hold the D-pad to the left and the Select button at the same time for five seconds.

One final note about the buttons regards the carefully recessed Select and Start buttons. Both of these are a slight pain to use, because they require a focused, angled push of a finger and are firmer to the touch than the other buttons. This is very, very good news for the controller’s use case of “toss in a bag and forget about,” because the Start button doubles as a power button.

I only have anecdotal testing under my belt, but I’ve tossed the controller into a loose bag for days multiple times over the past month and found no major dives in its “8-10 hours” of battery life. The same goes for casual mashing of the controller’s face onto my palm. Unless you’re trying to press the Start button, you won’t turn the thing on (and the Zero 2 times out after about 30 seconds, should it get pressed and fail to sync to a preferred game system or device).

That clever design emphasis clarifies to me what the Zero 2 is all about. 8BitDo’s latest tiny controller is meant as a critical backup for desperate nerds on the go. It fits into most any tiny pocket. It withstands accidental button taps while traveling, so that it doesn’t constantly run out of juice. And it’s been engineered with a loop slot on its body, so you can insert a nylon band or keychain and make it a part of your daily accoutrements.

We’re bummed to see that Zero line’s upgrade to the Zero 2 model only changes its wireless protocol options for better compatibility with modern consoles, as  kind of hand-friendlier tweak could’ve come by now. But if the Zero line is completely new to you, and its limited sales pitch sounds like it’s worth $20, say hello to your new best pocket gaming pal.

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