Brawler 64 Review: The Best N64 Replacement Controller!

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This review has been long in the making since the Brawler 64 launched last year after a remarkably successful Kickstarter campaign! I first received my Brawler 64 around March 2018 as a Kickstarter backer. Since I received it the Brawler 64 has been exclusively used as my main N64 controller. By this point, I have put in hundreds of hours in over 100 different N64 games and have really put the controller through its paces. Since the initial Kickstarter, Retro Fighters has released the Brawler 64 to the public, (after fixing a design flaw I will touch on more in a moment) launched another successful Kickstarter for funtastic colored versions of the Brawler 64 and finally released these colors to the public last month, in January 2019. And are now even working on a Dreamcast controller! While my review covers the original Kickstarter backer edition grey controller, friends and research have shown they are still using the same internal design. Well, minus the design flaw I mentioned earlier that I will touch on later in this review.

What’s In The Box

When I first got my Brawler 64 I was immediately taken in with the N64 theme they had going on with the box. The controller takes center stage with a yellow background but, over on the right we see that familiar red stripe covering part of the image. For North American N64 owners, we see this same stripe adorn the boxes of both games and accessories, making it a nostalgic touch I really like! The rest of the box is pretty standard with the top and one side bearing the Retro Fighters logo, the other side having another render of the controller, and the bottom showing a UPC code. The back of the box also gives details about how the Brawler 64 is different than N64 controllers that came before it.

Opening the Brawler 64 box up we are greeted with a nice plastic housing for the controller and the users manual. The manual covers basic usage including how to use the controller and which N64 accessories are compatible with the Brawler 64. The manual also includes a brief snippet about Retro Fighters and a thank you message to all buyers. There is also customer service info as well as where you can find Retro Fighters on social media. On the last page of the manual, all Kickstarter backers of the $45 and higher tiers are also listed in a special thanks section. Yes, I did back this tier so my name is included in this section!

Aesthetics and Build Quality

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The first thing about the Brawler 64 that draws immediate attention is the form factor. Gone is the three-pronged approach of the classic N64 controller, replaced instead with a traditional controller layout reminiscent of the Xbox One or Switch Pro controllers that is comfortable to hold and use for long play sessions. The shell is made of smooth sturdy plastic in the color of your purchase. I found it to be very strong and able to handle tight grips and various punishments without a hitch. Some might find it to be too light in weight, but throw a Rumble Pak into the rear port and weight concerns should be quickly alleviated.

The thumbstick uses a domed cap and has a great amount of resistance when being pushed, which is to my personal liking. Face buttons are larger than on a traditional N64 controller, making them easier to press. They also have a good feel on each press and they aren’t overly clicky. Shoulder buttons are similar to the face buttons but might be a bit too squishy for some player’s tastes. A second Z button has also been added to the right side of the controller so players can choose either side for using the input. This makes shooters like Goldeneye more familiar for modern shooter fans, as you can fire with the right Z button instead of the left. For whatever reason, the Z buttons are on a spring hinge, like a pressure sensitive trigger, which doesn’t make a ton of sense because the button is digital.

For the original backers of the Kickstarter project, there was an issue when it comes to the left shoulder button. While pressed, the left shoulder button can be felt moving as you move the thumbstick around. On an original N64 controller, the left shoulder button was never meant to be used while using the thumbstick. Instead, games that relied on the left shoulder button would use the d-pad as the main input method. With the redesigned layout of the controller and games that feature remappable buttons, the L button may see more use now than in the past.

Thankfully, outside of it being slightly noticeable, it never caused issues during gameplay and was made into a much bigger deal than it really was. It is unfortunate such a flaw made it past internal testing but at least the team at Retro Fighters made it right and gave all backers a free replacement L button to swap into their controllers. The issue was really such a non-issue I didn’t even bother taking the time to have replacements sent out to me for my 4 controllers. The L button issue was also fixed before any retail controllers went on sale, so this won’t be an issue for anyone looking to pick up a Brawler 64 in 2019.

I would also like to point out that after a year of fairly consistent usage I have noticed no significant wear on the controller vs the one I unboxed above!

Special Features

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An interesting added feature for the Brawler 64 was the inclusion of a Turbo button. The Turbo button can be mapped to any of the face or shoulder buttons, allowing for rapid firing of any of them. I occasionally use the turbo function on the A button during a quick playthrough of Star Fox 64 when I am wanting to spare my thumb the strain of mashing during certain boss fights. To turn the turbo feature off all that needs to be done is a quick press of the Clear button.

Gameplay

Now it is time to talk about what matters the most: how it feels to play games with the Brawler 64! And after nearly a year of usage in many different games, I am happy to say it is great! Buttons respond well to inputs and repeated inputs without a hint of any drop. Turbo mode has been a blessing on my thumb when I am just not feeling up to spamming, and Z buttons on both sides of the controller have made it much easier to play shooters like GoldenEye. Though I still find it odd to have them be on a spring, and it has also required some learning to be able to properly execute a left barrel roll in Star Fox 64. The D-pad has handled really well for games like The New Tetris and Kirby 64, allowing for accurate input and precision. At no point have I been pressing one direction and have another somehow slip in.

Now for the thumbstick, oh yes the thumbstick, this is the piece that makes or breaks an N64 controller. The standard N64 had an interesting range of motion that has never been truly replicated on a third party controller, and the Brawler 64 is no exception. It does come relatively close, but if you are used to the real deal you will instantly notice the extra sensitivity in each directional movement. This added sensitivity is not necessarily a bad thing, however, as it does allow for faster turns and movement depending on how a game was designed to handle input. It will take a moment to really get a feel for it though, especially in shooters. For flight games like Star Fox and Rogue Squadron, however, it felt great from the first moment! I was also able to easily pull off the quick spin attack in Ocarina of Time which has had issues on other 3rd party controllers before.

What It Could Do Better

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Honestly, there is very little I can find to criticize about the Brawler 64. The L button problem was never really a problem and Retro Fighters quickly made it right before the controller ever went on sale. The controller can’t use Transfer Paks, but oh well, no third party controller I have ever used has been able to either. The only thing I really take issue with on the Brawler 64 is the Z button and its spring design. The button isn’t analog so don’t treat it as such! It makes it annoying for multiple presses in games that require it, like my aforementioned Star Fox 64 example. Speedrunners might also take issue with the analog stick range as it could mess up inputs that require the real N64 range.

Verdict

Retro Fighters has made a very solid replacement N64 controller with the Brawler 64. I have played over a third of the N64’s total game library with it and have yet to find a single deal breaker. The performance is just there where it counts! The redesigned layout, traditional of modern controllers, will probably please many but it's also just comfy to use. Outside of speedrunning, I can see no reason any N64 fan from the casual to the die-hard enthusiast wouldn’t enjoy using a Brawler 64.