Retro-Bit Tribute 64 Review: N64 Has A New King Of Controllers!

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While all the hype coming out of CES 2019 for Retro-Bit was focused on the new Sega collaboration, for very good reason, there was one product that I was eagerly awaiting more. What was this product you ask, well the Tribute 64 controller of course! The Tribute 64 is part of Retro-Bits new Platinum Series that looks to bring amazing controllers to Nintendo’s first three consoles. I am stoked they decided to start with the Nintendo 64 since it has always been one of my favorite consoles! Everything from its design, history, games and shortcomings I find absolutely fascinating. One of the biggest shortcomings of the N64 was in its controller design and finding workable replacements has been a hit and miss endeavor. With the Tribute 64, the search might finally be over!

What’s In The Box

The Tribute 64 comes packaged differently than any controller I have ever bought in my life. The box itself is actually housed in a plastic box protector like you would get to protect a console box or game. Upon removing the box protector you can understand its purpose, the box is made of fairly thin cardboard. The controller is also able to be directly handled as there are no plastic windows on any side of the packaging. This design is pretty unique and I really like it despite the thin cardboard!

Now as for the printed parts of the inner box we have the standard fair of the Tribute 64 controller name being displayed proudly along the bottom of the box as well as which platform the controller is intended for, with original port and USB variants being available. Under the controller name, there is an interesting circular design that I find myself being drawn into for some unknown reason. Just above this, we have an awesome looking Platinum Collection branding that extends out over the controller. At the top, we find the Retro-Bit logo and another circular design that extends to the top and sides of the box. The Retro-Bit logo can also be found on each side of the box and along the top accompanied by the Tribute 64 name.

Moving to the back we can once again find the circular design taking up residence in the upper half. The Retro-Bit and Tribute 64 logos take up the middle section and the description of the controller and bullet points of features take up the bottom. The most highlighted feature of both sections is the high-quality thumbstick, the make or break feature for any and all N64 controllers! The bottom of the box once again features the Retro-Bit logo as well as info regarding Retro-Bit’s website and social media handles. If you have opted to get the USB version of the Tribute 64, I found it to be an awesome touch that the grey color used throughout the box has been swapped for a darker shade to add an extra level of distinction.

Opening the inner box we can finally remove the Tribute 64 from its plastic housing. The controller cord is routed through the top of the plastic to the backside of the shell and is held out of the way by a piece of tape. The cord is also covered with another small plastic shell that keeps it from shifting in the box during transport. The PC version of the Tribute 64 also includes a very useful instruction manual that I used throughout the course of this review.

Aesthetics and Build Quality

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I want to make this known upfront that I actually have no problems with the original N64 controller design other than its thumbstick. Games were built around it and button usage was designed accordingly. That being said I know there are tons of people who absolutely abhor the original design and love controllers that have redesigned the layout into a 2 handled design which is exactly what the Tribute 64 has done. In fact, the design of the Tribute 64 will look immediately recognizable to most N64 fans as that of the Hori Pad Mini. This is because the Tribute 64 is inspired by the Hori Pad Mini but it isn’t a 1:1 reproduction of it!

The Tribute 64 sports a wider design than the Hori Pad making it more comfortable for players with larger hands like myself. The dual Z shoulder buttons are also larger. To put it in comparison, the size of the Tribute 64 is fairly close to that of the Brawler 64 but with grips that extend more vertical than horizontal which really narrow the design. It is also roughly half the size of an official N64 controller. The handles look nearly identical to those on the original controller as well! I also like how close to the original design the expansion port is on the back of the Tribute 64 is and that Retro-Bit kept its inclusion on the USB model despite it not having any use.

Buttons have a nice glossy finish just like those found on a real N64 controller which looks fantastic against the colored plastic. Buttons on the Tribute 64 also have a nice fitting which makes it so they don’t rattle if the controller is shaken, unlike a real N64 controller. Shoulder buttons are interesting on the Tribute 64 as they sink into the controller a bit when pressed on the outsides. The shoulder buttons are also not labeled which is an odd oversight when every other button is properly labeled in an authentic style. I am glad Retro-Bit didn’t decide to go with a spring design for their Z buttons however! The D-pad is much smaller than the one found on an official controller but that isn’t a bad thing and it is at least bigger than the one found on a GameCube controller. Speaking of the GameCube, the thumbstick of the Tribute 64 looks just like a larger GameCube thumbstick which is quite pleasing to me.

As for the build quality of the controller itself, I am very satisfied. Sturdy plastic is in use on each of the three available colors with Green and Blue being transparent and Red being opaque. No matter where I would press I could fell no give or bend in the shell. The Tribute 64 also passed all of my usual torture scenarios including cord swingings and rage tosses/beatings. I even made sure to deliver a couple of hits to the thumbstick to see if it could hold up and so far things have been great! I will warn those of you out there now who prefer a heavy controller, the Tribute 64 is pretty light so throw in a Rumble Pak if you need that extra heft.

Gameplay

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about jumping into gameplay with the Tribute 64. I have gone through far too many N64 controllers over the last 23 year and finding replacements has become something of a dread. For whatever reason getting the thumbstick and buttons right seems to be a task so few are able to accomplish. Thankfully, taking my first steps in GoldenEye 007 removed all concern and left it with a sense of amazement. GoldenEye has never felt this good to play. Aiming is so smooth and responsive it feels almost as if I am playing Halo. GameCube style thumbsticks are typically defined by their over-sensitivity, especially from my experience with GoldenEye, that it makes the game almost unplayable. That just isn’t the case here with the Tribute 64!

I was left so baffled by the whole experience I decided to load up the N64 Controller Test Program by Sanni just to see what was going on. An original N64 controller in perfect shape has an analog range of roughly 85 in each direction with a distinct almost square gating. For comparison sake, my slightly worn down N64 controller has increased range on 3 axis while losing range on another due to wear. GameCube style replacement sticks for original controllers increase the analog range to ~104 in each direction but replace the gate with a perfect square. This gating is what typically results in the over-sensitive nature that has come to define these types of replacement sticks as the diagonal movement has far more range than it is meant to. For the Tribute 64 analog range has been pushed up to an insane ~111 on each axis! Despite this extreme sensitivity, which somehow doesn’t feel as high as it is, the gate of the Tribute 64 does keep diagonal movement in check which does a lot for the overall feel.

After how well GoldenEye handled I couldn’t wait to throw the Tribute 64 up against more games! Flight games like Star Fox 64 and Rogue Squadron handled perfectly and I dare say, aiming on Rogue Squadron was even more precise than what I am used to. Every button press and action was completely on point and even my earlier misgiving about the shoulder buttons quickly faded. Throwing in Wave Race 64 was also met with another round of solid gameplay that I couldn’t have been more pleased with. Spin attacks in Ocarina of Time were also easy to pull off compared to my GameCube stick controller. Super Mario 64 players will also be pleased to know that the game handles amazingly and I even had a friend attempt speed run tricks which were pulled off easily. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to record that expert gameplay so for those of you who watch my video review, sorry to make you all endure my casual filth. Now, this wouldn’t be one of my reviews if I didn’t throw in Command & Conquer so guess what, it plays great!

Now all of these examples have been from games that utilize the thumbstick, which I can pretty much say rocks at this point, but what about D-pad only games? Well, my N64 wrestling game fans, it went very well! Now I know due to my larger hand size the comfort of playing D-pad games was fine, but for users with smaller hands your results may vary. Every WWF and WCW game I own was perfectly playable and controllable. Kirby 64 also handled like a champ. I will also only play Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater with a D-pad so the responsiveness was top notch. The Tribute 64 also made for a good controller in Pokemon Stadium, well mostly. Like every 3rd-party controller in existence, the Tribute 64 can’t support the Transfer Pak because Nintendo still holds the black magic to make it work a secret. I can confirm that Rumble Paks and Memory Paks are fully supported!

USB Version

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I hope by now I have gotten across that the Tribute 64 is a well-designed controller for the Nintendo 64, but what about that USB version I mentioned earlier? It is the exact same high-quality design as the one found on the Nintendo 64 but, there are some things I need to mention. First off the USB Tribute 64 is compatible with the Nintendo Switch, PC and PS3. This is pretty awesome and great for games that don’t require a second analog stick. Playing Smash Ultimate was a total treat and throwback to the original Smash Bros. on N64 (which also played like a charm, by the way). I was also able to enjoy Final Fantasy X HD and various PS1 classics on PS3 like Mega Man X4.

Unfortunately, if the game you are playing isn’t fairly simple, or doesn’t allow you to remap buttons, you might get a little confused by the default mappings the Tribute 64 provides. A and B retain their use with C Left becoming Y and C Down becoming X. Needless to say, this is more than a little backward for even the most dextrous controller user. C Right is assigned to Start and C Up is Select with the Start button becoming a Guide button. Shoulder buttons assume the typical R/R2 and L/L2 functions. The D-Pad also keeps its usual function. While it is awesome to have functionality with the Switch and PS3, keep these mappings in mind and know that the use really is going to be limited.

Now let’s talk about PC functionality; this is where the Tribute 64 gets a little more exciting. Utilizing reWASD or similar Xinput button mappers, the functionality of the Tribute 64 becomes limitless! Want to play the original Turok on PC just like it played on the real hardware? You can! Want the best N64 controller to use on an N64 emulator ever? You have it now! Best yet, want to prove to the world that the N64 controller can be used for modern shooters even though it lacks a second analog stick? Through the use of the Xbox App on Windows 10 you can do just that! Seriously, this might be my favorite way to play Halo now, just because of how outlandish it really is! Through the combination of Direct Input and Xinput modes and button mapping, you can really do anything with the Tribute 64 on PC!

What It Could Do Better

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When it comes to complaints with the Tribute 64, I have virtually none for the actual N64 version of the controller. Some users might find the D-pad placement uncomfortable if they have smaller hands. Speedrunners might also find the analog stick still too imprecise for some tricks, but for the vast majority of N64 fans out there this is the best it gets! Now for the USB version of the Tribute 64, I am really sad about the default button mappings for PS3 and Switch. I know there isn’t much that could have been done differently to ensure maximum compatibility, but it does make some things awkward to play and most things can’t be played due to the lacking thumbstick.

Verdict

Despite the odds, Retro-Bit has once again hit a homerun with the Tribute 64! Both N64 and USB variants handle exceptionally well and provide both accuracy and responsiveness. Sure the USB version might be more limited on the Switch and PS3, but I am sure there are going to be tons of Smash fans that can’t wait to play the game just like the original! As for us N64 diehards still playing it 23 years later, no replacement N64 controller or thumbstick feels this good for this price. For every N64 fan out there who has been searching for the best replacement controller: here it is, the search is over!

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