Saturday, September 15, 2018
The Brawler 64 started out as a Kickstarter campaign a little over a year ago on August 9th, 2017. The campaign was a success, and I myself managed to back the project. Unfortunately for me, there was an error processing the payment and I missed out on the first wave. Lucky for me though, There was an issue with the control stick and left bumper design which caused them to rework it for their second wave of releases. I finally was able to get mine in the mail and decided to put it through some rigorous testing. After all if this is to be the controller to surpass all others of the N64 alternatives we need to make sure it can survive the most rigorous of gameplay.
Some of you may know that I’m a huge Star Fox 64 fan. I've been piloting an Arwing since I was a kid and have a personal high score of 2520. Being a big fan of the on-rail shooter genre, naturally Star Fox 64 was the first game I played on the Brawler 64. The first thing I noticed when holding the controller is that it is incredibly light. The lack of heft in the controller actually felt a bit strange at first. After installing a memory card to give it a little extra weight I was ready to get started. As I began to play the face buttons felt very natural and responsive. The Z-Triggers (yes plural the Brawler 64 has one on each side) had a nice resistance to them and felt similar to a standard Xbox One controller; the bumpers however felt very spongy at first. Initially this was concerning for me when considering the longevity of the hardware.
Now getting to the actual gameplay, all things considered the controller worked well. That being said there are a few drawbacks. The first and main issue I had with the Brawler 64 was in the control stick. The control stick itself felt far too sensitive and was detrimental to gameplay. Retro Fighter chose a Gamecube style control stick for the controller. It could be because I’m so accustomed to the original N64 control stick, but I felt like a lot of the time I was over correcting my movements or going too far in one direction at times. This issue became particularly noticeable while playing Venom 2 in the Star Wolf encounter before going on to face Andross. For the life of me I simply could not keep the reticle steady to hit any of the four members of Star Wolf. I did however find hit farming (1) to be a lot easier. Once I had completed the run I had gotten a score of 2147 and considering how much the new control stick threw me off I'm satisfied with that score.
The next game I tested was Star Wars: Rogue Squadron. I have done speedruns of this game on a few occasions and decided to see if the controller would help at all. Unfortunately, I had a lot of the same issues with this game that I did while playing Star Fox. Again, the stick’s sensitivity made it difficult to aim effectively at any aerial targets and I had a much more difficult time performing wall clips in order to skip portions of certain levels. Overall, I was unimpressed with the controller on this front. I was left with a sense of frustration feeling as though there had to be a better way to do this.
I knew I had to put the controller through something a bit more taxing, and what better way to do so than Mario Party's Mini-Game island? Mario Party was notorious for mini-games that pushed your hands and more importantly your control stick to their limits; and that's just what I did! I am pleased to say that the controller held up very well and stood up to almost every mini game it came up against. Unfortunately, I had some trouble with Cast Aways, the group fishing mini-game, due to having to flick the stick to cast. Once again, the stick being more sensitive than what I am used to, I found myself overcasting more often than not. Other than that I had no issues. The rotational function of the stick worked perfectly and due to the design and shape it was much more comfortable to use than the first party controller. Unlike the original I don’t live in fear of getting blisters on my palm.
After this, I moved onto a couple platformers. Both notable for their time: Super Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie. Both games performed well with the controller. I found myself having trouble with Mario 64, but I think that has more to do with the fact that I haven't played it in years. I spent some time in Bob-omb Battlefield running and jumping around. It is notable that the accuracy that was needed to ground pound the stake holding down the chain chomp was way too difficult. I had trouble getting the right angle and kept finding myself unable to land in the right spot. As for Banjo, the controller worked flawlessly. I played through the first level, Mumbo's Mountain, and was able to complete it with no trouble. And in a pretty decent time compared to what I used to be able to do. For casual play, both of these games worked well with the controller, but Banjo made for the better experience of the two.
Then came the ultimate test, the game that I feel the controller was designed for: Super Smash Bros. The way the controller performed was nothing short of remarkable. I was able to move swiftly and decisively while eliminating my opponents. Playing single player mode on very hard difficulty was extremely satisfying. I may have been out of practice, but the sharpness of the stick allowed me to keep up with most of the computer’s opponents. I'm not very good at the original Smash but I was able to hold my own using the Brawler 64.
Last but not least, I Had to test the expansion port to be sure the Brawler 64 was the complete package. Unfortunately for me I don’t know if it was or not. I tried three different memory cards and the Game Boy expansion in the controller and none of them worked. In fairness to the Brawler 64 I did try them all on a different controller afterwards and they still refused to work so the results are questionable to say the least. I can report however that the Rumble pack did work and because of this I’m giving the port a pass and chalking it up to faulty equipment.
After all was said and done, the controller turned out a lot better than I expected. I do however have a few complaints the biggest of them being the control stick’s sensitivity. Maybe 22 years of wear and tear on almost every N64 controller in existence has simply led to me being used to a worn-down stick to but I had a lot of trouble lining up shots in Star Fox or getting the correct angle for a jump in Mario. Outside of the stick the controller performed excellently. For casual players I would certainly recommend giving it a shot. For speedrunners however, I would do some serious thinking before actually trying to apply this controller to a run. I applaud the effort Retro Fighters have put into bringing the N64 into the modern era. Despite its issues the Brawler 64 is a fantastic piece of hardware that I will continue to use for years to come.
(1) Hit farming is a technique where you use an unlocked charge shot to hit the ground while Wolf is behind you and use the splash damage to get extra points. This is easier said than done.
UPDATE: It has just now come to my attention that the Fellows at Retro Fighters are now doing another Kickstarter Campaign for Translucent Variants of the controller. You can check out the Campaign in the link below if you are interested.