Back in the day, you didn’t want to be the player stuck with the janky third-party controller. As recently as the days of the PS2 and original Xbox, third-party hardware manufacturers eked out a living making slightly off-brand, less expensive versions of trademark console game pads. A few were successful upgrades, such as a couple of Nubytech’s arcade sticks, but most were unresponsive, poorly-designed, or just flat-out didn’t work.
You can’t really get away with that anymore, however, and modern third-party controllers are a much safer proposition for the consumer. Even Madcatz, which made a few nightmares in the 2000s (I still have an old Madcatz Xbox controller that feels like it was designed as a tool for aversion therapy), has mostly managed to rebrand and offer a few quality products.
PowerA, based in Woodinville, Wash., is a small third-party hardware manufacturer, owned by Bensussen Deutsch & Associates, that makes a variety of controllers, batteries, and recharging docks for the video game console market. It first got on the national radar in 2012 with the MOGA controller, an adaptive controller for mobile gaming.
PowerA sent over its newest product, a Princess Zelda-branded Enhanced Wireless Controller for the Switch (US$49.99), for us to test out. It’s the latest in PowerA’s line of branded controllers for the Switch, which offer a less expensive option to Nintendo’s Pro controller (about $20 less than a Pro or JoyCon’s standard retail price) and offer a couple of extra features, in addition to a variety of colorful designs.
The Princess Zelda controller, available today, doesn’t have the built-in rumble capability of the Pro, which makes it considerably lighter. It shares the Pro’s Bluetooth connection and motion controls, and takes a pair of AA batteries with a possible 20 hours of operational life. What it does offer, aside from the design of Zelda across its face, is a pair of programmable buttons on the handles, around where a typical player’s ring fingers would be.
In play, it feels, but isn’t fragile. There’s a certain weight to a Pro controller, mostly due to the rumble pack, which the PowerA controller doesn’t have. That makes it surprisingly light, which is comfortable for longer play sessions. The sticks and buttons are nice and responsive, and even the D-pad has a nice snap to it. After a few evenings of heated Smash Brothers Ultimate play, I felt like the controller was well-suited to what I was asking from it.
The programmable buttons let you re-assign the standard buttons one at a time, which you can clear and re-assign easily. It’s useful both as a customization and an accessibility option, so you can set a command that would otherwise be awkward to a finger and that you ordinarily wouldn’t be using at all. (Looking at you, any game ever that binds “crouch” to pushing in the left stick.) It does take some getting used to, as I found it was easy to hit the extra buttons during frantic moments (read: flailing at my buttons during Classic Smash), but once your muscle memory adapts, I could see them as an asset.
It does feel backwards in 2019 to have any video game peripheral without built-in rechargeable batteries. The Xbox One’s standard controller does the same thing, which feels just as goofy there. While some of PowerA’s literature tries to spin the battery port as a positive — after all, it means you don’t have to pitch the whole unit if the battery pack fails — it still means you have to go buy AAs at a store, like some kind of medieval peasant. (Or, more likely, look for one of several recharging options like the ones that PowerA just so happens to offer. How convenient.)
You do have to figure that additional expense for batteries into the PowerA Enhanced Wireless Controller, but it doesn’t handle like a shovelware alternative product. Head to head, it’s about as responsive and ergonomic as the original Pro, with a lighter feel. The extra buttons don’t feel like a must-have to me, but I could see them coming in handy for certain games or players. If you’re looking to kit out your living room with a couple of extra actual controllers, so your Smash party doesn’t have to fight over who’s stuck with a JoyCon, PowerA’s lineup is an affordable wireless local option.