Review: Retro-Bit NES Power Stick

Multiple ways to play

When I first opened the Power Stick by Retro-Bit, nostalgic memories came flooding back. Images from my childhood of playing games in front of the glow of the television screen in the middle of the night cuddled up under a blanket, and tossing my NES Advantage joystick across the room because I thought it was complete and utter rubbish and I completely hated it back then. Why the heck would I want to use a clunky joystick instead of a nice, comfortable controller? I liked the arcade, but had no desire to bring the experience home necessarily. 

That said, I wasn’t all too confident in my own ability to enjoy the Power Stick by Retro-Bit for what it was; a rough approximation of an old device fondly remembered by some nostalgic fans. I still have some gripes about the controller after spending a good amount of time with it but now feel there is a good reason to have an arcade stick for NES in my library, and this is due mainly to the overall customizability of the stick — what it is capable of doing rather than what it was actually designed to do as an out-of-the-box product.

We are no longer in the eighties. These sorts of accessories are not an afterthought anymore, and that is plainly obvious here due to a couple of key design principles. First of all, the stick is easy to disassemble without causing significant damage to anything aesthetically or otherwise, though it will require removing screws, rubber feet, and possibly voiding warranty. Second and critical to the first point, it has parts that are easily replaceable.

Everything here is tied to nice clicky micro-switches meaning this is a durable device that will long outlast the comparatively fragile rubber contacts used in most NES controllers back in the day, including the NES Advantage. The Power Stick is far more typical of what you would find in a modern fight stick, though the particular bits Retro-Bit chose to use are just okay. The buttons feel sticky, and the stick itself feels cheap. But a helpful 4/8 restrictor gate built into the controller that can be easily adjusted gives this a huge advantage over any other arcade stick device I have used on this console, especially if you are into arcade classics such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.

What’s the difference? Many older arcade games such as Pac-Man are almost impossible to play properly due to being isolated to four directions, and most arcade sticks just not being specifically designed or configured to deal with that. On the NES especially, you will find a broad mix of both 4- and 8-directional games, and it is very apparent when this limitation comes into play. By default the Power Stick, like most devices, is set to an 8-way square gate configuration, which is best suited to titles such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Arcade that have you moving diagonally a lot. Bet when trying to go around tight corners in Ms. Pac-Man, or climb ladders in Burger Time, you might find that this becomes more difficult thanks to the games just not responding well unless the stick is shifted perfectly in one of four directions, which is made possible when the gate is adjusted to the 4-way diamond configuration.

How often you are going to want to crack your stick open and fiddle with this depends entirely on your available library and what sorts of games you enjoy playing, but the tremendous improvement in 4-way stick movement for these older arcade classics makes using an arcade stick a tremendous advantage over a traditional D-pad, which can have similar issues for some people. So I put most of my mileage on the stick during testing on this setup, though I did play with it both ways and found that it worked great for any game — as long as you made the necessary change first.

Another personal gripe is the use of a removable ball on the top of the stick, which feels loose and gets worse with a very short period of continued gameplay. I ended up removing it entirely, holding the base of the stick, and found it to be instantly more responsive and less clunky. I have not removed the original buttons, nor have I swapped the stick out entirely, but nothing suggests that this would be difficult to do. So if you wanted a truly custom NES stick, this is something of a beginner modder’s paradise.

And that’s just the problem, in a way. As a standalone product, it is missing the turbo feature of the original NES Advantage, is made of lighter material, and doesn’t really do anything special. My own Power Stick is like a bizarre Frankenstein monster, but I have never played a better game of console Pac-Man before. I can’t imagine going back to a controller in fact, but I feel like the device itself is only half way there, and I had to tinker with it a bunch to get it working to my liking. It makes me imagine a DIY joystick product where you just get a box and a bunch of components with an easy-to-open case and the ability to customize the controller to your liking. But that is clearly not the explicit intention here, and feels more incidental than anything.

I’d say this is an accessory for enthusiasts and the mod curious, but will be little more than a novelty or curiosity for most other people. It doesn’t do any one particular thing very well, and its base components leave a lot to be desired. If you are a weirdo like me who plays Pac-Man three nights a week and can get scores into the hundred-thousand-point mark, it’s something of a godsend once it has been torn apart and rebuilt from the ground up. For everyone else, it will probably occupy the same space on most collectors’ shelves as the NES Advantage; taking up space, something pretty to look at and show off to a friend every once in awhile. For me, it has become a critical part of my NES hobby, but one that could be greatly improved on if the ability to configure it was more accessible and apparent.

[This review is based on a retail build provided by the manufacturer.]

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Joel Peterson
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