If you’re new to RetroPie, you likely picked up some cheap Nintendo-style gamepads. They’re great for starting out, but you’re better off using something superior in the long run. Nothing is better than the PS3’s Sixaxis controller.
You can use a newer controller with RetroPie, like the DualShock 4 or the Xbox One controller. Both are great choices, perhaps the best if you’re aiming for the most modern option. But they’re overkill for playing vintage video games, not to mention more expensive. The PS3’s Sixaxis controller, on the other hand, is a solid compromise for a number of reasons.
The Lack of Vibration Feedback Has Its Perks
Contrary to what you’d assume, the Sixaxis doesn’t sport vibration feedback. The PlayStation 3 launched in 2006 without vibration feedback in the controller, which Sony said would interfere with the controller’s new motion-sensing features. It’s speculated, however, that the omission had something to do with Sony’s ongoing legal battle with Immersion.
This makes the Sixaxis controller the only wireless PlayStation controller that doesn’t include vibration feedback, which you likely don’t need anyway because most of the classic games you want to play were made long before vibration feedback even existed.
The lack of vibration motors means a lighter controller, which, if you’re going after a realistic experience, makes the controller feel more like an older gamepad from yesteryear. And since you won’t need the vibration feedback, the vibration motors would just add literal dead weight.
Plus, the lack of motors means fewer parts that can break and fewer components sucking power from the battery—you can get about five more hours out of the battery compared to the rumble-equipped DualShock 3. In this day and age, every hour of battery life counts.
It Connects Directly Over Bluetooth
Gaming with wires just feels. . . wrong. If you’re playing classic games from the ’80s and ’90s, I understand wanting to keep the experience realistic and pure, but I draw the line at wired controllers every time. They’re cumbersome, and the cord is never long enough to reach the couch.
The Sixaxis, like many modern controllers, is equipped with Bluetooth and connects directly to your Raspberry Pi, as long as you have a Pi 3, Pi 4, or Pi Zero W. You’ll need to enable a driver within the RetroPie settings, but overall, setting up the controller is a trivial affair.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the elephant in the room, though: Bluetooth can be. . . finicky. Just do a Google search for “retropie ps3 controller” and you’ll come across pages of results showing RetroPie users who just can’t seem to connect their PS3 controllers to their Raspberry Pi. Personally, I didn’t have any issues getting my Sixaxis gamepad up and running, but technology is fickle. If all else fails, you can plug it directly into your Raspberry Pi—albeit using an ancient miniUSB cable, which is also how the controller is charged—and it should recognize it instantly during the gamepad setup process. Keep all this in mind as you dive into the wonderful world of wireless retro gaming.
Used Sixaxis Controllers Are Cheap
RetroPie is extremely popular due to its relative ease of creating an all-in-one retro gaming experience, but everyone would be lying if they said it wasn’t truly because of the low cost of entry. You can buy everything you need for under $100, and RetroPie is free to use. Tack on all the classic games your heart desires, and you’ve got yourself quite the deal.
Which is why it doesn’t really make sense to buy a pair of new DualShock 4 controllers that cost as much as your entire RetroPie setup. If price is the name of the game, the Sixaxis provides a modern gamepad experience at a fraction of the cost.
They’re slightly difficult to find, since Sony produced them only for a year or two, but I ended up snagging a used Sixaxis controller on eBay for just $12, which is a steal for any kind of controller, period. And if you know how to fix broken controllers that sell for pennies on the dollar, all the more power to you.
Be careful of fakes, though, as counterfeit PS3 controllers run rampant on eBay and other online marketplaces, and I’ve been personally burned by this before. Worse yet, it’s difficult to spot a fake without examining it somewhat closely, but there are telltale signs, including paying close attention to the model number.
Granted, fake ones still work, but I had a hell of a time trying to connect mine to my Raspberry Pi through RetroPie—use a fake PS3 controller at your own risk.
It’s an All-Around Great Controller
At the end of the day, Sony knocks it out of the park with its PlayStation controllers, and all generations—from the first PlayStation controller to the DualShock 4—are fantastic. They’re comfortable to hold, the triggers are fluid, all the buttons feel great, and the joysticks are sturdy and smooth (although they’re even better with some performance thumbsticks).
But the Sixaxis is the sweet spot for retro gaming. You get the comfort and great button response you desire from a modern controller but built in a basic package that reminds you of simpler times.