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Ah, the slick ergonomics of a good GameCube controller. A design so eternally popular that Nintendo themselves have even reconstructed its form as much as 15 years after the console's original release. The GC controller is the Smash competitor's #1 utility almost universally across the board, and it's become accepted as the definitive way to Smash since the inception of Melee's competitive scene. In short: people love this alien apparatus of a controller, and not without good reason. Presented before us is a 3rd party offering from Exlene which emulates the basic form, while promising additional functionality for a cool $40, but can the brand hold a proper candle to Nintendo's own OG controller? What about other contemporaries on the market today? I'd like to find out.
What we have here is Exlene's offering of a GameCube-shaped controller for the Switch and PC which features the full swathe of buttonage that one would find on any modern controller, as well as gyroscopic support to bring it on functional par with the Switch's Pro controller (minus NFC support). Because I'm sure there are a vast majority of you whose hands are so finely tuned to the form of the original GameCube controller and all its affixed apparatuses, I'll start by listing every pedantic difference I could find between this Exlene controller and my well-used silver OG controller.
Well, the first striking difference would need to be in the Exlene's afore-mentioned extra buttons. To list them, this controller has a second Z button above the left trigger, the two analogue sticks click in for RS and LS buttons, and there are +, -, home, capture, and turbo buttons right in the center where previously only start lay.
The C-stick now has a significantly wider top, now with overhanging edges and an adjusted range of motion that now puts it on par with the left stick.
This is actually a fairly nice, albeit slight change, as it makes the controller much easier to use with games other than Smash, which require use of the right stick as the camera.
As for the left stick, it's slightly more stiff than my old GameCube's, though that much is to be expected. What I didn't necessarily expect was to find that the internal dead-zone on the controller is 2 to 3 times that of the original GameCube controller's. As most know, the OG GC is a very snappy and responsive controller, and it already has a fairly tight dead-zone as it is. Even doubling this radius still keeps the Exlene's dead-zone relatively small, especially when compared to many of the dead-zones baked into most modern console games.
Mass-wise, the Exlene wireless controller and the OG GameCube's wired affair are very similar, with the Exlene coming in at around 184g to the GC's ~202g. Not too heavy and not too light, those seeking to adjust freely between the two should find no issues whatsoever, especially considering their two molds are, as far as I've been able to tell, identical.
The face buttons do take slightly more pressure to actuate than the face buttons on my old silver controller, but that could likely be down to the years of wear put on the latter. Even still, this slight difference was unnoticeable during the heat of gameplay, so I don't anticipate it being any sort of problem for anyone at all. Functionally, the face buttons work as they always have, and are duly responsive. In fact, I'd say that I prefer the Exlene's d-pad to Ninty's own on the GameCube, though I suppose that isn't a bar set terribly high. Still, Exlene's efforts have made a D-pad that, while still mushy and ill-suited to 2-D platformers, is miles more definite than the D-pad on my own OG controller. Then again, this may be down to variance of individual controllers, and comparative results may vary.
The Exlene seems to have non-variable rumble, unlike the GameCube controller/pro controller/joycons, meaning that whenever it reads a rumble signal, it seemingly goes from zero to EARTHQUAKE IN YOUR HANDS. It's not something that impedes gameplay, but it's somewhat distracting to have the controller blast the max load of hot rumble into your palms every time Ganondorf takes a step in Smash Ultimate.
Now there is something that threw me for a bit of a loop upon first using the controller, and those would be the analogue triggers. At first touch, or playing exclusively in Smash Ultimate on the Switch, one could be completely forgiven for assuming that the triggers are digital. Instead of having a large travel distance along a spring, like those of the original GameCube, these triggers bottom out almost immediately, and actually register variable degrees of analogue input based entirely on pressure sensitivity. If one has ever played a PS3 game using the pressure-sensitive functionality of the face buttons, this feels remarkably similar.
On the one hand, this is a boon. Smash players have been using plug inserts to shorten the travel distance of their analogue triggers for years, as have I, and I enjoy them very much. In Smash Ultimate, which is programmed to accept analogue trigger inputs and convert them to digital immediately, the Exlene triggers' short travel makes for a very nice experience, as shields/grabs will respond immediately at the lowest pressure. On the other hand, while the triggers bottom out early, they won't reach max analogue value until you really mash them in with a hefty deal of force, which causes complications when trying to play any Switch game other than Smash. In Breath of the Wild, for instance, drawing the bow requires maxing out the value on the right trigger by applying an uncomfortable amount of force to it, and should that force lessen even slightly, the arrow will be launched. Now, the GameCube's button layout is already fairly non-conducive to playing the vast majority of Switch games, but this is another large hurdle to the process.
This controller is built to be compatible with both Switch and PC, so how does it fare on the first? Well, while the initial setup has a slight trick to it, in that it first must be connected to the USB slot on the dock via the included USB-C cable while the console is running, after that the controller should be recognized as a Pro controller wirelessly every boot following. The controller can be used while connected to the dock, if preferred, however the option "Pro Controller Wired Communication" must be enabled first in the system settings of the Switch.
In Smash, aside from the slightly broadened dead-zone on the left stick, everything feels as it does on the GameCube's controller. Analogue support on Smash Ultimate means that the shoulder buttons are snappy and responsive, there's not a touch of flickback on any of the sticks, and every button activates just as soon as the physical feedback would indicate. It's a genuinely decent Smash controller, I can't lie, and all the techs I could think to pull with my typical controller were possible here. Now, the lengthened dead-zone certainly has the possibility to make things like pivoting more difficult for some, but I was able to adjust with nominal effort, and things began to flow easily.
When it comes to the Switch, however, there is one pitfall that affects every bluetooth controller I've ever tried universally. When too many Joycons are connected to the Switch at once and any bluetooth controller is connected in addition (while 3+ pairs of joycons are connected, typically) it will result in some unplayable levels of input lag for the bluetooth controller. To reiterate, this is a problem I've encountered with every bluetooth controller used with the Switch (both of my Switches), and not an issue unique to the Exlene. What this means is that while the Exlene is suited well for 1v1 play, using it as an extra controller for party play is completely out the window unless you want to put up with an incredibly compromised experience. There exist 2 versions of this wireless controller, one which is bluetooth and one which uses a 2.4 GHz connection, but I'm unfortunately only able to test the bluetooth version. This issue may not exist for the 2.4 GHz variant.
While Exlene's product is a surprisingly excellent Smash controller, as mentioned before, it doesn't work so well for just about any other game on the Switch. Yonder elder GameCube layout is sadly just too unique to fit most games in the Switch's library, and even if you were to find a game using a compatible button layout (certainly not one that requires pressing the B and Y buttons in quick succession), the awkwardness of having to smash the analogue triggers down extra firmly just to register a digital press is likely to make any efforts not worth it. In that sense, this is very much a "Smash controller", and not exactly a "pro controller substitute", even if it's technically possible to substitute the two.
Connecting to the Switch isn't the only thing the Exlene can do, as it has two different ways to connect to a PC, in X-input and D-input modes.
Firstly, to connect to the PC as X-input, all that needs to be done is plug in the controller via the included USB-C cable to any standard USB port in one's computer, and poof, X-input. You'll know it works if the leftmost and rightmost player LEDs are both lit at the same time. This makes it so that the controller registers as an Xbox 360 controller on your PC, and is meant to be compatible with programs which use X-input. Steam, for example, allows the controller to be configured fully in this state through its general controller settings, and in theory, the controller will work with any game you throw at it. Again I ran into the same issue as before, where the GameCube controller's layout was so unique that it was difficult trying to find a game on Steam that would benefit at all from the comparatively strange button configuration, though Hat in Time was one which I thought worked well enough. Either way, it works in Steam if that's something you'd like.
In order to pair the controller in D-input mode, the instructions say to hold home+X on the controller for a full second after it's first been paired in X-input mode once before. I ended up running into a myriad of problems that I just couldn't seem to work around at all when trying this, and as it turns out, the instructions aren't exactly... how do we say, "correct?" What needs to happen for PC connection is to hold home+Y on the controller when it's fully off instead of X, which will allow the controller to pair via bluetooth as a gamepad. This pairs correctly, but every time I wanted to re-pair the controller, I first needed to go into my bluetooth settings, delete the old pairing, then re-search for the controller to pair it once more. It's more of a hassle than most other controllers, in that sense.
With most Steam games being what I personally believe to be a poor fit for this controller, surely the one thing you can count on to fit it is GameCube games, right? To that end, I'd say that the best place for a GameCube controller to shine on PC is in the ever-popular GC/Wii emulator itself: Dolphin. Unfortunately... this controller has unique problems in both X and D-input modes which make it unplayable with most legacy builds of Dolphin. Testing builds 5.0-5055, 5.0-2750, and the Project M netplay build: Ishiiruka FM 5.8.7 BETA, I ran into insurmountable roadblocks in each. Whenever connected via X-input, every button was able to be recognized by the emulator except for the A, X, and Y buttons, obviously making the controller unusable in that mode. D-input fared more poorly in PM's netplay build, failing to recognize any inputs at all, however in build 5.0-5055, all inputs could be mapped, though the triggers lost their analogue functionality completely.
The current build as of testing things (5.0-10325), seems to handle configuring the entirety of both input modes perfectly fine, which is definitely a boon, however for those wishing to play Project M via netplay with others, or really use any kind of build-specific netplay, this is decidedly not the controller to be doing it with. Even so, this current build has some odd compatibility issues with some of Melee's quality of life hacks that I was using with previous builds, which makes it non-ideal for even non-netplay Melee. Additionally, while the dead-zone shift in Smash Ultimate didn't affect me as much, I find it significantly more noticable in Melee, for whatever reason.
(Exlene controller fully mapped in build 5.0-10325 of Dolphin)
There are two notable products on the market which, to me, serve very similar functions that it may bear comparing the Exlene against. Firstly, a product I've not been able to test directly: the PowerA gamecube controller. This controller features a similar button layout as the Exlene, though the Exlene features both rumble and *audible gasp* an internal rechargeable battery, with a pretty lengthy battery life as well. Unfortunately, not owning a PowerA controller myself, I can't bring any further comparison than the surface level. I do, however, own and regularly use a Gbros. adapter by 8bitdo, and I feel there are some pertinent comparisons to be made between the two.
The Gbros adapter is a similar-ish product, serving similar goals of connecting a GameCube controller to both Switch and PC. The adapter itself is used alongside an original GameCube/Wii controller pad, so it won't ever support the full button spectrum that the Exlene covers. Additionally, the adapter does unfortunately lack an internal rechargeable battery, so the Exlene has it beat out there. Throughout all of my use and testing, though, it's performed perfectly in all builds of Dolphin, without exception. Whenever I hop into Project M to do netplay online, it's this alongside my silver GC controller that I use, considering the Exlene cannot be used with that specific build of Dolphin.
Because of the tighter dead-zone on the OG GameCube controller, the smoother rumble support, as well as the lack of compatibility issues with many Dolphin builds, I'd say I prefer the Gbros. adapter + OG GC controller in just about every situation, but that's not to discount the Exlene's value. While I'd not found a specific use for the Exlene's full romp of buttons, it's not beyond the imagination to assume that it'll fit somebody's needs perfectly. In the end, the Exlene is a genuinely competent Smash controller, not particularly ideal for Melee, but very far above unusable. When playing Smash Ultimate in particular, I don't feel significantly gimped or impaired in the least using the Exlene, and that's a very good thing. Amusingly, this Exlene is significantly better than the GameCube Smash-edition reprint that Nintendo themselves put out. Ninty's own offering had stick drift and flickback so terrible I actually had to return the overpriced thing. So good on you, Exlene, you firmly beat out modern Nintendo's quality control on their own controller design.
It's a genuinely good controller, tactile and responsive. The larger than normal dead-zone on the sticks isn't something I'm particularly fond of, the PC compatibility issues greatly limit its functionality, and the way they made the triggers pressure sensitive instead of having analogue based on travel distance has its ups and downs, but in the end, one can Smash very proficiently on a controller like this. Shelled identically to the original GC controller, with all the trappings of a modern controller and an improved right stick to boot, this was actually a surprisingly positive experience. If the Exlene has what you need, feel confident that you're getting a product of solid quality and proper functionality, just be wary of all its limitations when it comes to the PC.