Over the past three decades console game controllers have evolved from utilitarian rectangles to sleek works of ergonomic engineering art. Hyperkin’s retro-styled X91 wired controller for Xbox One and PC is what would have happened if that evolution had taken a less comfortable turn.
The X91 marries the wide, short and shallow form factor of classics like Nintendo’s Super Nintendo game pad with modern advances like analog sticks, duel shoulder buttons, exceedingly bright LEDs and grips. Imagine someone took an Xbox One controller, affixed a wire and then smushed it between their hands as if it were clay.
Then stop imagining it, because I have a picture.
It’s a cool concept, and one that might work fine for someone with small-ish hands. I do not have smallish hands. I have badly-drawn cartoon hands.
Despite its low profile, Hyperkin has outfitted the X91 with all of the same bits you get on a standard Xbox One controller. Shoulder buttons, triggers, analog sticks, buttons, a directional pad and a stylized X in a circle—if you are looking for these things, the X91 has them. It’s an officially licensed Xbox One controller, in case you were worried. It retails for $29.99, which is a nice price point.
Since it arrived back in early February I’ve been using the X91 as my go-to PC controller, as well as tagging it in whenever my normal Xbox One controller bleeds its batteries dry (one day I will by a rechargeable battery pack, but not today.)
One thing I must say about the form factor before I get into what I liked and whatnot, is that in the month and a half I’ve been using the X91, there’s never been a time where I have picked it up without some part of my mind acknowledging that it feels weird. It never really stops.
It’s A Sturdy Little Thing: Most of my Hyperkin experience comes from the company’s retro consoles and portables, which are lovely and largely functional devices that feel like children’s toys compared to the consoles they emulate. I was worried the X91 would have a similar feel. I worried over nothing. This is a solid piece of gaming hardware. If it didn’t say “Hyperkin” on the front and look so damn strange, I might confuse it with a first party offering.
The Good Controls: The analog sticks on the X91 are nice and silky-smooth, and I really like the play on the flat-topped X-A-B-Y buttons with the rounded edges.
It’s Small: The slender profile of the X91 means that, even with a wire savagely wrapped around it instead of being neatly twist-tied, it fits better in a bag than a standard Xbox One-style controller. It’s a nice travel companion.
The Bad Controls: The directional pad isn’t great, but the biggest victim of the X91's slimming down is the shoulder buttons and triggers.
The buttons are shallow without a lot of play. The triggers are a little too resistance, which was likely done to compensate for their short travel distance. The triggers and buttons are situated too close for comfort, especially in a game like Nier: Automata on PC, where the player has to utilize shoulder and trigger buttons simultaneously.
Not Much Of A Grip: Instead of comfortable hand grips, the stunted X91 has a pair of underside bumps that barely accommodate a finger resting on either side. This is why I never felt completely comfortable with the controller.
That Fucking LED: Holy hell that’s a bright light square in the middle of the controller face. Rather than lightig up the Xbox gem, the X91 uses a super-bright white LED beneath it to indicate the controller is active. Every time I look down at my hands I am blinded. Do not look directly into the X91 controller.
I love that Hyperkin is trying to do something new (and also old) in a the Xbox One controller space instead of just adding bells and whistles to the same old shape. Stylistically the X91 controller is like something out of an alternate timeline where Nintendo never faced any serious competition (The Princess In The Other Castle, not coming soon from Amazon Studios.)
Sometimes changing things up works. Sometimes it doesn’t. The Hyperkin X91 retro gaming controller falls somewhere in-between.