CRKD Neo S Controller Review – Style Over Substance

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CRKD, the team behind last year’s excellent Nitro Deck grip for the Nintendo Switch, have entered the controller market with a fashionable new pad, the NEO S.

We often overlook our controllers, the literal connection between player and the world inside of the TV screen. A good controller should bridge that gap seamlessly, allowing players to become fully emersed in their gaming experience without a second thought about what’s within their hands.

The NEO S enters a market brimming with third party options looking to deliver an experience that takes gamers beyond the act of play. At £50/$60 and sporting an host of customisation options, can creating a controller focused on user experience away from games while embracing retro ergonomics really work for the better?

Pretty Unwieldly

The NEO S comes in a range of fun colours that will delight collectors of niche controllers, which is made even easier thanks to the well-considered app. Unfortunately, the ergonomics on offer here fail to elevate the the NEO S beyond an occasional controller that’s only suited for retro games, despite it’s extensive modern control customisation options.

You Only Get To Make One

NEO S Controller packaging hanging from a hook

I know you’re here for my thoughts on the NEO S controller, but it would be remiss of me to omit my experience of actually receiving one of these controllers in the post.

The NEO S makes an excellent first impression thanks to its clean artwork and novel fabric hang-tab. Sliding the cardboard sleeve away reveals the premium looking box containing the NEO S itself. I’m pleased to see CRKD embrace sustainable cardboard packaging with only the smallest ring of plastic used to anchor the aforementioned hang-tab and a toggle for the included carry bag.

Alongside the controller are the usual printed materials (admittedly not always a given in this day and age) and CRKD branded USB-C cable for charging and connecting your new pad.

Shipping the controller within the carry bag grants a nice final reveal as you slip the controller from its polyester purse and into your hands. I’m quite taken with the overall aesthetic of the NEO S, with its compact form factor harbouring a retro sensibility and transporting me back to the rectangular pads of the NES and the Master System, albeit with softly rounded extremities.

Stylish With A Capital S

NEO S Controller on a shelf with other gaming merchandise

CRKD sent us the Retro Gold Edition for our review, perhaps anticipating we’d appreciate a device that resembles the Famicon controllers with it’s burgundy and gold colour scheme. It is a striking looking thing, and one that would definitely inspire conversations if left on view when hosting house guests.

The burgundy outer shell wraps around the rear of the controller with patterned, textured grips to provide extra purchase when held. I saw the full range of designs during my recent trip to Insomnia Gaming Festival in Birmingham, and each unit is a thing of beauty in it’s own way. Whether you like the three modern art editions from artist POPeArt or want a transparent controller that reminds you of those colourful Apple computers you used during your college days, there’s likely a NEO S to suit.

Getting To Grips

NEO S used to play Cuphead on PC

In terms of inputs, the NEO S houses the standard array of controls you’d expect from a controller in 2024. The front face packs a lot of functionality into a small area, with offset Hall Effect sticks, a d-pad, four action buttons and the essential home, plus, minus and capture buttons.

The top of the NEO S houses the USB-C charging and connection port along with two bumpers and the Hall Effect triggers, while the rear has two programmable back buttons, the program button and a RFID Touchpoint for app integration. Finally, the underside features a 3.5mm headset jack for audio and an array of charging contacts.

Literally the first thing I noticed before even powering on the NEO S is the spacing between the four action buttons. The buttons themselves are of a decent size and considerably easier to press than the tiddly X, Y, B and A buttons of the Switch’s Joy-Cons, but while the buttons are scaled up, the spacing between them is exceptionally narrow, with my thumb effectively nudging the Y button whenever I pressed B.

Action buttons on the NEO S

During my initial tests on PC playing Cuphead, the close proximity between the face buttons repeatedly caused me to make unintentional inputs. Sceptics may suggest that I’m bad at Cuphead and using the NEO S as a scapegoat, however my Platinum trophy for the PS4 version would argue otherwise.

Mitigating the issue requires me to hold the controller in an unnatural way, with my thumb craned backwards towards my wrist, enabling just the very tip of my thumb to make contact with the action buttons. It’s a workaround for sure, but will also inevitably lead to hand cramps during prolonged play sessions. A good controller should feel like an extension of your own body, allowing your mind to focus on what’s on screen and less about the finger gymnastics required to hold the thing.

NEO S Controller headphone jack

The NEO S isn’t designed with ergonomics first, that’s clear from the off, but I’m genuinely surprised at how cumbersome the controller feels in my hands. I had to make a choice between gripping the NEO S securely and running the risk of smushing buttons unintentionally, or go for a loose grip with slightly better precision but the potential for the pad to slip from my hands entirely. It’s not a choice I want to consider while playing.

Stick To Retro

NEO S Controller faceplate

Some of my ergonomic woes arise from the off-set position of the sticks. From my thorough testing across a range of games on PC, Switch and Mobile, I found myself enjoying my NEO S experience more when playing retro titles. It makes sense. This is a retro-inspired controller after all. It’s perplexing then that CRKD would opt to favour the off-set analogue stick positions, a configuration better suited to modern titles.

The NEO S is made for retro games, with classic Mario and R-Type games quickly becoming the standouts during my tests. Swapping the left stick and the d-pad makes more sense to me as an option that provides a more comfortable experience for retro gaming and would be a welcome change in future iterations.

It’s a shame, because the sticks here are exceptional and by far the high-point of the NEO S controller. The sticks operate with the smooth, fluid movement as we’ve come to expect from Hall Effect. The replaceable rubberised stick toppers are a nice inclusion and easily swappable with alternative toppers available from CRKD’s website.

Triggered Comfort

NEO S Controller ZR Trigger

The glossy triggers, also from Hall Effect, feel cheap and flimsy and make me question their longevity if subjected to regular use. The bumpers fare slightly better offering a pleasing responsiveness when pressed, but again, feel decidedly low-budget.

I was however pleasantly surprised by the programmable back buttons. A feature I usually ignore on controllers as the copious amounts of Sonic games I play rarely require additional bespoke inputs, the back buttons become a necessity for me when using the NEO S as a means to circumvent the trigger and establish a more robust grip.

Programming the buttons was incredibly straightforward, with a simple to follow three-step progress allowing me to remap my buttons within the space of twenty seconds or so. What was most impressive to me is how those remapped controls persisted across my devices, with PC, Nintendo Switch and my Android phone all recognising my changes in the name of comfort.

Likewise, the built in turbo function worked seamlessly, with changes taking effect immediately, and button mashing in games like R-Type replaced by simply holding the corresponding fire button instead. There’s even several turbo settings with varying degrees of rapidity to choose from, conveniently illustrated by a flashing light within the home button and adjusted on the fly with the plus and minus buttons.

NEO S used to play R-Type on Nintendo Switch

My only gripe with the turbo function is how that flashing light activates whenever the turbo feature is engaged. There are options to dim or turn off the home light entirely however those settings don’t carry over to the turbo function, meaning whenever a player uses turbo, the home light will rapidly flash a bright, neon green light. Not exactly handy when you’re trying to concentrate on dismantling the next wave of approaching alien ships.

‘Appy Days

CRKD app showing item rarity

The NEO S shines in its app integration. Using the provided QR to download and set up the app is a doddle but what happens next is potentially one of the biggest selling points for the NEO S in my eyes.

Players can scan their controllers thanks to the inbuilt RFID touchpoint, effectively unlocking the pad in their digital collection and revealing important information like serial number and date of manufacture with some fun stats too.

Each NEO S ships with a rarity based on its production number, with three tiers of rarity available. You have the common tier, silver, followed by diamond (because who needs gold, right?) and lastly the CRKD tier. There’s no way of determining the rarity of a device prior to scanning the controller with the app and I have to admit there was a small rush of excitement in me when I scanned our review unit to discover which tier it belonged to.

One point of consideration for players picking up a pre-loved NEO S is that controllers remain in a users digital display shelf until they are released. That means people on the second hand market are reliant on original owners to untether their controller from their account before selling them on or trading them in. Just something to look out for if you don’t buy a NEO S brand new.

Super Tweak

CRKD app for analogue stick adjustments

More than just a digital display shelf however, the well-designed app allows users to tweak and configure their controllers features. Shooter fans will welcome the ability to assess and test stick sensitivity and activate deadzones if desired.

While I don’t think much of the trigger build quality, the app does enable adjustments to trigger point on each. Fancy playing a few rounds of Apex, then you’ll want to higher point for faster trigger pulls, whereas a lower setting will suit players looking for the most revs from their racing games.

CRKD app for trigger adjustments

The app also allows for flexibility with the dual rumble motors within the NEO S with three distinct vibration strengths for each side of the pad, or indeed, the option to disable rumble entirely. This nuance in rumble configuration is unlikely to set anybody’s heart a flutter, however I speculate there are accessibility benefits for having such personalisation options in a controller, and for that I applaud CRKD.

It’s also worth mentioning that these tweaks are available without the app, but the lack of visual feedback made adjusting these settings a game of trial and error.

Switching To Switch

NEO S Controller USB-C port

One of the major gripes I have with lots of third party controllers is how cumbersome their set up processes are. Thankfully, the NEO S avoids this hassle entirely and made swift connections to all three platforms I used during my test.

Connection to PC with Bluetooth was easy, with no additional dongle needed, my computer breathed a sigh of relief that yet one more USB stick wouldn’t occupy its diminishing free slots. After a couple of hours of Cuphead and Portal gameplay on the PC, I opted to take the NEO S for a spin on my Nintendo Switch.

By fully powering down the controller when disconnecting from the PC, I was then able to easily connect to Nintendo’s hybrid console, again, with a stable Bluetooth connection that remained throughout my playtime on several SNES titles in the Switch Online Service. I even put the motion controls to the test by raiding a Bokoblin encampment in Tears of the Kingdom while exclusively using motion controlled bows and arrows, and impressively, there was no discernable input latency at all.

NEO S Controller rear

After an hour or so in Hyrule, I loaded up a couple of games on my Android phone, a Google Pixel 6A. As previously stated, the NEO S is supremely well suited to retro gaming, so blasting through the first half of the original Sonic The Hedgehog genuinely felt great, again with no input lag whatsoever.

After zipping around Green Hill and through Marble Zone, I fancied some more Switch action, and was delighted to see that the NEO S’s ability to pair with multiple devices without fuss. Simply holding a direction on the d-pad combined with the home button pairs the controller with previously connected devices, making the NEO S a good controller for those that jump between PC mobile and Switch regularly.

Final Thoughts

There is a lot going on with the NEO S and not all of it is s pretty as its outer shell would suggest. It’s flimsy and fiddly in enough ways to relegate it to an occasional pad or one that I’d offer to a guest to struggle with if I don’t like them that much or I want a certain win in Tekken 8.

The suite of options available within the CRKD app are brilliant, but totally superfluous for a controller better suited for retro gaming, with gamers looking for those features most likely looking to play modern games with an ergonomically superior pad.

Its versatility however is superb and the NEO S impresses with its seamless switching between different platforms. It’s just a shame then that the overall experience of actually using it isn’t also S-tier.

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