Nintendo has designed some absolutely classic controllers in its time. The original NES controller wrote the blueprint for what console controllers have continued to be ever since, the N64 was the first console to have a controller with an analogue thumb-stick, and the Wii, for better or for worse, introduced the world to motion-controlled gaming.
With the Switch, Nintendo has attempted the seemingly impossible in trying to create a controller that’s simultaneously one whole controller and two separate controllers, while also functioning as the handheld’s controllers.
Joy-Cons: general impressions
- By trying to do many things at once the Joy-Cons don't do anything perfectly
- HD Rumble tech is impressive – now developers need to find a use for it
Ultimately these multiple roles mean the controllers end up being jacks of all trades and master of none. None of the controller configurations are unusable, but we’ve used more comfortable controllers in the past that have had the advantage of only having to do one thing very well.
The left Joy-Con’s D-pad exhibits this problem in a nutshell. Rather than going for the cross D-pad that the company’s been using since the NES, the D-pad is instead split into four separate buttons to allow them to be used as face buttons when the Joy-Con is used as an individual controller.
The result is a D-pad that you’re not going to want to use for classic games that rely on it a lot, like Street Fighter.
So too do the analogue sticks feel like a compromise between the form factors. They're too small for a traditional gamepad, yet big enough that we wouldn’t want to throw the console too carelessly into a rucksack for fear of one of them snapping off.
You do of course have the option of buying separate accessories which don’t have these issues (the Pro controller being the prime example), but in this review we’re going to limit ourselves to talking about what you get in the box, since this is the primary way most people are going to be using the console, at least initially.
One part of the controllers that we absolutely love are the face buttons. They’re a little smaller than those on other consoles, but they’ve got a really satisfying click to them that we really appreciate.
The Joy-Cons feature an interesting form of rumble, which Nintendo has dubbed ‘HD Rumble’. From what we’ve seen so far this isn’t just a marketing gimmick – it genuinely feels like a step forward for rumble tech.
One mini-game in the launch game 1-2 Switch has you counting the number of (virtual) balls inside a Joy-Con, and it’s impressive just how well the HD Rumble creates the impression of there being real balls inside the controller.
Another mini-game impresses by tasking you to crack a safe by feeling the click of a dial as you turn it.
Both mini-games have us excited for the possibilities of HD Rumble in the future, but the success of the technology will depend on the ability of developers to make use of it – the potential is there, but we’re yet to see a killer app.
Nintendo has made a practical use of the feature in the Switch 3.0 OS update – now if you've lost one Joy-Con but the two are still paired you can make the other vibrate to make it easier to find.
There have been reports of connectivity issues with the left Joy-Con which is something we've experienced ourselves. The problem is that sometimes during gameplay the left Joy-Con's connection just drops out completely.
Fortunately, Nintendo is now offering a repair service for any broken Joy-Cons, so we'd advise sending yours in if you experience connectivity issues of any kind.
- Handheld controls are a little cramped and awkward
- Right analogue stick in particular is uncomfortable
It’s in the handheld configuration that the Switch controller’s deficiencies are most apparent. The main problem is the low positioning of the right analogue stick, which we found very difficult to operate comfortably.
Either you hold the Switch precariously on the tips of your fingers in order to operate the analogue stick with the tip of your right thumb, or you hold the device more tightly and operate the thumbstick with the inside of your thumb knuckle, which feels cramped and awkward.
Looking back, on the Vita the layout is very similar, but the increased weight of the Nintendo Switch makes it much more difficult to comfortably hold on the fingertips.
It’s a mode that we think works in small bursts, but it’s not comfortable over longer periods. If you’re gaming on a flight, for example, we’d expect most people to opt to put the console in tabletop mode on the tray table in front of them.
We are, however, fans of the shoulder buttons, which manage to feel big enough without impacting on the depth of the console too much.
- Analogue sticks are smaller than a traditional controller
- Overall the controller is comfortable and nice to use
- Clicky face buttons are especially appealing
The main way we expect people to play with the console when it’s docked is by combining the two Joy-Cons together into a single controller.
This is done by using the included Joy-Con grip, which the two sides slide into.
We were initially concerned when it was revealed that the Joy-Con grip that comes with the console is unable to charge the two controllers (for that you’ll need to buy the separate Joy-Con charging grip).
This means that if you want to charge your controllers you’ll need to plug them back into the console’s screen.
The Joy-Cons’ battery life is rated at 20 hours, so we’d be surprised if they ever run out of battery mid-game, but we’d be lying if we said that having to dismantle our controller after every play session wasn’t annoying.
A grip that charges the Joy-Cons is available, but this is sold separately.
Aside from charging concerns, we were pleasantly surprised with how the controller feels when assembled in the grip.
Although the analogue sticks are a little small, we found them perfectly usable for lengthy Breath of the Wild play sessions, and the addition of a little more plastic massively helps the ergonomics of the controller as a whole.
It’s just a shame that the controller doesn’t have a proper D-pad on its left side; as it stands you’re going to need to buy the Pro controller if you want that traditional Nintendo controller feel.
- Oddly positioned buttons due to having to work as a combined controller
- A nice option to have if you want a friend to join you for multiplayer
Split the Joy-Cons apart and they can work as individual controllers complete with an analogue stick each, four face buttons, and (if you attach a Joy-Con strap) two shoulder buttons.
It's this configuration that feels like it's required the biggest compromise in Nintendo’s pursuit to make them work in multiple ways.
On the left Joy-Con the D-pad/face buttons are in the centre of the controller, which means your right thumb is uncomfortably far over, and the same is true of the analogue stick on the right Joy-Con.
The asymmetrical configuration also makes describing controls to another person very difficult, since the control buttons have different names between the two Joy-Cons.
The lack of hand grips is also prone to causing cramp if you use the controllers over long periods, especially if the game you're playing relies heavily on the Joy-Con's shoulder buttons.
As a final point, the shoulder buttons can feel a little stiff to press, which adds to the discomfort of using them over long periods.
So while this configuration might work in a pinch if you want to let a friend join you for a couple of rounds of Mario Kart, we don’t see it being something you’ll want to spend a lot of time with.
Additionally, you’ll need to remember to carry the Joy-Con straps with you if you want to use the shoulder buttons, which will be an annoying inconvenience for most people.
Alternatively, you can use the two Joy-Cons as a single controller while split apart. Here they function identically to when they’re assembled into the Joy-Con grip, although we found it much less comfortable because of how cramped the right analogue stick ends up feeling.
Again, this feels like a compromise, this time for when you’ve forgotten your Joy-Con grip. We can’t see ourselves using this configuration unless a motion-controlled game specifically calls for it in the future.