The initial appeal of the Nintendo Switch had a lot to do with the way it put expansive, console-quality games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on a portable console for the first time. But since then, I’ve been spending a lot of my time with the system on less technically advanced titles. I find that I’m more likely to want to play immersive 3D games on my TV screen or PC monitor, while the Switch is the perfect system for kicking back with indies and 2D games.
Well, apart from one problem: the Switch actually kind of sucks for playing 2D games.
The Joy-Con controllers don’t have a proper D-pad because you need to be able to detach each of them from the system and use them as standalone controllers with four face buttons. Nintendo’s own Pro Controller seems to have been afflicted by this, too. It has a D-pad, but it’s a really bad one that’s hamstrung by the apparent need to be able to press all four directions independently of one another. The result is the worst D-pad in living memory from the company that invented the concept, with constant unintended inputs.
Hori, the venerable Japanese third-party controller maker, is trying to fix that. Its new product, the D-Pad Controller, is an officially licensed left Joy-Con replacement that substitutes an honest-to-god D-pad for the original four-button solution. It’s out now in Japan, it costs $25, and it’s coming to the US soon with Zelda- and Mario-themed designs.
There are a few caveats. The D-Pad Controller only works in portable mode. There’s no wireless support at all, so you have to use it attached to the Switch tablet. Hori has also omitted motion control and rumble functionality. It feels (and is) cheaper than a Nintendo Joy-Con, and the buttons are a little off; the L bumper is clickier, for example, while the – button is mushier. Basically, you really need to want a proper Switch D-pad for this thing to be worth it, even at $25.
That describes me, though, and I would say this is money well-spent if you’re anything like me. I’ve been using the D-pad with technically challenging Switch games like Hollow Knight, Celeste, Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection, and so on, and it’s hard to convey just how much it improves the experience. No more missed inputs or accidental diagonals. The Hori D-pad is responsive and accurate, if not quite up to the clicky precision of some of my favorites. If you die due to botching a downward attack in Shovel Knight, you’ll only have yourself to blame.
The missing functionality isn’t a huge deal in practice. Most games that use motion control rely solely on the right Joy-Con, so you can still use gyroscopic aiming in Breath of the Wild and Splatoon 2, for example. (But not Fortnite, oddly.) I didn’t miss the lack of rumble much, either, since it isn’t disabled on the right Joy-Con — though it does feel a little weird only to have one half of the system buzzing along to the music in Lumines Remastered.
I would happily use the Hori D-pad exclusively when traveling with the Switch except for one glaring flaw: its battery consumption. The Switch is already a power hog, but attaching the Hori D-pad causes the battery to drain between 8 and 10 percent an hour in standby mode, in my testing. With regular Joy-Con attached, it takes about three hours to drain by a single percent.
This is obviously less than ideal because it’ll seriously limit your ability to take out the Switch when the mood strikes you on a long trip. The Switch’s battery life is bad enough already without having a third of it chewed up in the time it takes for you to get onto a plane from your house. Hori says it’s aware of the issue and will have fixed it in time for the US launch, but it’s unclear whether it’ll be possible to fix Japanese units that are already on the market.
I can’t recommend this product wholeheartedly, then, and I might not use it as much as I’d like. But it’s still the best way to play 2D games on the Nintendo Switch, and I’ll no doubt be using it the next time I get stuck on a Hollow Knight boss.