It took a month of waiting, but a controller that I have been eagerly anticipating has finally arrived! The Hori Split-Pad Pro Joycon. This controller is a big old chunky alternative to the standard Joycon. The idea being, I am sure, having a pr0-style controller that you can use while directly playing in handheld mode, rather than the jank tabletop mode; the latter definitely feeling like an awkward compromise between handheld and docked whenever I try it.
As I’ve mentioned in earlier articles and posts, I am an avid handheld gamer. Over the past four years, I have been pursuing the best possible handheld shmup experience, and while the Switch has come really close as of late, there still are concerns when it comes to controlling the games.
Out of the box, the Nintendo Switch stock Joycons are hot garbage for shmups and 2d gaming. Yes, the short throw of the mini-analog sticks can feel nice at times, but the accuracy and precision just can’t compete with a solid d-pad. And in case anyone is unaware, the stock joycons don’t have d-pads at all … just these split c-buttons that you know were added in an Apple-like decision for elegance, rather than functionality.
When I review these handheld control methods, be aware I’m holding a high bar of standard. Even though I’m a stick player, I do have skill on pad too and want to be able to play at about 70% of the capacity that I would be able to achieve on console/PC. This is why, even though I love the idea and design of the Flip-Grip, I almost never use mine because it can be only controlled using the stock Joycons (at least for right now).
Moving up from the stock Joycons, you can elect to do a d-pad case mod, which will swap out the buttons for a d-pad that floats in their place. Online, I’ve heard reviews say that this mod feels “amazing” and is a great solution and whatnot. Overall, I’d say that, if you are determined to stick with the stock Joycons (maybe for the Flip-Grip), then this mod is a worthwhile improvement over having no d-pad at all. However, taken on its own merit, I would have to say that this d-pad solution is not great. Since the micro-switches of the stock Joycon are buttons, not d-pad contacts, the case mod ends up having absolutely no pivot and feels shallow and springy. It’s fine for simple platformers where you mostly just run back and forth, but for shmups or other 2d genres with complex directional inputs (like fighting games, as well), this case mod ends up feeling very unstable and slippery, as compared to a proper d-pad.
So up next we have the Hori d-pad joycon. This is simply a left joycon with a d-pad built in. Really, control wise, this is what Nintendo should have done all along. Then, if they wanted to be cute, they could have sold their symmetrical c-button joycons separately. What’s funny is that, online, when I’ve seen reviews for this joycon, most of them have been pretty lukewarm. Most people seem to view this option as a necessary evil or something. I’ve heard complaints that the Joycon is “squishy.” To that, I couldn’t disagree more. The Hori d-pad joycon is a MUST BUY for all Nintendo Switch owners, especially shmup players.
Yes, the lack of Bluetooth is a huge flaw (because no Flip-Grip), but other than that this Joycon is amazing! The d-pad, in my hundreds hours of use, definitely stands right next to the Sega Saturn and PS Vita when it comes to design and quality of use. Also, special note, the version that I own is actually the original Japanese blue model, so I’m not sure if the quality of this model is the same across the other versions (like the Breath of the Wild ones). So, if you have this Joycon in the other models and feel like it does have a mediocre feel, it could be possible that the Japanese blue version is a higher build quality. Again, I’m not sure of this, but it is a possibility.
In that same vein, I would also just like to mention that I am fully aware of the Hori Fighting Commander for PC/Console and own multiple versions of this controller. And while I would say that the d-pad on the Fight Commander is solid, I do think that the d-pad on the Hori left Joycon is noticeably better, which is kind of cool and weird at the same time.
I’m not sure how much I’ve talked about this in the past (maybe in the 1st ep of the podcast, actually), but for a solid period of time, two or three years maybe, I had this obsession with finding the best possible d-pad. Because of this, I have purchased and tested dozens of different controllers across many consoles to try and identify what makes a d-pad good and what makes a d-pad shitty.
Not to get too into the specifics, but overall the things I am looking for are: 1) Crisp, but not too clicky, input activation; 2) Pivot and ability to quickly and accurately create full circle motions; 3) Decent, but not too stiff tension (avoiding flopping, but not straining the thumb either); 4) Deep and dependable diagonal input activation; And 5) Comfortable placement on controller and reliable separation of inputs (no accidental diagonals).
From what I’ve experienced, getting a d-pad that hits all these criteria these days is not that common, especially from Nintendo. Maybe I’m being picky or whatever, but I’d say that the recent output of d-pads from Nintendo have been bad to mediocre (the Switch Pro Controller especially). Arguably, it could be said the only really quality d-pad the company produced was the SNES pad. The pads on the Wii U gen stuff isn’t bad, but it’s not great either.
Of course, I can already imagine all the annoyed responses to the article from the avid Nintendo fans, but that’s my opinion anyway.