The Nintendo Switch has weird controllers. You may love how portable Nintendo's gaming tablet is, or how it comes with two controllers in the box, but as I held a single Joy-Con in my hands to play Sega's upcoming retro Sonic game, I thought...this is a bit like holding an Apple TV remote.
Can Nintendo win with such a strange pair of ultra-versatile and super-small controllers? Nintendo's pulled off miracles before -- the Wii remote is one of the oddest and most brilliant redesigns of a standard game controller, and it set the bar for modern TV/streaming box remotes.
I played a half-dozen Nintendo Switch games at Nintendo's New York press event, and held the controllers in all sorts of configurations. I'd say these little snap-on wonders are sometimes great, sometimes frustrating. In some modes I love them. In others, I could see some problems popping up.
They're so small. There's something comforting about a tiny controller. And yet, they're also studded with inputs and buttons. Each one has an analog stick and front-facing buttons, plus triggers, plus buttons on the side. I held it sideways, as a standard Wii remote-like controller. I held it upright, in a pistol grip-type mode, to play the boxing game Arms and to try some weird cowboy and milking games with Jeff Bakalar in "1 2 Switch."
Snapped onto the sides of the Switch tablet, the controls feel a lot like the Wii U GamePad, with more compact buttons that handled like the Nintendo 3DS. In this mode, the controller seemed perfect, normal. With both Joy-Con mini-controllers snapped into a central grip, they also felt fine.
Built-in haptics (called HD Rumble) dish up some pulsing vibrations to indicate movement or action in games. Sometimes, the Joy-Con controllers would vibrate to indicate what direction they were tilting in. Good feedback, but not surprising: more like what you can get on a phone, or an Xbox One or PS4 controller.
On their own, the off-center button layouts and the buttons-buttons-everywhere design of each took a lot of adjustments. I forgot where triggers were, and wasn't sure what to press all the time.
I only played for a couple of hours in very controlled play sessions, but I generally felt like I'd be happy with these tiny controllers in a pinch, but might get frustrated in competitive gaming or over a long time playing. Then again, though, the Switch has so many ways to connect controllers (I could slide them into the Switch tablet, or use the Joy-Con Grip to make it a larger controller) that, maybe, I'd find a solution that worked for me.
Would I accidentally press a wrong button, or would the layout confuse my 8-year-old kid? In my son's case, probably not: he figures out games faster than I do. But the Joy-Con controllers don't seem as effortlessly simple as the 2006 Wii remote. They do, however, seem far more advanced.
What games will use which controls?
With the motion controls activated, the Joy-Con feels like a Wii remote. In the tablet, it feels like the Wii U or the 3DS. I could see games forcing people into using the Switch in one mode or another: tabletop mode for one game, dual-handed stand-in-front-of-TV controls for another. Will that mean some games are better suited for travel, others for playing at home? I don't know. But it could get weird. Nintendo Switch's incredible versatility could also mean some games need to work out how to control...and if I can't play a game in every mode, would I buy it?