The joys and cons of the crazy Nintendo Switch controllers (hands-on)

Nintendo's weird little powerful controllers are versatile and modular...but what will they mean for games?

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

The Joys

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."

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In this mode, Nintendo Switch feels totally normal.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Playing games in this mode is a little challenging at times.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Cons

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.

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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?