Switch's New NES Controllers Do More Than You Might Think

Photo: Chris Kohler (Kotaku)

Nintendo has shipped out its first batch of classic-style NES controllers for Switch. I got a pair today, and I found them to be much more useful than I originally imagined they would be, in surprising ways.

The Nintendo Entertainment System controllers are only available if you’re a member of Nintendo Switch Online, the paid online service the company recently launched. Since that service includes an all-you-can-eat buffet of 8-bit NES games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, these controllers are a perfect fit. The wireless, rechargeable controllers are sold in pairs for $60, and you order them directly from Nintendo.

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Photo: Chris Kohler (Kotaku)

The controllers work just like Joy-Cons: Slide them onto the sides of your Switch, and you can charge them right up. (Yes, that does mean that they’re not interchangeable, since one will only slide on the left and the other will only slide on the right. But either one can be used for either player.)

Photo: Chris Kohler (Kotaku)

Here’s a comparison shot of the original NES controller (left), the NES Classic controller (middle), and the Switch controller (right). Just like the NES Classic pads, the Switch ones feel 99 percent identical to the original. They’re sturdy, they’re solid, they’re as exact as you’re gonna get 30 years later. The major difference with the Switch pads is the addition of tiny L and R buttons on the top. You don’t use these to play NES games, but they come in handy elsewhere.

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Screenshot: Nintendo (Kotaku)

Start up the NES app on the Switch with a controller paired wirelessly, and the onscreen legend will show you what to do: the L button will serve as your photo capture button, and the R button will bring you back to the Home menu. In-game, you’ll be able to get back to this menu using L and R. The NES software will always pop up a helpful hint like this to show you what buttons do what. (There’s another bonus feature that you won’t see in this picture, because it’s audio: The system sounds for this menu change to 8-bit NES sounds when you have the NES controllers plugged in. Very cute.)

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Note that these button reassignments for L and R are done at the software level within the NES app. What that means is, while you could use the NES pad to play another classic game—say, Sega Ages Phantasy Star on the Switch—you won’t be able to capture screenshots or go back to the Home menu if you do. (You could always pair extra Joy-Cons wirelessly and keep them close to you, for going back to the menu or taking a screenshot.)

Screenshot: Nintendo (Kotaku)
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So, as you might imagine, when you dock the controllers or pair them wirelessly, the system menu shows you the NES controllers. The above image shows what it looks like when you’re charging both controllers, creating this hilarious monstrosity:

Photo: Chris Kohler (Kotaku)
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You might look at this weird setup and think: Wait, can I actually play games like this?

Oh, you can. And not only can you, Nintendo totally took into account that you might do that. And not only that, you might actually want to.

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Screenshot: Nintendo (Kotaku)

Closely examine the above image. Slide the NES controllers in sideways, using the Switch in handheld mode, and the software actually accounts for this. The left D-pad rotates its orientation, so that left becomes up, et cetera. The left-hand A button becomes the capture button; the right-hand D-pad takes you back to the Home menu. And you can play using the left D-pad and the right buttons. It’s not nearly as comfortable as the smaller Joy-Cons, but it lets you use an NES-quality D-pad in handheld mode.

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You may correctly surmise that for many games, this would be a very stupid setup, since the A and B button on the right side would now be in a vertical orientation. Maybe that’s fine if you’re playing the one-button game Donkey Kong, but bad if you’re playing Super Mario Bros. 3. Well, there is a solution to that:

Photo: Chris Kohler (Kotaku)
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The Nintendo Switch lives up to its reputation once again as the king of customizability, as it lets you use the left NES controller and the right Joy-Con to create the ultimate Frankenstein setup. Again, this isn’t as comfortable as using the Hori D-pad controller, but it works, and works pretty well at that.

Photo: Chris Kohler (Kotaku)
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And then here is what you might call Torture Mode.

These controllers do everything you expect them to—play NES games on the Switch wirelessly—and then go beyond that to do things you wouldn’t expect them to do, or wouldn’t have known you actually wanted. Since the controllers aren’t limited to just the NES app, hopefully we’ll see some patches for other retro-style Switch games that will let these controllers be used without caveats on those, as well.

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And, uh, I wouldn’t mind seeing some 16-bit versions of these, too, if you catch my drift.

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About the author

Chris Kohler

Features Editor, Kotaku. Japanese curry aficionado. Author of the books Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life and Final Fantasy V from Boss Fight Books.