Next time you’re looking for a new Joy-Con Switch, check them out
My Nintendo Switch has been largely unused for the duration of the pandemic. I bought it in the Before Times thinking it would be a great subway companion. But between the short battery life and being uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time, I just never wanted to play it much. But there might finally be some light on my Switch’s horizon. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been testing Hori’s new Split Pad Compact controller. Although it has its own unique characteristics, the best part might be how it encouraged me to spend more time with my Switch.
Hori’s Split Pad Compact is the successor to its previous Split Pad Pro. Taking the place of traditional Nintendo Joy-Cons, its two halves fit into the usual spaces for handheld play on a standard Switch. The Compact’s colors, shape, and overall playability won me over, but it does come with some major caveats: no rumble, no wireless, and no motion-sensing features.
This is an unfortunate trend among many third-party Switch controllers given the variety of proprietary technologies Nintendo uses on the console. That could rule out the Split Pad Compact altogether for some games, or for gamers who (rightly) find these features essential to the Switch. But if you’ve been wanting to check out an alternative to the standard Joy-Con that I think offers a much more comfortable handheld experience, the $50 MSRP isn’t too bad for such a thing.
The buttons and design also feel quite right on the Switch. These don’t look like the Xbox or PlayStation buttons. They’re a bit taller than on a regular Joy-Con, but the trade-off is that I find them a bit more tactile. The analog controllers are much closer to full-sized ones (thank goodness), and overall they have a nice “Nintendo-y” feel.
The Split Pad Compact is far from the only ergonomically shaped Switch controller (or grip). What really sets it apart in terms of function are the rear buttons. These buttons aren’t going to compete with the paddles on an Xbox Elite controller, as there are only two of them, but I like that. There is also a turbo function which allows you to quickly fire a button of your choice. In games I’ve played, I’ve found little use with it; turbo will appeal more to those who like older style action games or RPGs where you have to wade through a million text boxes.
Assigning a face button to either of the two rear inputs is a simple three-button combo. You hold down “Assign” along with the button you want to map (capture and home buttons are not allowed), then click the back button you want to assign; the light will stay on solid red to indicate you did it right. Sometimes it takes a few tries, but you end up feeling like it. There are no profiles for different games, which is a shame. Switching button remappings is easy once you have it, and there are only two back buttons at most to worry about anyway. But there is another critical limitation here.
Each back button can only be assigned to buttons that are on the individual “Joy-Con” itself. Basically, the right rear button can only be assigned to A, B, X, Y, as they are on the right unit. The left button can only activate the buttons on the left side.
While I initially winced at the thought of the rear inputs being so limited, I ended up finding great use in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. After playing this game with the Hori, I realized that, OK, breaking weapons isn’t so bad; what was most annoying was actually having to move my thumb from stick to d-pad for a mid-battle swap, which kind of slows the pace. Mapping the weapons menu to a back button solves this problem perfectly. Much nicer.
I also revisited the remastered version of Final Fantasy VIII– you know, the one with the damn digital motion controls that completely destroy the experience, which I will never shut up about. It barely requires quick button combos (apart from a few sequences) or even really needs a back button; but the shape of the Split Pad Compact fits so much better in my hands that reading through its endless gray text boxes is just a more physically pleasing way to play.
A few smaller indie games have come and gone during my time with the Split Pad Compact. I also spent more time with Metroid Dread. The extra hand space of the slightly taller Hori controller made it more enjoyable. My Switch now feels like a mini Steam Deck, as opposed to the more horizontal phablet experience the Joy-Cons do.
I don’t always use the Hori’s advanced features like turbo and back buttons, but what I do do is play on my fucking Switch. Even regularly!
And that simplicity, the feel of those things getting out of your way so you can have a more comfortable experience on the Switch is the best part about this new controller. (Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes, according to Hori, these work on both Switch and original OLED models). The inherent limitations of zero rumble support, no wireless functionality, and no motion detection will be deal breakers in many cases. But if, like me, you found the Switch something of an ergonomic horror show, you might find the Hori Split Pad Compact a good enough excuse to start playing again, even if you just want to catch up on the many hits of this console. appreciated in your absence.