Update: Hori has confirmed to Nintendo Life the issue pertaining to the d-pad joy-con using battery power while the Switch is in sleep mode has been resolved with the release of Switch firmware 6.0 in collaboration with Nintendo. Full details can be found here.
Ever since the Switch launched, there's been a vocal minority which has lamented the fact that the left-hand Joy-Con doesn't have a traditional D-pad. Instead, we've got a cluster of four buttons, which makes sense when you consider that the Joy-Con are designed to be used independently when removed from the console. Even so, there are a great many purists out there who insist on using an old-school D-pad when playing certain titles, so when the news broke that prolific peripheral maker Hori was launching a special Joy-Con with such an interface included, there was much cause for celebration.
The controller is now in our hands and we've been putting it through its paces over the past few days. Before we jump into our impressions of how that D-pad feels, it's worth explaining the limitations of this particular controller. While it looks like the real deal, Hori's D-pad Joy-Con lacks a few core features – there's no internal battery for starters, so you can only use it when playing in handheld mode. Because there's no battery, it goes without saying that there's no wireless connectivity either. Finally, motion control isn't supported by the controller – it really is totally limited to handheld play.
Despite these omissions, Hori has gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that the controller is a close match to the real thing in terms of aesthetics, which will please those of you who crave consistency with your peripherals. The button which releases the controller from the Switch is raised slightly, but apart from that (and the D-pad itself, obviously), you'd be hard pushed to tell this apart from an original Joy-Con at a glance. Hori has even replicated the L and R buttons, status LEDs and sync button on the side of the controller – even though they don't actually do anything, because it can't be used when disconnected from the Switch itself.
The analog stick and other inputs are all a close match for an authentic Joy-Con, too. The stick feels identical, and the shoulder buttons are almost impossible to tell apart. The 'Minus' button feels a little spongy, but that's no biggie. However, it's the D-pad we're more interested in here, and we're pleased to report it works well – with some caveats. In games like Sonic Mania, Metal Slug, Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap, Puyo Puyo Tetris, Dead Cells (heck, pretty much any 2D title which relies on precise directional inputs) this controller is a dream to use. If you've found the standard analogue stick has too much travel and is too imprecise for such games, then you're going to be in heaven with this.
However, one exception we personally have is using the controller with one-on-one fighting games. We tested Hori's D-pad Joy-Con with Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection and found that it's often easier to pull off complex specials with the analog stick. The placement of the D-pad itself – which sits towards the bottom edge of the Joy-Con, very much like the D-pad on the 3DS – makes repeated rolling motions (like the double quarter-circle required for Ryu's Shinkuu Hadouken) slightly awkward; if it were situated towards to the upper edge of the Joy-Con, it might have made things easier, but that would have involved removing or repositioning the analog stick. This grumble may well be down to personal preference (many people personally think rolling D-pads are best for fighters - Sega Saturn joypad FTW) and it is possible to get accustomed to the layout, but we'd advise caution if you're buying this device purely for 2D fighting games. You may be better off investing in an 8Bitdo pad, or a proper arcade stick (although naturally, neither of these can be used when playing in handheld mode).
Before we wrap up, it's worth noting some odd quirks. The Switch 'sees' the Hori D-pad controller as a standard grey Joy-Con, and even displays it with a full battery when you navigate to the controller settings screen. It was reported when the device launched in Japan that there are issues with it draining the battery of the Switch, and we can confirm this is indeed a serious problem. We connected the Hori D-pad controller to our console and placed it in sleep mode; after 15 minutes, it had lost almost 5 percent of its battery. Hori says it is aware of the problem and that a fix is forthcoming – presumably before the launch of the controller in North America – but an early hands-on with the western version of the device suggests the issue remains. How Hori will fix this remains to be seen; while it's not a first-party Switch accessory the controller is officially sanctioned by Nintendo, so it may be that a firmware update will be rolled out over the internet via the Switch itself. Naturally, we'll update this review if a fix is deployed.
The other quirk relates to the way in which motion controls work when Hori's D-pad Joy-Con is connected. Many of you may find having to constantly remove the controller when you want to play a motion-control game annoying, but we found that when playing Wolfenstein II with motion aiming enabled, we were able to play even though Hori's controller was connected – we assume the Switch is able to collect gyro data from the right-hand Joy-Con only. This might not be the case for every single game, but it's worth noting that Wolfenstein II was perfectly playable with Hori's D-pad Joy-Con in place.
With all of this in mind, we'd give Hori's D-pad controller a cautious recommendation. It's perfect for 2D and retro titles, but perhaps not as well-suited to fighting games as you might assume, largely because of where the D-pad itself is positioned on the unit. Still, for such a modest price, it's worth taking a punt on – although we sincerely hope that a unit with an internal battery and motion controls appears at some point in the future.
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