The best part of Nintendo’s Switch Online subscription service is the included classic games. Since launch, Nintendo has steadily added more NES titles, including some enhanced additions; just this week came a version of Metroid that starts you out with a huge array of powers just ahead of the big battle with Ridley. But what’s the best way to play these 8-bit classics? The Switch Joy-Con and Pro Controller are both passable, and there are also a few solid aftermarket controllers as well. Now, Nintendo has a different solution: a wireless recreation of the original NES gamepad. I’ve been testing them for a few days, and while they’re just about perfect for Switch Online NES games, there are a few hangups that will make you question the $60 asking price.
That price tag gets you a pair of NES gamepads, which are mostly identical to the rectangular ones you remember. All the buttons are where they should be, and they have a nice depth and clickiness. But there are two main differences. One, the controllers are wireless. Two, there’s a Joy-Con-style rail on the top that lets you slot the controller into your Switch for pairing and charging. It looks strange, but works well enough. The rail also means the controllers have two additional buttons on top. They’re small, but easy to reach, and they work much like any other shoulder buttons.
When you’re playing any of the NES games available through Switch Online, the controller works perfectly. This shouldn’t be surprising: it’s a virtually identical recreation of the original gamepad. Not everyone needs or wants that level of precision, of course, but there’s something to be said for having the right tool for the job. I certainly appreciated it while tearing through Ninja Gaiden and its excellent soundtrack. The new shoulder buttons also come in handy. The left one becomes your screenshot button, while the right takes you home. Press them both and it brings up the suspend option. It’s a great, slightly modernized version of an iconic controller. (And it makes the frustrating inclusion of a wired, home-button-free NES Classic gamepad all the more inexplicable.)
One of the strangest things about the new controller is that you can only purchase it if you have a Switch Online subscription. It’s a baffling, very Nintendo decision, although it starts to make sense once you play around with it. Because the new controller doesn’t work especially well with other games.
Most of this comes down to the fact that pretty much all modern games require more than the two face buttons available on an NES controller. Out of curiosity, I tried a bunch of different games, and the results weren’t pretty. I was able to load Fortnite, but none of the available buttons let me actually get into a match. And while I could technically play Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, I wasn’t able to jump, which is a pretty big handicap. In Dead Cells I could jump and roll, but not attack.
Even simpler games were unplayable. Playdead’s unsettling Inside really only requires two buttons — one for jumping, one for grabbing objects — but it still didn’t work because, for whatever reason, the game didn’t recognize the NES d-pad. It’s hard to play when you can’t move. The only modern game I successfully played with the controller was the excellent two-button fighter Pocket Rumble. You can probably get around this through button remapping in a few games, but the fact is that the NES gamepad just doesn’t have enough buttons for most post-NES games.
Of course, no one is picking up these controllers to play Fortnite or Smash Bros. But this does illustrate how much less flexible these gamepads are compared to third-party alternatives, which often have extra buttons and work with multiple platforms. The one use case for the controller, outside of Switch Online, is the many retro re-releases that have hit the Switch over the last year and a half. I managed to play the first few Mega Man games with few problems. It’s not as seamless as playing an NES game through Switch Online — I had to do some button remapping to get the controller to work — but it’s better than playing Mega Man 2 with a Joy-Con.
Really, whether or not you should pick up an NES Switch controller depends entirely on how much you plan to play classics through Switch Online. The service costs $20 a year, and currently features more than 30 NES titles right now, with new ones added every month. Going forward it’ll probably be the best way to access classic Nintendo titles. The gamepad is the ideal way to play them, but otherwise its uses are very limited. For anything else, you’re better off picking up a cheaper, more flexible third-party option.