The next time you’re looking for a new Joy-Con switch, check them out.

Hori Split Pad Compact installed on Nintendo Switch.

A photo: Kotaku

My Nintendo Switch was barely used during the pandemic. I bought it from Before Times thinking it would make a great subway companion. But because of the short battery life and the fact that it’s uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time, I just didn’t want to play it much. But maybe there will finally be light on the horizon of my Switch. For the past few weeks, I’ve been testing the new Hori Split Pad Compact controller. Even though it has some interesting unique features, the best part might be that it has encouraged me to spend more time with my Switch.

The Split Pad Compact by Hori is the successor to the previous Split Pad Pro. Taking the place of traditional Nintendo Joy-Cons, its two halves slot into regular handheld game slots on a standard Switch. The colors, shape, and overall playability of the Compact won me over, but it has a few major caveats: no rumble, no wireless, and no motion detection features.

This is an unfortunate trend among many third-party Switch controllers, given the variety of proprietary technology that Nintendo uses on the console. This may completely eliminate the use of the Split Pad Compact for some games, or for players who (justifiably) find these features important to the Switch. But if you want to try an alternative to the stock Joy-Con that I think makes for a more comfortable portable experience, the $50 MSRP isn’t too bad for such a thing.

The buttons and design also feel right at home with the Switch. They don’t look like the Xbox or PlayStation buttons. They sit a little higher than on a regular Joy-Con, but the tradeoff is that I find them a bit more tactile. The analog sticks are much closer to full-sized sticks (thank god) and have a nice “Nintendo-y” feel overall.

The Split Pad Compact is far from the only Switch controller (or handle) with an ergonomic shape. What really sets it apart in terms of functionality are the back buttons. These buttons won’t compete with the paddles on the Xbox Elite controller since there are only two of them, but I like it. There is also a turbo function that allows you to quickly press the button of your choice. In the games I’ve played, I’ve found little use for this; Turbo will be more for those who like old action games or RPGs where you have to scroll through millions of text fields.

The back features of the Hori Split Pad Compact have convenient assignable buttons.

A photo: Kotaku

Assigning a face button to either of the two rear inputs is a simple combination of three buttons. You hold down the “Assign” button along with the button you want to map (capture and home buttons are not allowed), then press the back button you want to map; the indicator will be constantly lit red, showing that you did everything right. Sometimes it takes a couple of tries, but eventually you get the feel for it. There are no profiles for different games, which is a bummer. Switching button remapping is easy once you get it, and there are only two back buttons to worry about anyway. But there is another important limitation here.

Each back button can only be assigned to buttons that are on the Joy-Con controller itself. In fact, the right back button can only be assigned to A, B, X, Y, since they are on the right block. The left button can only activate the buttons on the left side.

While I initially grimaced at the way the rear entrances were restricted, I found great use in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. After playing this game with the Hori, I realized that breaking weapons isn’t so bad; what annoyed me the most was that I just had to move my thumb from the stick to the D-pad to switch in the middle of a fight, which sort of slows down the pace. Mapping the weapon menu to the back button neatly solves this problem. Much nicer.

I also revised the updated version Final Fantasy VIII— you know, with the damn digital motion controllers, which completely spoil the impression, which I will never shut up about. It hardly requires quick button combinations (except for a few sequences) or really needs a back button; but the shape of the Split Pad Compact is so much better in my hands that reading the endless gray text fields just becomes a more enjoyable way to play physically.

Nintendo Switch with Hori Split Pad Compact controllers works with a couple of Switch games.

A photo: Kotaku

A few small indie games have come and gone while I’ve been playing the Split Pad Compact. I also spend more time on Metroid Horror. The added hand real estate of a slightly larger Hori controller made it more enjoyable. My Switch is now similar to a Steam mini-deck, as opposed to the more horizontal phablet that standard Joy-Cons are designed for.

I don’t always use Hori’s advanced features like the turbo and rear buttons, but what I do is play my damn Switch. Regularly even!

And that simplicity, that feeling of just getting those things out of your way so you can more comfortably work with the Switch, is the best part about this new controller. (Oh, and in case you’re wondering, yes, according to Hori, they work with both original Switch and OLED models.) The inherent limitations of zero-rumble support, no wireless, and no motion detection will be clear deal-breakers in many cases. But if, like me, you found the Switch to be something of an ergonomic horror show, you might find the Hori Split Pad Compact a great reason to start playing it again, even if you just want to catch up. many hits of this console enjoyed in your absence.

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