The Nintendo Switch Should Have Had A D-Pad

(Somewhat) unstructured thoughts about hardware and gaming

Sunday, 18 June 2023 • 1,202 words

I own a Switch, but I don't have Joy-Con drift. Probably because mine hasn't been used all that often; I actually prefer playing what are these days called 'retro' games. I've a handful of different systems, however I have almost all the so-called 'Sixth Generation' consoles - that is: the Nintendo GameCube, Microsoft's Xbox, and Sony's PlayStation 2. I own the games I buy for these systems, the discs cannot be taken from me and corporations and/or IP holders cannot remove my ability to play them. If you're a 'retro gamer' you've heard it all before.

Ok, yes, that's a bit of a stretch given that Xbox Live was killed in 2010 (remember the Noble 14!) but we have always had XLink Kai and other LAN tunnelling software. If you have an Xbox (that hasn't been destroyed by it's clock capacitor), you can also now use Insignia to get true Xbox Live 1.0 (with the caveat that not all games are yet supported) and relive the real beginnings of online multiplayer.

So, despite not having Joy-Con drift, I bought a set with it to try out the GuiliKit hall-effect analogue sticks. I'm not going to talk about drift in any detail, because that's been done to death and I can't believe we're still talking about this in 2023. If you know anything about this problem you probably know that SEGA actually got ahead of it in the 1990s by using hall-effect sensing in the Saturn and of course again in the Dreamcast. As an aside: I don't (yet!) have a Dreamcast, but I am hoping to obtain one in the near future before they become completely unobtanium. Yeah, they made over 9 million of them, but given the inevitable march of time it'll just get harder and more expensive to get a nice one.

With a set of Joy-Cons due for analogue stick replacement I also wanted to customise them a bit. Remember the days of the Xbox 360 where you could buy those 9mm bullet face buttons? The shotgun shell d-pad? Custom controllers are really an artform, and I wanted to relive those glory days of modding a bit. I bought joy-con shells from eXtremeRate, mostly because unlike a lot of other Chinese companies selling replacement parts for consoles and handhelds, they are actually good at injection moulding and ensuring good fit and tolerances. In the Game Boy scene, they're pretty much the best shot you have at a good third-party shell that isn't going full DIY and getting into resin-casting from OEM parts. Oh, and you can even still buy those dorky bullet shell buttons for your Xbox.

This led me to a little bit of a conundrum. You see, I've always wondered why the Switch doesn't have a d-pad. Nintendo basically made it a standard (even though they have a stupid name for it, 'Control Pad'). The Switch Pro controller has one. Every Nintendo game console and handheld since the 6502-era has one. The Virtual Boy had two. HORI made a Joy-Con with one. Nintendo even put one on the Switch Lite, in what is basically an admission that The Nintendo Switch Should Have Had A D-Pad. So why doesn't it? My partner tells me that this is because of the 2 and 4-player modes where each player gets one joy-con to use; this way both players get one analogue stick and 4 face buttons alongside the 'shoulder' buttons (SL/SR) and nobody is disadvantaged. There's a symmetry.

It's like poetry. They rhyme.

But that doesn't cut it for me ergonomically; I bought the d-pad shell from eXtremeRate. It's a really good design, all told. Not least because they've again shown off their fantastic part replication and injection moulding finesse, but also because their designers and engineers have put a d-pad into a controller which didn't originally have one, without needing you to make any changes other than installing the new shell. It uses the same membrane as the face buttons, which conspicuously is just one piece. The d-pad is beautifully ergonomic; your thumb sits neatly in the centre and glides across the smooth plastic to reach the edges, which you can feel as the point of contact your thumb feels becomes smaller. You can rotate around the d-pad with so much less effort than the 4 face buttons. Quarter circle forward (or QCF, or 236, or whatever the FGC calls it this week) is a breeze. I don't have any fighting games for the Switch, so I don't even know if games support diagonals on the Switch (but surely they must?) but the d-pad makes this vastly easier. And to add to that; it just looks right on the Switch. It's like it was always meant to be there!

A Plea:
Avoid the 'soft-touch' material eXtremeRate sells. That stuff is disgusting and in a few years it'll start reverting to it's original form again: oil.

As for the hall-effect analogue sticks; they are tight, responsive, and the click is sharp and well-defined. Comparatively, the original Hosiden-Nintendo part (no, it wasn't designed by Satan himself, or Alps Alpine {formerly Alps Electric} who make just about every analogue stick ever under their ThumbPointerâ„¢ series) feels vague and uninspired. And due to their hall-effect sensing, the GuiliKit sticks are an objective upgrade for your Switch Joy-Cons. Their expected lifetime is going to be far, far longer than the carbon-film resistive sense units. And according to GuiliKit, they actually use about half of the power (160uA vs. 390uA) so should give your Joy-Cons a little extra battery life. What's not to like?

It's really, really not difficult to replace the analogue sticks. Watch a video or read a guide online and you can do it. Just be gentle with the flex cables in there, okay? It was more difficult to replace the entire shell of my Joy-Cons than it was to just do the analogue sticks. If you own a Switch, you can fix Nintendo's mistakes. The importance of right-to-repair cannot be understated here.

The point that I'm getting at here is, to spell it out plainly, why can't these big companies actually create products without such stupid and obvious flaws? Yes, we have the benefit of hindsight, but these corporations should (being the key word here) be full of various engineers that should (there's that word again) know better! At the least; it allows small businesses to fill the gap and provide us hobbyists with the means to fix and improve the things we buy; because it's 2023 and all products are terrible. Why don't they make things like they used to? Because planned obsolescence makes companies more money, and that's all they care about. Don't let companies fool you into believing they have values.