The Switch is without a doubt one of Nintendo’s most successful, versatile consoles ever, but it comes with one massive caveat: it might also be the least durable hardware Nintendo has made. While the design flaws with the system itself are largely trivial (a cracked backplate sucks, but it doesn’t stop you from gleefully turning Mario into a T-rex), the same can’t be said for the issues that come with its controllers.
Problems with the Joy-Con cropped up pretty much as soon as the Switch launched in 2017, and it’s downright baffling that we’re still dealing with them in 2020 – especially the now infamous Joy-Con drift. With three years of experience using the hardware to look back on, a second iteration in the Switch Lite, and the unfortunate reality that COVID-19 has temporarily closed Nintendo’s repair centers and dried up all available retail stock, I’m now confident calling the Joy-Con’s continued faults what they truly are: an unmitigated disaster.
It’s a shame, because I actually really like using my Joy-Con. I don’t find them uncomfortably small as some others do, and I’m not bothered by the off-set positioning of the right joystick, even when using it solo. I think the Joy-Con have a charming design that looks great, generally feels good to use, and cleverly delivers on the Switch’s goal of being both a handheld and a traditional console in one.
However, I don’t think I know a single person who hasn’t experienced problems with their Joy-Con at one point or another. Drifting joysticks, syncing issues, part deterioration – you name it, and these little controllers have probably put someone through it. And despite none of these defects being new, Nintendo hasn’t really provided a proper solution to any of them even three full years after launch.
The biggest problem is undoubtedly the drift, where your joystick (anecdotally, usually the left one before the right) starts detecting motion that isn’t actually there, causing your character or cursor to move unpredictably. It’s an infuriating issue, and one that leaves players with a weirdly helpless feeling when it occurs – there’s just nothing you can do aside from sending the Joy-Con in for a fix or using a different controller (not including buying special tools and voiding your warranty to try and repair it yourself).
To its credit, Nintendo has been good about fixing this issue for free in some (though not all) regions. But even free involves the hassle of going through the process of asking for a repair, shipping off your affected Joy-Con, and sometimes waiting weeks for it to make it back – a huge issue if you don’t have an additional controller option to use in the meantime (good luck trying to buy one right now), and a process that is impossible while repair services are currently closed due to COVID-19. It’s not always a permanent solution either, as I and many others I know have sent in Joy-Con for repair only for drift to return just weeks later.
More than that, offering free fixes feels like the absolute bare minimum Nintendo should have done by now. Why is this even still happening? Why hasn’t the fault causing drift been fixed on a production level? And, most egregious of all, why is the Switch Lite reportedly suffering from the exact same problem we’ve been seeing on the base model for years? Surely the joystick hardware could have been adjusted for that entirely new device, where its portable-only nature means you lose your entire Switch to a repair center when getting it fixed, not just an affected controller.
Beyond drift, I’ve also seen problems where the latch that keeps a Joy-Con secured to the side of the Switch or a grip wears down, letting it pop off freely when it should be unmovable. There have also been reports of syncing issues when playing docked that stretch back to the original launch – Nintendo stated this was a manufacturing error that was subsequently solved at the time, but I still can’t use Joy-Con from my couch just eight feet away without them occasionally losing connection. That happens with my launch Joy-Con and brand new ones alike, and isn’t an issue with any of my other controllers or consoles, including my Switch Pro Controller.
There are at least options that enable you to avoid these pain points. The Switch has copious controller choices, offering dozens of different Joy-Con with multiple configurations, the top-notch Pro Controller, plenty of decent third-party options, and even high-end alternatives like the great controllers made by 8-Bit Do to choose from – hell, you can even use an adapter to plug in GameCube controllers if that’s still what floats your boat. But all those options unfortunately mean Nintendo hasn’t been pushed for a permanent solution as hard as it probably should be.
By contrast, if the PS5 or Xbox Series X controllers launch with as many issues as the Joy-Con have, there will be rioting in the streets. Your controller options are usually more limited for Sony and Microsoft systems, and fans would be understandably livid if they were locked into hardware as problematic as this – let’s not forget about the Xbox 360’s infamous Red Ring of Death, which I’d argue is on a similar scale to Joy-Con drift even if it was admittedly a more catastrophic defect.
A History of Nintendo Hardware – 1977 to Now
This is all made even more frustrating when you start to consider price. A single set of Joy-Con is generally still a whopping $80 USD. That’s $20 more than the cost of a PS4 or Xbox One controller at launch, and the idea that anyone may be expected to use a single Joy-Con as their go-to for $50 is unrealistic. For the premium you pay for a set of Joy-Con – a controller option that’s also inherently hampered in some games by a lack of analog triggers or proper D-pad – these continued issues are, frankly, unacceptable.
Through all this, I do still love my Nintendo Switch
, and I stand by both my 2018 review of the Switch and my 2019 review of the Switch Lite (I mentioned my concerns over long term wear-and-tear issues in both). But even if I’m a fan of the look and feel of the Joy-Con, they just fundamentally aren’t up to Nintendo’s usual standard. The closing of repair services in the middle of this pandemic – mind you, absolutely the right decision given the threat of COVID-19 – and seemingly every official controller being bought out from online retailers has made me realize just how little Nintendo has done to actually address these very serious problems, leaving fans like me feeling helpless without the single Band-Aid solution that’s been offered so far.
If you haven’t experienced something like Joy-Con drift, I’m very happy for you! But when you do (because reports indicate that drift is seemingly a matter of when, not if), I hope Nintendo has figured out a more significant solution to this systemic issue – and I hope it stops pretending this isn’t a big problem. It’s a blight on one of the best systems the company has ever made.
The other day I booted up the Super Nintendo I’ve owned for nearly 30 years just to play some Link to the Past and it worked like a charm. At this rate, I’m not confident I will be able to say the same thing about my Switch in five years, let alone a few decades. And while screen scratches from my dock or a wobbly kickstand may be annoying, that fear all comes down to my Joy-Con.
Ahead of publish, IGN reached out to Nintendo for a response on the issue of Joy-Con drift, its long-term plans to fix it, and what affected players should do while repair centers are indefinitely closed. Nintendo declined to comment.
Tom Marks is IGN’s Deputy Reviews Editor and resident pie maker. You can follow him on Twitter.