The Switch NES controllers look just like the original, with the same blocky corners, plastic-yet-solid construction and concave buttons that hold your fingers just right. But of course, there are some major differences: They're wireless, and they feature L and R buttons at the top, nestled into a Switch rail connection. You charge them by sliding them onto your Switch while it's docked. But unlike the console's Joy-Cons, you're not meant to hold the Switch while the NES pads are connected. They're solely meant for detached wireless play.
After sliding on the controllers and running through a system update, I was ready for some retro action. That's when I ran into my first issue: They can't get to the home screen in normal Switch games. My console automatically resumed Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and I was annoyed to find that I had no way to exit the game with the NES controller. I had to turn on a Joy-Con just to do that. Once I got back to the home screen, I had no trouble navigating around and launching the NES game collection on the retro gamepad.
My main testing criteria for NES emulators and gear is simple: How well do they play Super Mario Bros. 3? It's 8-bit platforming at its most refined, which makes it a great test for controller accuracy and reliability. As I re-learned how to fly Racoon Mario and traversed the first world of the game, I was surprised to find that I genuinely enjoyed using the NES gamepad. It was like flashing back to my childhood bedroom, where I'd spend hours diving into Mario 3 with my younger brother.
Of course, the controller feels much smaller now in my grown-up hands, and it's far from ergonomic. But it's well suited for a game like Mario 3, where you need to hold down the B button to run, while occasionally rocking your thumb on the A button to jump. That's what I spent years doing as a kid, and it just feels more natural when the buttons are laid out horizontally, instead of the angled positioning on modern controllers. It might just be muscle memory, but I felt far more comfortable playing Mario 3 on the NES pad compared to either the Joy-Cons or pricey Switch Pro Controller. Jumping into River City Ransom and Ninja Gaiden was a similar blast from the past -- beating up street thugs and ninja jumping across obstacles felt just as good as before.
But does anyone really need the NES gamepads? That's the tougher question. At $60 for the pair, it seems insanely expensive for controllers that are only meant for emulated NES titles. And don't forget you'll also have to subscribe to the Switch Online service ($20 a year for individuals, $35 a year for families) to play those games. You're better off just shelling out $70 for the Switch Pro controller, which is a huge upgrade over the standard Joy-Cons for most modern titles. The NES gamepads might be an easier sell if they were closer to $40, at least then it wouldn't feel like you're shelling out for a full-priced game.