Ask any of us who grew up in the 1980s with a Nintendo Entertainment System controller in our hands and we'll all tell you the same thing: that controller is iconic. Sure, it's been surpassed by the controllers that came after it (the Super NES controller made it immediately obsolete), but there's a certain special something about that solid rectangle with the red buttons that evokes all kinds of nostalgia. Nintendo has sold its classic back catalog through download services on its modern consoles for fourteen years now dating back to the original Wii, but players have relied on the modern controllers that belong with those modern consoles to play those old NES games. You can turn a Wii remote on its side to sort of approximate the NES controller and a 3DS has all of the necessary buttons to simulate the experience, but there's a magic ingredient in the authentic old NES controller that is somehow essential to the experience. Now that Nintendo is releasing NES games for its Switch hardware, you might expect that the company would have you turn a Joy-con on its side and somehow play Super Mario Bros. 3 and The Legend of Zelda with a tiny little controller, but there's a far better option than that. Nintendo sells real honest-to-goodness Nintendo Entertainment System controllers designed for the Switch, wireless communication and rechargeable battery included. At $60 for a pair it seems steep, so when the package was on sale at half off over the holidays, I decided to take a chance and welcome nostalgia home. I ordered a pack, charged 'em up, and my girlfriend and I set out to explore the two-player library of the Switch's NES library.
Right out of the box, the memories came flooding back. The colors, the weight, the overall feel of holding the NES controller in my hand all seemed right. Sure, the modern NES controller is wireless and it has a few extra buttons hidden away on top for navigating the system's menus, but at the core these are NES controllers. We were excited to jump into playing, but then we hit a harsh truth: there aren't that many two-player games on the service. We took a run through a few levels of Double Dragon II, played a round of Dr. Mario, flipped Goombas in Yoshi, and raced through Vs. Excitebike. After that it was a matter of scrolling through the menu asking "Does this look good?" Usually the answer was no. The two-player experiment lasted about twenty minutes.
My girlfriend went on to bed, but I started flipping through single-player games. Super Mario Bros. 2. Kirby's Adventure. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Kid Icarus. All of them old friends and all of them played magnificently on that old controller. I've played these classic games with a Joy-con and I've played with a Pro Controller with all of its fancy modern design conventions, but the NES controller is the way that these games were meant to be played. Experiencing them with that controller is part of the experience. The old muscle memory came right back and I was jumping and shooting and stabbing my way through the greatest hits. This is what it's all about.
Just for a lark, I took the controller out of the NES ecosystem and tried to play retro-friendly Switch games with it. You would think the Sega AGES version of Sonic the Hedgehog which really only requires one button to play would work, but the button to actually start the game is not supported, so there's no way to get past the menu. Oops! On the other hand, Capcom's Mega Man Legacy Collection feels like it was made with this controller in mind. Remap the buttons to fit the NES form factor and it's like 1989 stopped by to hang out for a while. I tore through Mega Man 2's eight Robot Masters in about thirty minutes. I had to make myself shut it off and go on to more responsible things such as sleep. This controller could be dangerous!
So, in the end, I highly recommend the classic NES controller, but not necessarily two of them. That's a difficult recommendation to make because Nintendo only sells them as a two-pack bundle. On the other hand, they also sell a Super NES controller individually for $30 each and there are plenty of better Super NES games on the Switch that I'm sure my girlfriend would enjoy playing. I ordered two of 'em this morning. I look forward to repeating this experiment.
To hear more of my thoughts on the NES controllers for Switch, check out Episode 299 of the Power Button podcast.