In today’s digital age, it sometimes feels like hardware has taken a back seat to the software that drives our devices. Button of the Month is a monthly look at what some of those buttons and switches are like on devices old and new, and it aims to appreciate how we interact with our devices on a physical, tactile level.
The Nintendo Switch is an incredible piece of hardware engineering for many reasons: the amount of gaming brawn it packs into such a small package, for example, continues to surprise with portable versions of games that would previously have been unthinkable.
But the best parts of Nintendo’s hardware innovation, at least to me, are the removable Joy-Con controllers that add a whole new dimension to what the Switch can do. And a lot of that is due to the clever, hidden shoulder buttons that Nintendo has integrated into every Joy-Con controller.
I’ll admit, I don’t use the “remove Joy-Cons and use them as two separate controllers for ad hoc gaming anywhere” feature that often. The value of the Switch as a large, portable console has been far greater to me in the two-plus years that I’ve owned it.
And using a single Joy-Con on its own is sort of problematic: the controllers are too small, they don’t have enough buttons, and the D-Pad / face buttons are awkward to use because they’re designed for vertical orientation. It’s a dynamic that’s epitomized by the tactile click that docking a Joy-Con makes compared to removing it: it’s far more enjoyable to reattach the controller.
And yet, I still love the shoulder buttons because of the level of thought that Nintendo put into them.
Nintendo manages to hide them inside the rail that connects the Joy-Con to the Switch’s display, in a masterpiece of efficiency and use of space. And the physical design here is just impeccable: the depression around each button puts them at the right height, the indented plastic guides you to pressing them, and the rail that connects it to the side of the console places the buttons just high enough to press comfortably. Even the bright burst of color draws the eye visually toward those buttons, matching the Joy-Con’s color.
Nintendo even takes advantage of the modular nature of the Switch’s rail system to offer removable attachments that make the half-Joy-Con easier to hold and those shoulder buttons even larger and easier to press. Plus, despite their diminutive size, they’re still high-quality parts, with a crisp click that never leaves any doubt as to whether you pressed them.
But my love for the shoulder buttons goes beyond their physical design; its what they represent. These buttons — hidden out of sight unless the Joy-Cons are detached — epitomize the Switch’s versatility. They’re the embodiment of the idea that you can just pop off the controllers and play a game anywhere, not just by yourself, but with a friend.
They’re what separates the Switch from a very powerful game Boy and make it into a truly portable console. And sure, while I may not use the feature a lot, multiple Joy-Con play still does come up, and every time it’s a delight: putting in a few laps of Mario Kart while killing time in an airport, duking it out in Smash Bros. during a particularly lengthy intermission at a play, or just providing enough controllers to play Mario Party after work by combining with another Switch-owning friend.
In short, it’s the kind of creativity that helps the Switch stand out from the pack. Not bad for a pair of buttons so small, you could go your entire time with the Switch never even seeing them.