Long ago, before the Nintendo Switch hit store shelves, folks were diving into the console's potential capabilities by looking at patents registered by Nintendo. In one patent, Nintendo detailed alternate Joy-Con controllers, featuring analog sticks and buttons in different configurations. One of these options showed a directional pad in place of the Joy-Con L's face buttons or analog stick.
After the Nintendo Switch launched, I found myself constantly wishing that Nintendo would deliver on the promise that patent entailed. I can get by with the face buttons or the short analog stick as a replacement for a directional pad, but I vastly prefer playing Switch platformers or fighting games on my Pro Controller or 8bitdo pad. Unfortunately, both of those options break the magic of the Switch for me; I use it exclusively as a portable, only docking the system for review and recording purposes.
I'd been wandering lost and alone until accessory manufacturer Hori announced the Hori D-Pad Joy-Con. It's a stripped down version of the official Nintendo Joy-Con, offering an actual directional pad at a solid price point of $24.99. It's even an officially licensed Nintendo product, so if you're waiting for the platform holder to deliver something similar, I wouldn't hold your breath.
In Japan, the Hori D-Pad Joy-Con comes in flat red or blue, while in the United States, we have several garish options with Nintendo branding. There's a grey version with The Legend of Zelda markings, a red version with Mario phrases, and an upcoming Pokemon version with Pikachu and lightning bolts. I'd rather have flat colors, preferably matching with the official Joy-Cons, but I ultimately decided to go with the low-key Zelda version.
Pulling the Hori D-Pad Joy-Con out of the box for the first time, the most noticeable aspect is the weight. It's much lighter than a standard Joy-Con. Nintendo's Joy-Cons can be pricey, so to hit the $24.99 price point, Hori removed a lot of the technology inside. The Hori Joy-Con lacks Bluetooth, HD Rumble, the accelerometer and gyroscope, and the SL/SR buttons along the inner edge. It doesn't have an internal battery. In fact, the Hori D-Pad Joy-Con only operates when attached to the Switch itself. Pull it off and it simply disappears as far as the system is concerned.
In terms of build quality, the plastic shell largely feels the same; it's not cheaper or flimsier plastic than what's on the real Joy-Cons. The analog stick likewise feels exactly the same. What has changed are materials used for the Minus and Capture buttons. Instead of being cast in hard plastic, those are now a soft rubber. This makes pressing either far less tactile and satisfying compared to their official counterparts. The Capture button is rather sponge-like in particular.
The L and ZL buttons return to the same quality as the official Joy-Con. The ZL feels exactly the same. The L button is slightly higher than its official counterpart and has a bit more travel, but I actually prefer this. The release button on the back is also slightly higher than an official Joy-Con, so if you have a grip that fits over your Joy-Cons, that might not work here.
So how does the directional pad itself work? In terms of physical feel, it's not as sharp as the Pro Controller or say, the d-pad on the Xbox One controller, without the crisp pop of bottoming out in a specific direction. (The d-pad on a modded Switch Joy-Con is a bit better, but that requires some elbow grease.) I admit that after using it for a while, I actually want Hori to go all the way and put the directional pad in the position of the analog stick. Its position is better than nothing, but it still feels a little odd for fighters.
Speaking of fighters, the diagonals on the Hori D-Pad Joy-Con could be a little better. I found them to be a bit soft and unreliable in Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection and BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle; you have to press a bit harder than the cardinal directions to get them to respond correctly. I got used to it and was still able to perform Dragon Punches and Super Combos, but it could be better. In terms of platformers, I had no issues whatsoever. It worked great in Mega Man X Legacy Collection, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, The Messenger, and Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove.
One benefit of lacking Bluetooth on the Hori D-Pad Joy-Con is your normal Joy-Con L can remain synced with the system. This means switching back and forth is pretty easy, and the D-Pad Joy-Con can be stowed in a pocket or bag without worrying about it turning on the system. Generally, when not in use, I slide on the normal Joy-Con back on the system. One final caveat is the Japanese model of the Hori D-Pad Joy-Con had an issue with power drain while attached to the system, but that seems to have gone away with Switch firmware update 6.0.0.
The Hori D-Pad Joy-Con is a case of "good enough" technology. Unless, you're willing to buy a similarly-priced shell and modify an existing Switch Joy-Con L, which costs $49.99 on its own, the Hori Joy-Con is the cheapest and best way to get a directional pad on the Switch in portable mode. If your focus is fighting games, I'd say you have a little to get used to. If you're focus is platformers though, then this is absolutely worth the asking price. My recommendation is like the directional pad itself: a little soft.