Hands-on: Switch’s NES controllers offer unmatched old-school authenticity

Now you're playing with power.

Playing old-school games on the Switch thus far has been a choice between various control compromises. You can use two Joy-Cons held in two hands, but the tiny buttons and lack of a true d-pad make this setup less than ideal. Holding a single Joy-Con sideways eliminates the d-pad completely and forces you to curve your grip around a hand-crampingly small control surface. A Switch Pro Controller or various third-party solutions can solve these problems, but they come with relatively high prices and some added features you don’t need for classic games.

Enter Nintendo, which is offering subscribers to its new Online service the ability to buy two wireless, Switch-compatible replica NES controllers for $60 (on top of the $20 a year subscription). After spending a few hours testing the little guys (just before pre-orders start shipping out) we found them to be competent, authentic throwbacks with some important limitations.

Truly authentic

Anyone with fond memories of gripping an NES controller in their youth will be happy to hear that Nintendo got the authenticity darn-near perfect with these replicas. Everything from the sizing to the tactile feel to the springiness of the buttons and the d-pad is practically indistinguishable from a brand-new NES controller you might have bought three decades ago. This isn’t that surprising, since the wired NES Classic Edition controllers had the same level of fidelity, but it’s still nice to see.

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Switch’s replica NES controllers only work with emulated NES games

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I’ve been on record for years now in my position that the Nintendo Switch Joy-Cons are “hand-crampingly small” when being held horizontally, NES-controller style, by adult-sized hands. So I was hopeful that the Switch-compatible replica NES controllers Nintendo announced last week would let me play a variety of old-school Switch games with a full-sized controller, complete with an old-school d-pad and full-sized buttons.

Those hopes have been dashed, as Nintendo-watchers have noticed the following disclaimer on the UK and Australian versions of the Nintendo’s Switch Online information pages (though, oddly enough, not on the US version of the page)

Please note: Nintendo Entertainment System Controllers can only be used while detached from the Nintendo Switch system, and only to play NES – Nintendo Switch Online games [emphasis added]. Nintendo Entertainment System Controllers can be charged by attaching to the Nintendo Switch system.

In its recent Nintendo Direct video presentation, the company only highlighted the controllers’ use with downloadable NES games, and the fine print of that video did state that “Controllers do not include Joy-Con functionality.” Still, these newly spotted Web disclaimers confirm that the special controllers won’t work with any other Switch games.

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Nintendo’s NES Switch controllers activate the nostalgia centers (and wallets) of retro gamers

The news that Nintendo would be adding NES games to the Switch as part of its paid online service had a mixed reception, but the company has completely made up for this controversial decision by releasing wireless NES controllers with which to play those games. At $60 they’re a bit steep, but come on. You know you’re going to buy them eventually. Probably next week.

The controllers were revealed during the latest Nintendo Direct video news dump, alongside a host of other nostalgia bombs, like a new Animal Crossing and about a million Final Fantasy ports. But first the details of those sweet, sweet controllers.

They’re definitely NES-style down to the buttons, meaning they aren’t going to replace your existing Switch Joy-Cons. So why do they cost so much? Because Nintendo. At least they’re wireless and they charge up by slotting onto the Switch’s sides like Joy-Cons. And they do have shoulder buttons, though, for some reason.

You’ll be able to pre-order a two-pack starting on the 18th for $60, which also happens to be the launch date for Nintendo Switch Online. Yeah, it’s time to fork out for that online play Nintendo has generously given away for so long.

Fortunately, as you may remember from previous announcements, the cost is pretty low; $20 per year, and it gets you online game access and a growing library of NES classics. Ten of those games were confirmed before, but 10 more were added to the list today.

So at launch you’ll be able to play:

  • Balloon Fight
  • Dr Mario
  • Mario Bros.
  • Super Mario Bros.
  • Super Mario Bros. 3
  • Donkey Kong
  • Ice Climber
  • The Legend of Zelda
  • Tennis
  • Soccer
  • Baseball
  • Double Dragon
  • Excitebike
  • Ghosts ‘n Goblins
  • Gradius
  • Ice Hockey
  • Pro Wrestling
  • River City Ransom
  • Tecmo Bowl
  • Yoshi

The service will also enable cloud backups of saves and possible special deals down the line. It sounds like it’s basically a must-have, although plenty of people are angry that their virtual console games have been essentially stolen back from them. At least we have the NES and SNES Classic Editions.

Ever wanted to see “beyond” the NES game screen? With WideNES, you can

Here at Ars, we’re big fans of emulators that go past perfectly recreating the original hardware and move on to enhancing the game-playing experience. Whether that means converting 2D NES sprites to 3D polygons or removing latency frames after controller presses, we’re there.

So we were more than happy to recently stumble upon WideNES, a new emulation project that extends the visible area of an NES game map past the usual 4:3, 256×240 resolution screen area we’re used to. Using WideNES, you can even zoom out and pan through previous screens using the keyboard and mouse wheel while still playing the game.

The generalized methods used by WideNES are described in a fascinating blog post by University of Waterloo student Daniel Prilik, who created the algorithm. Basically, the WideNES system watches the background “map” data constantly scrolling through the emulated NES PPU as you play. It also closely monitors the PPUSCROLL register, which controls the actual screen scrolling by pointing to different parts of VRAM as the player moves.

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How do you pronounce “NES”? Nintendo throws a wrench in the debate

You can keep your long-running debate about how to pronounce GIF. For me, the argument over how to pronounce “NES”—the abbreviation for the Nintendo Entertainment System—is the more interesting and contentious debate.

Whenever the argument over this inconsequential question comes up—in forum debates, Twitter threads, Slack chat rooms, or even in-person conversations—it never fails to draw strong feelings. People who grew up pronouncing each letter in “N-E-S” are met with those who have gone their whole lives calling it “ness” (or “nezz” in some cases). Both sides are usually equally stringent in their decision and wonder how the other side could possibly think they’re right.

For years, I thought that Nintendo had “officially” settled that debate (as far as it could be settled) in favor of pronouncing each letter of “N-E-S.” But now, a throwaway line in the Japanese version of WarioWare Gold has thrown everything into question once again.

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Nintendo hid a load-your-own NES emulator inside a GameCube classic

Fans of the early-2000s era GameCube version of the original Animal Crossing likely remember the game including a handful of emulated NES titles that could be played by obtaining in-game items for your house. What players back then didn’t know is that the NES emulator in Animal Crossing can also be used to play any generic NES ROM stored on a GameCube memory card.

Security researcher James Chambers discovered the previously unused and undocumented feature buried in the original Animal Crossing game code and detailed his methodology and findings in a technically oriented Medium post this week.

The key to opening Animal Crossing‘s NES emulator is the game’s generic “NES console” item. Usually, this item simply tells players who try to use it that “I want to play my NES, but I don’t have any software” (separate in-game items are used to play the NES ROMs that are included on the Animal Crossing disc).

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Hacker gets Super NES games running on unmodified NES

Tom Murphy explains how he got a Super NES game running on an unmodified NES.

At this point, we’re used to modern computers being able to perform near-perfect emulation of older gaming hardware via software trickery. The latest project from Tom “Tom7” Murphy, though, seems poised to coin its own definition for “reverse emulation” by running a playable Super NES game on actual unmodified NES hardware.

Murphy breaks down this wizardry in a pair of detailed videos laying out his tinkering process. Though the NES hardware itself is untouched, the cartridge running this reverse emulation is a heavily customized circuit board (ordered from China for about $10), with a compact, multi-core Raspberry Pi 3 attached to handle the actual Super NES emulation.

The Pi essentially replaces the PPU portion of the cartridge, connecting to the NES via a custom-coded EEPROM chip that tells the system how to process and display what would normally be an overwhelming stream of graphical data coming from the miniature computer. Only the CIC “copyright” chip from the original cartridge remains unmodified to get around the hardware’s lockout chip.

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