From stick drift to just being too small, Joy-Cons can be a dealbreaker for some people when playing the Nintendo Switch in handheld mode.
Besides being prone to drifting over time, they don’t come cheap at $80 for a replacement pair. Fortunately though, there are plenty of Joy-Con alternatives among the best Nintendo Switch controllers.
While the Hori Split Pad Pro, the NYXI Wizard and other third-party alternatives attach to the rails on either side of the Switch, this approach has its downsides. For starters, using the Switch’s rails for larger controllers can lead to flexing since it can’t support their extra bulk. At the same time, you’re not able to make full use of their rear paddles as buttons from the right side can’t be mapped to the rear paddle on the left as they’re technically two independent controllers.
I’ve been playing my Nintendo Switch regularly since I first got it back in 2017 and during that time, I’ve tried many different Joy-Con alternatives along the way. Some worked better than others but after testing out the CRKD Nitro Deck, I think I may have finally found the right Nintendo Switch controller for playing comfortably in handheld mode for long periods of time.
A different take on handheld mode
The Nitro Deck ($59, CRKD) isn’t just a pair of Joy-Con alternatives you slide onto the sides of your Switch. Instead, it’s a “Professional Handheld Deck” for both the original Nintendo Switch and the Nintendo Switch OLED, according to CRKD.
There’s a USB-C port in the middle of the controller that the console slides down onto just like with the dock that comes with your Nintendo Switch. However, once docked in the Nitro Deck, your Switch locks into place so that it won’t fall out. This direct connection over USB-C means you won’t have to worry about lag and the Nitro Deck doesn’t need to be charged as it’s powered by your Switch.
The Nitro Deck’s buttons are larger than those on Nintendo’s Joy-Cons but are still smaller than the buttons on the Hori Split Pad Pro or the Nintendo Switch Pro Controller. Likewise, the joysticks are bigger than those on the Joy-Cons but are still smaller than the ones you’ll find on other Joy-Con alternatives. Their thumb sticks are removable though, and if you opt for one of the Nitro Deck’s from CRKD’s Nostalgia Collection ($89, CRKD), you get two extra ones with a bit more grip.
While the front of the Nitro Deck looks just like a Switch with its Joy-Cons attached, you can see all of the additional features CRKD added to the controller when you flip it around. There’s a kickstand in the middle and two reprogrammable buttons on either side of the controller. Since the Nitro Deck uses the Switch’s USB port to connect, CRKD has added two additional USB-C ports on either side of the kickstand. The one on the left labeled Input is used for passthrough charging while the one on the right lets you use the Nitro Deck as a controller when playing your Switch in docked mode. There’s also a locking mechanism under the kickstand that needs to be pushed up to take your Switch out of the Nitro Deck.
Even though the rear paddles are right where your middle and ring fingers rest when holding the Nitro Deck, they take a bit of force to actuate and I never found myself accidentally pressing them when playing Tears of the Kingdom. Just like the GameSir T4 Kaleid and the 8BitDo Ultimate Bluetooth, the Nitro Deck uses magnetic Hall Effect sensors for its joysticks, which means they won’t succumb to stick drift like the Joy-Cons do.
More comfortable but still portable
Although the Nitro Deck appears to make the Switch look a lot wider at first glance, the controller only adds an extra half inch in width. It's the additional depth though that makes the Switch feel a lot more comfortable to hold in handheld mode with the Nitro Deck attached. At its center, the controller is one inch in depth while its handles are 1.5 inches deep.
To make the Nitro Deck easier to hold, CRKD has added cutouts to the back of both handles and just like with the faceplates on the PS5, they’re actually the company’s logo. When combined with the additional width offered by the Nitro Deck, I was able to play my Switch comfortably for hours at a time without my hands cramping up like they often do with Nintendo’s Joy-Cons.
One problem you often run into when using third-party Joy-Cons is that they don’t fit in any of the Nintendo Switch cases you already have. Thankfully, CRKD has also created a case that fits the Nitro Deck perfectly. If you buy one of the base editions of the Nitro Deck, you’ll need to purchase the Nitro Deck Carry Case ($30, CRKD) separately. However, if you spent a bit more on one of the Nitro Decks from the Nostalgia Collection, they ship with a case included. The case itself has eight storage slots to hold physical versions of the best Nintendo Switch games and you also get a braided USB-C cable for charging and using the Nitro Deck in docked mode.
I’ve mostly been playing on my Switch with the Nitro Deck at home but with this case, it’d be pretty easy to toss into a backpack and play on the go. Alternatively, you could put your Switch in its normal case and have the Nitro Deck in another bag as it feels pretty durable from my testing so far.
A great accessory that arrived a little too late
Let’s face it, the Nintendo Switch’s days are numbered. Sometime next year, we’ll likely see the arrival of the Nintendo Switch 2. Knowing Nintendo though, its next console won’t just be an iterative upgrade and will instead try to do something completely different.
While everyone else has been wondering whether the Nintendo Switch 2 will work with their existing games, I for one have been hoping that all of my Switch controllers will be backwards compatible. Now that I’ve spent some time with the Nitro Deck, I would also love to use it with the Nintendo Switch 2, especially given all the care and attention that CRKD has put into its design and features.
If you don’t plan on upgrading to the Nintendo Switch 2 right away or just can’t stand dealing with stick drift on your Joy-Cons, the Nitro Deck is a great accessory for those who prefer playing their Switch in handheld mode. Sure, it makes Nintendo’s hybrid console a bit bulkier but this also means it's more comfortable to hold for extended periods. Plus, you get four reprogrammable buttons like on the Steam Deck and the ability to play while charging.
At $60, the base edition of the Nitro Deck will be more than enough for most people but if you play your Switch while traveling or want a controller that transforms the look of your console, picking up a Nitro Deck from the Nostalgia Collection makes sense as you also get a case.
Either way, the Nitro Deck has certainly made me rethink how I play my Switch and while I normally prefer to play in docked mode, I’ve been playing in handheld mode just as much as I did when I first got the console. I think this alone really speaks to the comfort and experience of using the Nitro Deck over other Joy-Con alternatives.