How to use the Nintendo Switch’s Joy-Cons with your Mac – and why you’d want to

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The Nintendo Switch hit stores last Friday, and the gaming
world is buzzing about the convertible handheld/home console
hybrid—and top launch title, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the
Wild. While you may never get the chance to play the new Zelda
on your computer, there is a surprising connection here:

the Joy-Con controllers can pair with your Mac

That’s right: the little control nubs that bookend either side
of the Switch’s screen detach from the unit, and since they
pair via Bluetooth, you can use them with Mac games. We
certainly wouldn’t recommend buying a Switch solely to
use the Joy-Cons on Mac, but if you game across multiple
devices and snagged the console, then Mac compatibility is a
sweet perk. And the Switch’s beefier Pro Controller works with
macOS, as well.

switch joycons consoleAndrew
Hayward

The Joy-Cons slide right off of the Switch, and then you can
attach the optional strap piece that makes them larger and
enhances the shoulder buttons

Want to wield some Nintendo hardware with your Mac? Here’s how
to get set up, how well it all works, and why you should even
bother.

How it works

As first spotted
by software engineer Sam Williams
earlier this week, the
pairing of Switch controllers to your Mac is surprisingly
effortless. Just hold down the little pairing button on the top
of either Joy-Con, open up Bluetooth preferences on your Mac,
and you should be able to pair the devices right away. Now you
have a Nintendo-made Mac controller.

Each Joy-Con registers as its own controller, however, and
unless someone creates a software solution to enable it, they
can’t be used together simultaneously as a single unit on Mac.
That’s a big limitation, since each Joy-Con acts like half a
controller: it has one analog stick and four primary face
buttons, along with two small shoulder buttons. And since
you’re holding it sideways, the additional shoulder and trigger
buttons on the lower left or right side won’t really come into
play.

switch joycons bluetoothAndrew
Hayward

Each Joy-Con functions independently, but hopefully some
enterprising soul gives us a way to use them in tandem.

On the Switch, you have different kinds of configurations. The
two Joy-Con pads can be used simultaneously, either attached to
the screen or held separately, but each can also be used
individually for multiplayer games. For example, you’ll be able
to throw down in next month’s Mario Kart 8 Deluxe with two
players each wielding a single Joy-Con. And that’s essentially
the experience you get on Mac: a Joy-Con, held sideways, with a
limited array of inputs.

As such, you’ll have to choose carefully when it comes to
games. Most 3D games are going to be too complex to work with a
single analog stick, so skip the first-person shooters. I fired
up Steam and had a look at my library, and found that it was a
perfect fit for tower defense great PixelJunk Monsters
Ultimate
, one of my all-time favorite PlayStation games
that was ported to Mac. After playing with the in-game
bindings, I was dropping towers and running around with ease.
It felt fantastic. Same with 140, an
inventive, ultra-minimal side-scrolling platform game.

switch joycons openemuAndrew
Hayward

Spend a minute mapping the buttons in OpenEmu and you’ll be
playing retro classics with the Joy-Con.

Truth be told, the Joy-Cons are absolutely perfect for
emulating old-school games. The legality of emulation is a
sticky subject, but if you own the original game, you’re
entitled to have a backup ROM. Using the Joy-Con with OpenEmu was a total breeze, and
within moments I was immersed in Super Nintendo classics like
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Mario Kart
like I was a kid again. Even a 3D legend like Super Mario 64
played well with the Joy-Con, although I lacked enough buttons
to have manual camera control.

Why you’d bother

Emulation has never been a strong personal interest, as I
always felt like you lost something in the transition—but
playing classic Nintendo games using actual Nintendo hardware
really helped bridge the gap. It was a seamless experience, and
I think it’ll be one of the biggest draws for using the Joy-Con
controllers on Mac. That’s especially true since Nintendo
released the Switch without its Virtual Console service for
selling retro games (it’s coming eventually), so you won’t be
playing those on the actual device for now. 

If you don’t already have a Mac-compatible gamepad, then the
Joy-Con is certainly better than nothing. It’ll work with some
games, but obviously not all of them given the lack of a second
analog stick and additional buttons. And even for those who
already have a fully-featured Mac controller, like the
SteelSeries Stratus, the Joy-Cons have other advantages.

switch joycons mariokartAndrew
Hayward

Multiplayer Mario Kart on your Mac? Yes, please.

For example, they’re super tiny and even pocket-sized, so you’d
have a lot less to carry around if you’re traveling with a
MacBook. If you’re packing your Switch and MacBook for a trip,
you can easily swap between the devices with ease without
needing to pack a separate Mac gamepad. Just be sure consider
what kinds of games you plan on playing on Mac before you
decide to ditch the full-sized gamepad. 

And actually, if you bring your Switch, you’ll have not just
one Mac gamepad on hand, but two—both Joy-Cons can be paired at
the same time and used with applicable games. I fired up Super
Mario Kart in OpenEmu and was able to throw down in two-player
split-screen using both gamepads. They may not be robust
controllers, but for simple two-player fun, they’ll do the
trick.

Go Pro?

Given Nintendo’s use of Bluetooth for Switch controllers, it
makes sense that the Switch Pro
Controller
 also pairs swiftly with Mac using the exact
same process. The Pro Controller looks and acts much like an
Xbox One or Xbox 360 controller, with two analog sticks, a
directional pad, and a full complement of face, shoulder, and
trigger buttons. It’s also pricey at $70, yet currently
near-impossible to find, since it’s such a benefit for playing
Zelda on your TV. 

In any case, if you have a Switch Pro Controller, you might as
well use it on Mac, right? As with the Joy-Cons, it worked
perfectly with OpenEmu and its highly-customizable control
schemes. It also played nicely with PixelJunk Monsters again,
and once I created a gamepad profile within Steam, I was able
to use it for the awesome Rocket League, as well as
oddball gem Octodad: Dadliest
Catch
and indie blaster Luftrausers.

switch pro rocketleagueAndrew
Hayward

Rocket League isn’t on Switch, but you can play it on Mac with
your Pro Controller.

Yet I ran into issues with other games that offer gamepad
support, but wouldn’t recognize the Pro Controller. That was
the case with everything from Nuclear Throne to Gone Home, Guacamelee, and Valve’s classic
Portal,
even with gamepad schemes engaged in the options. Your
experience may vary, and perhaps it’s something that’ll improve
over time as the Switch Pro Controller lands in more homes.

Bottom line

The frustrations were, well, frustrating—but being able to
wield a full gamepad for Rocket League and other Mac games made
it worth the minimal hassle. If you snagged a Switch and also
do a bit of gaming on Mac, you have little to lose by quickly
pairing a Joy-Con and/or Pro Controller and seeing what works
well. It could elevate your Mac gaming experience, or at the
very least give you a more portable control option.

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