BJ Blazkowicz, the scourge of Wolfenstein 2’s perpetual reich, has returned home to the ranch where he was only ever young Billy, disappointment to an abusive father. Right now he’s standing in the basement, remembering when his dad tied his hands to a shotgun, forcing him to murder his own dog. “I’ll be in the grave, rotting away, and still a better daddy than you,” BJ spits. Then he strafes sideways into a shelf full of paint pots.
I can roleplay these incongruities away, I suppose. BJ believes he’s dying. Maybe it’s the blood loss that causes him to keep tripping into things. Or perhaps he’s crumbling, physically, under the weight of his responsibility to the resistance movement. But I know what’s really happening - the Joy-Con I use to steer Terror Billy around are becoming less and less reliable, interfering with even quiet moments of reflection in games I play on the Switch.
You might have already heard about Joy-Con drift which, unfortunately, isn’t an exciting new racing game. No, this is the console’s most notorious issue to date. The symptoms are simple enough to identify: at some point, your Switch’s controllers start registering inputs you haven’t given them. In my case the problem is restricted to the left stick, and along a single axis - mostly, it pulls me dramatically to the left.
I first noticed it after downloading Doom a couple of months ago, in which the Doomslayer would sometimes take himself off a cliff and explode into giblets. Annoying, but hardly game-ruining. Yet it’s become far more pronounced since - at this point, menus are a struggle to navigate, since every tap to the left is interpreted as a fast scroll that takes me to the furthest item in the list.
Playing a shooter like Wolfenstein, I feel like the game’s wing commander, Fergus, adapting to a temperamental new metal arm that refuses to acknowledge his authority. Every firefight is a struggle not just with the enemy but with my own aim. I’ve given up on throwing hatchets, which require a precision no longer available to me, instead favouring the spray of a silenced machine pistol. But I know soon I’ll have to give up entirely and take stock of the options available to me.
Some owners have reported success fiddling with the Joy-Con themselves, installing third-party sticks after pulling the controllers apart with a screwdriver. Needless to say, that’s not an approach compatible with Nintendo’s warranty conditions, which specifically forbid modification.
But I’m far beyond the scope of the standard warranty anyway. That covers defects for 12 months after purchase, and my Switch was sold in February 2017. Drift issues only started to show over a year after the console was last eligible for free repairs.
I’m not alone in that. In July of this year, a US law firm filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Switch users dealing with drift. Specifically, the complaint alleges that the Joy-Con register movement when not controlled by the user and interfere with gameplay. That rings true for the occasions I’ve come out of a cutscene, only to find BJ scuttling like a crab before I’ve even touched the stick.
Visit Nintendo’s repair site and you won’t see drift acknowledged as a named issue alongside screen defects or water damage. But last month, Vice Games reported on an internal memo that instructed customer service reps to fix Joy-Con for free, regardless of when they were purchased. Nintendo may be wary of publicly providing fuel for lawsuits, but it’s certainly acting like a company facing a widespread issue.
The episode prompts flashbacks to the Red Ring of Death, named after the three flashing lights on the face of the Xbox 360 that indicated a general hardware failure - all too common in the console’s early days. The internet is still littered with pages that promise to ‘Fix the Red Ring of Death! (Without Towels)’. The scale of the problem wasn’t initially clear back then, but Microsoft eventually ended up extending its warranty to three years and pledging to repair or replace every machine affected - to the tune of $1 billion.
The Switch’s drift problem might not be as acute as the RROD, but the echoes are clear. This is a PR disaster that threatens the reputation of an otherwise-worshipped console - perhaps the greatest console, the one that truly made games portable without compromise. It’s particularly painful when, after abandoning the Wii U, third-party publishers of hardcore games have finally embraced a Nintendo console again, making the Switch the home of action games on the go.
The RROD only really went away with the release of the 360’s S model in 2010, half a decade after it emerged. Nintendo is in the process of rolling out a new version of the Switch right now, which dramatically extends the battery life - but already there are concerns that the Joy-Con haven’t been sufficiently revised to prevent the problem. BJ might be crashing around his childhood home for a long while yet.