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    • The Relatives

      LodgeNet

      If you happened to stay at a hotel around the turn of the millennium, you might’ve been surprised to see a bizarre Nintendo 64 controller attached to your hotel room’s television.

      This was the interface to a service called LodgeNet, which offered pay-by-the-minute access to some of the banner Nintendo 64 titles. By September 2000, there were more than half a million controllers in rooms at more than a thousand hotels.

    • iQue Player

      The iQue Player was an incompatible variant of the Nintendo 64 sold only in China, released in 2003. Its design is noteworthy for several reasons.

      The most obvious change is the removal of the third prong in favor of a more traditional gamepad layout. It also swaps the placement of the analog stick and d-pad, matching the layout of the GameCube controller and most of the following gamepad-style controllers from Nintendo. Oddly enough, it uses a non-standard d-pad shape, unlike anything seen on other Nintendo products. Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the controller was the iQue Player: the console was embedded inside of the controller itself. It’s amazing what seven years of hardware progression can do.

    • Injuries & Reliability Woes

      The controller’s most notable innovation — the analog stick — was the source of quite a lot of trouble over the years.

      One of the oddest chapters in Nintendo’s history in general was an $80M settlement paid by Nintendo of America in March 2000. Mario Party 3 was a collection of mini-games for the console, and one of the mini-games encouraged players to rotate the analog stick as quickly as possible. Frantic competitive play combined with a hard piece of plastic topped with ridges led to blisters or even friction burns. The settlement was earmarked to provide gamers with special gloves to prevent injury.

      This sort of intense usage would cause a mysterious white powder to appear at the base of the analog stick. This turned out to be the plastic wearing away from a delicate internal component. These days, it can be tricky to find a vintage N64 controller with an analog stick that still works well — many flop around, loose and unresponsive.

      Aftermarket Repairs & Alternatives

      Video game consoles, at least in the 90s, were designed to survive extended contact with young children. This means that they were built to last, and generally still work just fine today. Unfortunately, the Nintendo 64 controller’s finicky analog stick means that any vintage gaming aficionado has probably dipped their toes into aftermarket replacement parts.

      These run the whole spectrum, with something for pragmatists and purists alike. Those who’d like to preserve their controllers as much as possible might opt to swap the faulty plastic components with sturdy metal replacements. Gamers who are less picky can just swap in entire replacement analog sticks. Those with less fondness for the quirky controller can pick up an aftermarket option. These days, there are basically two good choices: one old, one new.

      The Hori Mini Pad came out during the N64’s lifetime, but only in Japan. It shrunk the size of the controller substantially, getting rid of the middle grip and swapping the placement of the analog stick and d-pad. This gave it a button layout more like the Xbox than any Nintendo console. Hori Mini Pads are still prized by enthusiasts today and command a relatively high price.

      More recently, the Brawler64 Gamepad set imaginations alight with a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign. This controller looks like a cross between a Nintendo Switch pro controller and the N64 original.

      Legacy

      In the 80s and early 90s, most game controllers looked like Nintendo’s controllers. From the mid-90s onward, though, that would rarely be true again. This didn’t stop Nintendo from innovating, however. The GameCube controller was a brightly colored lump of plastic that fit perfectly into human hands. The Wii controller was inspired by remote controls, aiming to be as unthreatening to casual gamers as possible. The Wii U controller had a large, integrated touchscreen to try to capture the sorts of gaming experiences that were possible on modern mobile devices. The Switch controllers broke into two pieces to allow multiplayer action anywhere.

      Looking back a the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see the N64 controller as a misstep, a weird evolutionary dead-end. That doesn’t do it justice, however. Nintendo’s legacy of innovation stretches back decades, but it’s the N64 controller where they really let loose and started to think outside the box. It may not be the greatest video game controller ever made, but it’s arguably the most interesting.

      Footnotes

      1. Wired: Nintendo 64 came out 20 years ago. Here’s how a teenaged me reviewed it.
      2. Nintendo Power, December 1995, page 11
      3. Electronic Gaming Monthly, January 1996, page 77 
      4. Game Pro, February 1996, page 21
      5. Patent for Sega Saturn 3D controller (US 7,488,254)
      6. Wikipedia: PlayStation (console) development

      See also

      Patent for Nintendo 64 controller (US 6,102,803)
      Patent for Sony PlayStation controller (US 5,551,693)
      Wikipedia: Nintendo 64 controller

      Image sources

      LodgetNet Nintendo 64 controller
      Nintendo 64 controller
      Sega Genesis controller
      Sega Saturn 3D Control Pad
      Sega Saturn controller
      Sony PlayStation controller
      Super Famicom and Super NES controllers
      Virtual Boy controller
      iQue Player

    • Thanks! I was actually in New York over the summer and got a chance to swing by one of the retroshops and was pretty impressed. Unfortunately, the Bay Area has a surprising dearth of vintage gaming stores.

    • Fascinating! I've owned and loved many of the consoles and controllers mentioned, so this was a fun trip down memory lane.

      These days it's hard for me to imagine how anyone could have used the old Famicom-style controllers for any length of time without serious pain. I'm super grateful for modern ergonomic controllers. I had to give up mouse-heavy PC gaming years ago because it was causing wrist pain, but thanks to modern controllers I'm still able to enjoy console games.

      I own both a PS4 and an Xbox One now, but when I buy a non-exclusive game I usually buy it for the Xbox, and the main reason is the controller: it's just slightly more comfortable for me than the PS4's.

    • This controller has given me so many memories. It was the first console controller that made me feel like I was playing something truly new and different.

      I also really loved the GameCube controller. It's crazy that they remade a Nintendo Switch version for the Super Smash Bros. purists!

    You've been invited!