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