An issue that many retro gamers face is the inevitable degradation of their controllers. Whereas some people persevere with controllers that are turning to dust, I have instead spent the past few years trying out various third-party joysticks and parts so I can have the most authentic gaming experience possible. Now, I’m passing on my knowledge to you!
If you’re not familiar with assembling an N64 controller and stickbox, there are lots of tutorials online which can help with this, but for this first article I’ll be focusing on the parts and not the assembly. The following shows the best results I’ve been able to acquire so far using off-the-shelf parts. Links provided but please note, theres no paid promotion here :)
Let me preface the article with this: genuine Nintendo sticks still (arguably) offer the best experience, but new-in-box controllers are increasingly difficult to find nowadays. An oft-touted third party alternative as the ultimate replacement is the complete ‘SteelStick64’ drop-in replacement module. The main issue with going down this route is the waiting list; newcomers may be waiting for years to get their chance to order.
SteelStick64 Steelbowl B-grade : https://steelsticks64.com/?product=n64-steelbowl-b-gradeThe steel bowl pictured above can be found on steelsticks64.com (Note: the black optic wheels are OEM Nintendo). This particular model is referred to as a B-grade bowl, as it doesn’t receive the same heat treatment as the A-grade bowls. Unless you’re a professional Smash Bros player, you’ll likely find no issue with the more basic model. While SteelStick gear is extremely hard to get as quantities are super limited, the B-grade bowls do become available on occasion, so keep an eye out! They are likely to last a lot longer than the cheaper plastic options.
Brass slots 3.30mm + gears : https://www.shapeways.com/shops/el-man-s-n64-partsThe brass slots and clear plastic gears that I found to be the best replacement can be found in El Man’s Shapeways store. Personally, I’m using the 3.30mm kit as I’m too lazy to polish the 3.40mm parts, but with a bit of grease this option is still great. If you want the absolute smoothest experience, I would still advise you to get the 3.40mm and spend some time polishing. The brass materials should also last longer than other plastic alternatives.
Clear Thumbstick : https://store.kitsch-bent.com/category/by-console-n64This joystick option is courtesy of Kitsch-Bent. At the time of writing they did not have any in-stock, but they were recently available in large quantities – keep an eye out! When available, they are also reasonably priced.
The Finished Product:
My upgraded Ice Blue Controller; this was the second replacement controller I owned and my favourite in its heyday. Unfortunately many years of Zelda spin attacks left it far from nice to use. The stickbox has been through several iterations over the years, with the parts described above making it feel and play the best it ever has!
But, dear readers, I hear you ask…
“Are there any cheaper alternative recommendations?”
Definitely – you do not need steel or brass parts in your reconditioned N64 stickbox to get a nicer experience!
When reconditioning any stickbox, usually the bottom of OEM sticks are quite worn, so it’s hard to get by without changing it. I’m yet to find any high quality replacements other than the above Kitsch-Bent stick. While there are some 3D printed Shapeways options, I did not find the fit to be as nice as the Kitsch-Bent or a fresh OEM stick.
Full stickbox replacements:
Drop-in replacements you can get from China (including the Gamecube-style ones) are not worth your time or energy due to extremely poor optics (in the case of the N64-style) or over-sensitive stick response (in the case of the Cube style). Kitsch-Bent replacement parts are also cheaper, when available.
I’ve also tried using parts from these cheap kits (eg. using the grey stick in lieu of the clear Kitsch-Bent stick), but unfortunately there are subtle differences which prevent them fitting well or at all, in some cases.
There are ways to correct the over-sensitivity of the Gamecube-style stickboxes by making modifications to the integrated electronics which could make it a very nice option, but I’m yet to try this myself at this stage.
“What if I don’t care about the weird N64 controller and just want to play my games?!”
I’ll try not to be too upset that you don’t want to use an authentic N64 controller; here’s some alternative options that might suit you.
Raphnet controller adapters : https://www.raphnet-tech.com/
By all reports the Raphnet controller adapters work very well, allowing you to use a controller from another system on your N64, most commonly Gamecube controllers.
Retro Fighters Brawler64 : https://retrofighters.com/
I backed these during their original Kickstarter campaign and found them to be very usable alternatives. They have a traditional button layout which could be appealing to those who are not a fan of the 3 prongs, and the sticks were truly excellent. My only gripe was that the buttons tend to get stuck under the shell if pushed too aggressively (Mario Kart 64 multiplayer has that effect!), but if you’re not the type to get white-knuckle fever playing your N64 games, you’ll likely be just fine.
What do you think of these suggestions? Have you successfully attempted an N64 controller revival or refurb? Let use know your thoughts, experiences, and stories.
Good luck with your attempts; we wish you fun and happy Nintendo 64 gaming!