I’ve been working on this story for a while now. Both as a blog post and as a stream/YouTube video. Everything started a few months ago when I discovered my N64 Controller Pak from the late 90s had stopped working. What was the Controller Pak? It was a memory card for saving or transferring save files for Nintendo 64 games. The Controller Pak wasn’t required for all games. Some, such as Super Mario 64 using memory in the game cartridge for saves. Other games, like Turok, had no cartridge memory and entirely relied on the Controller Pak. And then others, like Perfect Dark, could use both cartridge memory or a Controller Pak.
Anyway, my Controller Pak was not working, and I knew it was time to attempt a repair. I wasn’t worried about the failure. The Controller Pak used a 3.3V coin-cell battery to keep the contents of the SRAM stored. At 20+ years old, a dead battery was a common problem for these Paks. I assumed all I needed to do was solder a new battery into the Controller Pak, and everything would be working again. A quick order to eBay, and a few days later, I had a 10x of CR2032 batteries with solder tabs. I also purchased three more official Controller Paks just in case I had issues.
Today I’m going to describe the installation and review of replacement N64 joystick parts sold by Kitsch-Bent. As described by their website, these parts are made of polyoxymethylene plastic for durability, and I’m impressed with the quality. They look like OEM parts.
Why do N64 joysticks wear out? The answer is twofold. The bottom of the stick rides in a bowl and grinds the surface of the bowl away over time. That is the white powder you eventually see around the base of the joystick. As the bowl wears away, the joystick sinks lower into its assembly, and this causes the movement to feel sloppy. On top of that, the joystick slides inside slots to push gears around. The slots will eventually lose their shape causing joystick to have too much play.
Disassembly of the N64 controller is very easy. There are several Philips screws around the perimeter of the controller, plus two more screws in the expansion port. Once you are inside the controller, the next step is to move the trigger button from its home on the backside of the joystick assembly. Now, unplug the joystick from the main PCB and unscrew it from the shell. Finally, carefully remove the last screw from the joystick assembly. There is a spring inside the assembly pushing the joystick down into the bowl, and when the screw is released, pieces may go flying.
The inside of the joystick assembly may look complicated, but the mechanics are simple. As the joystick moves around, it pushes the gears, which turn optical encoder wheels. The optical encoders turn the analog movement into digital numbers used by the controller to determine how far the joystick has moved from its home position. This is the same technology used in older computer mice used. The 8-Bit Guy did a video on how mice work if you want to learn more.
Installing the new parts is straightforward. Remove the joystick, spring, and gears. Remove the old bowl. Transfer the optical wheels to the new bowl. Reverse the process to install the parts.
That’s it. Overall, I’m happy with these parts sold by Kitsch-Bent. At $1.15 for the bowl, $0.95 for the gearsets, and $1.05 for the thumbsticks, you can repair several joysticks for the same cost as one aftermarket replacement. Most repairs should only need new gears and maybe bowels. The longevity of the components is still unknown. I don’t play my Nintendo 64 daily as I did in 1996-1999, so I don’t expect the joysticks to wear out.