The Nintendo 64 controller was one of the first game controllers to incorporate analogue stick technology as a main feature, intended to provide the user with a wider range of functions such as mobility and camera control. The stick is designed to detect 360 independent directions, compared to the 8 independent directions detected by a D-pad, allowing the potential for Nintendo 64 games to emulate more accurately 360° of motion.
The N64 analogue stick uses a pair of optical encoding disks to determine its position, similar to how ball mice work. Since optical encoding disks only give the system relative changes in the position of the analogue stick, the system assumes that the stick is cantered during power-on and tracks relative movements from there. If things get out of sync, or if the control stick was not centred during power-on, the centre position can be reset by pressing the left and right shoulder buttons (L and R) at the same time as the Start button. While the optical encoding disks are mostly digital and supply very accurate relative movements, third party controllers and joysticks often use cheaper potentiometers instead. These allow the controller to track the absolute position of the joystick, but since the signal is analogue, it is very noisy and can fluctuate even if the joystick isn't moved.
The stick and parts use ABS plastic https://www.reddit.com/r/n64/comments/839vpi/n64_controller_parts_material/
Two wheels are positioned at right angles to each other below the joystick. Whenever the joystick is moved, the two wheels turn slightly. Tiny slots are arranged around the perimeter of each wheel. The wheels are each mounted between an LED (Light Emitting Diode) and a photocell. Light from the LED, shining through the slots in the wheel on the cell, creates a small amount of current. When the amount of light changes, the level of current changes. By monitoring the output of each photocell, the N64 can determine the exact angle at which the joystick is being held, and trigger the appropriate response (https://electronics.howstuffworks.com/n64.htm)
https://n64squid.com/n64-joystick-360-degrees/ How the joystick turns and how many angles it has, way more than 360!
Let’s talk about the problems with our beloved/hated stick. Although the problems are quite simple to define it’s important to understand where they lie, specifically, with the gears and bowl as it gives us an idea of the tool and resources able to fix/repair these parts.
Wear to the individual parts
Unsurprisingly, over time the plastic joystick rubbing on the plastic bowl eventually creates wear on both the bottom of the joystick and the bowl. This is the biggest and major issue with these parts.
The dip in the bowl is the main culprit of wear. This can be displayed over time by the joystick falling into the unit more prominently. The friction caused by the stick chips and grinds away over time at the bowl, you will notice that a lot of old, wobbly sticks have a ton of dust in them, this is caused mostly by the bowl.
In addition, the slots where the gears sit also do wear down, but this is not too much of an issue. For example, Imagine if you were playing Mario party daily then you really wouldn’t notice any issues to the slots at all, it would just be your bowl/gears that would get the most recked.
*White dust is a characteristic of bowl wear (Image source https://www.reddit.com/r/n64/comments/8o4vbm/the_inside_of_a_17_year_old_n64_joystick/)
X/Y axis gears
These parts do take quite a beating over time as demonstrated below. The wear on these parts is again caused by the plastic-on-plastic friction and do wear significantly over time.
*Left top shows worn gears, Left bottom shows new gears. Also, an extreme example of gear wear on the right.
The Stick itself
I would say this part does wear the least, however the little nub on the bottom of the stick caused the bowl to wear and vice versa. Another contributing cause of the stick falling into the housing. This nub flattens and the response becomes diminished.
*pictured is one of El Man’s updated sticks, however for reference the nub situated at the very bottom of the stick is prone to wear.
This link shows the actual effect on the analogue movement based on different levels of wear. Especially the worn red controller. It’s interesting as you can get a sense of what movements on a controller and parts have been done the most as it will be reflected in readings like this. The red controller has been heavily work in all directions….. but not the down direction so much. Typically, most games you will be pushing forward, very hard in some cases, so this is reflected in these readings.
So you want to fix the stick... but do not want the hassle of getting gears, below are some options to consider when choosing how to replace the stick. I will cover a lot of ground here however I am human and may miss something. I will update this as often as I can with any new information I find!
This Link gives an amazing overview of different replacement stick types and their viability of use. Of course, I’m looking through the lens of competitive Goldeneye play where the best stick to use if OEM all the way so let’s take a look (BTW this is extremely abridged, and I urge everyone to look over this post as it’s super informative):
There are 3 main stick types:
OEM original (optical style sensor)
OEM style replacement (optical style sensor)
*The optical style is characterised by the arch shaped chipboard and round encoder wheels.
OEM style potentiometer replacement
*Pot sticks are characterised by 2 4x4 grids on two of the sides of the enclosures, different sticks may have different formats to this (Image link: http://forums.modretro.com/index.php?threads/analog-stick-replacement-problem.9759/)
The main points to consider are:
A normal N64 controller's thumb stick in good condition has a range between 80 and 85 steps in each direction.
https://nfggames.com/forum2/index.php?topic=5803.40 great thread exploring this in relation to GC controllers, OG N64 and ultra 64 controllers.
Normally you would expect the thumb stick to increase its analogue value step by step. E.g., after 12 comes 13 and then 14 and so on. But some replacement sticks skip steps so that e.g., after 12 comes 16 and then 20.
Since the original thumbstick was made from plastic with no lubrication it did wear down with time and the controllers became useless.
Some replacement sticks use a microcontroller to translate the readings they get from the potentiometer into a N64 friendly format. If this process is too slow you will notice a delay in your actions.
The dead zone determines how far you have to move the thumbstick until the N64 actually noticed that you have moved the thumbstick.
If the dead zone is too small your character in a game will move on its own without you even touching the thumbstick. If it is too big you have to move your thumb very far before your character starts moving.
Define sensitivity as how much you have to move your thumb to change the analogue sticks output. If the sensitivity is too high aiming in shooters will become very tricky. A nice evenly distributed range feels best.
In short, the order of preference should be:
OEM original (optical style sensor) 10/10
N64 games are designed to be played using the set up found in these sticks. If you can always play with OEM!
*Credit to Repo for the 10/10 sensitivity display. The gold standard of what we look for in a great stick.
OEM style replacement (optical style sensor) 8/10 (But can vary)
I have gotten many notable times with an optical oem style replacement; however, the wear can come quick, and the parts used to make the gears and bowl can be subpar. They do make a great 2nd choice if you want to just buy a complete solution.
*aftermarket stick sensitivity.
OEM style potentiometer replacement 2/10 - But maybe 10/10**
*This is a super pad 64 reading, I’m pretty sure it’s a pot controller based on this teardown video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQQn7RAFgCk
Have one of these. Got a refund after playing train for 10 seconds. The dead zone is way WAY too big for any competitive Goldneye play. May be good for casual play but I would rather eat the stick than use it.
**There is actually a new N64 stick project currently on going that uses this technology, it is currently being beta tested and I will update accordingly.
Gamecube replacement stick 1/10 (but 10/10 for 2.x in Goldeneye and games which need big sensitivity)
*great for 2.x…...not for normal play. Ralphnet readings
Great for 2.x in Goldeneye as your just move left and right, this is where the sensitivity does really help Ralphnet readings.
More in-depth information can be found on the above link. I really do urge this to be read as it truly is a fascinating read and can give you an idea of the limitations of the different types of joystick out there!
Also posting this link again as it gives great overview of different controllers and there sensitivity: https://www.tapatalk.com/groups/nintendo_64_forever/n64-thumbstick-test-program-t6684.html#p68534
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykIUqqoOc1g&ab_channel=Madlittlepixel A YouTube video on stick sensitivity, covers 3rd party controllers.
https://gbatemp.net/threads/nintendo-64-controller-testing.540529/ some more testing on various controllers.
https://github.com/sanni/controllertest/tree/master/N64-Port how to run your own tests – Everdrive needed I suspect; however, I want to test using an N64 adaptor and emu… [Update] Okay scratch that, no idea how-to run-on EMU, I if someone has an idea how to do it post below and ill update 😊