The Nintendo 64 was the first home game console that featured a mini-joystick, or “thumbstick,” on the controller for 3D motion. But the console is now over two decades old, and while the cartridge-based hardware is practically indestructible compared to modern consoles, the same can’t be said for that thumbstick. Even with Nintendo’s generally high-quality materials, the N64 analog stick is prone to loosening and drifting.
But there’s an easy fix. Though it might seem like a daunting task, you can replace (and possibly even upgrade!) the thumbstick with a cheap part and a standard screwdriver. Better controls in Mario Kart 64 are only a few minutes’ worth of modding away.
What You’ll Need
You’ll only need a few things for this task:
- An original Nintendo 64 Controller: this guide is for the first-party Nintendo controller, not any third-party alternative—those are wired differently on the inside, so replacement sticks normally won’t work with them.
- A replacement thumbstick: You have a few choices here, which we’ll discuss below.
- A screwdriver: a small Phillips-head will do best.
- A cup or bowl: to keep the loose screws from rolling away. If you have a magnetic screw tray, even better.
There is one unfortunate caveat here: no replacement thumbstick on the market is quite as good as the original. But you do have choices. Players going for authenticity can get a stick like this one from RepairBox ($11) that aims to emulate the original, though original-style replacements tend to be a bit stiffer and of lower quality than the original.
But a popular alternative, and the one we’ll be using for our demonstration, is a “GameCube style” stick ($10) that features an updated design. The improved version uses the same shorter stick and larger ball swivel as the later GameCube controller, which offers much smoother control. It is, however, much more sensitive, so games that require precision (like aiming in GoldenEye) will require a lot of getting used to, and may not work as well as the aforementioned “original style” stick. They both have their advantages, but I really like the GameCube style.
Unfortunately, we’ve yet to try a replacement stick that truly matched the feel of the original, and original controllers in good condition are becoming harder and harder to find. If you’re emulating the N64, you might do better with a more modern controller, like an Xbox controller. It’s up to you whether you want authenticity or playability.
Step One: Remove the Rear Casing
Once you’ve got all your tools together, it’s time to replace the stick. Unplug your controller from the console and remove any Rumble Pak or Memory Pak you have inserted. Using your screwdriver, loosen the seven screws that hold the plastic rear panel to the front panel. There are two more screws that aren’t so easy to spot: they’re inside the expansion slot on either side of the connector. Take them out too.
Grip the plastic around the expansion slot and gently separate the plastic panel from the front panel and PCB. Note the large plastic mechanism inside the central handle: that’s what we’re working on next.
Be careful not to jostle things at this point: without the bottom half of the case and screws, the PCB and all the buttons underneath are just resting in place with only gravity to keep them there. The shoulder buttons are especially wobbly here. If something falls out, don’t worry, it’s fairly obvious where everything goes—just set it back in place.
Step Two: Move the Z Button Trigger Aside
The blue silicone button on top of the thumbstick housing is the Z button. There are small tabs on the left and right of the button keeping it in place; just push it in gently and raise the silicone piece and the small circuit board underneath away from the housing. No need to unplug it, you can just move it aside as you’re working on the next step.
Step Three: Remove the Old Thumbstick
Remove the three silver screws holding the thumbstick housing in place: left, right, and bottom. (Don’t remove the small screw just above the bottom one—it’s holding the top half of the thumbstick assembly in place.)
Now you can unplug the six-pin connector from its jack on the right side of the PCB and pull the housing away from the case. Note the orientation of the plug, flat side down. You should be able to see the circular hole in the top plastic housing.
Step Four: Insert the New Thumbstick
Place your replacement thumbstick in the hole in the housing, stick-down. There’s only one way it will fit, so just line up the screw retention holes in the same way: left, right, and bottom. Replace the silver screws you removed in Step Three, then plug the six-pin connector into the PCB, flat side down.
Step Five: Reassemble the Controller
Replace the silicone Z Button trigger into its tab slot. Place the rear plastic casing back on the controller, then replace all nine screws (seven on the main body, two in the expansion slot). Make sure that the plastic cover of the Z Button trigger aligns with the silicone button mechanism.
You’re done! Plug your controller into your Nintendo 64 console and make sure it’s working. If not, check the six-pin connection again and make sure it’s firmly in place.
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