How do I recondition a N64 controller?
Is there a way to refurbish an N64 controller? After years of use the thumb stick on a few of our controllers seem less accurate, and movements have become harder to control. Are there any user replaceable parts that might bring back the original accuracy and crispness of the thumb stick?
I've taken apart some N64 controllers and replaced sticks before. The analog stick is a separate module that screws in to the front (you might see this if you have a translucent one). There is no real way to repair a stick module, as normal movement wears at the plastic bezel in it and creates play. The tolerances are pretty tight, I think if you tried to put a shim in it or something, it wouldn't work well. You can get a NOS module from someplace like HERE.
The way to get at it is somewhat simple. Unscrew the 9 Phillips screws on the bottom of the controller (7 in plain view, two smaller ones in the Controller Pac slot thing). Separate the two halves, and be prepared to catch the shoulder buttons. Once inside, unclip the blue membrane switch for the Z button from the underside of the module. Unplug the connector that goes to the bottom right part of the board. Unscrew the three silver screws holding the module in (NOT the black one, because the whole module will let go into two halves and fly apart from spring tension) and lift the module out. You can fiddle with it if you want, but I advise ordering a new one. You can continue taking it apart if you want to clean out the buttons and stuff, but be warned as all the buttons will fall out once you take the mainboard out. Also the chip in the dead middle of the top of the board is susceptible to static damage, so be careful there.
Some stuff about the technology it uses...the type of sensors in it are optical, not potentiometers (variable resistors) like modern sticks...optica
The N64 stick works in a very similar way. The part of the stick you don't see goes through two hoop type things, one on top of another, and oriented opposite ways. When you move the stick straight vertical or horizontal, it only moves one of the hoops. The axles that the hoops rotate on are connected to the gears and such. This is how the logic of the controller gets values for X and Y. And, of course it has a big spring for centering and resistance, and a bunch of other stuff I'm not sure what it does.
I hope I've clarified things and helped you with your controller problem.
I've refurbished a number of N64 joystick's, and while the only way to get it feeling like new again is to lash out and grab a new joystick assembly, you can at least regain the full range of movement without replacement.
Opening the controller you will find that the joystick assembly is mounted in its own casing. Remove this from the controller frame.
Note: Remember to pay attention to how the joystick unit is assembled, so you can reassemble it without any trouble.
Open the joystick assembly. There is a large spring that keeps the tension on the plastic joystick itself, so be careful not to let that fly off.
Inside you'll find two black guides and the grey joystick mounted above a white plastic hemisphere. Originally I thought the problem was the hemisphere being ground away by the tip of the joystick, and while this does contribute to the lack of smoothness, it's not this which causes the real problem - the loss of movement range. This is caused by the joystick wearing out the slots on the two black guides.
Take some fine cotton string, and tightly wind it around the end of the joystick that contacts the black runners. Keep testing it in one of the guides to get the right amount, too tight and it will restrict movement in the outer ranges, too little and fidelity issues in the center will remain. Once you've tightly tied off the cotton (tightly as possible), reassemble the joystick, and test one last time before screwing the assembly back together.
I also like to spray a little machining oil into the white plastic hemisphere (be careful not to get any on the optical sensors) to ease the movement a little.
So there you have it, I'm sure there's probably a better way, but that's the solution I came up with on short notice one night and have successfully used since.
Just a little fun fact...
Back in 96 when I got my 64, I looked at the analog stick and how it was designed and immediately found a flaw. Maybe it was intentional since Nintendo sold replacement controllers, but I knew that the thing would wear out faster than I'd want it to.
So I opened the casing for the analog assembly and coated all the parts, especially the bottom "dome" which the stick glides against, with lithium grease and popped everything back together.
My controllers are over 14 years old and have zero wear to the analog stick. They still feel like they did when I first got them.
The easiest way to repair the n64 thumbstick is to buy a new one. Fortunately, there are NEW replacements available now. You can find them all over the net. Before, your only real option was to get another controller or buy a used thumbstick in better condition than yours and replace it. I cover why sticks go bad and replacement options HERE.