The N64 Controller Gets Brass Gears Through 3D Printing

The controller for the Nintendo 64 is a masterpiece of design, and despite being more than two decades old, people are still using this controller competitively. Smash Bros, you know. Those competitive gaming enthusiasts are hard on their controllers, and after decades and tournaments, the analog stick will wear out. Previously, this required a rebuild or simply replacing the entire controller. Now there’s another option: a completely re-engineered analog stick, all made possible thanks to 3D printing.

[Nam Le] is a student at Cal Poly, and as would be expected for a very specific subset engineering students, had to track down new N64 controller every few months. The stick on these controllers wear out, so [Nam] decided to make the most durable joystick that has ever fit inside an N64 controller.

The design of the N64 stick is pretty simple, and exactly what you would expect if you’ve ever opened up an analog joystick. There’s the stick itself, which is connected to gears on the X and Y axes, which are in turn connected to encoders. This entire assembly sits in a bowl. After twenty years, the mating surface between the stick and the gears wear down, and the bowl becomes deformed. The solution here is obviously to engineer something sturdier, and despite what most of the 3D printing community will tell you, ABS and PLA just won’t cut it.

[Nam] re-designed the gears and bowl out of brass using lost-wax casting using 3D printed parts. These brass parts were mated with 3D printed gears and an enclosure for the bowl. The stick is nylon, an important design choice because this is the first part to wear down anyway, and it’s also the easiest part to replicate. Yes, this is designing an analog stick for the strength of materials and Real Engineering™ for those of you keeping track at home.

Right now, the joystick works as intended, and lasts much longer than the stock version. The goal now is to get this stick tournament-legal for some serious Smash time, in the hopes of not replacing controllers every few months.

36 thoughts on “The N64 Controller Gets Brass Gears Through 3D Printing

          1. Fair enough. The third grip was awkward no matter how you held it. The joystick bit into your thumb. It had too many odd buttons of various sizes. A good controller makes you forget you are holding it. The N64 controller never allowed that because of the 3 prong design.

        1. What is really amusing is that one controller design is expected to work for everyone. I mean typically a controller design would be made such that it would cover the first standard deviation at a minimum. In essence there will always be people who dislike any controller, compound that with the Internet where you end up with a negative bias on any subject and you will easily find people who hate the controller.

          I have larger than normal hands, and i cant stand Sony’s controllers. I can easily go on-line and feed my confirmation bias by finding people in similar situations. On the other hand, i found that the N64 controller rather ergonomic for the hours and hours i spent playing super smash brothers. but very rarely will people take to the Internet to say that a product is good, or pretty decent, instead they either sing its praises (a very small percentage of users) or lambaste it for being anything short of average. Hence why you will find negative bias concerning almost everything on the Internet.

          1. Christ, thank you! I, too, have fairly large hands, and the N64 controller was perfectly ergonomic for me. Hell, I didn’t even hold it the “right” way: I always thought you were supposed to grip it from the outer spokes and the middle one was just for aesthetics. To this day, I can’t even use an N64 the supposed “right” way, because gripping it like a more typical controller puts the analog stick right at the perfect place for my left thumb.

    1. There’s a good reason that the modern console FPS was basically born on the N64, the controller was ideal for shooters until dual analog sticks became the standard.

      The problem with the N64 controller was Nintendo tried to make it “dual mode”. They knew there would be 3D games that needed the analog stick, but weren’t ready to fully commit to putting two of them on there and potentially alienating the 2D gamers who expected a digital pad under their left thumb. The solution was a controller that could be held in two different ways depending on how many dimensions your game had. It was an interesting idea, but it hasn’t really aged well.

    2. It was only reviled for looking silly, it worked just fine beyond the problems mentioned in the article and the design rendering it an either or choice for analog or digital.
      Being the butt of jokes is not the same as being reviled.
      And lets face it the worst analog joystick and worst first party controller BOTH belong to the Atari 5200

    3. Nintendo have had the most innovative thumb torture devices ever made but they pushed the limit on endurance on your thumb to new heights.

      Seriously though, the n64 controller wasn’t bad. It just had sadists designing it to an ergonomic end point where humans replaced their thumbs with bony carapaces.

    1. i liked those optical joysticks that ms used to make. single sensor (vector) hall joysticks are nice but i prefer to use a single sensor per axis. i also like to have one spring per axis rather than single spring designs, gives you better feedback. id love to see gimbals that can be switched between spring mode and friction mode. i got a frictioned ‘stays where you put it’ 1st order joystick that is great for games like mechwarrior 2 (one of those oddball games that support 1st order sticks as opposed to the 2nd order ones you normally find in game controllers). mouse is 0th order which is probably why so many pc gamers prefer it. but i want to really see games that use the right type of controls for the right situation.

  1. 3d printed masters for lost wax casting? I sure hope someone in the model railroading community has thought of this. Lost wax is the preferred approach for making detail parts for steam locomotive models and such.

    1. Rotary encoders combined with the right software or hardware wil never loose a single step.
      Badly designed hardware / software will though, but it is short sighted to blame it on the rotary encoder principle.

      1. @Lord Nothing – they WERE recentered every time you plugged in the controller or turned on the console.

        I think the overall range of motion of a thumbstick is way less than other rotary encoders we’re used to (like the ball mice of yore, or spinner controllers for various arcade games etc). It’s probably designed so that it is impossible to throw the stick fast enough to skip a beat.

  2. “The design of the N64 stick is pretty simple, and exactly what you would expect if you’ve ever opened up an analog joystick.”

    HMMMMmmmmm…. I guess I’m an idiot. Because I expected to see a set of potentiometers and NOT optical encoders driven by a simple set of gears. I guess it is because I never opened a “modern analog” joystick, the ones from the 80’s and 90’s all used pots. And still many controller of today use pots, so you can imagine my surprise when I saw the animated gif (first time I could really appreciate a gif).

    Thank you, hackaday, for learning me something new today.

    1. im curious why they did it that way. only thing i can think of is longevity as pots tend to wear out eventually. but you likely take a massive hit to precision for it (possibly more so than a 10 year old well used pot). also when this thing was designed they didn’t have the ubiquitous one size fits all thumbstick modules back then. the only other thing i could think of is the possibly dirt cheap optical encoders due to the mechanical mice of the day. or perhaps they didnt want to swing for a microcontroller with an adc.

      1. Look at like this: With a potentiometer, there are two surfaces to wear (the gimbal and the wiper). With an optical encoder, there’s only one.

        The on-the-wire signal from the N64 controller is 8 bits, comparable to the ADC you’re comparing it to anyway. (Count the number of holes you can see, multiply by 4 to get the number of counts achievable)

      2. I’d say based on the re-centering comments, no need to calibrate the center and range as a pot can drift and/or not have the same resistance curves/lines between every part run. Remember being asked to move your sticks in every extreme and center? A rotary encoder can just start at 0 and then count the movement offsets. With a high enough gear ratio you’d get good precision

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