Nintendo’s official Switch-compatible wireless controller Nintendo 64 was announced nearly two years ago but has been elusive to many. Supply seems to have finally caught up with demand, with the pad currently still available to Nintendo Switch Online subscribers via Nintendo’s website following a recent restock, but the coveted peripheral — essentially a modern version of the classic three-pronged gamepad with quality-of-life improvements like USB-C charging and built-in rumble — has been notoriously difficult to come by.
Intended for use with N64 games included in the Nintendo Switch Online Expansion Pack, the controller can only be officially purchased online directly from Nintendo for $49.99. For gamers like me who are outside of North America, Europe, Australia, or Japan, shipping simply isn’t offered.
But I was not going to let that stop me from playing classic N64 games on my Switch using the controller they were intended for. Though its unconventional design has long divided opinion, the original controller is for me the only way to play these games. That preference is informed both by ’90s kid nostalgia and how unnatural it feels playing these titles on any other controller.
Despite being an expansion-tier NSO subscriber, I was forced to turn to eBay to snag an official NSO controller for a pretty penny because Nintendo won’t ship them to Singapore, where I live. But now, 8BitDo, the Hong Kong-based manufacturer of wireless controllers and other retro gaming peripherals, has a highly functional and potentially more cost-effective option on offer.
A cheaper alternative to Nintendo’s option?
I recently picked up an 8BitDo Mod Kit for Original N64 Controller, which turns an original retro N64 controller into a wireless Switch-compatible Bluetooth controller complete with a rechargeable battery, rumble effects, and an optional ultra-precise Hall Effect joystick. The kit requires no soldering and is pitched as being relatively easy to set up, transforming your original controller into a wireless Bluetooth pad compatible with Switch and Android devices. The results have genuinely exceeded my expectations.
As someone without the slightest bit of modding experience, the notion of cracking open a piece of tech and tooling with its innards is a tall order. But after seeing tutorial videos of 8BitDo’s DIY solution, it looked simple enough and a cheaper way of getting myself a second N64 controller for multiplayer use, with eBay options still going well higher than MSRP before shipping.
For those who, for whatever reason, aren’t willing or able to splash out on Nintendo’s official option, the 8BitDo kit is really a no-brainer. This is particularly true if you already own an old or faulty N64 controller. Modding is the perfect way to give defunct hardware a new lease on life, and doing so is honestly very gratifying.
Whether it is cost-effective or not is up for debate. 8BitDo’s Mod Kit goes for goes for $29.99 with just the replacement board and rumble pack, or $39.99 with the Hall Effect joystick included, which is what I opted for, plus shipping. If you don’t already own an old N64 controller, you may end up spending more in total than you would on the official pad, particularly if you opt for an exotic colour.
But the controller used for the mod doesn’t need to be functional, meaning you’re better off buying a broken one on the cheap and restoring it. What you’ll need intact from the original controller are the shell, buttons, and soft-pad membranes within – and potentially the joystick if you opt to keep the original one for the most authentic feel possible, which is all down to personal preference.
Restoring a classic
I managed to find a yellowing old N64 controller locally, which cost me around $15. The first thing I did was disassemble the controller with the magnetic screwdriver that conveniently comes included in 8BitDo’s mod kit so you won’t need to source one. I took out the original board and wiring, then washed and soaked the shell, buttons, and membranes in soapy warm water.
Reversing the yellowing on the shell was very straightforward. Exposing the plastic to hydrogen peroxide and UV light gets the job done. I literally rigged a pants hanger with plastic sandwich bags to soak the shell in peroxide and hung it out my high-rise window. All it took was about three hours in the Southeast Asian sun, though this will vary depending on how much sunlight you get.
Once the shell, buttons and membranes are rinsed and dried, the assembly process takes as little as 15 minutes, and 8BitDo has a video tutorial online (below) in addition to an Ikea-style instruction sheet. Once you drop the new main board in, the trickiest bit is positioning the boards for the shoulder buttons as the stiffness of the connector ribbons made them continually pop out.
A look at online reviews for the kit suggested that others seemed to find it difficult to reposition the board for the ‘Z’ trigger, though I had no trouble doing so. The kit includes a rubber stopper that plugs the hole where the wire had been, which neatly lights up in red while charging.
Once everything is where it should be, it’s as simple screwing it back together and plugging in the rumble pack.
8BitDo’s wireless transmitter is contained within the rumble pack and must be attached at all times. The attachment includes home and screenshot buttons, a pairing button, and a ‘ZR’ trigger to open up in the menu in the NSO app, as well as a toggle that enables the controller to be used on PC and other devices via Bluetooth, which is a major functionality plus if you intend to use emulators.
How does it compare to the official NSO pad during gameplay?
For those who aren’t willing or able to splash out on Nintendo’s official option, the 8BitDo kit is really a no-brainer
Holding the end product in hand simply felt wonderful. The controller synched to my Switch seamlessly and is actually recognised as an N64 controller, as if it were an official NSO one. All the UI quirks and button configurations work as they should. Latency and battery life are on par with the official pad — around 8 hours — with the only downside being that buttons can’t be remapped on Switch (unless you do so at a system level).
To test it out, I fired up F-Zero X and was blown away by how great it felt to control using the Hall Effect joystick. Whereas traditional joysticks use a potentiometer to detect friction and deduce movement inputs, Hall Effect sensors use magnets to deliver more precise controls and are purportedly more durable than potentiometers, which can wear out over time and lead to controller drift.
Compared to the official N64 wireless controller, the Hall Effect joystick is stubbier, more akin to the Gamecube controller’s stick, and is far more manoeuvrable. I recall having a minor thumb sore after a marathon session of Mario Tennis owing to the resistance of the official joystick. The Hall Effect option is indeed more comfortable to play with for long stretches.
Manoeuvrability also felt more precise in Mario Kart 64, Pilotwings 64, and Super Mario 64, particularly when the stick must be delicately pushed forward so as not to wake sleeping Piranha Plants. I switched between the official wireless and modded N64 controllers while playing Rare’s masterpiece Banjo-Kazooie to test the overall feel, which was basically indistinguishable, apart from the different joysticks.
If you opt for the Hall Effect stick, your thumb placement will be slightly lower compared to the taller and stiffer stick on the official pad. If you’re a purist, you can opt to retain the original stick, but I find the 8BitDo’s Hall Effect stick to be better overall. The only other difference is that the official controller’s rumble feels ever so slightly more robust than the modded one.
Is the 8BitDo DIY Mod Kit worth it, then?
All in all, 8BitDo’s DIY Mod Kit for the N64 controller is a superb alternative if you are unable to get your hands on the official product or if you already have a faulty N64 controller within reach. The sheer satisfaction of dissembling and restoring an old piece of tech is also not be underestimated. Doing so made me appreciate how a controller is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
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