25 years of the N64: The N64's controller is good, actually

I am on the right side of history.

On September 29, 2021, the Nintendo 64 will turn 25 years old in North America. Throughout the month of September, I’ll be covering the console, its games, its innovations, and its legacy. Previous entries in this series can be found through this link.

The Nintendo 64’s controller is, in a word, divisive. It has its fans — and I am one of them — but it has its detractors, too. And really, even as someone who thinks it’s a quality controller, I can understand the points of the other side here. This is, after all, a discussion about whether a video game controller is good or bad: some subjectivity is certainly allowed.

There are complaints it is uncomfortable, though, I genuinely don’t understand those issues, since the controller was designed for you to never have to do any reaching for buttons, and the introduction of handles made sure you could grip it comfortably for long periods of time whether your hands were large or small: that wasn’t necessarily the case with many of the handle-less controllers that predate the N64’s.

Your left hand was given one of two tasks, depending on the game or sometimes, when given the choice, your preferences: use the D-pad and the left shoulder button, or, use the control stick and the Z trigger on the back of the controller, which your pointer finger naturally rested on as it gripped the pad’s center handle. The right hand would concern itself with the color-coded A and B buttons, and the R shoulder, and rather than X and Y buttons like on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System’s controller, there was a whole new section of cross buttons: the C buttons, which were directional and also the forerunner to dual analog functions on a controller. It that wasn’t clear enough just from using the N64 controller, consider that the console’s successor, the GameCube, had a C stick in an offset dual analog setup, rather than C buttons.

The one legitimate complaint that I am simply lucky to not have had to deal with myself on a frustrating or game-breaking level, despite still having my original Atomic Purple N64 controller, is that the control stick could get out of whack thanks to its design. It was a real thin stick, not designed like the more modern, thicker models, and constant or hard use could make it drift a little. Not like Joy Con drifting, which is a whole other thing, but the kind of drift that analog sticks eventually go through. The N64’s design for the control stick was a bit of a problem in that regard, as the resting state for the stick wasn’t necessarily right in the center. Unless you absolutely abused your controller playing the first Mario Party, though, it was an avoidable, or manageable, issue, unlike with Joy Con drifting.

That being said, third-party N64 controllers made since the console’s heyday have attempted to address the stick problem, but having the stick attached to a flatter, larger surface that is moving around inside of the controller when you move the stick, instead of the original design of the N64 pad, which had you moving a stick that had a tiny ball at the end meant to roll around inside the analog stick’s little nook. This lack of sturdiness and durability caused the eventual bits of drift, as well as the white powdery shit you’d see coming off your control stick. I am pleased to see an improvement in that particular arena, and hopefully, the Switch variation of the N64 controller takes a hint and borrows that design element instead of faithfully reproducing everything about the original pad.

On the left, an N64 controller from the late-90s that apparently needs a rubbing alcohol swab, with the original stick design. On the right, a modern third-party reproduction, with an updated stick.

The stick needed some work, but it was still innovative. Sony introduced a dual stick controller in the spring of 1997, roughly a year after the N64 debuted in Japan and seven months after its North American launch. The Sega Saturn added the 3D Control Pad to its controller arsenal in Japan just weeks after the launch of the N64, and the North American launch of the 3D Control Pad actually beat the N64 to market by a little over a month. Both the Saturn and Playstation controllers had their uses, but they were in a weird place, too, since the systems were both designed from the ground up for directional buttons, and then added in analog after the fact. The Saturn’s 3D Control Pad actually has you turn the analog function on or off, since only one of the controller’s movement functions is designed to work at a time, and the Playstation’s Dual Analog had a similar button.

Not every game was designed with these new controllers and their analog stick(s) in mind, but despite a general lack of games that utilized the features for these new pads, it’s not as if they failed to serve a purpose beyond that. The Playstation Dual Analog was the predecessor to the Dualshock, which became the Sony standard, and the Saturn’s attempt at an analog stick looks like a prototype for a Dreamcast controller, before anyone solved for the problems with the prototype.

The N64’s pad, analog stick and all, was native to the system. Not every game used the analog stick, sure, but everyone with an N64 had the proper controller to play whatever non-Hey You, Pikachu! game they found at the store. You didn’t need to go buy an extra controller for a small percentage of games, or to press a button to turn on and turn off specific functions. You just put your left hand where you needed to when you needed to.

You could play in the style of the SNES pad when necessary, such as in first-party N64 titles like Yoshi’s Story, Kirby 64, Mischief Makers, and so on: games that played from a sidescrolling perspective, and didn’t require moving around in a third dimension. Then, of course, there were the 3D games that became the system’s hallmark and legacy, such as Super Mario 64 or The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Of course you would use the control stick to move around in those games, which featured a third-person camera view around a three-dimensional space. Some games used the C buttons to manipulate the camera (Super Mario 64) while others (Ocarina of Time) focused more on zooming in on targets and directions using the Z trigger, and giving the C buttons other uses, such as for specific items or actions that were assigned to them.

You can certainly argue that the full potential of the N64 controller — its ability to bounce between the past of gaming and its future — wasn’t utilized often enough, that the system so often defaulted to the control scheme used in its first and best-selling title, Super Mario 64, that it made the other ways of controlling games seem quirky and feel off. To me, a lot of that depends on just how many different games you played on the system, though. Sure, lots of the most popular titles on the N64 used similar control schemes, or at least the grip that utilized your left hand on the center and your right on the right. There are plenty, though, that let you choose which works best for you, such as Ridge Racer 64 — which works better with the more precise D-pad despite being a 3D racer, thanks to how you are supposed to powerslide — or Goemon’s Great Adventure, which lets you bounce between the control stick or the D-pad as you feel comfortable: I prefer the D-pad for the precision it gives you in the 2.5 platformer, except for when swimming underwater. The extra freedom of movement in that kind of environment, when you can move in eight directions where you normally could not, is appreciated.

And then there are games like Perfect Dark, which were designed with a sort of dual analog setup in mind. The C buttons were used in the same way as a right stick would be on a more modern controller, controlling the camera and allowing for high-speed strafing and movement you otherwise could not pull off at the time. As your thumb moved the actual reticule and where Joanna Dark was looking on-screen, your point finger, resting on the Z trigger on the back, could fire off whatever shots you needed. The A and B buttons, always within easy reach regardless of grip, changed your weapon and reloaded, respectively, while the R shoulder allowed you to aim while standing still. And if you wanted to play with your right hand controlling the stick and Z trigger, and your left hand on the D pad — the reverse setup, essentially — you could! That’s some real versatility, even if my head starts to swim even considering switching around which hand does what like that.

Treasure’s fantastic N64 title, Sin & Punishment, was built around the idea of utilizing a grip besides the one that Super Mario 64 popularized. So they settled on left and center grip. As I wrote about in its entry in the Nintendo top 101:

You weren’t locked into this specific scheme, as there were three different control options, but this was the default, and the one the game was designed around. It made playing Sin & Punishment difficult at first, until you could wrap your brain around what you were supposed to be doing. Once you did, though, when you realized that the D-pad was for moving your character within the realm of a 2D space and the analog stick was for aiming within a 3D space, then everything could finally fall into place. Then you could focus on the fact that the game can actually be designed around left grip, and then either center or right grip, depending on your needs at the moment, and if the exclusive left/center arrangement isn’t fully clicking for you. If you need to aim and fire, it’s center grip. If you need to dodge or jump, you can switch to the right grip if you want to separate standard movement from dodge movement in your head.

Sin & Punishment used the whole controller in a way that almost makes it seem like it would work better on a more modern dual analog setup. But trying to dodge with an analog stick can be tricky: you press the C button or D-pad twice in game in the direction you want to dodge, and pulling that off with an analog stick takes too long for the kind of twitch reactions Sin & Punishment can sometimes expect from you. It really was made for the N64 controller, even if your brain wasn’t wired that way. You can rewire it with practice, though, just like I also had to do for another on-rails shooter on a different system, Kid Icarus: Uprising. Coincidentally, I had to play that like I was playing an N64 game, not a 3DS one, in order for it to make sense to me.

This was the beauty of the N64’s versatility, and maybe why sometimes, the controller could feel a little confusing depending on what it was or how much you were playing. It was designed so that developers could design games around whatever combination of grips made the most sense for their ideas, so that the most comfortable to play and best-working version of a game could be produced. For Treasure, they wanted to create a gallery shooter that would allow for a level of precision that just wasn’t possible on the Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo: so, they went with a center/left grip that utilized both the directional pad and the analog stick, for use in different dimensional spaces, with an emphasis on the Z trigger and left shoulder to handle the rest of your functions. For Rareware and Perfect Dark, it meant creating a dual analog shooter — even if there was only one analog stick — that further proved that first-person shooters could thrive on systems that didn’t have a mouse and keyboard attached.

It might not sound like a significant thing, having a D-pad and analog stick to switch between as you want, but consider, for a moment, how often one has been neglected in favor of the other in subsequent console releases. The GameCube’s D-pad is a tiny, cramped thing that mars an otherwise stellar controller, and, sadly, the 3DS handheld repeated that small idea in a way that often causes me to subconsciously switch to the analog nub even when a D-pad makes more sense. The Xbox 360’s directional pad is a travesty that answered the question “what if the Sega Genesis D-pad was even worse and less precise?” Sony’s Dualshocks are often great controllers overall despite my preference for offset sticks, but that they have made their D-pad into four separate buttons has always been a weird sticking point for me that makes some games feel off when controlling them: this design worked well enough for the N64’s C sticks, given they were more of a secondary thing, but for the direct control and precision required of a D-pad, Sony’s controllers have always been lacking.

The N64 controller, though, had a working analog stick and a big, chunky D-pad that did just what you wanted it to, which made it a fit for games that wanted to utilize one over the other, or both in some fashion. I totally understand where the idea would come from that one-third of the controller went unused, but that’s simply not the case. Used less often is not the same as unused: developers, caught up in the three-dimensional rage of 64-bit gaming, obviously had a preference, but plenty of developers recognized the versatility of the controller, and designed their games around whatever would work best for their title, not just what people were used to because of what they played at the system’s launch.

This is all without getting into how the Rumble Pak ushered in an age of controller feedback, that we’re still seeing played around with to varying degrees 25 years after the launch of the N64. The N64 Rumble Pak now seems a curious thing, since you had to physically acquire an accessory to place into the back of your controller in place of the memory pak, but that might also be because the idea of taking a memory card in and out of the back of a controller now makes my eyes go wide. You’ll ruin the card or the controller slot if you do that too much, probably! What were we thinking?! We didn’t know any better, is the thing, in the same way Sega didn’t realize that taking cartridges in and out of the Saturn’s slot would degrade it. Sometimes you have to make those mistakes before you can correct for them, and the way the Rumble Pak was an accessory rather than just native to the controllers is an example of that. Obviously, it was an influential addition to the controller and its legacy, regardless of how the very idea of swapping paks in and out might make me feel today.

The Nintendo 64 controller isn’t perfect, no, but I do feel its opponents haven’t given it, or the idea of it, a fair enough shake. It’s fine either way, really, since we’re 25 years past its launch, and even folks who complain about the controller were excited enough about the prospect of playing Nintendo 64 games on the Switch once they’re available through the Switch’s online service. The controller doesn’t have to be something that you just put up with, though. There was a method to its design that, in turn, improved the games found on the system, by not shoehorning them into one specific control setup or another. Standardization is nice and all, but the gaming industry is always in need of some risks and experiments like that of the N64 controller to shake things up and see what ends up sticking.

In the case of the N64 controller, that was the rumble feature, of course, but I mostly admire its commitment to maintaining the legacy of a 2D past while ushering into a 3D future, as well. We might have lost the plot for a bit there when 3D became seemingly the only way to develop a game, but certainly now, 25 years later and in the midst of an indie revolution that has seen the return of 2D gaming in a way not experienced since the early 90s, surely we can appreciate something that straddled the line so well, and so effortlessly, between past and present, no?

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