The original Nintendo 64 controller proved to be quite divisive as far as gamepads are concerned. With its peculiar three-pronged design – which was partly borne out of Nintendo’s fear that 3D gaming might not take off – camera buttons and novel Z-trigger, the controller was the perfect tool for fully experiencing most 3D games during the system’s heyday. Nevertheless, the D-Pad placement reduced the number of buttons available during play, or at least made it very awkward to use them. Some people just didn’t like the idea that for the majority of games, the left side of the pad remained completely unused. But most of all, the controller's joystick – while incredibly innovative for the time – was very susceptible to wear and tear and quickly became a considerable pain for regular players.
The official Nintendo 64 controller may have its faults, but it’s undeniably comfortable and at the time the joystick was unrivalled in terms of accuracy. During the system’s lifespan, there were a number of third-party controllers that tried to replicate Nintendo’s own magic formula, but very few ever came close. Even 17 years later, modern retro peripheral manufacturers are unable to match Nintendo’s technical brilliance, as we found out when we recently reviewed Retro-Bit’s Wireless Super Retro 64 Controller.
However, it’s true to say that there was actually one company which not only created one of the best third-party controllers available; it also arguably topped Nintendo’s own effort. Created by acclaimed Japanese peripheral manufacturer Hori, the N64 Hori Mini Pad was released late in the N64's life. If you’ve never heard of it then that’s likely because it was never released outside of Japan, therefore making this a rather sought-after item for ardent N64 collectors.
When compared alongside its original counterpart, the N64 Hori Mini Pad sports a rather unusual design. In fact, you could be forgiven for mistakenly assuming that it’s an early GameCube controller prototype. Gone is the trident-esque design in favour of a smaller form that’s somewhat similar to modern controllers. Much like Nintendo's version, the controller is available in a wealth of different colours and for the most part the buttons are identical in shape, size and colour. Aside from its radically different design, the N64 Hori Mini Pad features one major improvement; it has a vastly superior joystick.
What makes it better, you ask? Well, this joystick is similar to the one found on the GameCube controller, although it has a much larger head. It looks a bit out of place due to its size, but it provides your thumb with a good amount of grip and doesn't suffer from the wear-and-tear issues of the original controller. Joystick-intensive activities such as those palm-destroying mini-games in Mario Party are no longer a costly affair, although it’s probably still best not to use the N64 Hori Mini Pad in the same way. As a result, the stick's lifespan should more or less match that of a standard GameCube controller.
Interestingly, Hori chose to swap around the positions of the D-Pad and joystick. The D-Pad, which on most N64 controllers is ostracised to the left along with the even more under-appreciated L-button, sits neatly in the centre. Games like Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and Duke Nukem 64 benefit greatly from this, simply because it's just far more accessible. At the same time, the D-Pad is smaller and isn’t nearly as reliable; you're better off using the original controller for games that make exclusive use of it. It's also worth noting that the overall size of the controller is considerably smaller than the original, so players with larger hands may dislike how bunched up the buttons seem. Nevertheless, the two handles are contoured to snugly fit your hands, even if they aren't quite as delightful as those found on the GameCube controller.
When it comes to the shoulder buttons, things get a little confusing. Your left index finger is granted easy access to the L-button, and there's a Z-button on each side. It's nice that you can choose which side to use, however, the way the buttons are placed is a little confusing. L and R are situated directly opposite one another, with a Z-button below each. While this may look normal enough, in most N64 games the player only ever uses Z and R. As a result, it can feel a bit awkward using these as your fingers aren't level or naturally resting over the two as they do in the original design.
In terms of how it functions, the controller is responsive and the joystick is actually much more sensitive. This can make aiming in some first-person games such as GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark a little difficult, but it’s great for most racing, adventure and platforming titles. In some instances, the heightened sensitivity can have an unintended impact on gameplay; in Goemon’s Great Adventure, for example, the characters actually run faster when using this controller – even the rather rotund Ebisumaru manages a surprisingly quick pace.
Overall, the N64 Hori Mini Pad is a worthwhile upgrade. It’s likely that a first-party controller won't cost you as much, with Hori’s product fetching a higher price as a result of its quality and rarity. Moreover, some games still play better using Nintendo’s own controller – this is especially true in the case of first-person shooters on the system. Nevertheless, the joystick on the N64 Hori Mini Pad is much more durable and that's essentially what you're investing in here. It works superbly with most types of games and you don’t have to worry about the joystick becoming loose. Hardcore collectors likely won't need much convincing; the rarity factor of this product alone will be enough to sway you. Most of all though, if you’re looking for a controller with which to enjoy your N64 collection for years to come, then the N64 Hori Mini Pad is your ideal choice.