Did you know that it's becoming increasingly difficult to find a Nintendo 64 controller that's in good, working order?
While the controller may have ushered in a new era of full-analogue control in video games in 1996, it wasn't without its flaws. Its unusual three-pronged design was enough to put off some people from even investing in the system. However, the shape of the controller is the least of its problems; the biggest issue is its joystick.
Despite the degree of accuracy afforded by the N64 controller's joystick - making games such as Super Mario 64 such a joy to play - it's sadly subject to wear and tear. After extended usage the joystick becomes loose as a result of internal components repeatedly rubbing against one other.
It's not an issue for those who've left their N64s in the past. But for the small dedicated fanbase that still play the system on a regular basis it's more of a problem than ever, especially given that the N64 is now nearly 20 years old.
Few are more aware of this predicament that Andy Vargas, a passionate 22-year old Super Smash Bros. player. In case you missed our report back in February, Andy is the brains behind a recent Kickstarter campaign that was boldly advertised as "repairing the N64 controller". Using OEM parts from an official N64 controller, Andy's plan is to create new molds with which to produce highly accurate replacement joystick components.
Third-party replacement N64 joysticks are by no means a new thing, but any hardcore N64 fan will tell you that virtually all of the ones currently available to purchase are simply not accurate enough to properly play a number of games. The fact that Andy's campaign raised over $16,000 - more than twice what he originally asked for - and reached its original goal in just three days goes some way to confirming this. "I'm really surprised at how well the project has been going", says Andy. " I thought it would take the full 30 days to reach my goal. It motivates me even more to fix the controllers and provide a better alternative".
But what was it that initially prompted Andy to undertake such a considerable project for a relatively niche audience? "The players and the demand", he tells us. "I constantly heard and saw topics on social media regarding replacement sticks and methods to repair old controllers". This then prompted Andy to further research the idea of creating a replacement joystick, during which time he spoke to a number of professional N64 speedrunners and Super Smash Bros. players.
With a concept firmly in his mind, Andy set up his own company, ENKKO, through which he could start producing the components. "As an accounting student and office manager, it was not tough to create ENKKO and manage it, but what I didn't know very well was the manufacturing process." Naturally, this prompted Andy to contact specialist plastic manufacturers and find out more.
In Autumn 2015, Andy decided to put all of his resources into ENKKO, spending whatever time he had left after both school and work to focus on making the sticks. He also had the fun task of explaining the reason why he wanted a business bank account. "The account manager, in fact, suggested the idea of a crowdfunding campaign, though I didn't feel ready enough to get one going at the time". Kickstarter eventually became a necessity, as the cost for creating the molds was higher than anticipated.
Due to the impressive amount of pledges that the project attracted early on, Andy was able to offer two additional components, the upper and lower gears, as a stretch goal. In the original controller design, these two parts are arguably more susceptible to failure through wear and tear than any other part, so it's good news for backers who will now receive these alongside the joystick and the bowl in which it sits.
When asked about how accurate these replacements will be, Andy doesn't beat about the bush. "Very accurate with some minor design changes that won't affect the end functionality of the parts. It's a bold statement but if I don't set the bar high these parts would not be made well".
Andy has been using the 3D-printed prototype he created for the Kickstarter project, monitoring its accuracy in games very closely. It's far from perfect as a result of the 3D-printed approach and some materials not being entirely suitable, but it's important to note that the final components will not be created in the same way and, thus, should not suffer from these issues.
With the funding now secured, Andy will shortly move into the production phase of the project, and he hopes to have the sticks ready to ship out to backers in late May, effectively marking the end of the Kickstarter campaign. It's worth noting that the delivery of the upper and lower gears may, however, be delayed until June as they were introduced later in the campaign.
Nevertheless, Andy doesn't plan to stop there. He's planning to open an online store on enkko.com after the rewards have all gone out. He hopes to offer the sticks in a wider range of colours such as red, purple and grey - perfect for N64 owners who want to add some custom flair to their controllers.
Andy is clearly an entrepreneur at heart. When asked about the future, he's already got a number of ideas for projects. "I'm working to sketch a better design of the stick case but retain the functionality of the original stick, while my next project is to create rubber grips for the stick knob just like the ones used for PS4 controllers". No doubt we'll be keeping our eyes open for updates on Andy's progress in these areas.
Nintendo's official support for the N64 may have ended a long time ago, but projects such as Andy's and Retroactive's UltraHDMI mod are a prime example of how the system's dedicated fan community is not only keeping the system alive, but attracting more people to it.
Thank you to Andy Vargas for taking the time to speak with us.