(Updated: 5/29/07: Added a few more images)
As much as we love to rag on Gamestop around here, earlier in the month they had an awesome clearance on old Nintendo 64 and Playstation 1 games. The pickings were slim, but for every 20 cartridges of WWF Warzone was a copy of Excitebike, F-Zero X or Pokemon Puzzle League waiting to be adopted. Needless to say, I picked up five games for under 10 bucks, not a bad haul by any means.
When I brought the games home to try out, my old N64 looked tired and worn. Not only did games barely start up, but the power and reset buttons felt like they had peanut butter in them. On top of that, all of the analog sticks on my controllers were positively worthless. It also didn’t help that the games from Gamestop looked like crap, loaded with stickers, smears, food, possibly fecal matter, and other hideous things. For a moment I thought about buying a new N64 and a set of controllers off eBay, but chances are that thing would be gross too. Instead, I decided it was time to breathe some life back into the aging Nintendo console.
The following guide will help you restore your Nintendo 64 and for a rather low price at that. It is by no means for experienced console modders, just people who wouldn’t mind putting a little polish onto their games. Best of all, most of these tips can be used for various consoles from the NES to the Genesis.
Old and ugly
Cleaning and Modding the N64
Considering the games weren’t starting upon hitting power, the cartridge loader probably needed a good cleaning. The first and most obvious thing I did was hop onto eBay and purchase a N64 cleaning kit for the control deck. The only way to clean out the sticky buttons would be to pop open the control deck, and the only way to pop open the console is with a 4.5mm screwbit, aka a GameBit. This tiny chunk of metal is a bit of a rip off but it’s the only way you’re going to get inside the console. Be warned you’ll need a 3.8mm Gamebit to crack open games. Other methods to open the unit include melting plastic, such as bic pens, and molding them to the screws. Don’t even waste your time. You’ll need to melt a pen for every screw, and then hope that you’ll be able to screw them back in later. Trust me, it’s not worth the time, hassle, or smell. I tried it while waiting for my Gamebit to arrive.
The Tools of the Trade
Once the items arrived I opened up the console with no problem. It was amazing how much dust and grime was packed away inside of the console. I popped out the power and reset buttons and gave them a thorough cleaning. Use a damp cotton swab (keep a small cup of water near you) to get into some of the crevices you can’t reach with a cloth. This is also a good time to take a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser and go over the plastic on the console to take off whatever scuff marks and dirt are on there. As you’ll come to find, the Magic Eraser is key to making things look fantastic.
Since you have your console open, why not take the time to mod it? This way you can play Japanese N64 games without using a converter. There are two ways to mod the N64, and both methods sort of blow. The easy way is to simply remove the gray dust cover screwed into the top half of the unit. Doing so will also remove the doors that help keep dust out of the unit. Basically, you can play whatever you want on the console, but you’ll have a gigantic hole in it and dust will slowly gather unless you keep a game in there at all times.
That’s what you want to chop off
The second way is to remove the two tabs from the left and right of the dust tray. I did this by going to town on the thing with a pair of pliers. Serious modders would use a tool called a Dremmel, which would do it in seconds, but we’re doing this on the cheap. After butchering the dust tray, I reassembled the unit. It’s a small price to pay, but it looks so much better than having that hole in the top of the unit and it beats using the converter. You won’t miss those two tabs believe me.
Editor’s Note 2/27/2016I’m happy to see so many people read this guide! Much has changed since it was written ages ago, like people having access to 3D printers and making cool stuff. With a bit of searching you can find different outlets offering a Universal Nintendo 64 Tray. If you want to spend a few extra dollars, you can purchase one of these and play both Japanese and North American games on the same console without having the ugly butchered tabs.
Fixing the Controllers
The N64 analog stick: The biggest innovation, and the biggest piece of crap all rolled into one. Face it, as awesome as these things were, they break and turn to crap after throwing Bowser around one to many times. The problem is that the rest of the controller is fine, why should we have to throw these things away just because the analog stick is dead? The good news is all you need to throw out is the analog stick.
The first thing I tried to do was take apart the analog stick and try to see if I could fix the problem. After trying it out myself and then following a tutorial I found on the net, I came to the conclusion there was no way I was fixing the thing. Yeah, I cleaned it up really nice and got all the grinded plastic out of it, but it didn’t have the snap and precision that it should. After a bit of web searching, I discovered that some places actually sell replacement analog sticks. I picked up a set of 4 of them for about 20 bucks, not to bad if you ask me.
The analog sticks are really easy to pop into the controller. Once you unscrew the controller, you’ll need to unscrew the analog stick pack. You will see that a few small cords, all of which lead to a tiny blue box connecting the pack. The pack is literally plugged into that box, so just remove it and then insert the new one. You’ll notice that these new sticks are actually refurbished, so someone knows how to fix them properly.
Editor’s Note 2/27/2016Well the sticks WERE refurbished then. Like my other note, many things have changed in the retro gaming scene since writing this article. It’s really easy to find replacement N64 sticks, most of them which are brand new. I linked it above, but there is also a different style N64 stick that looks like it’s more in line with a Gamecube Analog stick. I bought myself one of these a few years back and I love it. I know purists seem to have a bit of beef with them in regards to accuracy, but I personally haven’t had trouble using them and they’re super sturdy compared to the originals. Of course, the choice is yours!
Having your controller open, you’ll also notice that the thing is probably nasty and filled with grime and dirt. Take the time to really give it a good cleaning. Damp cotton swabs are key to making sure you get all of the dirt out of those hard to reach places. Make sure you clean all the holes the buttons rest in, then clean off all the buttons, and wipe down both sides of the controller shell with the Magic Eraser. Doing a good job will probably take you about an hour (per controller!) but it is totally worth the effort. I feel like I have four brand new N64 control pads.
Update: I actually have better and different cleaning methods for cartridges as explained in our NES restoration guide.
If you bought the N64 cleaning kit, then you’ll have everything you need to clean out your games. If you didn’t buy the kit, you can easily make your own cleaning solution. Pour some rubbing alcohol into a bowl, and then dilute it with a bit of water. Mix your new solution and then dip a cotton swab in it. Go back and forth on the connector of the cartridge and chances are the swab will turn black. Once you feel you have cleaned it well, take a dry swab and wipe it down. Let it sit for a while before you decide to throw it into the control deck. Editor’s Note 2/27/2016Or you could just use some Windex.
75% off that price
Being that all the games I purchased the other day were used, not only do they have obnoxious Gamestop stickers on them, but also sport all sorts of bad things from their previous owner(s). To remove the stickers, grab some Windex or Alcohol and rub a bit of it into the sticker. Let it soak up and then remove the sticker with a razor blade/box cutter. Things get a little tricky when there is a sticker on top of a sticker that you want to keep (like the cover art or warning labels), so try seeing what you can get off with just using the razor blade. Since the cover stickers are glossy, don’t be afraid to get them a little wet. In fact, I recommend putting a bit of Windex onto a paper towel or cloth and shining the sticker up. Just make sure you dry it off as soon as you’re finished.
Once you get those nasty stickers off, use the Magic Eraser to get rid of the glue left behind, as well as the scuffmarks and dirt on the cartridge. Try not to hit the cover sticker with the Magic Eraser; I could see it doing a good number on the cover sticker. With a bit of effort, you’ll make these games look and play like new. Worth the effort if you’re a collector who wants their collection to look pretty.
You now have a clean and fully restored N64. If you’re up to doing this project, keep in mind it is going to take several hours. I did all of this over the course of a few days just for fun.
Better than ever
Liked this article? You might also like:
Ultimate Guide to Restoring the NES
SNES Controller: The Most Influential Game Pad Ever?