Why Does The N64 Controller Have 3 Handles?

We saw some exciting innovations in console technology during the 1990s, which make the generational leaps of today look tame in comparison. For instance, the PS1 was designed from the ground up to play 3D games and introduced an entire generation of gamers to a whole new world of interactivity. Soon after, we got N64 which featured one of the weirdest controller designs of its time.

Why does the N64 controller have 3 handles? Nintendo wanted to combine the best aspects of old-school controller design with its vision of what a future controller should be like. Hence, it got a control stick in the middle for 3D games while retaining the D-pad for classic 2D platformers and face buttons for fighting games.

Because we still hadn’t figured out the optimal way to hold a controller in 1996, Nintendo was experimenting with the unknown. They intended for the N64 controller to be held in 3 different ways, hence it got 3 handles. Unless you have long thumbs, reaching the center joystick while gripping the side handles is very hard.

Why Does The N64 Controller Have 3 Handles?

3D graphics on PC were more developed during the early 90s compared to consoles and the mouse was a superior aiming device for shooters. When Nintendo made N64, they had to figure out quite a few things. One of those was delivering a home console that was powerful enough for 3D graphics, but also affordable enough for everyone.

Then, they had to create a controller that helped players navigate in a three-dimensional world while also working well in 2D games. So they couldn’t get rid of the D-pad, which was essential for platforming. The “C buttons” (yellow colored with arrows) were also essential for attacks in fighting games.

And finally, they need A and B for specific moves/interactions. Fitting all of this in a traditional two-grip layout was impossible. Especially because the A and B buttons were located next to the “C” buttons.

So Nintendo decided to put a joystick in the middle. Because this was the first generation of 3D consoles, Nintendo figured that a separate section of the controller dedicated solely to maneuvering within 3D worlds would be fine. Some rumors even suggest that Nintendo didn’t place the joystick in a more accessible spot because they wanted to force developers into designing games around it.

Plus, the quirky design looked quite futuristic at the time. It grabbed attention and looked so different from everything else that Nintendo used this controller design as a selling point in their marketing. They featured it front and center, telling gamers how N64 was a truly revolutionary gaming platform.

Is The N64 Controller Uncomfortable?

If you try to use it like you would a normal controller, it can be unintuitive. Because unless you’re over 2 meters tall, you’ll probably have issues reaching that middle joystick with your thumb. Nintendo intended for gamers to use two different grips based on the game type.

One grip was with the right handle and joystick, another was with the two side handles (conventional mode). While developing Super Mario 64, Nintendo developers did a lot of playtesting with N64 and created a controller layout that felt comfortable.

How Are You Supposed To Hold An N64 Controller?

You can hold it like a conventional controller, with one hand on either side. But this is intended primarily for 2D games or JRPGs. Then, you have the second layout in which you grip the middle handle with your left hand and the right handle with your right hand.

The second layout is used for shooter games such as GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark. It worked well, thanks to development studios putting in the necessary time and optimizing controls for this weird layout. Some games even let you play with the joysticks from two different N64 controllers at the same time.

Do N64 Controllers Drift?

Yes, but for different reasons than modern controllers. While modern controllers use potentiometers to measure the X and Y-axis movement of their sticks, N64 controllers have light sensors. A wheel with holes sits between the light source and the sensor.

This sensor calculates movement based on the interruptions in light emitted by the source. If dust gets into the sensor assembly, it might register false inputs that show contribute to the stick drift on your screen. You can recalibrate your joystick with the following steps.

First, turn off your N64 and unplug the controller. Then plug it back in and restart the system. Press L + R + Start to recenter your joystick.

You can also open the controller and regrease the joystick. If the joystick is drifting too frequently or not providing adequate feedback, you can replace the entire module.

How Long Do N64 Joysticks Last?

Depending on the games you play and how frequently you play them, your N64 joystick can last anywhere from a year to a decade. Mario Party is known as the killer of N64 controllers because of its various minigames that require you to constantly spin the stick. If you play lots of GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark, you’ll wear out the stick quite fast.

Fortunately, replacement sticks are cheap and plentiful. For a quick fix, you can take the joystick module apart and regrease it. Remove any powder you find inside the joystick assembly.

Do N64 Controllers Vibrate?

Not in their default configuration as shipped from the factory. However, you can buy the Rumble Pak attachment which goes under your N64 controller. It has a vibration motor that adds rumble functionality to the N64 controller.


I hope this article helped you understand why the N64 controller is so weird. Long story short, Nintendo tried to merge old and new designs into one package. They wanted the controller to be capable of both 2D and 3D gaming at the same time but hadn’t quite figured out the best layout.

After all, this was 1996 and gamers were still adjusting to the whole 3D thing. Developers were trying to figure out the best way to control a character within a 3D space. It wasn’t until 2001’s Halo Combat Evolved on Xbox that the left analog stick was used for movement with the right analog stick being used for aiming.


As long as I can remember myself I always enjoyed video games. I had amazing moments playing them and that's why I became a game developer, to create amazing experiences for the players. Read More About Me

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