Introduction: Enhanced NES Max Controller

About: I love video games, boomboxes, and graph writing. I specialize in electronics, programming, and all manners of DIY fabrication. I have been a tinkerer since the mid 80's. I am always trying to improve store bo…

This simple instructable will show you how to take your NES Max video game controller "to the Max" without having to permanently modify the controller itself.

This is also my 1st instructable! I been a fan of this site and learned so much over the years. Now it's time for me to give back to the DIY community. I chose this simple tutorial. There are already many like it out there over the web, but I decided it is a good start and this is such a totally radical mod, that I want to pass it along.

Enjoy, like, and share, share alike!

Step 1: A Look Back...

OK Class, before we begin; I want to take a moment to put on our "nostalgia goggles" and explore the controller itself, and why I feel that this modification can help you get better use out of your NES accessories. If you don't already own one, I'll explain why the NES Max (with this mondo mod of course) can be a good addition to your 8-bit battle weapon repertoire.

The NES Max controller for the Nintendo Entertainment System was originally released in 1988. Nintendo has had a long history of innovating new gaming designs and play interface concepts. Some successful, like the Wii; Some bad, like the notorious Virtual Boy. The NES Max, for me, always fell into a gray area; and for many fans, relegated to forgotten controller limbo.

The NES Max in some ways was really ahead of it's time as far as introducing concepts that would later become a staple for modern gaming devices. The most noticeable one being it's shape. Gone was the palm-stabbing rectangular game pad, in favor of a more ergonomic layout. The NES Max also featured the first "grips" on a game controller. Not until the first PlayStation (PSX) did having side grips or a "boomerang" shape appear again on a controller. The Max also was the only official Nintendo game pad style controller to have turbo buttons. The other being the NES Advantage that was an arcade "fight stick" style controller, which for most people, was difficult to wield when playing platforming games or just relaxing comfortably.

Although the NES Max had some very positive aspects, it had one heinously major, MAJOR flaw... the D-Pad. There simply wasn't one! In an attempt to introduce a new gimmick to the market, Nintendo replaced the well beloved directional pad with a sliding red cycloid disk and surrounding black control ring. It's advertising slogan was "Power in the palm of your hands"! Well, most players weren't feeling much of the power. For excited kids opening the NES Max as a holiday or birthday gift, they soon realized the "power surge" was more like a jarring static electric shock from a doorknob.

Say it isn't so! Why did Nintendo abandon the best part of the controller in favor of what ultimately ended up being a bad gamble, and then add so many other cool features?! Well, I'm about to show you how to remedy this minor setback, and turbocharge the power of your NES Max ...TO THE MAX!!!

Step 2: Gathering Your Materials:

Our material list is super simple, and will be easy for anyone to acquire:

  1. A NES Max controller. Nintendo model No: NES-027. Usually found on auction sites like Ebay or ETSY, Goodwill or other thrift stores, garage sales, flea markets, or an aging Gen-Xer's basement or attic.
  2. An analog joystick/thumbstick cover. I paid $4 for a set of two Xbox 360 thumbsticks from eBay ("Nintendo Red" of course). I'm sure PlayStation or GameCube thumb sticks will work also. You could even salvage one from an old or broken controller.
  3. A Philips precision screwdriver, cr-vpz0 (or simply "0") size. (i used this wonderful $5 set from Home Depot).
  4. a sanding block or sponge. These can be obtained at any hardware or department store. I found mine at "$Tree" dollar store for the tubular low price of one dollar $US. The one I bought simply said "medium grit" without an actual number. It worked fine for me. The number isn't too important for this mod, but 180-400 is probably a good range.

Step 3: Remove the Back Cover of the Controller

  • Lay the NES Max controller button side down on a soft, but sturdy surface. I place mine on a desk with a towel underneath to protect the controller from scratches.
  • Using a Phillips precision or jeweler's screwdriver, remove the 7 screws on back cover. BE GENTLE! Don't use a motorized driver, as these are "self threading" screws set into ABS plastic. Too much force or repeated screwing/unscrewing will strip the plastic threads inside, in which case you'll be "screwed".
  • Once you remove the screws, set them aside in a spot that will not get knocked over or spilled. You don't want to be crawling around the floor searching for tiny screws embedded in your shag carpet when you could be busy playing "Ninja Gaiden" whilst listening to Slayer. I used a "magnetic parts dish" which was also purchased at the dollar store. - Don't keep your "magnetic parts dish" close to your cassette tape storage cache, or your going to have to listen to the Dr. Wily theme music over & over again.

Step 4: Opening Up the Controller

This step is a "mini boss" style instructable within an instructable, so pay attention.

We're going to extract the mighty cycloid/control wheel assembly from the rest of the controller, so we can prepare to take it ..."to the MAX"

  • Mini Boss Step A: Lift up the PCB (Printed Circuit Board) aka "the brown flat piece that all the electrical protrusions are soldered to". This is a serious step however, as you want to be gentle. The PCB can be firm or stuck, & you may have to apply a little pressure, but just use your fingers and be careful not to break one of the plastic screw posts in the process. The PCB is also connected to the controller cord, & there are a few thin wires that attach it. Don't break those wires by blindly trying to pry off the PCB with a sharp tool, or else I'm going to be writing another instructable about how to re-attach said wires. When you have the PCB & cord removed, set it aside. This might be a good time to check & clean the button contact points underneath. If you have an especially dirty controller, use a Q-Tip/Cotton swab and a little bit of water. Be sure to let it dry thoroughly. 90% or higher rubbing alcohol works too, but be cautious as alcohol can dissolve solder flux and end up making the button contacts worse than the dirt did. For me, a mildly damp Q-Tip works fine.
  • Mini Boss Step B: Lift up & remove the dark gray rubber button pad [right side of controller]. The cycloid/control wheel assembly is located underneath. At this time set the controller itself aside with the PCB, rubber pad, and cord, or slide over to a different work space. We will not be doing anything else to the controller until it is time to put it back together, so keep it safely away from where you are working.
  • Mini Boss Step C: Remove the cycloid/control wheel assembly.

Step 5: Opening the Cycloid/control Wheel Assembly

PLEASE EXERCISE CAUTION DURING THIS STEP! If you are impatient, then get some more exercise & come back.

  • There are 4 plastic tabs on the back of the control wheel. Remember they are almost 30 years old, and ABS plastic, while strong, can become brittle with age. You do not want to break them! The simplest, most safe way to do this is to use only your fingertips & fingernails. If you have on "Lee Press-On" nails, you may want wait. You want to use your natural dexterity to "feel" the amount of pressure you are applying. Don't rush! Push each tab, one by one, from the outside circumference of the control wheel towards the center of the control wheel. You will hear or feel it snap slightly as the tab comes loose, so turn down your Run DMC LP's in the meantime and listen for the click.
  • Once you have popped all four tabs, remove the back plate of the control wheel. It will come apart in two pieces with the red cycloid D-Pad inside.
  • You can place the two Black control wheel halves slightly aside for a moment. Place the red cycloid in storage as we are finished with it. I put mine in a "Zip-Lock" baggy somewhere safe where I will not forget, in case for some future reason I want to restore the stock condition of my NES Max (which would be most "un-rad").

Step 6: Sanding the New Thumb Stick

This is the fun part, so crank up the 80's montage theme music, and let's do this!

Again, I want to stress caution! this step can easily go awry, so take your time. You are building your own NES "Lightsaber", so summon your inner "DIY zen" and stay focused.

  • We are going to ever-so-slightly sand the bottom of the thumb stick so that it will fit snugly inside the black control wheel housing from the previous step. It is easy to over or under sand the part. If you damage your thumbstick, and did not order a 2 pack, like I did, it would be a total bummer. So read this entire step before proceeding.
  • Start by slowly sanding back and forth. You can also move in a circular pattern. The goal here is not to remove tons of plastic, but just take the overall height down slightly. If you are using a thumb stick that is not from an Xbox 360, you you may have more or less to sand. Experiment, and periodically check your fitment. Another consideration is to make sure you are not accidentally sanding at an angle. You don't want to warp the bottom surface or have one side shorter than the other, or your new thumb stick will not center properly.
  • For my thumbstick, I only had to take off about three quarters of a millimeter. That's tiny, so go slow!! It was just enough to snap back into the control wheel housing (which I'll show you how to do in the next step). I preferred mine slightly tight, you may differ. You are the NES power player, so go with whatever suits your play style. The only cautions are that if you sand too much, the thumb stick will be too loose & slide around much like the original cycloid action. If you sand too little, it will fit too tightly back into the control wheel housing,or not at all, or worse, break the tabs on the back of the housing. So please, be observant and take measurements as you go if you can.

Step 7: Adding the Thumb Stick to the Control Wheel

This is the step where we are going to start putting everything back together. If you made it this far, congratulations! You are on your way to having one most tubular NES controller.

  • First we want to double check that our newly sanded thumb stick is going to fit properly into the black control wheel ring housing. The basic rule here is if when in doubt, go back to the previous step & do some more sanding if necessary. You should not have to force the parts together. The whole concept of sanding the thumb stick is to make sure it fits securely without putting too much pressure on the control wheel parts.
  • To check fitment, place the side of the black control wheel ring that has the embossed arrows on it side down. Place the new thumb stick upside down inside the control wheel ring. Finally, place the control wheel backing on top with the smoothest side down (touching the bottom of the thumb stick).
  • If you can fit all three pieces back together without having to use gorilla strength force, it should be good to go. Use your judgement! If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. Make sure all 4 tabs on the back of the control wheel snap back together with ease and you do not have to be forceful to get them to do so. It should be just as easy to snap on and off the control ring with the thumbstick inserted as it was when you first opened it up in the previous steps. If it doesn't, something went wrong!
  • Please note, that the control ring and the back of the control wheel housing are thicker on one side than the other. they match the curvature of the NES Max controller top surface. When re-assembling these pieces, make sure they are correctly aligned!

Step 8: Reassembling Your New Controller

We're almost done! Hooray! But don't hurry, we want to do this correctly.

  • The control wheel has to go back into the NES MAX in a certain position. it is thicker on one side than the other. If you are looking at the controller from the top, it should be even in height all the way around matching the slope and contours of the controller. If it is "lopsided" like in the photo, you need to rotate it until it fits.
  • Another part to be cautious about is the controller cord. the strain relief that attaches the cord to the gray controller housing (shell) has a "U" shaped bevel to it that fits into the "U" shaped hole on the gray controller housing. It has to go back in the right orientation or the gray controller halves will not snap together correctly.
  • Once you have the Control Wheel, rubber button pad, PCB, & bottom half of the gray controller housing put back together, and the gray controller housing halves snap evenly back together, the only thing that is left to do is screw it back together. Be careful not to over tighten the screws. You can potentially damage the screw posts or PCB. Just give it a hand tighten, with very little torque. You can "feel" as you're tightening when the screw head touches the bottom of the post holes. Do not tighten more than this.

Now that everything is put back together, do a brief test press of all the buttons. They should feel exactly how the controller did before we started working on it. The new thumbstick should move smoothly through all positions. Remember, that the new thumbstick is still much like a digital D-Pad. You will only be able to move in 8 directions at a time. Don't try to circle the thumbstick as you would on an analog controller.

If everything seems to work, go ahead and plug your most totally awesome NES Max controller into your NES, clone, or NES Cassic Edition (via an adapter) and enjoy the power back by bodacious demand!