Intro: Giant Functional LEGO NES Controller
Built by Baron Julius A. von Brunk : July - December 2012 • Photos by Gene Kennish : December 30, 2012
My most ambitious LEGO creation yet: a large 5-foot sculpture of a retro Nintendo Entertainment System controller - that’s actually rigged up with wires and switches to work!
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Initially conceived in the late summer of 2012, this titanic brute has been gradually worked on since the past months and finally completed towards the end of 2012. Various issues, such as work-related and/or financial problems halted its production, but nonetheless I managed to complete this giant controller, in both its LEGO structure as well as electrical functionality.
Resting atop a large folding table in my attic workshop, the controller is built of light-grey LEGO brick walls with removable tiled plates for the ceiling. Like previous works, I’ve used custom glossy stickers for the labels. The innards are mainly hollowed with some trusses and support for the buttons; the buttons are spring-loaded modules using LEGO Technic pieces to make the large buttons reciprocate when pressed. Below the large LEGO buttons are small momentary pushbuttons soldered to the actual circuitry board of an original NES controller, which is then linked to a USB converter to play Nintendo ROMs on my computer. When the large LEGO buttons are pressed, the bottoms make contact with the pushbuttons, which then send the electrical signal back to the controller’s circuit “brain”; the LEGO Technic spring suspension system prevents the large buttons from getting stuck in place.
Background: this project was the byproduct of my aborted LEGO Batmobile event. In the summer of 2012, Ripley’s in Times Square contacted me about doing a promotion to kick off the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises - using thousands of LEGO bricks to complete a replica of the Batmobile, from start to finish with no breaks - as sort of a “speed run.” On the day of my scheduled build-off, the tragic shooting occurred, unfortunately, and the build-off was scrapped in light of the incident. Scrambling to think of a substitute promo creation, we tried to come up with a bunch of last minute LEGO sculpture ideas to have me create, with a date that coincided with the project (for example, building an Eiffel Tower on Bastille Day, giant jack-o-lantern on Halloween, et cetera). I did some sleuthing and found out the 25th anniversary of the release of the first Legend of Zelda for NES would be a week from the day of the original Batmobile build-off [which was on July 20th; Zelda came out on July 27th 1987] and thus suggested recycling the black and grey bricks to make an NES controller! The PR agency with Ripley’s rejected the idea, however the prospect of me building a giant LEGO NES controller seemed like such a jolly good idea that I went ahead and began acquiring parts for it en masse - not for Ripley’s, but for my own sake!
Like every other LEGO creation I’ve made in the past, I first checked Google to see if anyone has ever built a giant NES controller from LEGO bricks. I discovered that giant functioning NES controllers were nothing new - in fact, around 2008 there was a significant fad of people in the U.S., U.K. and Australia constructing giant 5-6 foot operable NES controllers to use as coffee tables. I said to myself, “Well, I guess this means I definitely won’t be the first person to make a giant working Nintendo controller… But that doesn’t mean I can’t be the first to make one out of LEGO bricks!” And thus I began mapping out the controller’s specs, keeping it in proportion to a real controller, enlarged and made almost perfect to scale (give or take by a few centimeters, depending on the size available of LEGO units). In fact, every detail on my controller, such as the placement of the buttons, the size of the text in “Select and Start”, and the location of the dark grey middle stripes were constructed virtually in sync with a real controller, only slightly off and/or adjusted to compensate for thickness of LEGO pieces.
First I built the buttons; I purchased a large parcel of Technic shock absorbers to use as a suspension system for keeping the heavy buttons held in place. The A, B, Start and Select buttons are made of rounded bricks, whilst the D-pad is a square plus sign resembling a German Balkenkreuz. Coming up with a way to integrate the momentary pushbuttons with LEGO parts was difficult, as I try to avoid glue, cutting and sanding when possible. While watching Ghostbusters 2 one night, I figured out how to keep the Radio Shack buttons in place by having a small LEGO chassis to hold each button down, with clearance for the wires to slide out the front. The large buttons would slide up and down and make contact with the small Radio Shack buttons held in the small LEGO holders I rigged up.
Next came the construction of the outer walls and the base: I used several 32 x 32 green baseplates on top of a large folding table, and constructed the four walls from thousands of light-grey bricks. Fun fact: if you call up the LEGO Stores and request to purchase an entire box of one type/color of pieces [used mainly for store stock in the Pick-a-Brick section], they’ll sell ‘em to you for $70 each with free FedEx shipping! Let’s say you want to make a giant LEGO castle, you could easily get a few $70 boxes of entirely grey bricks, rather than sorting through pieces online. Thus, I bought about six or seven boxes of light-grey 1x4 and 2x4 bricks to make the walls. The original concept was to make the roof completely in a fixed position, with doors on the front wall of the controller to make any repairs internally. I realized this was an inefficient method; thus I removed the doors, made the front wall solid, and the roof detachable in five large reinforced plates with tiles and stickers for design. If you look at the work-in-progress photos in my previous Tumblr posts, you’ll see the early stages before the ceiling, when the doors were in place and the innards of the controller were fixed with beams/trusses to support the eventual ceiling that I scrapped.
The walls have the most pieces, but surprisingly didn’t take too long to put up. In fact, I slapped each brick-on-brick together like masonry bricklaying, and with its flat rectangular shape with little deviation, I breezed right through assembling the four walls. As mentioned previously, I had at my disposal several boxes of solid-color bricks I purchased in bulk from the LEGO Stores in New Jersey and Long Island; piling on the light-grey bricks meant simply dipping in the boxes and repeating the brick-on-bricklaying method. The ceiling plates took a while to build, however; they had to constantly be removed and adjusted to slide in place securely. I also had to keep reinforcing the under portions of the roof plates to make sure they didn’t warp in the middle. The tiling process was also very tedious and time consuming.
The majority of the controller was built by September 2012, but multiple obstacles stood in my way to prevent its final completion and unveiling. In early September, Nelson Lugo commissioned me to build for him a large LEGO Doctor Who TARDIS prop for EPIC WIN Burlesque, which halted production of the controller, as the TARDIS was a paid gig and of course higher priority. Also around that time I waited anxiously to receive several original NES controllers from eBay to gut out and use the circuits. A few were duds, some were third-party knockoffs with improper circuitry, and above all, my soldering skills were weak! By October, I ran into the endgame of an ongoing conflict at the job where I worked at the time. Several personal issues between my boss and myself caused massive paycuts towards my salary, thus I was essentially broke and demotivated - unable to afford last minute parts, let alone to afford a photographer to take pictures of this project. This meant a stalemate. Luckily by the time November rolled around, I found a new, better paying job and resumed completion of the controller - electrical wires and all - by December!
I recall vividly the day I rigged up the wires successfully: I stayed up all one Friday night making a mess with solder and speaker wire, to create a beast of a tangled slapdash electronic circuits as I listened to my classic rock mix playlist in my attic workshop. The next afternoon, I hooked up the USB-out end of the controller to my laptop, put on the theme song from RoboCop, loaded up a Contra emulator ROM, calibrated the controller’s buttons, and voilà: history was made! My seemingly chaotic jerry-rigged wires and alligator clips attached to a 25-year old Nintendo controller were fully-operational, much like the Second Death Star! Then after much scrambling to find a good photog in time, I managed to just now get this massive controller officially chronicled and put online for your viewing pleasure!
- Baron von Brunk
Thanks to the various tech savvy folks across these internets who originally came up with making giant functional NES controllers. Without their hack/mod skills to make good use of old Nintendo peripherals, I wouldn’t have figured out which wires go where and do what! In fact, check out thisissafety’s from Instructables, and this particular classic wood finish NES table! I used the exact electrical schematic and wiring infrastructure from the former, by the way. I haven’t soldered since 11th grade shop class, and working with a delicate piece of Nintendo history took a lot of finesse and practice.
Thanks to Gene Kennish, the professional photographer who came from Staten Island for the photo shoot at my place in Queens. He does amazing work and has reasonable rates; I certainly recommend his services to anyone needing a good cameraman in the NY/NJ area, especially for burlesque shows and headshots!