Fix NES controllers yourself

The iconic Nintendo NES controller tends to be fairly reliable, because it’s a simple design. It’s much less prone to breaking than, say, the joysticks that came with an Atari 2600. But the controllers can still wear down over the decades. Fortunately it’s easy to give them a tuneup. Here’s how to fix NES controllers yourself, with simple tools and household cleaners.

What you need

It doesn’t take much to fix and clean up an NES controller.

  • Small Phillips screwdriver
  • Microfiber cloth or paper towel
  • Cotton swabs
  • Isopropyl alcohol or distilled water
  • Pencil eraser
  • Soap and water
  • Container for holding screws and small parts

And that’s it. Really.

Disassembling the NES controller

To disassemble the NES controller, remove the six screws on the underside. Place them in the container. The back then lifts off.

Inside you’ll find a circuit board and a cable. The cable is wrapped around a few posts to act as a strain relief. Lift out the cable, then lift out the circuit board. Underneath you’ll find three rubber pads. Lift those out as well.

Cleaning the circuit board

repair NES controllers
Clean the circular contacts with a pencil eraser very gently, then follow up with alcohol.

Some people recommend sanding the circuit board. Don’t do that. That causes excessive wear and can damage the board.

Just rub the contacts on the board lightly with a pencil eraser. That’s as harsh as you need to get. Some people even skip that step, so as to avoid excessive wear.

Then wipe the board down with some alcohol on a cotton swab. All you really need to do is get rid of the carbon dust and any other dirt that’s crept onto on the board over the years to make it work like new. A clean contact is a solid electrical contact, and that’s all that’s necessary. Isopropyl alcohol is ideal for this. Here’s why.

Cleaning the rubber pads

repair NES controllers
Clean the carbon contacts on the rubber pads with distilled water or alcohol.

The rubber pads need similar treatment. Clean the carbon contacts with a bit of alcohol or distilled water on a cloth or a cotton swab to remove any carbon dust. Don’t use any harsher cleaner than that, as it can degrade the rubber.

If you want to go the extra mile, rub the carbon contacts on a piece of paper. This can remove contamination on the surface that may interfere with making a good electrical connection. But this also causes wear, so I tend to do this only if a button still malfunctions after I clean the controller. Just two or three swipes against any ordinary piece of paper does the trick.

Cleaning the shell and buttons

To clean the shell and the buttons, just scrub them with hand soap and warm water. You can use a brush if you want. These controllers can get pretty nasty over the years, but a few minutes with soap and water quickly washes away all that childhood grime. The controllers may still be yellow with age, but at least they’re clean. You can tell everyone the yellowing is just patina. Oddly, once it’s clean, the yellow is usually a lot less noticeable.

If it has a lot of scuff marks and scratches, a Mr Clean Magic Eraser does a nice job of gently polishing them down without leaving a lot of additional marks. But once it’s clean, you’ll find the scuffs and scratches are less noticeable too.

Let them dry thoroughly before reassembly. An hour or so is usually good.

Reassembling the NES controller

repair NES controllers
The trickiest part of reassembly is routing the cable.

Push the buttons back into their place, then place the rubber pads over them, carbon side facing up. Place the board on the posts over the pads, with the chip side facing up. Route the cable through the posts. Routing the cable is the trickiest part, so refer to the photo for help.

Then snap on the back and replace the six screws. That’s the most tedious part. Don’t overtighten, just snug the screws down enough that the enclosure holds together.

You’re done. Celebrate by plugging the controller in and fire up a game. You’ll find the controller is much more responsive now than it’s been in years. Congratulations on fixing your own NES controller.

Also, if your console blinks, here’s how to clean the console and cartridges so you don’t have to blow into them anymore to make them work. And here’s how to hook it up to newer televisions.

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