Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Joycon Modding

As a launch day Switch owner, I’ve spent a lot of time with my drab, grey, and somewhat unreliable pair of Joycon. Lately, I’ve been seeing flashy new colors and designs of Joycon (some of which include real D-pads!) that have been turning me green with envy. However, these Joycon I’ve been seeing aren’t off-the-shelf models from Nintendo but are the result of mods using aftermarket parts. When the mod kits went on sale recently, I couldn’t resist.

My launch day Joycon before modding. They were due for an overhaul.
I went into this mod to address two nagging issues I’ve had with my Joycon: the left Joycon desynchronizing from the console and the lack of a proper D-pad.

While for many people the desynchronization issue was a chronic problem, for me it cropped up very infrequently and not in a manner that was repeatable. I lost a few lives in Zelda here and there as a result, but it wasn’t quite irritating enough for me to go through the hassle of sending the buggy controller to Nintendo for warranty repair. The problem is caused by electronic interference or static electricity disrupting the antenna on the left Joycon. Nintendo’s official fix is to insert a small piece of conductive foam on top of the antenna to prevent this disruption from happening.

Regarding the D-pad, I’ve been getting by with the directional buttons on the Joycon or opting to use a Pro-controller. The recent wave of challenging 2D indie platformers on Switch has changed my mind, however. A D-pad would have been especially useful when I did my handheld playthrough of Celeste.

The Process
For my supplies, I picked up the Basstop transparent blue Joycon kit with D-pad and the Keten Nintendo screwdriver set. The screwdriver set was necessary because the exterior screws on the Joycon have unusual tri-wing heads. Once the case is open, the interior screws are Philips' head so any set of very small screwdrivers will work from that point forward. The overall process is to disassemble the Joycon, transfer all the internal electronics to the new Basstop casing, add some shielding to the antenna, replace the directional buttons with the new D-pad, and then reassemble.

Left Joycon completely disassembled
Opening the Joycon was both a fascinating and overwhelming process. The sheer amount of components crammed into such as tiny space is truly a marvel. This also makes disassembly and reassembly a slow and tedious process; losing or breaking one of the many tiny pieces is an easy thing to do if you’re not cautious. There are two things that I would highly recommend when going into this process: carefully study a video showing the assembly process (I suggest this one from IGN) and use a good pair of needle-nose tweezers to handle the small parts, especially the ribbon cables. Unfortunately, I didn’t have such a pair of needle-nose tweezers, so I had to make due with the ones you see below and my own short stubby fingers.

Trusty tweezers for many things but less than ideal for electronics repair.
While I'm pretty good at keeping track of small screws and delicately handling components, removing and then reinstalling the ribbon cables and trigger springs proved to be especially tricky. When it came to the antenna repair, the official Nintendo solution is to use conductive foam; however, much to my dismay, none of the foam I had laying around the house was actually conductive. The other options that people on Reddit claimed have worked are static-dissipating foam (such as comes packaged with a graphics card) and anti-static plastic (e.g. the baggie that hard drives come in). As somebody who builds and modifies PCs, I happened to have both of these materials laying around, so I decided to hedge my bets by using both materials together; I placed a small piece of an anti-static bag on top the antenna and then used a little chunk of graphics card package foam to hold it in place. 

Ironically the fix for my state-of-the-art controller was something that most people just throw in the garbage.
Putting the whole thing back together again proved to be no small task. The Basstop shells are remarkably accurate to the original Joycon shells but are not quite perfect. Specifically, the screw holes are not pre-threaded so the tiny little screws must be driven very carefully to get them to twist into place straight without stripping the heads. Despite the challenges, after a little over five hours (split between two evenings) of delicate work, the process was complete.

The Result

My Joycon after the mod was complete
It may have been much more involved effort than I originally expected, but I think the fruits of my labor came out looking fantastic. The feel of the Basstop parts is noticeably different than those made by Nintendo but still feels high quality. Even though the texture of the Basstop shells is smoother than the original Joycon casings, they thankfully don't show fingerprints. The new D-pad is definitely an improvement over the original directional buttons but since it uses the same four microswitches as the buttons, it still has a clicky segmented feel. In games, though, it responds the way I would expect from a D-pad so I'm happy. Regarding the antenna fix, I haven't played much in docked mode yet, but so far I haven't run into any issues and the wireless connection seems very stable.

While the aesthetics are excellent and the quality is quite high, I did have some minor quibbles with the final fit of the parts. There is a slight mismatch between the upper and lower shell on my right Joycon that causes there to be a small gap between the two halves. I initially thought this was an error on my part but reading through Amazon reviews show that many other modders noticed the same issue. This misfit is minor enough that most people won't notice it but it did bug me a little at first. I suspect there was a small piece of excess plastic somewhere left over from the mold that I would have had to shave off to get a perfect fit. Also, the face buttons feel a little stiffer than they did before but they've been loosening up as I use them, so they might just need to break in.

Overall, I'm happy with the results of this project and as somebody that is inclined to tinker, I found it to be an enjoyable yet challenging endeavor. However, this is definitely not something for everyone, so make sure you have the time and patience before getting into it. If you decided that you're up for the challenge, the Basstop parts can be ordered from Amazon.

PS: Don't be a chump like me, remember to pick up some needle-nose tweezers!

I really like the look of the blue and black together, so I elected to keep the original ABXY buttons rather than install the colorful Basstop ones.

Note: Since a lot of the games and accessories I write about can be purchased on Amazon, I decided to join the Amazon affiliates program. This program monetizes the Amazon links in my posts. That being said, the presence of the links does not influence the content on this site or the opinions and review scores that I give. 
Starting with this post, the following disclosure applies:
Tales from the Backlog is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

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