Hip Gear Controller Review

It's definitely gear, but not exactly hip

Third party N64 controllers, love 'em or hate 'em, they're abundant and there were tons during the system's retail life. Most were modeled after the shape of the stock OEM controller made by Nintendo. The focus of this review concerns one made by Hip Gear. It doesn't appear to even have a name, the sticker underneath says "N64 Controller". I'm not aware of any other N64 pads made by them, so from here on it will be called the Hip Gear controller.

As a controller with those distinctive shortened left and right handles, the Hip Gear controller seems to blend into the sea of third party pads like the Superpad 64. It's not a particularly elegant design, in fact this controller is actually a bit bigger than the OEM controller by a noticeable amount. The build quality is pretty good though, the plastic feels fairly solid and the chunkier build has its benefits for those with larger hands. This controller also lacks things like Slow and Turbo buttons which some other third party pads have. Whether this is a bad thing is up to you, really.

What drew my attention to this controller was that interesting analog stick. It appeared to use a "stickbox" like the Hori Mini and most future analog sticks, rather than the optical style with a thinner stick seen in most N64 controllers. From that perspective, it was definitely worth an investigation. Perhaps it's a hidden gem? Maybe a good choice for Turok or Mario Party? Can it compete with the legendary Hori Mini?

Like most analog sticks, it is a multi-layered subject to address. First is the stiffness, which is actually not that bad. The stick has a soft throw with straight and diagonal directions taking about the same amount of force, this is a very good stick for fine control, at least physically speaking.

Digital range is where this control stick has an issue though. Per usual, we're using the Controller Test homebrew program from Neo Coding Compo 2012. You might not know, the white dots show the ideal max range in all four main directions. As you can see in the below pictures, the Hip Gear stick is good with those straight angles, but can't seem to fully reach certain diagonal directions. It's not the physical stick, it reaches all the way around fine, this has to do with the analog-to-digital part. It's not a massive deal breaker, but for some games can be problematic.

Left: Hip Gear Pad (Gray) | Right: Nintendo OEM Pad

What the benchmark results mean is, for example, you're not able to run in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time at full speed in those particular diagonal directions.

Concerning the digital stepping from 0 to full tilt, it seems fairly even for up, down, left and right, but diagonals are a bit wonky. The deadzone is fortunately not very big. The up, left and right directions are good, not requiring much throw. The down direction seems to be a bit further out, but it's not often noticeable during play.

Speaking of play, it's not very good for FPS games like Goldeneye 007, it's a bit too imprecise for extremely far away shots, or even just clearing a room of guards using the L button / R button aiming mode, because of the poor diagonal range. It also struggles a bit in F-Zero X given it has a bit larger deadzone than the OEM controller and doesn't feel as precise. It seems better suited to Ocarina of Time, Mario Kart 64, Paper Mario, SSB and most other common titles that don't need as much precision.

So, aside from diagonals, the Hip Gear pad sounds pretty good then. Well, it should be explained that I actually obtained two of these controllers. The first one I got (black color) had two issues that seemed abnormal, possibly due to being a used 20 year old controller. The first issue was the short-reaching diagonals, though a bit worse in this regard as it was the upper-left and lower-left directions. The worse issue was a sort of snap-back problem, where pushing left and returning to center would briefly register a right movement, same if you moved right first. This made menus and movement alike a pain to navigate and perform. It was also intermittent, sometimes it wouldn't happen.

Hip Gear (Black)

That's when I got a second Hip Gear pad, this time gray. It actually didn't even work at first, games would show "No Controller" when powered up with this pad. Turns out there was a break somewhere in the cable, so an N64 controller extension cable was sacrificed to give the gray Hip Gear pad a second chance at life. The rest of the controller was completely untouched for this review, only the cable was replaced. In fact, everything in here about the Hip Gear pad was garnered from tests done with the gray pad (except word about the seemingly more worn out black controller).

As for the rest of the Hip Gear controller, the D-pad is probably the best part. It's a Sega-style circle-shaped D-pad and is very responsive, soft but not mushy. It's not quite on the level of Nintendo's D-pad, but is still very good. The A, B and C buttons are average, a bit stiff for my liking. What's more of an issue is they don't have the letter and arrow molding seen in the Nintendo OEM controller, which can make feeling for the right button a bit trickier.

The Z button is a bit cheap feeling but certainly usable. The L and R buttons are a bit unusual, the hinges don't sit up by the controller cable, they are further down, opposite of what the OEM controller uses. Given the shape of this pad, it's not really a huge issue, for those with large hands. It may be worse for someone with shorter fingers, but then this whole controller seems more like it's better for big hands. Think of it as the antithesis to the Hori Mini.

As for the all-important Pak slot underneath, there's not much to say about it. In a way, maybe that's a good thing. There's no death grip here like some third party controllers can have. The Rumble Pak, Transfer Pak and Memory/Controller Pak were all tested and work good. The accessory slot is at least fully functional here.

One last thing to note is the controller cable length. Up to this point, we've only been concerned with the better condition gray pad, but the cable had to be replaced, it's shorter than the original now. Using the black Hip Gear pad instead, it has a length of nearly 8ft. It's maybe not terribly long, but still longer than the Nintendo OEM controller, which is definitely a good thing.

Overall, this is at best just an average controller. Despite using a modern "stickbox" analog stick, it doesn't have the same quality as the Hori Mini, which for better or worse is considered the gold standard of sticks on the N64. The most worrying aspect of this Hip Gear controller is the seeming fragility of the analog stick. Two random samples turned up oddly different levels of wear (not to mention one had a bad cable). Maybe other people have found these in nice shape, it's hard to say. The poor diagonals kinda sour the experience for some games, mainly FPS games like Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark. The large boxy feel of the controller body probably isn't for everyone and the buttons could have used indented markings to identify them by feel, but at least the D-pad is good. Only grab this one if it's really inexpensive. If nothing else, it makes an alright controller for games that are hard on analog sticks, like Mario Party 1 and Super Smash Bros. If you do come across one of these Hip Gear pads, just keep in mind it's likely a used controller and the analog stick might have wear and tear on it.

Score (Out of 5):

Written by Aaron Wilcott
April 2nd 2020