Desperate Nintendo Switch Owners Are Learning to Repair Their Own Busted Systems
Jorge Urquidi enjoyed two carefree years with his Nintendo Switch before experiencing the bane of all Switch players: In April, the joystick on his left Joy-Con controller started to drift, causing his Animal Crossing character to move toward the bottom right corner of the screen even when he wasn’t touching the controller.
“It just felt like all of a sudden, it was not working properly,” Urquidi, a water resources engineer based in Austin, Texas, told OneZero.
The owner of a pair of special edition Joy-Cons from Super Mario Odyssey, Urquidi didn’t want to send his faulty controller to Nintendo for repair even though the company will reportedly fix the problem for free because he was afraid Nintendo would send him back a generic replacement. So, he went on the DIY repair site iFixit, ordered a $20 repair kit, and replaced the faulty left joystick at home using iFixit’s step-by-step instruction guide. The repair took 20 minutes.
Urquidi’s decision not to send the controller to Nintendo turned out to be prescient. Although he wasn’t aware of it at the time, the company had announced in late March that all of its North American repair centers would be closed “until further notice” due to the coronavirus. Worse, any Joy-Cons Nintendo received during lockdowns might be forwarded to a warehouse “for temporary storage until repair services resume.”
While those repair services started to ramp back up on Tuesday, many Switch players have recently taken it upon themselves to repair faulty controllers at home. Thanks partly to the well-timed release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the fifth title in the popular series, the Switch has become an essential source of entertainment and connection for millions during the coronavirus lockdowns. But the more hours people pour into their consoles, the more controllers are falling victim to Joy-Con drift, a notorious factory defect in which the console thinks the joystick is being moved even when it’s not. While Nintendo’s repair centers were out of action, players tired of watching their Animal Crossing characters run in circles became gadget fixers.
“This is an opportunity for everyone to gain some new skills,” said Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit. “We’re really thrilled with first-time people taking a chance [on repair].”
While interest in device repair has been up across the board since the coronavirus lockdowns began, iFixit has seen an outsized interest in Nintendo Switch repair. According to data iFixit shared with OneZero, demand for replacement Switch parts has tripled on the site since lockdowns began, and traffic to its Switch repair guides is up significantly. That’s especially true for the left Joy-Con repair guide, which is now seeing about four times as many daily visitors as it was before the coronavirus lockdowns. (Anecdotal reports suggest the left Joy-Con joystick falls victim to drift more frequently than the right.)
iFixit isn’t the only place on the internet where people are increasingly searching for tips on how to fix a drifting Joy-Con. Two popular YouTube videos on the subject — one by news site NintendoLife, another by YouTuber Nintendrew — saw traffic bumps roughly coinciding with the start of the coronavirus lockdowns and the release of Animal Crossing in late March or early April, both videos’ owners confirmed to OneZero. According to Google Trends, more people searched “how to fix joycon” during the week of April 12 than at any other time since the Switch’s release.
Jason Waddle, a security software engineer in Alameda, California, recently became a DIY Joy-Con fixer. He and his family own two pairs of Joy-Cons, so when one of them started drifting several months back, whoever was playing would simply use the other pair. But after lockdowns began, everyone wanted to play the Switch together. When Waddle discovered a repair kit on iFixit, he decided to fix the controllers at home rather than braving Target to find a new pair. The repair turned out to be pretty straightforward and a fun thing for his kids to watch, he says.
Melody from New York owns two sets of Joy-Cons whose right joysticks started drifting late last year. “The drifting started after I bought a party game and had been playing it exclusively with friends and family,” Melody wrote in a direct message via Reddit. “Both sets were so badly affected that they’re realistically unusable.” After learning last week that repair kits were available online, she’s now planning to fix both pairs at home.
“I don’t want to have to rely on the slow process of sending my Joy-Cons in every time I have a problem,” Melody said.
The problem of Joy-Con drift began attracting widespread attention last summer, but the cause remains a bit of a mystery. While some players are able to fix a drifting joystick simply by cleaning smut out from beneath the controller’s rubber cap, in other cases, a more permanent fix is required. Taylor Dixon, a tech writer at iFixit who co-authored the site’s left Joy-Con repair guide, says wear and tear on the joystick’s contact pads is a likely culprit in instances where the joystick needs to be replaced.
“Nintendo seems to be producing a few subtly different models of joysticks and they all have weird differences so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the issue is,” Dixon told OneZero in an email. “Our best guess at this point… is that the contact pads that read the joystick movements get worn down over time, resulting in erratic read behavior that registers as a ‘drift.’”
This would explain why drift issues generally occur after a period of use, and why the left Joy-Con — which is typically used for a player’s primary movements — seems to drift more often than the right. Nintendo didn’t respond to OneZero’s request for comment for this story.
Replacing a faulty joystick at home isn’t too difficult. Nobody OneZero spoke with for this story reported any trouble with the procedure, although most had some prior repair experience. The process involves opening up the Joy-Con controller, removing the battery, and disconnecting several ribbon cables from the motherboard before taking out the faulty joystick and inserting a replacement. iFixit’s left Joy-Con replacement guide rates this repair as “moderate” in terms of difficulty.
“We have gotten lots of positive feedback on our guides from people who have no experience with repair, which is always a good sign that the product is easily repairable,” Taylor said. “Joy-Con repair is great because there is almost no adhesive to deal with, and their internal construction is straightforward.”
“I was honestly kind of scared when I first started opening up the Joy-Con since I didn’t have any previous repair experience,” said Jesper Jansson from Uppsala, Sweden, who repaired his drifting left Joy-Con in early March. “However, it was much easier than I thought it would be. It was actually kinda fun when it was all said and done.”
Jansson says he spent a lot of time playing his Switch before lockdowns began and his gaming habits haven’t changed much, but others report using their Switches far more often in recent months.
“I’ve definitely been playing a lot more in quarantine,” said Urquidi, the water resources engineer. “In the past, maybe I’d stop playing for months at a time. Now with [the pandemic] and with Animal Crossing coming at the perfect time, I’ve definitely played it I think on a daily basis.”
Jason Hoover, a stay-at-home dad in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, used iFixit guides to repair a drifting Joy-Con controller at home back in 2018. He’s happy he did because with his kids stuck at home, the console has become a key source of entertainment. “We’re a full Fortnite family right now,” he said.
Despite the fact that the family’s Switch is getting a lot more use these days, so far, the controller Hoover fixed several years back is holding up.
“If I did something wrong,” Hoover said, “we’d know it.”