Hori’s been a long time on the third-party controller market. Usually they are of pretty high quality, offering relatively cheap price for a solid, no-nonsense controller that serves just fine. I’ve covered quite a few Hori product on this blog, and I have to say that I do have a slight personal bias for their products due to my good experiences with them. Hell, I still use my Rockman.EXE GBA softcase that was designed for the Game Boy Advance, because it’s so well made. Currently it houses my European 3DS.
This time we’re going back to one of Hori’s earlier third-party controllers, the Famicom Mini Commander. It seems like Hori has been doing smaller alternatives since the start. This controller also seems to be relatively obscure, and is the miniature version of the more well-known Hori Famicom Commander. For a more comprehensive review, we’re also going to open the controller to see what it has eaten.
From the first glance you can see how the controller stands different from your basic Famicom or NES controller. The Direction Pad and action buttons are closer to each other. Select and Start have been relocated above A and B. There are two switches on the top of the controller. These are Rapid Fire switches, and the great thing about these is that the controller allows four levels of rapid fire. The lowest setting is essentially off. Because this is a Famicom controller, it plugs into the expansion port of the machine. The right side of the controller has a switch that determines whether or not it is used as Player I or Player II controller, though in games like Bomberman II it would be treated as Player III controller.
From visual point of view, the use of orange buttons makes it stand from Nintendo’s colours. The black plastic may be generic for consumer products, but the use of a metallic plate gives the controller an extra bit of shine and quality. The extra black line going through the Action buttons gives a good impression too, dividing the controller slightly in uneven bits. Start and Select don’t jump at you from the controller due to the black, but this controller does go for minimalistic approach. Less is more here, visually speaking.
The switches are neat, but even after these thirty odd years, they’re stiff as hell and don’t feel like they’re going to be loosen any time soon. They’re also sharp enough to dig into your finger and leave a mark. This is easy to understand, the switches are off-the shelves parts not intended for a controller. You may have already noticed that the controller’s cord has an extra protection on it, making it feels much more secure than official NES one. It adds ever so slight premium feel to the whole deal.
If you thought the NES controller was too small, Hori’ Mini Commander probably isn’t your first choice. The Hori Mini Commander is about 3/4 of the NES standard controller, but seems a lot smaller. However, it is a tad thicker and has more weight to it, making it feel a very sturdy and well built.
To be exact, the Hori Mini Commander is 20.5mm / 0.8 inches thick, 94mm / 3.7 inches wide and 52mm / 2.04 inches high. I know Yanks and Kanucks appreciate the conversion. In terms of comparison, it sits in about the same as the Game Boy Micro (except in thickness), and if you enjoyed playing games on that in terms of control, Hori Mini might be worth tracking down.
I gave my verdict there, because the Hori Mini Commander simply excels. In terms of quality, it’s without a doubt one of the top controllers for the system, third-party or not. The D-Pad and the Action buttons are slightly tougher than the official ones, but that’s a slight improvement. The official NES buttons tend to rattle a bit, but these tight buttons offer much better feel. Rapid pressing comes out naturally when you don’t feel the button slinging few millimetres side to side.
The D-Pad falls into the same category, though it moves around just as much as the official one. This is a replicated design point. A moving D-Pad allows the controller to pivot in the player’s hand whole keeping the D-Pad in the same position under the thumb. It’s an important design detail that can be easily overlooked. The recess in the middle of the D-Pad is rather deep and will collect some dirt even after proper cleaning. However, it does not interfere with use. Start and Select are same design as in the official NES one, so nothing special to mention there.
Considering the buttons themselves are pretty damn good, their positioning is a bit daunting. However, only oversized hands will find the closeness a problem. With Start and Select above A and B, there is no reason to extend towards the middle of the controller. Perhaps Start and Select should’ve been more towards the centre of the controller, but that might’ve broken the visual balance of the controller. As with any other third-party controllers, getting used to where buttons are is par for the course.
The controller was sold to me as buttons at the top may interfere with playing, which I found not to be the case. Certainly, they are hard and sharp plastic. Thus, it’s better to use your nail to switch their position.
Overall, a damn solid controller that’s a great alternative if you’re not afraid of the slightly smaller width. Time to crack this baby open.
The first thing you’ll notice when opening a Hori Mini Commander is how rigid it feels, like if a screw was still holding it in place. Turns out there’s a thick flat wire bent inside. This needs to be straightened if you wish to mess with the insides. The controller has two PCBs inside, one for the chips, one for the contacts. This whole thing makes the controller feel like tank, something that could take a beating and still come out at the top, as everything is essentially screwed in place three times over. Certainly sturdier build than official NES controllers.
On the right you can see that the switch used for selecting Player I or II is an off the shelves variety meant to be used in heavy equipment, explaining its rigid nature. The turbo fire switches are on the other side of the PCB, where their traces reside. They’re surface switches, meaning the castellation on the top is all that’s what makes them so tough to use. This also means that the plastic switches will break one day due to fatigue jumping from castellation to castellation causes. The surface contacts will also have their surface break at some point, as now it has two metal contacts sliding on top of each other. However, seeing how everything’s in pretty dandy condition, I must say that it’s in a remarkably good condition. There is a reason why they say consumer products used to be built to last.
I have to specially mention the colour coding on the controller’s PCB. From top to bottom Murasaki for Purple, Aka for Red, Dai for Orange, Cha for Brown, Ao for Blue, Dori for Green, and Ki for Yellow. A complete Super Sentai team. On the left side of these wires are numbers that correspond on the expansion port jack.
Everything seems to be stock Nintendo mould with the buttons. Perhaps the tough build makes the buttons feel better. All this really means that you can get replacement parts easily, as eBay is full of sellers.
You can see that the contacts have been labelled with numbers. These numbers correspond with the numbers on the PCB.
All this makes the controller relatively easy to mod. Because everything is easily labelled, this PCB could be used as-is without the front PCB for a completely different controller, e.g. an arcade stick. One mod I’m interested in doing is changing the wire itself for a longer one, as I’d like to sit on my couch when playing games. Usually I use 4-Score to extend the wires, but here I might as well go for broke and do some work. I’m sure I could find an extension cord from somewhere if I wanted.
To reiterate, Hori’s Mini Commander for Famicom is a solid alternative. Its smaller size will put some people off without a doubt, but it’s such a solid controller that it shouldn’t be passed by if one comes across it in the wild. Hell, I’ll be looking for a second one just to have one more in stock.