Ode to Joysticks
The joystick vs. gamepad debate recently reached Re:Retro, where Joel reminisces about various game controllers he’s come to grips with over the years. It got me thinking about the choices I made when deciding how to interact with the games of yesteryear.
Console owners have traditionally had an easy ride. From the Magnavox Odyssey all the way through to the PlayStation 3, most gamers have stuck with the controller that came bundled with the system. It certainly makes sense—especially in this day and age—when you consider the huge amounts poured into each manufacturer’s R&D departments to ensure the default controller is the best it can possibly be. Third parties will offer their alternatives, but at best they offer little more than a few extra bells and whistles rather than an unnecessary reinvention of the wheel.
Things are a little different in the realm of home computers. Manufacturers of the various 8-bit computers desperately tried to persuade us that their machines were to be used for home accounting and homework. Instead, people bought them precisely so they could avoid doing those things, eagerly awaiting the next Space Invaders or Pac-Man clone to distract them from their daily drudgery. Consequently, home computers were rarely bundled with a joystick and so gamers were forced to choose from a large variety of third party options.
Which controllers did I opt for? Let’s find out!
Kempston Competition Pro 5000
Hooking a joystick up to a ZX Spectrum wasn’t for the faint of heart. In lieu of a built-in joystick interface, you were at the mercy of an interface device—something not unlike a hulking great black brick—that you plugged into the back of your machine. Persuading a dog to remain in its kennel while it’s raining sausages would have been a far easier task than persuading the interface device to remain in place. The merest whisper would dislodge it, causing the Spectrum to freeze or crash—usually while you were on target for a personal best on Daley Thompson’s Decathlon.
Things were a lot easier on the Commodore 64. It had two built-in joystick ports (affectionately known as Port 1 and Port 2) that couldn’t crash the machine even if you wanted them to. In fact, you were frequently required to swap your joystick between the two ports mid-game as you attempted to deduce which port the game’s developer expected you to use. (Port 2 eventually emerged as the default, mainly because joysticks plugged into Port 1 could interfere with the command line interface.)
My Competition Pro finally gave up the ghost midway through the C64 era, suffering from catastrophic shaft malfunction. (It happens to the best of us.)
Zipstick Super Pro
Any mention of the Zipstick Super Pro in the school playground was likely to result in bloodshed. “Cheap knock off!” cried the Competition Pro loyalists. “It’s got suction cups!” retorted the Super Pro rebels. “Computer games are fucking gay!” yelled the playground tough guys (all of whom are probably hardcore Madden 2008 players nowadays).
I never really found the Super Pro to be problematic. Truth be told, it seemed to be built of much sturdier stuff than the Competition Pro and often emerged from marathon Activision Decathlon sessions unscathed. Yeah, those suction cups were cool too, especially when you worked out how to remove them and slap them on your friend’s forehead at strategic opportunities during heated two player games.
The Super Pro served me faithfully right the way through to the end of the Amiga/Atari ST era, being consigned to a cupboard only because I’d moved on to Sega Mega Drive and PC.
Atari Pro-Line Joystick
A surprisingly adaptable joystick, the Pro-Line came bundled with the repackaged Atari 2600 and 7800 consoles.
I never really used my Atari 2600 all that much, probably because it arrived in our household somewhere between the Mattel Intellivision and ZX Spectrum. Nevertheless, once I worked out the Pro-Lines were compatible with the C64, they became my controller of choice for games that required lightning quick reflexes. I can’t imagine playing the likes of Uridium without it.
The Pro-Line also got a lot of use on my Amiga, being particularly useful for the likes of Alien Breed and even Formula One Grand Prix. You served me well, little Pro-Line buddy!
Logitech Wingman Cordless
Best gamepad in the history of the universe.
I shall weep bitter tears the day my Wingman Cordless decides to give up the ghost. It’s long since disappeared from Logitech’s product catalogue, having been replaced by a cheaper, gaudier, plastic monstrosity that I have no intention of buying.
The Wingman comes into its own for emulation purposes. It’s got everything you’d ever need—two analog joysticks, an 8-way digital pad, four shoulder buttons, six action buttons, a throttle slider, a start button, analog/digital switch and rumble functions, all of which are fully configurable. On top of all that, it’s beautifully ergonomic, has a tough outer case that still doesn’t have a single dent or scratch on it, and the batteries lend it a comforting weight.
Yeah, batteries. Being cordless it needs to run under its own steam, so 4 x AA batteries are the order of the day. They actually last a pretty long time, so even after a long run of extended emulation sessions it never feels like you’re having to change them out all the time. Get a battery charger and a pack of rechargeables and you’re laughing.
Which game controllers have you used on your home computer(s) over the years?