Electric Curiosities: The Situation Is Under Control
In ages past, I went a little crazy and took pictures of cartridges for every cartridge-based game system I had at the time. You can find the results of that enedavor here. Since then, I’ve expanded my collection, so that post is in dire need of a sequel. That brings us to today’s post, wherein I will not be updating that previous post. In fact, I will not be talking about cartridges at all. 1
You see, despite the fact that I’ve uploaded pictures of just about every different type of video game cartridge ever made, phrases like “Fairchild Channel F Cartridge” never end up in the search queries section of my stats. You know what does? “temporal mechanics“, which is completely unrelated to video game cartridges. You know what else? “sega dreamcast controller”. So that is what I am doing today: A shameless post to boost my overall search engine ranking by reinforcing the relevancy of the site content for traffic I’m already getting.2
Today, I’ll be presenting pictures of joysticks, gamepads, controllers and handheld torture devices through the video game age. From Fairchild through Wii; Atari, Vectrex, Nintendo, Genesis, Playstation and even a little Virtual Boy, it’s all here.
First, here’s most of the controllers all arranged carefully on the floor according to a sort criteria which I shall not divulge. How many can you name?3
Okay, let’s plug this in and press start! (Or SL/SR or Run or whatever strikes your fancy.)
The 3DO’s gamepad is a fairly run-of-the-mill controller, featuring a Genesis-style set of 3 action buttons, yet SNES style L/R shoulder buttons. The middle buttons, typically called Start and Select, are labeled “X” and “P” here. Of particular note are the CD controls scattered around the controller, with the “Stop” square on X and “Play/Pause” triangle and bars on the P button, and fast forward, rewind, and skip icons circling the D-Pad.
Emerson Arcadia 2001
“Hey! The Intellivision is popular. Let’s rip off their controller! Then we’ll be popular.”
“But that’s illegal.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll only put one button on each side and make them red, then screw a joystick into the disc.”
“Now you’re talking!”
The Arcadia 2001 hand controller is a clear and blatant rip-off of the Intellivision hand controller. The number pad is pretty much identical, even as far as the font used. The size is the same, the weight is similar. They both have shiny discs as their main control surface. They’re even both called “Hand Controllers”, for crying out loud. Pretty much the only truly distinguishing feature is the joystick that’s screwed into the disc. That might have made a difference and been enough to forgive the similarities, provided there were any Emerson Arcadia 2001 games that you’d actually want to play, but there aren’t.
The CX-40 Joystick for the Atari 2600. Classic. Iconic. Historic. And a little uncomfortable these days. Also, as far as I can tell, this is the only controller that specifically tells you which way is the “Top”.
Atari 2600 Paddle
The paddle consists of a big spinning dial and a single button and provides you with some of the most precise controls you’ll ever find in a video game. You just can’t play games like Breakout or Kaboom without this level of control. Of course, that assumes that your paddle isn’t twitchy, like most are these days. Fortunately, that’s easy to fix, if you’re willing to perform some surgery and clean out all the gunk inside the potentiometer inside. For all the crazy controls game companies are trying with their systems these days, I’m surprised no one’s tried to bring back the spinner. It’s also worth noting that paddles came in pairs: Two paddles with a single connector. This allowed two sets of paddles to be connected at once, and two sets of paddles connected at once allowed the complete and total awesomeness called Warlords to exist. Unfortunately, there’s no indication which paddle is player 1 and which is player 2, so paddle games often started with a frantic attempt to figure out which paddle you were supposed to be using.
Atari 2600 Driving Paddle
Although outwardly, the driving paddle looks identical to the regular paddle except for the sticker, internally, they are very different animals. The regular paddle has an analog potentiometer with a 270 degree range of motion. The driving paddle has an optical sensor inside, which allows it unlimited motion in either direction. The driving paddle was meant to allow free 360 degree steering, which it did… For exactly one game: Indy 500. Unlike the regular paddles, the driving paddles were not paired.
What do you get when you take the Atari joystick, make it analog, add in the Star Raiders keypad and put some mushy side buttons (two on each side) taken off the Intellivision, then mix it all together and put a shiny Atari Rainbow across the middle?
A big mess.
I will give them credit for putting the start and reset buttons on the controller and extra credit for including a “Pause” button. But it’s still a mess.
Atari 7800 Proline Joystick
Ow. Ow. OW. THIS CONTROLLER HURTS.
For the 7800, Atari clearly started with the Atari 5200 joystick, then made some changes. The keypad is gone, which is fine, because only a small handful of games used that. The Start/Pause/Reset buttons are also gone, which is a huge loss. They’ve kept the side buttons, but cut their number in half and made them large and decidedly non-mushy. The failure-prone analog stick is also gone, replaced with a standard 8-way digital stick. It’s also smaller than the 5200’s stick. The major problem with the 7800’s stick is that is rapidly becomes very painful to use. The size is small, so you have to grip it tightly, but the stick is stiff, so when you move it, it tends to move the base, as well, twisting your hand. Additionally, side buttons are misplaced on any controller, but on this one, they’re especially bad because you have to grip the base so tightly. Basically, if you enjoy severe wrist pain after about ten minutes of play, this is the controller for you! Of course, I don’t use the Pro-Line…
Atari 7800 Gamepad
…I use this. The Atari 7800 gamepad. This beauty was apparently never released in North America, but was reportedly the default pack-in controller for the UK and Australia. It’s not the best gamepad ever (The buttons are a tad sticky, and those grooves are just pain weird), but if the alternative is the Pain-Line joystick, you’re not going to complain. If you have an Atari 7800 and don’t want to get Carpal Tunnel from playing Ninja Golf, then you need to track down one of these gamepads.
This controller is often ridiculed, but I feel that most of the criticism is unfounded. I actually sort of like this controller. I find it comfortable. The keypad with overlay support is a bit retro, but perhaps they just wanted to kick it old school. It does make games like Alien vs. Predator or Iron Soldier, where there are lots of weapon selections, very convenient to play. The three action buttons are labeled C, B, and A, and the aux buttons in the middle are marked “Pause” and “Option”. All in all, it feels somewhat inspired by the Lynx. Strangely, the connector plug is a VGA Monitor plug.4 The only negative thing I have to say about this controller is that when you play most of the games on the Jaguar, you’ll definitely notice the lack of an analog stick. I can’t really knock too many points off for that, though, since nothing had analog sticks at the time, it wasn’t until the N64 came out a few years later that people realized you needed analog control for 3D games.
It is big, I’ll give it that, but it’s actually roughly the same size as the Dreamcast controller or the original XBox monster pad. It’s also fairly light because it’s mostly empty inside, unlike the lead-lined Duke. Here’s a comparison of the three, along with a more well known SNES gamepad for reference.
Atari XE Lightgun
The first lightgun of this post is the Atari XE Lightgun. While I’m not really planning on getting into the Atari XEGS (There’s enough room there for a post in itself…), I felt that this gun warranted a mention, because it was the light gun intended to be used for Atari 7800 and 2600 light gun games. Yes, the Atari 2600 had a light gun game, called Sentinel. The game consists of you shooting flying things to protect a giant blue ball that bounces across the boring surface of an alien planet until either your trigger finger falls off , you fall asleep, or you get killed by the Level 3 boss which is physically impossible to defeat, because absolutely no one can shoot it enough times to kill it before it touches the ball and kills you.
Back in the early days of video gaming, people didn’t know how to make controllers for game consoles. That’s how things like the controller for the Bally Astrocade (Or Videocade or Professional Arcade or whatever other names this system had.) came about. Bally took a pistol grip with a trigger button, then stuck a joystick nub on the top. But wait, there’s more! The nub could also rotate 270 degrees, letting it double as a paddle control, as well. This controller is very reminiscent of the Fairchild Channel F’s super-bizarro stick, which I’ll get to in a bit.
Of course, the only truly notable thing about the Bally Astrocade is its appearance in National Lampoon’s Vacation. I can’t tell if it was product placement or a joke.
The Philips CD-i. Released in the early 90’s, it was an overpriced CD player that sometimes pretended to be a game console. As such, it had to have a gamepad, just like all the cool kids did. Except, for some reason, the only gamepad they looked at seems to be the two button Sega Master System controller. There’s no Start, there’s no Select, there’s no shoulder buttons, none of that complicated jive. Instead, there’s just a D-Pad and two buttons. What’s that, you say? You count three buttons? Yeah, well, so did I, until I was playing Wand of Gamelon (Yes, I own Zelda: Wand of Gamelon, and yes, I have played it. No, it’s not as bad as you’ve heard, yes, the cutscenes are terrible, but if you don’t really look at it as a “Zelda” game, it’s quite passable. The backgrounds look excellent and appear handpainted.) and couldn’t figure out why the controls for the game went out of their way to use only two buttons on a three button controller. That’s when I realized that it’s not a three button controller at all, but a two button controller with a third button that acts like you’re pressing the other two buttons simultaneously. Because, you know, you’re apparently incapable of pressing the other two buttons simultaneously and that’s something that you have to do so often that you want an entire button dedicated to that, instead of, you know, a jump button or a pause button.
The CD-i also had a normal remote control for doing things like playing CDs or Video CDs. This controller was also good for games like The 7th Guest, which have a slower pace and were meant to be played with a mouse. If you tried using this for action games, you would fail horribly. If you notice, around the stick there are four action buttons. This does not mean that the remote gives you more buttons than the gamepad. Instead, those buttons are simply two copies of button 1 and button 2. And unlike the gamepad, there is no “Button 1+2”, so good luck with that if you ever find a game that uses that feature.
I don’t understand why it seems as though the designers of the controllers for the CD-i never talked to the designers of the system, and why neither group had ever talked to ANYONE who ever played a video game. I mean, wasn’t Nintendo involved in the creation of this system, at least on some level? Couldn’t someone there talk some sense into them? “Oh, you’re making a Zelda game? You need more than two buttons for that.”
The ColecoVision came out in the age of the keypad and vertical configuration. Similar in design to the Intellivision or Atari 5200, the CV has an advantage over both of them: The buttons don’t totally suck. When you press a ColecoVision button, you know that you pressed it, unlike those mushy rubbery things that the other systems have. Like the 5200, the CV improves over the Intellivision5 by putting the control stick at the top of the controller and making it grippable. The CV also accepts game-specific overlays, but unlike other systems, the overlay goes underneath a plastic grid, so you’re able to know which number you’re hitting simply by touch. I’d say this controller is the least carpal tunnel inducing of the vertical keypad set. And best of all, the CV is compatible with Atari 2600 joysticks, so if the game you’re playing only needs one button, you can simply replace the controller with any number of more comfortable 2600 sticks or even a Genesis gamepad.
The Dreamcast controller is an obvious evolution of the Saturn 3D controller, with the same “disc with handles” shape. It only has one analog stick. It’s massive, but fairly comfortable to hold. On the top of the controller are two slots for memory cards. There is a window in the front of the controller which will show the screen of a Visual Memory Unit, if you have one. The VMU would sometimes show information about the game on a small LCD screen, but the true nature of the VMU only became apparent when you removed it from the controller. The VMU had a small D-Pad and a couple of action buttons, and would let you play very limited miniature versions of some games on-the-go, sort of like a Tamagotchi. The only thing that’s really wrong with the Dreamcast controller is the fact that it has the absolute worst wire placement since the original SMS controllers. Instead of coming out of the top of the controller and pointing at the TV and the console, the wire comes out of the bottom and points at the user. You lose about six inches of controller wire because of this, not to mention that you’re constantly getting tangled in the wire.
Fairchild Channel F
The Fairchild Channel F controller… Where to begin… All of the functions are controlled by the knob on top. It has standard 8-way movement, then it rotates clockwise and counter-clockwise, then you can push and pull the knob in and out. (And no, it doesn’t vibrate.) It’s one of the strangest primary controllers I’ve seen. Here’s a video of it in action. If you only have one hand, this is probably an awesome controller.
One part N64, one part Virtual Boy, one part SNES and two parts color wheel, the Gamecube’s controller is a strange one. The two analog sticks and the D-pad are fairly standard. The primary button arrangement is probably the most convoluted arrangement I’ve seen, with buttons of different shapes, sizes, and colors. There are three shoulder buttons. Not two. Not four. Three. L, R, then Z, which lives in front of R. Z is an ordinary button, while L and R are these mutant hybrid buttons, with about a half inch of travel space, then a loud click that sounds like you’re breaking the button. The button is analog until the click, then it registers as a normal button press, so some games will assign slightly different controls based on how you press the button.
The Genesis controller has far fewer buttons than the contemporary SNES controller. There’s only three action buttons and no shoulder buttons and it’s strangely massive (7in x 4in) for having so few features, but the Genesis controller has a secret power that makes up for those shortcomings: It is compatible with the Atari 2600 and related systems. They’re cheap and easy to find, so if you can’t stand using the Atari joystick and want something a bit more comfortable for your classic games, try a Genesis controller.
Genesis 6 Button
The SNES had six action buttons. That means games written for the SNES could use six buttons. The Genesis controller only had three buttons. That means that games ported from the SNES to the Genesis typically had convoluted control schemes to activate some of the actions. For instance, the Lost Vikings required combinations of the Start button and other buttons or directions to use items, change characters, even to pause. Then along came games like Street Fighter II, which required six buttons. Sega eventually came out with a six button controller for these situations. The controller is notably more compact than the monster 3-button controller. In addition to the additional “X”, “Y”, and “Z” buttons, the 6 button pad featured a turbo switch and a “Mode” button to switch between 3-button and 6-button modes, because apparently just ignoring the extra three buttons wasn’t good enough for some people. 6
The Intellivision Hand Controller is one of the most reviled controllers in the world of video games. It’s almost as if it was designed by a group of parents who were concerned that their children spent too much time playing games, so they made a controller that would cause physical pain after roughly 30 minutes of play. There’s a sliding disc at the bottom, two buttons on each side, and a big number pad (With overlay support) in the middle. The problem is, I’ve never actually found a way to hold this controller that makes any sense. There’s nowhere to hold it so that you can use the disc comfortably. The buttons are rubbery and mushy and you never really know when you’ve pressed them, and they force you to hold the controller in an awkward way. For those who’ve never experienced what it’s like to use an Intellivision controller, imagine trying to use an oversized iPhone as a game controller, with the volume buttons as your main action buttons and the “Home” button as your control pad. And to top it off, the Intellivision controller is hardwired into the system, so you can’t get a third party controller that doesn’t suck. The Intellivision inspired a number of other controllers, including the Atari 5200 and the ColecoVision7, but those controllers solved the problem by moving the disc to the top of the controller and replacing it with a joystick that could be gripped, making them far easier to use.
Don’t get me wrong, the Intellivision is an undisputed classic system, but if you want to play any of the games for it, you’re far better off picking up the latest Intellivision Lives! compilation and playing it on something like XBox Live Arcade or the DS. That way you won’t need wrist surgery next month.
The Mattel Aquarius Controller is the direct descendant of the Intellivision’s hand controller. They took out the side buttons and cut the number pad in half and made it pluggable, but left the pain-inducing disc in the same place. That’s okay, though, because there isn’t actually anything you’d want to play on the Aquarius, so it doesn’t matter how bad the Mattel Aquarius Controller sucks.
Then again, the system does have a version of Tron: Deadly Discs.
I don’t really know much about this one. There’s pretty much nothing about it on the Internet. Looks kinda square and weird.
The NES Zapper came in two styles: Looks-too-much-like-a-real-gun-so-the-cops-will-shoot-you gray and atomic orange. You couldn’t shoot that damned dog in Duck Hunt with either one.
Odd looking and often ridiculed, the Nintendo 64 controller is the only controller I know of that requires three hands to use. Players were required to undergo seven hours of surgery to attach a third arm, generally taken from Chinese prison camp inmates (Although later taken from chimpanzees after several tragic incidents where the transplanted arm retained some of the violent tendencies of its original owner). Unwillingness to submit to body modification is often credited as the primary reason for Nintendo’s lack of commercial success against the Sony Playstation, although many players reported many non-game related benefits to their newly installed third arms.
Actually, I like the N64 controller. It’s comfortable, and as long as you pretty much ignore the mostly useless D-Pad and L button, there’s nothing really wrong with it.
Obviously, the Odyssey 2 joystick is heavily inspired by the Atari 2600 joystick. Although the base is roughly the same size, the stick is much smaller. It’s also spring-loaded, so it’ll snap into place when you let go of it.
The original PlayStation controller did not have analog sticks. Instead, it had one of the worst D-pads I’ve seen, with each direction being a fake button. Instead of using letters or numbers to indicate the buttons, the PSX gamepad uses Square, Triangle, Circle, and X. It also brought back the “Select” button, which had been missing since the SNES. The PlayStation also decided that having just two shoulder buttons wasn’t enough and had a total of four shoulder buttons.
The DualShock slapped a pair of analog sticks on the original design. This innovation made it so shooters on consoles no longer had to suck, although initially the two sticks were only used for catching monkeys.
The PlayStation 2’s controller represented a radical shift in controller design from the earlier PlayStation controllers. Clearly, the designers took the saying “The more things change, the more they stay the same” to heart, inverted the clauses, and developed a gamepad that stayed completely the same, and therefore must, in fact, be a great change.
Oh, and it’s black. And supposedly has “Analog Buttons”, which you probably never really noticed in any game you ever played.
Actually, that picture is a PS2 controller, but you probably wouldn’t have even noticed if I hadn’t said anything. One could say that Sony knows when they have a good thing and don’t want to mess with it, but the truth is, the PS3 controller is almost identical to the PS2 controller because they were relentlessly mocked and ridiculed by Teh InternetZ when they released images of a boomerang that they said would be the PS3’s controller.
I’ve never actually played the Saturn. The controller looks like they took the 6-button Genesis controller and gave it wings and shoulder buttons. Since I’ve never used it, I can’t speak to it’s long term comfort, but it seems like it would be easy to hold and not likely to cause cramping or pain. The shoulder buttons seem to sit a bit too far forward, though.
Sega Master System
Rumor has it, Sega revealed this controller design shortly after Nintendo’s lead gamepad designer was reported missing. The SMS control pad is very similar to the NES controller, with one very glaring drawback: Start and Select are missing. When you play SMS games, you will often notice this omission. Sometimes it means you have to press Up to jump. Sometimes it means you only have one item at a time. And nearly always it means that you can’t pause without getting up and hitting a button on the console.
The control pad pictured is one of the later models. Some of the earlier versions had the wire sticking out of the side of the controller, where it would constantly jab you in the hand. It should be noted that the original wire placement was also stolen from Nintendo, who has side wires on the original Famicom, before they realized how dumb that was and put the wire on top for the NES.
SMS Light Phaser
The Light Phaser for the SMS is reportedly based on some laser gun in some anime. I don’t really like anime, so I’m not going to talk about this anymore.
Classic. That is all.
Tomy Tutor Joystick
The Tomy Tutor joystick was heavily inspired by the Atari 2600 joystick, right down to the flexible rubber base and circle of lines that don’t correspond to the directions the joystick can be pressed. Instead of the word “Top”, there’s an arrow that points forward. There’s also the word “Joystick” in raised plastic, in case you forgot what it was. The Tomy Tutor had two buttons: SL and SR. Every game on the system referenced these buttons, presenting the cryptic phrase “Player 1, 2? SL-AMA SR-PRO” to the plaer when the game was started. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that was a difficulty selection.
Tomy Tutor Joy Controllers
There was only one joystick port on the Tomy Tutor, making multiplayer gaming rather difficult. Tomy’s answer? The Joy Controllers. Obviously inspired by the disc on the Intellivision8, the Joy Controllers came in a pair, with each one clearly labeled as “Player 1” and “Player 2” (Thus solving the “Which controller am I?” problem that the Atari 2600 paddles had.). The Joy Controllers are much easier to hold than the Intellivision hand controller. The buttons are located on the face and aren’t mushy and rubbery (The Tomy Tutor’s keyboard had enough of that…), so they’re much easier to press.
The TurboPad is another controller that’s inspired by the NES. At least this controller realizes the value in having a Start and Select button (Although Start is called “Run” here.). It also has built in turbo switches for the primary buttons.
The Vectrex has the earliest horizontal controller orientation that I can think of, however, its 8 inch width precludes its use as a gamepad. Instead, it’s more like a mini-arcade set up. It is also notable for having four primary buttons and an analog controller. Its greatest weakness is the coiled telephone cord, which was inexplicably popular in the day. (See also: Intellivision and ColecoVision)9
The Virtual Boy gamepad feels like a prototype N64 or Game Cube controller, minus the analog sticks. It’s the only symmetrical gamepad I can think of. It’s also the only controller I can think of with dual D-Pads. On the reverse side are L and R buttons. The power switch is also located on the controller, something not found again until the XBox 360. Unfortunately, the power source is located on the controller, as well, either in the form of a large battery pack or in a plug for a power adapter. Power issues aside, the controller is one of my favorites. It’s comfortable, it’s the right size, all of the buttons are in the right place and are easy to press. I just wish the system weren’t so painful to use.
I do not like the Wii controller. The pointer can be useful for some games, and motion sensing has its place, but… As a controller for most games, this thing sucks. When playing through Super Mario Galaxy, there was hardly a level I went through where I didn’t think “I wish I was using the N64 controller for this.” And the waggle motion? Really? That has to be in every game? Of course it does, because when I think of playing video games, I think about spraining my wrist from constantly having to shake the controller side to side to perform some stupid action that should be a button press. But of course, it can’t be a simple button press because it’s impossible to press any of the buttons on this thing. I nearly dislocated my thumb while playing Metroid Prime 3. Sure, it looks nice, but video game controllers should not be created by graphic designers. They should be created by people with hands.
The original XBox controller was designed by people with hands, unfortunately, those hands were the size of Andre the Giant’s. This thing is big and heavy. Easily frustrated people should avoid using this controller, because it is likely to cause severe damage to anything it hits when thrown.
The S controller for the XBox is a more compact controller that became the standard XBox controller shortly after the console’s release, after Microsoft realized that most of its customers were not mutants with overgrown hands. It’s still big, as far as controllers go, but it’s no longer freaking huge. The controller features the now fairly standard arrangement of two analog sticks (With clickable buttons), a D-Pad that’s rarely used, shoulder buttons, and four primary buttons arranged in a diamond shape. “Start” and “Back” are on the left side, while “White” and “Black” (Despite the fact that “White” is actually clear) are on the right side. In the top of the controller, stolen from the Dreamcast, are slots for memory cards that no one ever used for anything.
The 360 controller is a streamlined evolution of the XBox S controller. Gone are White and Black, having morphed into the shoulder buttons “LB” and “RB”. “Back” and “Start” have moved to the center of the controller, where they belong, the slots for memory cards are thankfully gone, and there is now a system button, which acts as a power button or brings up the system menu. I also want to point out how much I like the battery handling on the wireless controllers for the 360. When the battery gets low, the controller lights start to noticeably flash, more and more frequently. To charge, just connect the cable and keep playing. If you don’t connect in time and the battery does die, then the game will immediately freeze until you connect the charger or change the batteries, and it will remain frozen until you explicitly resume the game. Some games will even pause themselves. This stands in contrast to the Wii, where the batteries just die and so do you, because the game didn’t stop.
This, of course, was not intended to be a complete list of every controller ever made. Some controllers were intentionally left out (NES Advantage, for instance), because this was meant to be a sampling of primary/pack in controllers. Other controllers were left out because I don’t have them (Yet). Some day, I might do a follow up with some of the more interesting secondary controllers, as well as some of the more bizarre third party controllers I have in my possession. 10
- Except when I talk about the Mattel Aquarius Controller. [↩]
- That, and I think I have a shot for taking the #1 spot on Google for the phrase “mattel aquarius controller”… [↩]
- Hint: The Mattel Aquarius Controller is not in that image. [↩]
- DE15, to be technical, unlike the 9-pin DB9 that’s used on the Atari 2600, Genesis, and Mattel Aquarius Controllers. [↩]
- And the Mattel Aquarius controller, as well. [↩]
- The Mattel Aquarius Controller is always in six button mode. [↩]
- And the Mattel Aquarius Controller. [↩]
- Just like the Mattel Aquarius Controller. [↩]
- And the Mattel Aquarius Controller, of course. [↩]
- And the Mattel Aquarius Controller will not be part of that set. [↩]