Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 9, NO. 12 / DECEMBER 1983 / PAGE 154

Have a (Trak) ball. (video game controller) (evaluation) Owen W. Linzmayer.

Have A (Track) Ball

Without a doubt, the most distressing feature of the Atari 5200 is the lack of a quality controller. The potentiometer-style joystick that comes with the system has too many problems.

A contact at Atari has revealed that the return rate of the joysticks is in excess of 25%. Some of the most common complaints about the controller are that the response is slow, the rubber boot wears out, the plastic knob comes off, and that the stick is not self-centering. Now there is an alternative: the Atari 5200 Trak-Ball.

First introduced into arcade halls on games such as Football, Missile Command, and KickMan, the track ball quickly became a favorite among players. It offered a different feel, quick response, and a new dimension in control. Not until recently has a track ball been produced for home use, however. The 5200 Trak-Ball has all of the traits that made the coin-op controllers popular.

A track ball (generic name) is a device that can control both horizontal and vertical movement. The housing is built around a smooth sphere. About half of the ball is exposed on the top of the controller. The player places his hand on this part of the ball and spins it to produce movement of elements on the game screen.

Inside the 5200 unit, a white ball about the size of a billiard ball rests upon two rollers. When the ball is spun, friction causes the rollers to turn. Attached to the end of each roller is a wheel that has small "windows' spaced evenly on the outer rim. As the ball spins, the wheel turns, and two light sensors are activated as the windows pass in front of them. Using special logic chips, the blips detected by the sensors are converted from digital to analog signals. The Trak-Ball senses the speed and direction of the ball and relays this information to the 5200 master console.

Physically, the Trak-Ball is designed to complement the sleek looks of the 5200 system. The housing is made of a combination of black plastic and silver trim. The unit measures 11 X 9 . At the back, the Trak-Ball is 3 1/2 high, but the panel slopes down to 1 3/4 in the front.

The Trak-Ball has a 12-function keypad on each side of the white ball. Like the joystick, the Trak-Ball accepts keypad overlays. Directly below each keypad are two red action buttons that provide tactile response when pressed. Above the ball are three recessed rubber buttons: START, PAUSE, and RESET.

The cord from the Trak-Ball unit to the 5200 nestles underneath the Trak-Ball when in storage. You can unwind as much of the cable as you need, leaving the rest neatly tucked out of the way. The controller works best when firmly placed on a level surface, but it can also be held comfortably in your lap.

All 5200 games are not compatible with the Trak-Ball. Pac-Man, for instance, works only with a joystick. Other games such as Galaxian, Missile Command, and Centipede benefit tremendously from the use of a Trak-Ball. Check the cartridge box to determine whether the game can be played with the Trak-Ball.

The key to the success of the Trak-Ball lies with the software written for it. Unless the game programmer takes full advantage of the many features of the Trak-Ball, the game plays poorly. This gives the player the false impression that the Trak-Ball is not a good controller, when in reality, it is an excellent piece of hardware and the software is at fault. Two examples: Football and Defender. These games play better with a joystick because the Trak-Ball was programmed to leave a large "dead zone' in the center to simulate a joystick.

Until the Trak-Ball arrived at our office, the 5200 received only a moderate amount of attention. Now with an improved controller, it has become one of the most popular systems we have. Centipede was awkward to play with a joystick, but the Trak-Ball makes it as great as the coin-op version. The response of staffers to the Trak-Ball is overwhelmingly favorable. The designer of the 5200 Trak-Ball deserves a medal. For the cost of this peripheral--only $79--he has turned the 5200 into a truly super gaming system.

Products: Atari 5200 Trak-Ball (computer apparatus)