A Guide to ST Game Controllers
Most of the would-be joystick magnates have long since moved to the ‘Where Are They Now?’ file, but a few hardy survivors remain.The Joy of Joysticks
by Bill Kunkel, Joyce Worley and Arnie Katz
Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. Since the debut of the classic Atari joystick (single-button, nine-position) almost a decade ago, a similar ideal has motivated artisans and technicians to better that original product.
The tinkerers tried everything: new technology; replacing the leaf-style switches with microswitches; new designs; moving the button; adding buttons; making the base larger; reducing the base; bigger sticks; smaller sticks; no sticks at all; and a near-infinity of similar modifications. During the glory days of the programmable video-game revolution, dozens of companies produced Atari-compatible joysticks of every imaginable stripe. There were surfboard controllers; wireless controllers; no-hands controllers; tracballs (the upside-down mouse); and even podium-mounted joysticks.
Most of the would-be joystick magnates have long since moved to the "Where Are They Now?" file, but a few hardy survivors remain. Herewith is a look at some of the many controllers that are compatible with the ST.
It's interesting that the original Atari VCS joystick, the industry standard and one of the most universally successful products ever designed, has two distinctive features: It's square and it has a single action button. In all these years, the square shape and single button have worked just fine. True, some games were designed with two buttons in mind—Electronic Art's One-on-One, for example—but translating that or any other game to one-button format was never an insurmountable limitation. The box-like shape fit comfortably into the hands of a generation of game players, young and old alike.
When Atari finally got around to "improving" on this beautiful joystick, they gave it a trimline shape, added a button and called it the Atari Pro-Line.
The problem with dual buttons is obvious; They must be placed on the sides of the controller to make them accessible. As a result, the controller had to be thinned down so the user could grip the stick and get to both buttons.
This new stick is an insult to the pristine perfection of the old VCS joystick. After five minutes of play with this baby, the gamer's anchor hand is stiff, throbbing and fixed in an arthritic, claw-like shape. Using this stick is no walk in the park.
To round out the package, the designers also added an unwieldy nob to the top of the joystick shaft to make sure that the pain is spread evenly among hands and fingers.
Comfort—D; Control—C + ; Durability—B +.
The Kraft Atari-compatible Joystick is the most perfect joystick ever made. It is the rich man's version of the classic Atari joystick. The cheap plastic casing of the Atari is stream-lined into a one-piece (but still square) base; the fat, stubby shaft of the Atari is replaced here by a thin, gracefully beveled control stick; and the some-what stiff play on the Atari is processed into the slickest control device in all the known worlds.
The Kraft Joystick is ideal for all kinds of games and users. It's amazingly durable too. This reviewer's own Kraft Joystick is over six years old, has been kicked, thrown and stepped on more than once, yet never missed a command in all that time.
Left-handers can opt for the "Switch Hitter" model, with duplicate action buttons in the upper left and right corners. For real playability, the newer versions contain a "mazemaster" feature. This disables the diagonal direction commands and limits movement to up-down/left-right for maze-chase contests.
Beautifully designed and crafted, this is the state-of-the-art controller, and has been for over half a decade.
Comfort—A; Control—A; Durability—A +.
The Epyx 500XJ Joystick is a well made but badly designed joystick for right-handed players only (or lefties capable of using their left hand as anchor). The 500XJ is built like a rock, with a thick, deep base and a microswitch-driven, solid-steel, nobbed shaft.
The action button is located on the right side, just above a cutaway. It is the position of this cutaway that makes this stick awkward for southpaws. It seems all but indestructible, and believe me, this puppy has been slammed up against the wall more than enough times to adequately test that supposition.
The problem is quite simple: This is the most painful controller ever built. The 500XJ even hurts players with large hands or pianist's fingers. After a round or two of, say Robotron, you're ready for a trip to the Mayo Clinic.
Comfort—F; Control—B + ; Durability—A +.
The Magnum Joystick from the low-cost software maven, Mastertronic, is equivalent to most of the company's other products: It's a good, functional joystick at a reasonable price.
This controller uses a pistol-type grip, but mounts the button on the outside, rather than trigger-style. The short, nobbed shaft positioned on top of this housing makes the stick ideal for left- or right-hand use.
The Magnum is comfortable, and gives the user excellent control in all types of games. It is not all that durable, however. The red plastic control shaft pops out under significant torque. The shaft can be reinserted, but once it has popped free, the stick never functions exactly the same again.
Comfort—B +; Control—A; Durability—D-.
Fans of "tight" joysticks — those with a minimum of play—invariably praise the Suncom joysticks. The StarFighter is a small joystick with a short, stump-like shaft, while the Slik Stik offers a nobbed control stick. Both have a very short "throw" (the physical distance the shaft must be moved to inaugurate a command).
The top-of-the-line Suncom stick is the Tac2. It features a metal (rather than plastic), nobbed shaft, Suncom's typically compact base, and dual-action buttons for southpaws (other Suncom sticks are right-handed).
Comfort—B; Control—B+; Durability—A.
The Camerica joysticks are the ones you find in the bargain bin selling for as little as $7. They echo the worst of the joystickmania of the early '80s, with remnants of the poorest designs of the era, borrowed in style from the Wicos, PointMasters and GripSticks.
They have "bad" names like Terminator, Turbo Charge and MicroMaster, and all feature large, unwieldy bases and suction-cup "feet." These suction feet seemed like a good idea when first produced seven years ago, but the designers forgot one thing: Very few players have access to suction-compatible surfaces when playing video and computer games. Video games are often played on rugs, and computer games at workstations where the microprocessor generally occupies the space the joystick must be stuck to.
These joysticks also possess gigantic shafts, with finger-molded grips and optional fire buttons everywhere but the underside of the base itself. The MicroMaster and Turbo Charge have buttons atop the shaft, on the shaft itself and on the upper left and right-hand corners of the base, and none of them are comfortable.
As a wise man once said, "You get what you pay for."
Comfort—D -; Control—C; Durability—C.