by Dave Plotkin
Alternatives to the Atari comtroller
Probably more Atari joysticks have been sold than any other kind. Atari joysticks are relatively cheap, provide good control, and can be held quite easily by small hands. They can be purchased almost anywhere and will stand up to some abuse, like being stepped on, or dropped. But the limitations of the Atari joysticks have led to a search by game aficionados for a better joystick. For one thing, Atari joysticks break with distressing regularity. Also, its stiff "spring" requires a lot of force to manipulate. Even people with strong hands tire after hours of play. Both these problems stem from the joystick's internal plastic ring which must be forcibly bent against a series of switches.
An inexpensive solution to some of the problems of the Atari joystick is called the "Grabber". Nothing more than a plastic top about the size of a golf ball, the Grabber slips over the head of the Atari joystick, making the stick easier to grasp and somewhat less wearing on the user's hand.
Until recently, no really satisfactory substitute for the Atari joystick has been available. The first alternative was "Le Stick" from DataSoft. Billed as a onehanded joystick, it has internal mercury switches which detect the angle at which it is being held. The "fire" button is mounted on top. Some people like Le Stick, but most find that it is very hard to keep the stick perfectly upright, a position often needed to keep the cursor from moving. A squeezetrigger in Le Stick is supposed to freeze the cursor, but my hand gets tired and it is hard to adjust to the joystick action. Also, the uncertainty of directional response makes this stick unsuitable for very fast action games.
Next was a rejuvenation of the old Fairchild "Channel F" joystick, entitled the "Video Command," and produced by Zircon. It has many of the features I look for, including a large, comfortable hand grip and positive control requiring very little force. The control element itself is a bulging triangular shape that nestles in the palm of one hand. At $15, or about $5 more than the Atari joystick, it looked very good. Unfortunately, the firing is accomplished by pushing down on the triangular element. Not only does this tend to cause the cursor to jump away from the aiming point, but the firing sequence wasn't always detected from every angle. [A new version of Video Command has a firing trigger, but appeared too late for testing.-ANTIC ED]
The New SticksIn the past few months, the sad lack of good Atari-compatible joysticks has changed for the better. At least four new joysticks have been marketed, ranging in price from about $20 to $40. Also available now is an alternatave known as a trac-ball.
These new joysticks have one feature in common, which makes them all superior to the Atari joystick. Rather than using membrane microswitches and a deformable plastic ring, they use a tried-and-true mechanical type switch known as a "leaf switch". A leaf switch consists of a pair of thin pieces of metal (usually spring steel) held apart at one end by a 1/8" spacer. Four of these switches are mounted at the four compass points around the bottom of the joystick handle inside the joystick's base. The action of the joystick presses the metal slivers together, causing a contact.
The advantages of this design are considerable. The springiness of the leaf switch causes autocentering of the joystick. The absence of parts which can fatigue and break should provide for a long-lived joystick. (Compare the usual one-year warranty on these sticks with the ninetydays on the Atari.) Additionally, only a very light pressure is required to operate these sticks-fatigue of the joystick hand becomes a thing of the past.
In this evaluation of the four new joysticks, the following points have been considered:
1. Ease of manipulation-how much force is required on the stick itself, and how easy it is to grasp the stick comfortably?
2. Firing button-where is the button, how much force is required to operate it, how far must it be pushed to make contact? While the "usual" position of the firing button is at the upper left corner of the base of the joystick, some sticks are now offering a fire button located on top of the stick, which frees one hand. One stick even offers the choice of locating the firing button on the upper right corner of the base, ideal for lefthanders.
The design of the base-do you use the joystick by placing it on a table, or hold the base in one hand and play with the other? A larger base makes the joystick steadier on a table, but more difficult to hold in the hand.
4. Direction sensitivity-how well does the stick differentiate among the various directions, both diagonal and nondiagonal?
All of the joysticks were tested by several adults and children.
STICK MANUFACTURER PRICE HANDLING FIRE BUTTON Atari Atari, Inc. $11.95 Hand/Table Base Left Big Stick Baylis-T.E.S. 39.95 Table Base Left or Right Command Control Wico 29.95 Hand/Table Base Left & Stick Le Stick DataSoft 39.95 Hand Stick Pointmaster Discwasher 19.95 Hand/Table Stick Prostick Newport 29.95 Hand/Table Base Left Tracball Wico 69.95 Table Base Left Video Command Zircon 16.95 Hand StackThe "Pointmaster Competition Joystick" is manufactured by Discwasher Corporation and is the least expensive of all the joysticks tested. This joystick offers a firing button only at the top of the stick. The firing button is large and exceptionally easy to use, as it has a very short "throw" (the distance you have to push the button to activate it). The button also has a definite click to it, so you know you have pushed it. Top-of-stick fire buttons are advantageous for games such as "Star Raiders", where keyboard input is required, and perfectly adequate for games such as "Space Invaders", which don't require complex stick movements. But games which require fast, independent movement of the stick and fire button, such as Synapse Software's "Shamus", don't play well on this joystick.
Pointmaster's handgrip is molded and very comfortable for both large and small hands. It looks like an aircraft control stick and conveys a feeling of actually flying the spaceship in "Star Raiders". This stick generally moves smoothly and easily. The base is about the size of the Atari joystick and is easily handled. A somewhat larger base would have provided more stability for one-handed table top use. Direction sensitivity is about the same as the Atari joystick.
The Newport "Prostick", by Newport Machine Design, is only available by mail order. It is an intermediate-priced joystick (see Table), with a base about the same size as the Atari joystick, but somewhat thicker, making it a little harder to hand-hold. The stick itself is a little shorter than the Atari and has a one-inch diameter ball mounted at the top. This configuration makes it a bit difficult for adults to get a good grip on the joystick-the ball is too small to nestle comfortably in the hand, and the stick is a little short to wrap a large hand around. Nonetheless, it is possible to adjust to this stick. It provides excellent response and is the most compact of the sticks tested. Kids have no trouble grasping this stick. The firing button is in the traditional position. The firing button on this stick is the stiffest (requires the most force), and had the longest "throw" of all the sticks tested. This stick, would probably be better with a different button. The direction sensitivity on this stick was about the best of all the sticks- it generally detected the diagonal successfully without giving a diagonal for up / down / left / right.
The "Command Control" joystick from Wico Corporation was the overall favorite of the people who participated in this review. Wico is the largest manufacturer of arcade joysticks, and they know their business. The Command Control had the smoothest joystick response overall, with very little force required to operate. The base is a bit larger than the Atari joystick, making the Wico very steady in table-top operation, although hard to handhold. The stick is shaped like a miniature baseball bat, and children and adults alike had no trouble grasping it. This stick is unique in that it has buttons both in the traditional base position and on top of the joystick. A switch on the base selects which button to use. Both buttons are easy to work, although you can occasionally miss a shot because you forgot which way the switch is set. The direction sensitivity was better than the Atari joystick, but not quite as good as the Newport.
The largest and most expensive joystick tested is the "Big Stick" from R. Allen Baylis Company. The base is 'absolutely huge, measuring eight inches on a side and three and a half inches thick. Definitely not for handholding, it can be placed on a table or in your lap. The stick is quite short, with an arcade-size ball mounted at the top for a fairly comfortable grip. The Big Stick, is, in fact, a Wico arcade stick mounted in a box. Therefore, it has the most "arcade" feel of all the sticks tested. The stick is ultrasensitive - slight pressure in any direction triggers a response. In fact, many find it too sensitive-diagonals are often detected when not wanted. However, a very light touch seems to produce acceptable results. The fire button works well. It is mounted close enough to the edge that the thumb can rest comfortably on it with the fingers over the side. The fire button can be ordered on either side, so lefthanders can get a left-handed stick.
Some arcade games such as "Centipede" and "Missile Command" can't use a joystick. Instead, a tracball is used. A tracball is a device housing a ball which can be spun in all directions a joystick can be pushed. As long as the ball is spinnirng in a given direction, the screen image controlled by the ball will move in that direction. Wico Corporation has introduced a tracball. The tracb; 11 will control any program which can use a joystick, and seems to work as well as the arcade tracballs with the likes of "Missile Command". Of course, when moving the tracball in a given direction, it is hard not to get some component of another direction in the movement. In Atari's "Asteroids", for example, the left / right spin which rotates the space ship usually moves it forward a little bit too, but then, why play "Asteroids" with a tracball?
The pertinent information for the tested joysticks is listed in Table 1. The inexpensive Pointmaster did a very creditable job for games where the single fire button on the stick was not a problem. The Wico Command Control was the overall favorite, and the Big Stick had the most "arcade" feel.
The Prostick may be purchased from:
6626 Valjean Avenue
Van Nuys, CA 91406
for $29.95, plus $2.00 (U.P.S.). For more information, you may call (213) 781-1300. G.A.M.E.S.' ORDER ONLY phone for VISA/MasterCard orders is (800) 626-9592, Mondays through Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Big Stick may be purchased from:
Torrey Engberg Smith Co.
P.O. Box 1075
Glendale, CA 91206
Send a check or money order only.
Dave Plotkin is an industrial engineer and inveterate gameplayer/designer. His "Attack on the Death Star" appeared in Antic #2.