Gaming Controllers of the Past
Form and function have changed wildly over the years
Gaming peripherals have changed over the past 30 years with the likes of Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation, and a host of PC-oriented gaming controllers. Console and peripheral manufacturers hope to create loyalty through design. If the debate over the offset analog sticks of the Xbox controller versus the symmetrical ones on the PlayStation controllers is any indication, they have done their job well.
It wasn’t always like that in the past. Controllers were made in conjunction with third-party manufacturers to build and construct gaming controllers that worked with their products. I have many of these controllers, and though some are 30+ years old, they are still in great shape and offer a look back at what was considered cutting-edge design at the beginning of the gaming revolution.
The Gemstik is a classic controller that was favored for the Atari 2600, as the one that came with the system was too stiff and clunky. It has a control stick and one button to serve the basic fire or jump functions of games from that era. This controller is best used for simple non-arcade games that will not damage the inside axis pins. If this controller is handled roughly, the rubber grip that sits on top of the plastic stick may pop right off. You can remedy this by using a plumbers flat O-ring to give it stability. This controller was useful for Commodore 64 games as well, those that required up/down/left/right inputs and the fire button for various tasks or shooting weapons.
The TAC-2 feels like the large HORI stick that is popular among the competitive fighting game scene. It is scaled down with just a directional stick and two fire buttons. This controller would have been cool if the left button was the RELOAD button. We all know the default button for that on most modern controllers is the X button. What was this controller used for? Games such as Hyper Sports, Daley Thompson Decathlon, and Operation Wolf. Never heard of those games? Hyper Sports was a mini sports game published by Konami. Daley’s Decathlon is just like it sounds, a decathlon sim named after the British athlete who broke Bruce Jenner’s decathlon record. And Operation Wolf was a home-console version of the kinds of light gun games that were popular in arcades, where enemies ran across the screen firing at you while you tried to shoot them.
Microsoft Sidewinder 3D Pro joystick
Microsoft’s very first joystick was designed to emulate some features of the traditional models, made by Thrustmaster and CH. These sticks were specifically targeting flight-simulator games, which had a huge audience on PC at the time, but Microsoft’s stick was designed to be game-agnostic. The Sidewinder resembled the great Power Shot Joystick of the Commodore-64 era. This controller had a plethora of inputs, with directional, rudder control, Hat-switch, aim-button, and a thrust control, along with 6 programmable buttons. One of my favorite games at the time was Star Wars Rebel Assault II. The Sidewinder controller had everything you needed no matter what vehicles you were using or what you were doing in the game. Shooting, flying, speeder bikes, the Millennium Falcon, this stick could handle it all. It was a beast that I continued to use until USB ports and the sticks that used them began to appear on the market.
Microsoft SideWinder Freestyle Pro gamepad
In the design of the Sidewinder Freestyle Pro, it’s clear to see the inspiration that would one day lead to the Xbox game controllers we know and love. This controller had many features we take for granted today, such as the gyroscope that lets you control flying by moving the controller through the air with your hands. I used this controller for Star Wars: Rogue Squadron and Star Wars Episode I: Racer. The motion-sensing gyroscope helped me guide the X-Wing fighters and Anakin’s Pod racer. Plus this was the first controller that had the shoulder triggers that could be used for aiming, accelerating, and braking. They are a far cry from the ergonomic shoulder buttons and delicately curved triggers that we know on today’s gamepads, but the idea was there and would continue to be refined to where they are today.
Game controllers have certainly come as far as the technology we control through them, from simple two-button sticks to the multi-button customizable gamepads used by today’s competitive gamers. As always, understanding the past helps us appreciate the present and predict the future. Who knows what the next twenty years of controller innovation will bring.
If you’d like to see a quick video tour of some of the controllers I’ve shown, it’s included here. Enjoy!