In the beginning, there was mechanical game machines. Then came computerized videogames arcades. Soon enough, these videogames cabinet were equipped with sticks for gaming controls. Historically, when “home videogame consoles” separated paths from “arcades”, they too used joysticks, but then evolved into using “gamepads”… while “Arcades” still use them sticks. Let explore how this all came out.
The first video game arcade dates back to 1971 and was named “Computer Space”
It looked what was then futuristic, curved shapes and all. Despite original press release using a rotary encoded handle, its control panel had zero ergonomy and was (somewhat) complicated (particularly for its time) with its weirdly positioned buttons. Modern-day gamers would be eased as this plays about as well as using strange keyboard key combination, but in a non-computerized age this wasn’t optimal.
The Invention of the Spinner
It was soon realized that, for the sake of having substential revenue from a machine, controls needed to feel more natural. The main issue with Computer Space was that players had to read instructions in order to understand how to play, but people wouldn’t want to pass trough that learning phase.
The first revelation to fullfill that goal was the “spinner” – that spinning analogic wheel that helps controlling a paddle of some sort. It is still symbolized by the classic arcade videogame Pong released in 1972.
Pong was simple: no buttons, only a spinner. Controls were simple enough that players would know right away how to play.
Other input devices such as a trackballs were also used on other games such as missile commands.
Passage to Joysticks
The first apparition of a joystick as we know it was done by Midway in 1975 in a game called Gun Fight.
However very ergonomic, games designers of the time didn’t believe in it straight ahead. For instance, the revolutionary Space Invaders started by using left & right buttons; which were replaced in a second edition by a horizontally restricted joystick.
2-way, 4-way, 8-way? What gives?
Axial sticks have a rod that the player tilt to activate a directional switch. In theory it could be tilted in any of the 360 degrees. However, for ease of control, they were (are still, often) equipped with physical restrictors – depending on what game. Thus, while 1975’s Gun Fight used both axis (4-way,) most Shoot-’em-up used only one axis (2-way.)
What about diagonals? while it is possible to know if both axis are being used at once e.g. UP -and- Right, game design of the time didn’t seem to care for it, or might it some cases even have had computational or hardware capacity issues with it.
Games like Pac-Man (1980) had physical 4-way restrictors. But other games like Donkey Kong (1981) didn’t have restrictors, but still didn’t recognize diagonals – only one of the direction would kick in.
Controls seems to flow better when there is a restrictor to tell the player where is that sweet spot for movement recognition – even in 8-way where diagonals are appreciated, an octagonal or square restrictor seems to do wonder – depending on the player’s tastes.
What about Q*Bert? It uses only diagonals!
Q*Bert is a weird example of classic arcade… using only diagonals for movement. They actually cheated on cabinet design! The normal 4-way physically restricted joystick is installed at an angle, but the commands are sent to diagonals on the software side. Bazinga!
When video games were introduced to homes, they originally tried to mimic arcades. So they used arcade-inspired joysticks. The golden age of classic games all ran on joysticks of all sorts.
Only with the second wave of video games did a change occur, passing to gamepads. It stuck to home gaming style – perhaps because joysticks are optimal in a stand-up cabinet but less than optimal when seated? Nevertheless, from the gamepad evolved the modern-age video game controller, with its shoulder buttons, triggers, dpad, analog sticks and multiple buttons. It suits gamers very well. See our take on the evolution of the dualshock.
Still, some modern console controllers of the same generation kept that arcade joystick inspiration, and it is still available today to some extent.
Modern-day arcade sticks.
Joysticks evolved from physically restricted leaf switches to all-digital 360 degrees devices. Different games use different technology, might it be in arcade, or at home.
Modern joysticks and buttons are mainly divided in two influences: American and Japanese. Both have distinct styles. American joysticks seems to prefer bat-top styles, while Japanese tend to go with ball-top. Americans go for concave buttons, while Japanese use convex.
Sensitivity of the joystick’s and buttons’ switch is also something that varies; retro gamers seems to prefer looser switches as it feels closer to the “no-click” felt on leaf switches, but modern-day gamers like to actually have some feedback. The preferred pressure varies from player to player. Too hard and it strains the hand/finger, but too loose doesn’t please everyone.
There are modern products available in the “arcade style” joystick scene for both consoles and computer. Some are very flexible and uses genuine arcade parts, some are cheaper approximation on the same theme. Often modern day “arcade controller” intended for console or arcade will be encased in a box and include a full fledged joystick and a number of buttons, sometimes engineered with modding in mind.
This can also be achieved DIY-style – a whole arcade cabinet could be achieved DIY-style! The best ressources on that end are available at Build your own arcade controls.