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Controllers Of Atari - The Atari Times

Controllers Of Atari

Analog this! A Primer of Atari's Controllers from 1977-1996
by Gregory D. George

August 11, 2003
Atari controllers are as varied as the systems they're played on. But how exactly did controllers get from the single button joystick to the multi-button joypad? Well, let's start from the beginning.

In the early days of Atari, there was Pong. Rather than joysticks, Pong used paddles (named after the onscreen paddle). They were analog devices that would give the player precise control over the action. When Pong was released for the home, the paddles went with it.

Thanks to the enormous success of Pong, the Atari 2600 was born. Designed to play Pong-type games and simple shooters, the 2600 actually came with two joysticks and two paddles. (Try and get a deal like that today!) The standard Atari joystick is probably the most recognized controller in the history of video gaming. It had one button and the joystick gave the player 8-directions of movement. The 2600 was also innovative in that the controllers could be disconnected from the system, a feature not seen on other consoles before it.

The great thing about these standard 2600 joysticks is the compatibility. Aside from the 5200 and Jaguar, they would work on any Atari system including the 7800, 8-bit computer line (including the XEGS), and the ST computer line. When all accounted for, that is a lot of Atari systems compatible with this joystick!

Some might argue that the Atari joystick is tough and has stood the test of time. However, experience has shown that these joysticks have two major problems. One is that the ring of the joystick's plastic inner core has a tendency to wear out over time. It is possible to buy a replacement part to fix that problem. The other common problem is that the actual buttons stop working. The only way to fix that is to buy a replacement PCB replacing the main guts of the joystick. (They're usually pretty cheap.)

The driving controllers for the 2600 worked with only one game: Indy 500. About the only difference between them and the standard paddle controllers is that the driving controllers can turn over continuously while the paddles stop and must be turned back the other direction when you reach the end. These are popular for converting into Tempest 2000 controllers for the Jaguar.

The remote control joystick was a painful waste of time and money. Firstly, the joystick base was huge in order to accommodate the electronics and the battery. This meant it was difficult for small hands to hold properly. The other major problem with them was the fact that they didn't work very often. Several owners (including myself) have commented that they rarely work or never did.

Years before the Nintendo 64 made analog joysticks popular, the 5200 came along with it's non-centering analog joystick. Marketing pressure caused Atari to develop this infamous controller to compete with Intellivision. Mattel's advertising stated that their disc controller offered 16-degrees of motion to the Atari 2600's joystick's 8 directions. The 5200 controllers were designed to give 360 degrees of motion in a joyous non-centering configuration.

Image Courtesy of AtariAge.comAlso to compete with both ColecoVision and Intellivision, the 5200 included a keypad allowing for more complex gameplay. (But let's be real here: How many 5200 games utilized the keypad?) Several 5200 game included an overlay to enhance the games. Another great feature first employed on the 5200 controller would become a staple of games today: A pause button!

Lastly the 5200 joystick demanded its players hold it differently than any other joystick. It featured an elongated handle (to accommodate the keypad) and buttons on either side instead of on top like the 2600 model. This forced players to turn their hands upside-down in an unnatural manner. Needless to say, hand cramps came a lot quicker to owners of the 5200.

You can't be a true 5200 owner unless you have a 5200 trak-ball. It included dual keypads, which are rather redundant, (but we like them anyway) fire buttons on either side for lefties and righties and the pause, start, and reset buttons. Several games used it, and they are greatly enhanced by it. Unlike the 2600 track-ball, the cursor in the games for the 5200 model will speed up depending on how fast you roll the ball. Missile Command, Centipede, Defender, Galaxian, Pengo, Pole Position, Space Invaders, Super Breakout and the RealSports games all were designed to work with it.

The 7800 controller turned out to be a merger of the 2600 and 5200 controllers. It was designed to look similar to the 5200 configuration with buttons on either side and included an elongated handle. It was also self-centering making game playing much more enjoyable than on the 5200. Still, cramping could occur with the Pro-Line joystick as in the 5200 stick.

Image Courtesy of AtariAge.comIn Europe, Atari nixed the 7800 Pro-Line joystick in favor of a Nintendo-style joypad. It included two buttons and a removable joystick "stalk" that could be removed if the player wanted to use it as a joypad. This is the first known case of Atari using a joypad instead of a joystick.

Another interesting controller was the XE light gun. Packaged with the XE Game System (as well as a standard white Atari joystick) the XE light gun worked with only a few 7800 and XEGS games. It could be purchased separately and included a copy of the game Bug Hunt. Gamers did have problems with this gun complaining that it was not very accurate. In fact, it was the software that had the problems, as some games were more accurate than others. Still, this was a very stylish addition to the Atari legacy.

Image Courtesy of AtariAge.comThe Atari Jaguar joypad was a strange mix of 5200 keypad and 7800 joypad. Unlike the 5200, the keypad for the Jaguar controller was used in most Jaguar games. Doom, for example, benefited greatly from the ability to switch weapons with one key press instead of having to cycle through the weapons as on other consoles. As on the 5200, Jaguar games included an overlay that attached to the controller to help with gameplay. While large and clunky looking, they have often been called the most comfortable controller ever. The Jaguar Pro-Controller was a souped up version of the standard controller and included a total of 6 fire buttons and two shoulder buttons as well as a more responsive joypad.

Atari controllers have changed a great deal over the years. From the standard 2600 joystick with one button to the Jaguar joypad, every successive controller added and improved from the previous one. One thing is for sure, each controller is distinctive and has secured a place in the history of video gaming. 

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