The Early Days
1976 through 1982
Joysticks allowed 8 directional digital movements (up/down/left/right/angles) with a
single action button. They were bulky with a heavy base, and a long protruding handle / stick that could be gripped in a fist. The Atari
2600 was one of the first machines to popularize joysticks. It was also one of the first controllers that allowed disconnection from the
console. This allowed gamers the ability to replace defective controllers. This also gave Atari 2600 the ability to use various other
controllers such as paddles and balls. These paddles were some of the early developments of analog control. Instead of movement translated
into digital signals, the analog controllers used potentiometers. These potentiometers could detect the speed of gamer paddle manipulations,
and translate it to an equivalent onscreen movement. The paddles were similar to the knobs, and only detected left / right or up / down movement. The ball controllers could recognize 4 directional analog movements. These controllers were the ideal choice for Pong / Breakout
The Atari 2600 joysticks were not ergonomically friendly, and put some strain on the wrist. Developers also noticed that the sticks would quickly become defective because of the grip and force exerted by excited gamers (good thing that they could be replaced). This contributed to an early design change adopted by later consoles. The joystick would be changed to have a smaller handle that could be manipulated by either the thumb or two fingers. This reduced the amount of force exerted by gamers. One of the first consoles to adopt this redesign was the Bally Astrocade.
The Astrocade controller was quite innovative for its time. It resembled the pistol grip of a gun, and even featured a trigger-like action button. The small joystick rested on the top of the pistol grip. The joystick also featured a twistable knob that could be used for paddle games. Essentially the Bally Astrocade controller was both analog and digital. While other controllers were adopting the use of smaller joysticks, Mattel Intellivision took the opportunity to shake up controller evolution even further.
Rather then using a joystick, Intellivision used a metallic "circular direction disk" that could be manipulated by the thumb. This "circular direction disk" used digital signals for recognition of up to 16 directions (8 more then standard digital controllers). Mattel would also add 4 "side mounted" action buttons. The upper side buttons shared the same function, but this allowed flexibility for both left and right handed gamers. Some consoles such as the Bally Astrocade and the RCA Studio 2 featured keypads mounted on the console. The functions of these keypads could be used for programming, or to effect game play. The Intellivision incorporated the keypad into the controller. The keypad could be used to select different aspects of the game such as difficulty and level selection (Start / Reset /etc). This freed gamers from the hassle of having to get up to start, select levels, or reset from the console. Some games allowed the keypad to be used as part of game play, and overlays would be used to identify the game functions of each button. The expanded features of the Intellivision controller did away with the need for other miscellaneous controllers (the controllers were not removable in early models). Some loved it, and some hated it, but overall Mattel sparked a change in the evolution of controllers. Quite a few consoles such as Colecovision borrowed many elements from the Intellivision design.
It was the 1980s and Atari had found a fierce competitor in the console market. The rival console known as Intellivision possessed controllers that allowed for 16 directions of movement (and other features). Atari decided to out do their competition with the creation of an analog joystick with 360 degree directional movement. The same analog potentiometer technology previously used in paddles would find its way into the Atari 5200 controllers. The Atari 5200 controllers would also feature a built in keypad, and sport 2 action buttons. Atari would also feature what would soon be commonly known as a "Pause" button (the Intellivision had a similar "pause game play" feature by pressing "1" and "9" on the keypad). However, the same innovative step towards analog control proved to be a handicap for Atari 5200 gamers. The analog control could not "self center". In other words, the controller did not recognize a neutral position, and this translated to you game play where you can stay in one place (your always moving in the last direction you moved).
Atari 2600 Joystick Controller
Bally Astrocade 'Pistol-Grip' Controller
Mattel Intellivision "Directional Disc"
|Consoles such as Vectrex and Emerson Arcadia (and its many clones) would implement "self-centering" and create analog joysticks that functioned correctly. The Vectrex would implement 4 action buttons, while the Arcadia 2001 would borrow the keypad / side-button layout from the Atari 5200. Emerson would also borrow the "circular direction disk" control from the Intellivision. In order to satisfy those who were familiar with joysticks (and not a thumb manipulated disk), Emerson Arcadia controllers had a screw hole in the center of the circular disk that allowed the addition of an optional joystick.|