“You have to use the Mad Catz.” 🎮
July 8, 2019 2:14 PM   Subscribe

An Oral History of the Third-Party Video Game Controller [Fanbyte] “Looking at my two official Sony Playstation 4 DualShocks, it’s hard to remember a time when such uniformity was unheard of amongst game controller collections. Decades ago, any given console’s set of game pads would likely be composed of a mishmash of official models and misshapen, third-party monstrosities. We all had at least one controller reserved for guests — a plastic accident with sticky buttons, unresponsive joysticks, and an ironic name like The Dominator or The Professional.”
posted by Fizz (24 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
“Here, you can use this one.”
**so called best friend hands me a janky ass see through controller with a broken Ⓧ & Ⓨ buttons.**

posted by Fizz at 2:25 PM on July 8, 2019 [16 favorites]

I built my own Atari 2600 controller optimized for Spacewar! and Asteroids back in the late 70's/early 80's, and used a joystick/mouse combo for Quake/Unreal Tournament/UT2k4, whose Operation Overlord CTF made me pretty much give up FPS.

I play a lot of solitaire now.
posted by mikelieman at 2:34 PM on July 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

Related: Mad Catz is going out of business, so let's remember its wackiest controllers [The Verge]
“Here's to the crazy ones. Mad Catz just filed for bankruptcy, after decades of serving the gaming peripheral market. The company bet big on Rock Band 4, which didn't pan out as well as it had hoped, and now the company has been shut down, with its assets up for auction. Mad Catz might be best known for its "little brother controllers." You know, the cheap third-party controller you give to your little brother to play Mario Kart which inevitably fails in his hour of need while you drift your way past him to victory. Like this fragile hunk of plastic.”
posted by Fizz at 2:38 PM on July 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

I loved my one N64 knockoff one that had macro buttons you could record. The joystick was really awful though.
posted by msbutah at 2:38 PM on July 8, 2019

#5 is dissing the Atari 5200 controller, which was, indeed, pretty horrible by all accounts - it was an attempt at an analog joystick without anything to push it back to the center when you let go of it, with a huge awkward numeric pad hanging off its bottom - but they then describe the third-party controllers by Wico as looking like a butt-plug, and link to a video of a couple of guys with a Wico bat-handle controller for the 2600. Which is pretty phallic, to be true, but does not look like a butt-plug.

I just did a quick search for the actual Wico 5200 controller, and, yeah. That's a butt-plug.
posted by egypturnash at 2:58 PM on July 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

BOB: Okay, we're all at different skill levels here, so I'll handicap us with the joysticks.
LARRY: You were born handicapped.
SARAH: *laughs*
BOB: All right, Larry. You're a wise guy, you get the Bart Simpson.
LARRY: Yeah, I like that one.
PETE: 'Cause you like to grab Bart by the dingle.
LARRY: Shut up.
BOB: Sarah, you haven't played this before, so I'll give you the one with all these options.
SARAH: What the hell is this?
BOB: It's called the High Score HS-15...
SARAH: I mean, is this a game controller or do I program my microwave with this?
LARRY: *laughs*
PETE: At least it doesn't have a dingle.
SARAH: I feel like I'll push a button and the Space Shuttle will take off.
BOB: Speaking of dingles... Pete, you use this one.
PETE: What... the hell?
BOB: The Le Stick.
PETE: Am I supposed to stick it up my ass and dance?
SARAH: Your score would probably improve.
BOB: Actually, it has mercury switches in it, so that you tilt it back and forth to make it work. So you really could.
LARRY: How about you?
BOB: So I don't show you all up... I'll use the Unroller.
SARAH: The what now?
PETE: *sings* And he's got the biggest... ball of them all...
LARRY: What is that, a Trac-Ball?
BOB: No, it just clicks. You move it like a joystick, but it's this big... yellow thing... and it clicks like a quarter-inch in each direction.
SARAH: So can we play already?
LARRY: Pete, is your ass ready?
PETE: *pauses* It is now.
posted by delfin at 3:21 PM on July 8, 2019 [10 favorites]

4. Atari and Commodore home computers didn’t come with official joysticks, so third-party offerings proliferated.

That's at least half wrong. Atari computers (400/800/XL/XE) used the same CX40 controller that shipped with the Atari VCS/2600 and, I think, shipped with at least one.

delfin, I totally came to post about the Le Stick.
posted by hanov3r at 3:34 PM on July 8, 2019

The C64 (and VIC-20, and, IIRC, the Amiga) used the same joystick/paddle controller as the Atari 2600 (a DB-9 connector, with one electrical line per switch/potentiometer and no built-in intelligence at all); Commodore had their own controllers, but they were fairly ordinary.

I remember having had a number of C64 joysticks. One with a fighter-aircraft-like grip and two glossy red buttons, one on top and one in trigger position, both electrically connected to the sole button line. The base had suction cups on the bottom, and it had an autofire mode, which would send a stream of pulses down the fire-button line when you held down the button. Another was more cleverly ergonomic, being a curved piece of black plastic with a button on the side and a small skittle-shaped stick on top, which would trigger clicky microswitches when moved.
posted by acb at 4:15 PM on July 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

The Wico joysticks for the Atari were absolutely in the "Give this to your friend that came over to play" category, but the PointMaster? Nope. That one was precious.
posted by Xyanthilous P. Harrierstick at 4:27 PM on July 8, 2019

Are you kidding? Give me Wico's The Boss joystick any day and I will rule the rec room.

The Vectrex system used a very different controller with four buttons, but the same DB-9 connector. When I obtained a Vectrex system that powered up but had no controllers with it, I found that I could connect an Atari stick (the 7800 Pro-Line, if memory serves) and sort of fake my way through Minestorm on it, or at least make the blips on the screen do things.

And as I am fond of noting in such threads, the one that got away was the Bally Astrocade. Ergonomic trigger grip, an 8-way joystick up top, with a knob on it that also rotated. Paddle and joystick in one unit! The built-in shootout game was so much more fun when you could move and aim independently.
posted by delfin at 4:45 PM on July 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Epyx 500XJ was my first foray into 3rd party controllers and set the bar impossibly high. The NES-compatible version sits on a shelf to this day, but my heart belongs to the Atari (and therefore Commodore 64)-compatible version.

clickclickclickclick click clickclick clickclickclickclickclick

Playing Summer (and/or Winter) Games on this this was a cacophony.
posted by radiosilents at 5:00 PM on July 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I remember being at my dad's boss's house for some reason when I was a kid and his kids had either an Atari or a VIC-20 with a homemade joystick.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 5:17 PM on July 8, 2019

ASCIIpad is pretty much the pinnacle of 3rd party controller, and it's been downhill ever since.
posted by pwnguin at 5:52 PM on July 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

We knew the Epyx from its original developer, Konix. They were good.
posted by scruss at 6:38 PM on July 8, 2019

I also had a 500XJ. Even though I used it exclusively on Epyx sports titles, I still managed to basically destroy all of the switches on it within a few years. Whereas my original Atari 2600 sticks (the ones that came with my system ca. 1985 or so) still work even today, which makes sense because their range of motion was barely enough to introduce any kind of repetitive wear or tear to the internal components, which were well-protected inside all of that plastic.
posted by Strange Interlude at 8:02 PM on July 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I bought rip off joysticks 2x in my life and have decided I am never doing that again.

First was for X-Box, they were basically the Phat model with tubber grips and a glowy logo, and translucent green. I only did that because Best Buy was shit enough to not have official controllers apparently. Or maybe I was that shit enough to buy into the marketing as I saw it in the store?

More recently, didn't have a readily available Xbox 360/Xbox One wired controller so I picked up a knock-off a year ago or so, and it broke within 3 months, so I bought the real thing when I saw they had one with a wireless adapter (I had assumed it was bluetooth, and I had no bluetooth, and didn't want to buy an adapter. but then found out sadly that it uses a custom thing and so you can't use it with the Switch (which I had hoped I could pull off somehow).

Anyways, boo to bad peripherals:

(Speaking of horrible FIRST party joysticks: Radio Shacks Color Computer 1 floating sticks were THE WORST.
posted by symbioid at 8:40 PM on July 8, 2019

That C64 fighter-jet style joystick is still the platonic ideal of a joystick as far as I’m concerned.
posted by corvine at 11:39 PM on July 8, 2019

Am I supposed to stick it up my ass and dance?

Is...is that a Bruce Bethke's Headcrash reference?
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 1:42 AM on July 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ashens did a review of his surprisingly extensive classic joystick collection, including my personal favourite, the Powerplay Cruiser.

I seriously miss the days of fully microswitched controllers. Buttons need to be satisfying clicky.
posted by Eleven at 4:53 AM on July 9, 2019

Off topic but still controller related: I've spent the last two days rehabbing my Xbox One Elite controller with new grips, new bumpers, cleaning it up, gorilla gluing the peeling rubber on the bottom back into place... and it has been an amazing experience. I think I really want to start busting things open and fixing them.

Also repairing a $150 controller for $25 is cool. Turns out, not that hard!

I'm going to fix some joysticks on old controllers next, I hope. Or more likely break them. There are a LOT of YouTube videos on how to do this stuff and a surprising number of them are pretty adorable early teen boys who're like stumbling over their words and just so into showing you how to do a technical thing they've worked on.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 6:43 AM on July 9, 2019

The best of the 8-bit joysticks was always the Quickshot II Turbo (the red plastic makes it faster).
posted by AndrewStephens at 8:09 AM on July 9, 2019

For people that want arcade quality joysticks with clicky mechanical switches, there's a whole DIY culture out there now with lots of parts. I'm pretty sure you can make a controller for just about any system, modern or vintage. They make little controller boards and you just wire your switches and stuff into the board and don't need to, say, make your own PCB or other more complicated tasks.

I'm aware of this mainly through stuff like MIDIfighter that lets you make MIDI music controllers out of the same tech and I don't know what the current state of the art is, but searching "DIY joystick" and "DIY joystick controller" and similar searches return lots of results and different controller products.
posted by loquacious at 8:46 AM on July 9, 2019

Also this is as good a place as any for this brag:

I was hanging out with a friend and we stopped by a bar/lounge where some of his friends were playing MaroKart 64. These guys are all like 15 years my junior and doing a lot of boisterous trash talking and acting like dudes do about this kind of thing.

"I want in." I say, and I get a bunch of (good natured) trash talk, including something like "what the fuck does a Gen Xer know about Mario Kart?"

MarioKart64 is something I'm still really good at, and while I watching them I could see they weren't hitting every turn right or using powerslides well, so fuck yeah let's go to school, boys.

Of course I get the shitty beat up third party controller with the floppy analog stick, but it doesn't matter. We're racing 150cc on Wario Stadium, and if you run that track right it's almost entirely powerslides and just slamming the stick from one side to the other. If you're spending most of your time on Wario Stadium actually steering and not powersliding and countersteering I don't know what to tell you. You don't need detailed analog controls and you can practically run it just with the D-pad if you apex all the turns with good powerslides.

Yeah, the trash talking stopped after the first lap and things got grim and real quiet. "Goddamnit, someone hit him with a blue shell! Anyone! What the fuck!?" Which, yeah, blue shell, whatever. Watch me drift wide on this turn and tap the brakes just in time for 2nd place to take 1st just long enough to take the blue shell while I barely slow down or lose my line at all.

They weren't expecting that at all, not with that controller. And of course I won. By a nearly double digit number of seconds over 2nd place. I didn't just come in 1st place, I set the track record for that cartridge by like 2+ seconds.

"Yeah, that's what I know about MarioKart." *drops controller like a hot mic*
posted by loquacious at 9:09 AM on July 9, 2019 [9 favorites]

The Performance was my secret weapon. And still is! I got a PC adapter for it and that 25 year old controller still works fine for emulators, though the weird little flippers get dirty.

My "enforced handicap" controller was a TurboTouch 360, which was a useless piece of junk with which my friend Ari still kicked my ass at Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat.
posted by Phobos the Space Potato at 12:17 PM on July 9, 2019

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