They call them "controllers" now. Joypads, I mean. I was originally going to call this writeup "how I miss game controllers being called joypads, until I realised that I don't.

I miss joysticks.

Joysticks were brilliantly accurate for directional input - since you're moving something sizeable a significant distance in the desired direction, there's less chance of a small innacuracy resulting in an error. Fighter jets still use joysticks for similar reasons. Modern joypads require only a thumb for directional movement. I don't like this. The thumb isn't as precise as an entire hand, and I can't count the number of times I've lost to Sol Badguy in Guilty Gear X because the Dreamcast controller thought my attempt at a "half-circle from towards down to back, then towards and hard slash" had an extra "down" or something in there somewhere. I'd really like to see a Gamecube or PS2 joystick - and no doubt it's been tried in the past - but I have the feeling that it didn't work and they weren't quite sure why.

To think that there are kids today that have never used a joystick. They just don't sell them in the same way they used to. I remember discovering to my delight that my Atari 2600's spartan one-button joystick worked perfectly with my Amiga, while my Amiga's flashy third-party Quickshotergonomic microswitched four-buttoned autofire joystick worked with my Atari. Nowadays, such third-party console joysticks invariably flop, and the only successful third-party controllers are the ones that look exactly like the console's original joypad, but are cheaper (and certainly feel cheaper).

Why? I blame the console makers themselves for making console joysticks impossible today. Look how console controllers have become increasingly more complex and diverse. Since the Atari 2600 joystick we've had the Atari 7800 joypad, a bland rectangular two-button controller. The extra button was a useful addition, allowing games to increase in complexity - for example, to throw a grenade with the extra button while shooting with the other. Previous to this, Atari 2600 games would have required the player to hold down the fire button or repeatedly mash the firebutton to use some special ability.

However, unlike the old Atari 2600 controllers, the two-button 7800 controller could not be easily replaced by two-button Amiga joysticks due to the 7800 controller's addition of Nintendo-style Start and Pause buttons. The joysticks of the day didn't have these - the Amiga and its peers had keyboards, so who needed to squeeze extra buttons onto a controller when you had a hundred of them sitting in front of you? This deviation from the pseudo-standard (in fact, the Amiga used Atari-style controller ports purely for convenience) was an early step in seperating the consoles' controllers from each other.

Skip ahead several years to the Playstation, an excellent machine with an incredible (for the time) ten-button controller. By this stage, consoles had long left behind the nine-pin port Atari controller style, and with good reasons. For one, the Playstation had no need for backward compatibility - no earlier controller had the same controller layout and number of buttons as the Playstation. For another, the Playstation's chunky plastic controller port was easier to plug in and a lot harder for a younger kid to break than the old nine-pin port, which in theory could get a pin bent, ruining an expensive console. (One might also theorise that the Playstation connector, despite also having nine pins, does things slightly differently than the Atari controllers, in order to support the amount of data that ten buttons, a directional pad and two analogue knobs sends out. I'm not entirely sure of this though, not being a Playstation controller expert.)

Like the Atari 7800 before it, programmers of the Playstation soon learned to make use of all those extra buttons. Arcade games, which could use entirely arbitrary control methods, found it easier to convert these control methods over to the Playstation controller when ported to it. All-new games had a wealth of controls at their disposal, and many, such as Metal Gear Solid1, used all four of the Playstation's trademark "firebuttons" - Triangle, Circle, X and Square - to good effect. Count in the ability to hold buttons, repeatedly hit buttons, hit two buttons at once, hit multiple buttons in series, the fact that some combinations (L1+Square) are easier to hit than others (Square+Circle) while some are unfeasible (Square+Circle+R2+Left), and you've got quite an interesting controller for the game designers to work with. The designers often make the game controls very specific to the controller, such as X being a downward smash move and Triangle being an upward smash, or Square being left punch while Circle is right punch.

Now try to convert that to a joystick, and you'll see why nobody has done it yet with any great success. By nature, the joystick is held asymmetrically. One hand holds the stick, while the other holds the base. One of the multi-button joystick controllers back in the good old days used a deliberately heavy and wide base, freeing up the base-holding hand to hit those extra buttons, but I digress. How exactly do you work the symmetrical Playstation control method into a joystick?

We start by putting Start and Select on the base in some arbitrary position, it doesn't matter too much where since they don't have to be as accessible as the "action" buttons. Next, we dump the Big Four - Triangle, Circle, X and Square - on the thumb position of the stick-holding hand, typically the right hand. This maintains ergonomic compatibility with the way the Big Four are normally accessed. We place R1 and R2 in the trigger position, and finally put L1 and L2 on the base for the base-holding-hand. Again, this keeps them where they would be on a standard controller, as the L/R buttons are far too often used as modifiers (Soul Reaver's R1+X to high-jump) or related to their handedness (eg., L2/R2 to scroll left and right, respectively) for us to move them from their standard positions with impunity.

At first glance this works great, but some problems arise. First of all, you're limiting the player to either digital or analogue control, depending whether or not you make the joystick digital or analogue. For the sake of argument, lets suppose it's analogue, but with a digital-analogue converter to make it digital and a switch to change between digital and analogue modes; now it works, but digital mode still feels analogue, which means that an innacurate "left" might be taken as an "up and left" by the game.

Secondly, is it fair to force the user into left-handedness or right-handedness? Assuming we want it to be useable either way, this means two sets of L1/L2 buttons, or a weird placing of them to them accessible by either hand.

Lastly, and perhaps the most important, is that it's simply not balanced. Your base-hand (your off-hand, usually the left) controls only two buttons, L1 and L2, while your stick-hand (typically your right hand) handles not only directional control but all four main firebuttons and R1/R2. You're using the same hand for movement as for button-bashing, requiring much greater manual dexterity. On top of that, you have the stick moving while you're trying to hit the firebuttons with your thumb, often in unusual combinations, and some of which (mashing all four buttons) require you to lift your hand from the movement controls, something which the game's designers didn't have in mind when they did things that way. It's like a 486/66 trying to run Quake - it can do it, but when things get complex it's not going to be able to do things quickly enough.

In short, a modern-day console joystick is a round peg in a square hole. The further you deviate from a platform's standard control method, the less compatible your controller becomes. Since recent consoles all have very specific controller designs, anything that deviates from this form as much as a joystick does can expect only a minor success at best. For the moment, at any rate, joypads are here to stay.


1 Yes, I'm aware that it was a sequel to the original Metal Gear series, but as far as Metal Gear Solid itself is concerned, it was an original PSX game.

Several noders have written to tell me that, as I expected, console joysticks do exist. Rather than being marketed as all-purpose controllers, these arcade-style joysticks tend toward use in the likes of flight sims and fighting games, where (as I mentioned above) accurate directional control is more important than button orientation. It's not so good though for other games which need to have their controllers working in a certain way. I only wish I had a Dreamcast joystick to play Guilty Gear X.