In Total Control

From the arcades to the living room, how the controller has evolved—and why one tech historian, Benj Edwards, started building his own.

Today in Tedium: Of the year’s many Super Bowl ads, perhaps the most compelling and interesting—and according to a post-game study, effective—was an ad Microsoft created to highlight a game controller. The Xbox Adaptive Controller, with its massive action buttons and dozens of accessories, is the kind of device that perhaps won’t sell a lot of units, but is much more important as a statement piece—a statement that the company wants to ensure everyone who wants to play its games can do so, and that it was willing to take steps to encourage such accessibility. Gamers, of course, are very particular about their controllers—as they should be, because they spend hours with them, whether at an arcade, on the go, or at home in front of a 4K TV set or old CRT—and are willing to look far and wide for one that best suits their needs. In that spirit, today’s Tedium ponders game controllers, and highlights a pal of mine who has found himself in the joystick business in recent months. — Ernie @ Tedium

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1926

The year that the joystick, a key method of controlling a video game, was first patented. Obviously, video games didn’t exist back then, so its use case was in aviation, as a part of a remote control aviation system. To test the device, engineer Carlos B. Mirick effectively invented a primitive drone-like device–a radio-controlled device on wheels he called the “electric dog.”

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The N64 controller, perhaps one of the most controversial controllers of all time, helped to popularize the thumbstick. (Evan Amos/Wikimedia Commons)

Five evolutionary control types that contributed to the history of the game controller

  1. The paddle. An early joystick variant that first found its use in Nolan Bushnell’s calling card Pong, it’s essentially a giant knob that relies on circular motion, ensuring that the range of movement was fairly limited. Despite looking nothing like a paddle, the name is effectively a reference to its use in tennis-style games. “In fact, this type of controller probably wouldn’t even be called a paddle if it weren’t for Bushnell’s pioneering game,” PC Magazine noted in 1984, alongside a review of two paddles it said were “shaped like miniature coffins.”
  2. The D-Pad. As pointed out in a 2017 episode of The Gaming Historian, Nintendo icon Gunpei Yokoi invented the basic design behind the directional pad, with Yokoi’s key innovation involving a ball pivot in the center of the directional pad, which allowed for better freedom of motion. Nintendo patented this basic design, which meant that, for decades, every other game maker had to use an alternative design for their own directional sticks. (Notably, the Joy-Cons on Nintendo’s latest console, the Switch, do not use a D-Pad, though popular third-party manufacturers like Hori sell them.)
  3. The thumbstick. A tiny version of the joystick, popular with 3D games, was popularized with the Nintendo 64, which included a stick directly in the middle of the controller. As writer Mark Christian noted on his blog, this design ended up proving unique, as the approach was eschewed in favor of making the stick and directional pad equally accessible at all times. Of note: One early variant of the thumbstick was the NES Max, which used a slider-type device called a cycloid that was functionally similar to a thumbstick, but was harder to use. This has led enthusiasts to mod the controller to add an actual thumbstick.
  4. The trackball. While lacking an actual stick, of course, the trackball, which we covered in 2017, served a functionally similar purpose in many early video games, most famously Arkanoid and Centipede. The Apple Pippin, perhaps Cupertino’s most obscure product, included a trackball in the middle of its boomerang-style controller.
  5. The touchpad. More recently, modern controllers have taken to implementing miniature touchpads directly within the controller—particularly the PlayStation 4, whose DualShock touchpad is a notable feature. Recent variants of the Apple TV, which have remotes that double as game controllers in some cases, also include touchpads.
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Benj Edwards, a tech historian turned retro entreprenur. (Handout photos)

How a computing historian found himself running a joystick business

Technology, so often, is a game of mass manufacturing—of products that are produced at a certain scale, that don’t really shine or reach an ideal price/performance ratio unless they’re made in the tens of thousands. Certainly joysticks, like many video game items, have traditionally fit into this mold.

But retro gaming, with its willing body of enthusiasts who are looking for ways to perfect their nostalgia experience—and willing to pay premium prices along the way—are perhaps the most prominent exception to this rule. And that creates opportunities to take a more, shall we say, DIY approach.

Benj Edwards, a tech journalist and historian who has run his Vintage Computing and Gaming website for nearly 15 years, has recently found himself in the joystick business, building out an array of joysticks for platforms common and obscure—mostly by hand. He notes that BX Foundry comes at a time when retro gaming is full of people looking for an upgrade.

“There is a rather large enthusiast community of retrogamers our there right now, and they are used to paying (relatively) high amounts for rare games or special limited-run accessories,” Edwards told me in an email interview. “So boutique handcrafted joysticks fit into this quite well—especially when the joysticks turn out to be amazingly good and deliver an experience for older systems that you can’t get out of any mass-produced retail product.”

Edwards, having written stories about the invention of the first video game cartridge, why software piracy is a necessity for preservation, and the challenge of saving the history of the early online service Prodigy, knows his tech history, and he brings that knowledge to his work in joysticks.

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A sample of some of Edwards’ organic, minimalist controllers.

He describes his approach to his joysticks as “organic and minimalist”—and moving against the prevailing trend among arcade controllers for home consoles of being akin to literal replicas of what’s usually found in arcade cases. His strategy is, effectively, to keep it simple—he develops the cases from off-the-shelf plastic boxes, uses genuine arcade sticks and controllers, generally uses a drill press to cut the holes, and relies on the placement of his own hands to figure out the general design for a given controller.

“Some people who make home arcade sticks get obsessed with plotting out precise positions for all the buttons, even drawing them up in a computer CAD program first,” he explains. “I just use a pencil and a ruler if I need to plan anything out.”

This strategy has proven effective for his lineup of joysticks, which includes systems largely of a particular vintage, including the Atari 800 and the NES. (Lots of room for offbeat stuff, however; my personal favorite controller he makes is the BX-10 Cyclops, which is literally described on the website as “a single button to make a dramatic statement.”)

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The SNES-focused BX-110, which had a higher-capacity production cycle.

Of course, keeping it simple has its limits. It means that scaling up production can be a challenge, especially in the case of the BX-110, a joystick for the Super NES that he’s currently ramping up production for. Things that you might not think about as a consumer, such as the color of the buttons or the number of holes on a box, suddenly become significant issues.

“I had lot of interest, but if I tried to build 100 of them myself, it would take forever and not be practical,” he explained. (Full disclosure: I’m currently waiting on a BX-110, and I’m patiently counting down the days.)

In the past, I’ve wanted to interview folks trying to build businesses around building and shipping things about their challenges with logistics. (I’m particularly interested in startups trying to ship alcohol across state lines for home delivery purposes, for what it’s worth, due to the knotty legal issues that come with that. If anyone you know is running a business like that, get in touch.)

BX Foundry is the closest I’ve gotten to that, and the way Benj talks about it highlights just how hard this stuff can be for newbies, how it sets parameters (“the up-front investment costs of custom injection-molded cases is astronomical, and I can’t afford that right now”) and highlights, unfortunately, the way the world works these days.

“I’ll tell you the challenge that is most depressing,” he notes, by way of example. “American factories and companies are glacially slow and inefficient, while Chinese manufacturers are lightning fast, highly skilled, and fall all over themselves trying to help you in any way you could possibly need.”

He says that the Super NES joysticks, high in demand, are being held up by one thing, though he’s working it out. Even with the frustrations, though, he sees the bright side here.

“I’ve learned a ton about manufacturing along the way, though, so it has been a fascinating and gratifying experience,” he says.

1982

The year Sanwa Denshi, a Japanese manufacturer of arcade joystick parts, first moved into video game production. The Japanese company manufactures a variety of key elements for arcade-style controls, and has become a de facto standard for many arcade cabinets in the years since. Edwards uses Sanwa parts in his builds.

The thing I find fascinating about Benj’s move to build a joystick business is that his knowledge of computer history is wide—and this manifested itself in interesting ways, such as a large collection of vintage computer equipment that literally became a news story when he tried to sell it last year. On the journalism front, we had a frequent joke going on between one another for a while where one of us would be looking for links while researching a story idea and would run into the other person’s name, having already written a definitive story about the given topic.

Benj could have parlayed his knowledge into any number of areas—heck, even writing a book. But he chose game controllers, an area that is perhaps the most tangible possible area he could have put his talents into. Even if his business remains defiantly boutique or fails to scale beyond his home, it still adds value to an important niche, one that gets what he’s offering to the world of retro gaming.

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This is what a Virtual Boy fighting stick looks like.

Recently, Edwards had a breakout hit of sorts in an unexpected place: He found unusually strong demand for controllers for the Virtual Boy, which is not a platform known for having a lot of third-party controllers, due to its short lifespan and extremely limited popularity at launch. But like every system created that isn’t the Gizmondo, it has a fanbase, and in the case of the Virtual Boy, that fanbase has a homebrew port of Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting at their fingertips.

Which means that Edwards found himself, not long after announcing a dual-stick Virtual Boy controller, announcing a Virtual Boy fighting stick that created an unexpected buzz last month. Both sticks need to use custom PCBs and connectors from abandoned Virtual Boy controllers. After initially only expecting to make one for himself and fellow gaming enthusiast and historian Jeremy Parish, he’s made roughly a dozen Virtual Boy controllers so far. The only thing limiting the demand for the controllers, essentially, is Edwards’ time.

“Many others said that if the price were lower, they would have bought one too—but each stick takes me all day to make, so I end up getting paid something like $5/hour to make them when the math is all done,” he says. “It’s been impractical but wildly fun nonetheless.”

Edwards, who frequently tweets his creations, has numerous other sticks for less-heralded platforms in the works as well, including some for the Neo Geo and Sega Saturn. (The more-heralded PlayStation 1 might get one, too.)

I know that, as a fellow writer who has occasionally dabbled in the work of publishing zines, making the shift from writing about things to actually physically making them, and dealing with the logistics of shipping, design, and putting up with storefronts is quite the leap—but like everything else that’s happened with Edwards’ work, he appears to have let history lead the way.

“I never suspected it once. But I also never planed on becoming a professional journalist, either,” he says of his newfound status as a maker. “When your doors are open for new experiences, life falls into place in ways that you least expect it.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the contents of one of Edwards’ stories, about the creation of the video game cartridge. Edwards clarified the origin of the video game cartridge in a recent thread on Twitter.

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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