Thursday, July 24, 2008

Atari 7800 Controllers, or You Bastards Have Broken My Hands

One of these days, I'll have to find someone respectable who can explain to me why Atari's game controllers were so terrible. I can't even think about one without my hands suddenly cramping up, almost like some phantom pain from a lost trauma.

Case in point: the joystick for the Atari 7800. This was just a mess. I really don't know what to think about this one. It was clearly a part of the original system design from 1984, during which the crumbling Atari still looked to its own heritage for inspiration. It had to be obvious by then that the nigh-indestructible Atari 2600 joysticks were stiff as a board and hard on the hands. Not that I mean to complain, because they mostly served me well way back then. They were just really, really stiff, like they needed a can or two of oil or hard liquor.

In any case, Atari was looking for a new style, something more eronomic in mind. Their first real gamble was the controller for the Atari 5200, their successor to the throne. It was certainly easier to hold in the palm of your hand, yes, but it was a disaster. Hmm, now that I think about it, this was the design mojo of the early 1980's. For some reason, everyone wanted game controllers that vaguely resembled television remotes or large bulky phones. Intellivision really was a telephone; it was just one of those telephones that couldn't send or receive phonecalls. It could only play videogames like a drunken baffoon. It was the George W. Bush of game controllers. The Colecovision style was slightly more sober, but stiff as a board. Slightly better, but not much, and still that odd obsession with the mini-keyboard.

The Atari 5200 version baffled the hell out of everyone, by making the joystick out of a pair of analog controllers. It was strange, bizarre. It was also designed to break within the first ten minutes. Perhaps this was the design goal all along. The suits knew they had a stinker on their hands; the jig was up, and the video game fad had peaked. Sooner or later, the kids would be old enough to start smoking and chasing skirts. So maybe all the guilty parties just grabbed the bong for one more monster hit, coughed out a long sigh, and said fuck it.

Which brings us back to the 7800. It's a much better design, if only because the stick actually works and nothing falls apart. It's still a pain to the fingers, like some sort of CIA torture device. Hmm, I tell myself I really should stop reading the heavy apocalyptic political exposes about the Bush Crime Family before I'm about to write something here. Either that or I need to borrow that bong for a spell. It would certainly help with those Atari-induced hand cramps, certain to evolve into full-blown arthritis one day.

So I don't like the 7800 controller. It's no shocker, and no loss, since the console was buried alive, dug out, reburied again, and then dug out again by the same group of owners who bought the remains of the old Atari in the mid-eighties. They were an interesting bunch, that Tramiel family. They were the bane of the videogame-loving geek squad, no question of that. But they had class. They had drama. Say what you will about their management, which never existed. They had the survival instinct of sewer rats, which means in the post-psychedelic hippie era of video games, they were the most fun. This stiff business couldn't make you laugh today if they tried. It's all too corporate. A corporate mindset for videogames. How bizarre is that, I ask myself? This whole thing has always been a teen stoner's world, anyway. The game console sits right next to the bong, the tape deck, and the stack of lp's. Be honest. Take away the wood paneling, and the classic Atari 2600 whithers into dust. I'd kill for some wood paneling on a game console today.

Hmm, I think again, perhaps the pain is part of the trip after all. Perhaps you were never supposed to become too comfortable. What else do you expect after a simple computer whups your sorry ass in another panic-strewn session of Robotron or Xevious? The whole point of joining together four friends over Warlords was never to relax. This wasn't pull-out-the-New-Yorker-time. Fuck that. It's time for Led Zeppelin and loud carpets and the stench of burning weed. At least that's what it should be.

Alright then. I'll take it all back. But only because the Atari 7800 occupies a soft spot near my heart. I really have no idea why. I never owned one back in the day. Never even bothered to try. What was the point? There were barely a handful of games ever worth trying, and they were just more retro pop hits from yesterday. Galaga. Ms. Pac-Man. Robotron. Xevious. Asteroids. This really is a retro thing. Future Retro. The Atari 7800 was the first videogame machine to transcend time. Future, Past, Yesterday, Tomorrow, The Yawning Here and Now, Sailing to Byzantium, sitting in silent darkness in wait for the self-transforming elf machines from hyperspace. This whole realm is a smoky fantasy. It's the Pink Floyd Laser Show, with you and your buddies donning the lightsabers.

I think I'll get myself one of these things one of these days. Maybe I'll even scour the intertubes - is that a crazy coincidence for words or what? - for one of those uber-rare European Atari joypads, which incorporated the newer, post-modern joypad. Once Nintendo took over, the sticks were gone, and pads were in, and Mario was tripping Magic Mushrooms and the Light Fantastic. What the bloody hell is it with computer games and psychedelics, anyway? What brings them together? What brought that marriage together and then apart? And why should any thirty-something in the Year of Preznit Caligula 2008 give a rat's ass? Who knows. Skip it. I want to play the game where George W. Bush is impeached and thrown into the slammer. Was that ever made for the Atari? I think some enterprising old hippie needs to get to work on that.


1 comment:

Impalafarmer said...

Well, mighty opinionated aren't you? Maybe you just don't play nice with your toys, because I use a pair of Atari 5200 potentiometer joysticks on all my game emulators on my PC. The console itself was riddled with problems and long since recycled. The controllers, however, are great and I still use them to this day. Probably 8 years ago the rubber boots finally wore out and tore, I replaced the boots and make sure I apply some Armor All to them once in awhile now. But I rewired them with the standard PC joystick connector when I found the crappy potentiometer stick I had bought specifically for the comp to be uncomfortable. I broke 'em out of the scrap pile & wired the cheap PC controller's cord & plug into one of them. GAMER'S BLISS. Now I'm even working on wiring a 5200 controller with a USB driver & cord from a keyboard to see if I can utilize the numeric keypad as well. I also have trak balls for old games like Missile Command & Marble Madness, a particular favorite of mine. Twin balls in a flat panel just like the old arcade Marble Madness. Works great! I have the more modern controllers for the later games too. Oh, and I'm in my forties, happily married with a beautiful daughter, and drug-free. I find it sad that you don't like video games. I like to play the old, simple arcade-action games just to reminisce and remember a simpler time. Lighten up, willya?