The joystick was invented in the early 20th century and used in early aviation. Atari leveraged this design when they needed a controller to work with a library of games. Since video games were not that popular, it was important to have an intuitive controller that people could walk-up-and-use. The design worked and joysticks are still used today in various controllers.
Called a Joystick for a reason, this brought the first digital joy into mylife. As a kid I was latch to the Atari. The minimal design allow for full control of movement with the stick and a simple push button for action. The cool thing about the Joystick was I also used it in my analog world. It came in handy for when I was pretending to be Han Solo piloting the Millennium Falcon.
Visually, it explains itself perfectly. Even as a child, I felt no ambiguity about what this was or how to use it–you pick it up and use it to control the game.
The limited range of motion on the stick as well as the button made this a frustrating thing to use, though. I remember feeling like the stick barely moved and I was always mashing the button as hard as possible to communicate the earnestness of my intentions to the console. It seemed to get the message about half the time.
While it was good for its time, I personally don’t like the big footprint these things have. They certainly compete for space among other things like a keyboard, mouse or things you’d want to keep near your computer. However, that’s not a big issue that can’t be solved.
As a kid, this joystick was an arcade in your hand. There was nothing more exciting than being able to get home from school and being able to shoot down planes, asteroids, or even save civilization from missiles in my own room.
Trevor has it so right! In retrospect, it kinda sucks when compared to other things since then (e.g. Quickshot). Yet it is truly iconic and meaningful and, at the time, was more than good enough in terms of being stupid simple pick-up-and-use-ability, and in terms of the cost vs. quality trade-off decision, I’d hazard to guess. I mean, just take a look at the Intellivision controller ha ha ha ha whimper cry.
For most kids, myself included, Atari’s joystick proved itself a workman-like standard for interacting with the emerging digital world. Quintessential “form over function”, design highlights include the hexagonal stick, the ribbed boot, and the informationally-dense orange reticle. But of course, it’s well-timed mashes of the shiny red button that encouraged a generation of American heroes … as long as they were right-handed (my lefty friends struggled a bit with the layout).
I think the original joystick was held in a kind of vise-like grip with thumbs and fingers opposed over the joystick. I never held the Atari joystick that way since it cramped my fingers. What I did was hold the joystick between in the crook between my thumb and pointing finger. You didn’t have to move your entire upper arm to move the joystick as a result. It also meant I didn’t damage the joystick as much as other people did. It was also easy to take it apart and see how it ticked.
The beauty of the Atari joystick was its durability, simplicity, and that it showed to the average consumer in a very unshowy way that there are more means of input to a computer device (the console) than a keyboard. The joystick, in fact, made you forget you were playing with a computer, and instead let you focus on the game itself. The technology disappeared into the task. And that’s good design.
At the mere sight of an Atari joystick, a nostalgic grin spreads across my face, as I’m sure is the case with many an 80s kid. Anyone who ever had or played an Atari system in the early 1980s will remember their favorite games and how amazing it all seemed at the time. While game technology has grown by leaps and bounds since the days of the Atari system, I’m sure there are many of us who would be happy to travel back to the days of the Atari 2600 and its ugly, but nevertheless fun, games and relive some of those iconic childhood moments, huddled around the TV with our friends, playing til our thumbs were sore.