Ahh, the gold standard of 80s joysticks, the Atari 2600 joystick. it was so popular the Atari computer line and the Commodore computer line (among others) adopted it as its standard. Many third party joystick designer used it as there bases of their designs. It was durable, easy to use (only one button), responsive, fairly accurate and did I mention durable (for a young teen who had gone through several joysticks this was reallllly import).
The standard 2600 CX40 joystick appeared on the first heavy sixers (as they are now called) i.e. the wood grain 2600 with six switches in the front. The joysticks where bullet proof. You could drop them, sit on them, play with them for hours on end and they would come back for more. Atari knew who their audience was and their audience wasn’t kind to their equipment.
That is not to say there were other issues with the joystick that eventually would drive a hardcore player (like myself) to the more advanced third party joysticks.
First the stick was stiff. I would find myself jerking the stick back and forth in my hand when playing games like Demon Attack or Megamania (My two favorites) because the stick was so stiff. A lot of times I would pop the joystick right out of my hand when the battle got hot and heavy.
Second relates to the first. Because there were no micro-switches in the joystick, just ‘pop’ contacts, there was no audible or tactile feedback to let you know when you had tilted the joystick enough in the direction you wanted. This, and the stiffness, tended to causes the player to tilt the whole joystick in the direction you wanted. After a while you were playing with a joystick that was being held sideways which would inevitably throw a player off.
Third was the worst, the base. To hold the 2600 joystick you had to ‘claw’ the stick from the base. This was a very unnatural position. After long play your fingers would begin to hurt and the stick would start to slip from your hand. This would become dangerous in the no pause games like Megamania or Demon Attack. In fact, I remember playing a particularly long game of Demon Attack on my 2600. I was hot! I was in ‘the zone’. I had racked point after point and additional man after man. I can’t exactly remember how long I had played, seemed like days, but it was probably about two or three hours. There finally came a point that my fingers hurt so bad from clawing the joystick that I just gave up and let myself be killed. If I had had a better, less painful, joystick who knows, I might have rolled the counter (maybe).
I later found a solution to a lot of the issues of the CX-40. I C-clamped mine to my coffee table. My parents weren’t too happy about that. 🙂
These type of ‘pot’ joysticks continued all through the various redesigns of the original 2600; from the ‘Heavy Sixers’ to the ‘Darth Vader’ design. But there were other variants of the 2600 with other joystick designs so let’s look at them.
Atari 2600 jr. CX24 ‘super controller’
The Atari 2600 jr. was a resize and cost reduction version of the 2600. I remember having one of these way back. The version I had included the CX24 ‘super controller’ (pictured above). Later versions of the 2600 jr. didn’t include the ‘super controller’ so I was lucky to get one.
The ‘super controller’ wasn’t exactly ‘super’ but more of a ‘better than’. But calling it the CX24 ‘better than the old controller’ wouldn’t have sounded as sexy. I liked the controller. It felt much better in the hand than the old CX40. You did have to kinda twist your hand to hold it, but in most cases, that was OK. What I did not like about the base was it was a little too small. I never could get a good grip on it. The idea was to hold it by the bottom silver part and use your thumb for the button. Except if you held it that way, with small hands (like a child has) it would rock too much and you were forced to hold it higher which made your fingers get in the way of the stick. Oddly, a larger base would have worked better with smaller hands.
I didn’t have my 2600 jr. for very long but I have heard the joystick did have long term reliability issues. May be why they switched back to the old style after a while.
I’m just going to mention this because it existed. There was a 2600 jr. version that was released, in other countries, with a rectangle shaped joystick that resembled the Nintendo joystick. I never saw one and never used one so I can’t comment on it’s usability. But it did exist.
Note: The Atari 7800 joysticks where almost identical to the 2600 jr.
Atari 2800 and Sears Video Arcade II
The Atari 2800 (sold in Japan) and the Sears Video Arcade II were essentially the same machine.
I currently own a Sears Video Arcade II. (Ed. note: I worked at Sears in college and lately started collecting old Sears game systems. Sad Sears is about to belly up, they were such a good place to work.)
These joysticks are a true joy to use, almost. They are wider than the joysticks that come with the 2600 jr., therefore easier to hold. I really like the integrated paddles. The paddles aren’t so loose that they mess up your joystick game play but they are loose enough to be useful paddles. The balance of the stick in your hand is nice and the weight is just light enough but not to light.
But then there’s the two red buttons; awful. They must have blown the design budget before they got to the buttons. The buttons are poorly made and are not very responsive. You, basically, have to push both buttons at the same time to get them to respond. If you just push one button, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
The bad button play is due to a very half-ass internal switch design that, unfortunately, I haven’t figured how to fix. This has forced me to use my Mindscape Powerplay with the system instead of the system sticks.
Note: The Harmony cartridge has an problems with the integrated paddles. The cartridge doesn’t seem to be able to figure out if you have a paddle or a joystick. This causes real issues with the menu.
Atari Wireless Joysticks
These joysticks didn’t ‘officially’ come with any Atari system (that I am aware of), but I thought I would mention them since I knew someone who had a set.
Oh boy, where these things bad; they were heavy, I mean really heavy, like holding a brick heavy. The base was far too wide to comfortable get your hand around, I, personally, could never palm the base to where I could get my finger to the trigger. And the system was expensive.
The worst part, for me, was that there was a small, but discernible, delay in the system. It personally put me off wireless joysticks for years.
Well, that does it for the Atari 2600 and it’s Atari clones. Next time, Intelvision.