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The Joy Of Fighting Sticks
by Taper/Triad

Back in the 80s and 90s, you could easily end up with a black eye in the school-yard if you supported the wrong home-computer. Opinions on which controllers to use were probably not as heated, but still sparked quite some discussions. The TAC-2 gang might have looked with suspicion at the Wico Redball teamsters, but they had a common enemy. The NES nerds who stubbornly maintained joypads were better than sticks...

You could always consult the computer press with their annual joystick round-ups, complete with verdicts on the best and worst controllers. However, we haven't seen one of those for a decade or two, so instead we gathered a bunch of TRIAD members at the round table to discuss controllers - and perhaps to finally crown the king of sticks!

Romppainen: I have about 150 controllers in my collection, consisting of about 100 different models. I'm always interested to learn about models I'm not familiar with yet, and that are worth testing...

Ilesj: Oh wow! I'm feeling a little awkward with the one cardboard box I have full of C64 joysticks now! My favourite used to be the TAC-2 until I found Suzo's The Arcade (I love it)! I also like the reproduction Competition Pro I have, but still it's no match for the The Arcade. Never had a real Competition Pro back in the days. Many say the Zipstik is great. I have one, but I'm not very impressed of it.

Ne7: The best one I had back in the day was the Cruiser. A ridiculous looking blue/green/pink thing, but controlled quite well it did! A pal recently gave me his old Cruiser as mine had long ago been snapped during some particularly hectic footy battles on the Amiga at another friend's place, and I did try it out on the miggy but it just feels so sluggish now! Best joystick or pad I've found are the old Master System pads for C64 + miggy, short of me wiring up one of the Hori sticks to the old Atari pinout!

Taper: As for my top controller line-up, TAC-2, Slikstik and the Techno Joypad are my three favourites for C64/Amiga gaming, depending on the type of game and chore. For fighting games like Way of the Exploding Fist or International Karate as well as joystick wagglers, you really can't go wrong with the quick response time and sturdiness of a TAC-2. However, I prefer the Techno Joypad for platform games and control in utilities.

The Mastersystem joypad is a fine runner-up which I used a lot before I bought my Techno pads. There were even some C64 games that took advantage of it, with Mastersystem joypad support advertised on the game intro screen. Example is Chase HQ II where the second button was used for Turbo Boost. Another joystick I'd like to mention is The Bug. I like the handling of that one, but they wore out quickly and it's hard to obtain them in decent condition nowadays.

I see have started selling a very sexy looking arcade-styled joystick with the fitting name Arcade Evolution. It's available in two flavours, one with the stick on the right and buttons on the left, and one mirrored. It looks very classy and sturdy and I would love to try one, but it comes with a hefty price-tag of 50 pounds, so I won't be picking that one up any time soon...

Tao: Wico Bathandle & TAC-2 (I have a white one, the good old build quality) are by far my favourites.

Lynx: I prefer the Competition Pro and Competition Pro Pad (from HoneyBee) for classic machines.

Twoflower: My top choice is the Multi-Function 2002 (or whatever it was called). Basically an arcade joystick adapted to the C64. Complete with 70's style knobs for adjusting speed or auto-fire, metal housing, quality micro-switched joystick and button and the load. I actually saw an even better looking one at X 2008, owned by some German. Cost a fortune back then, saw it advertised and reviewed in SOFT (a Danish C64 paper mag fully focused on games with a Swedish edition) back in the days.

I must also mention the ICONtroller. A mini-joystick to be taped to the side of the C64 - intended to be used with GEOS and NEOS-applications. Then we have the good old Bathandle! Have a lot of these, they never failed me. I prefer this to the Red Ball and the interchangeable one.

As for joypads, I go with the Sega Mastersystem pad. This is what I've used regularly since 1993! Wonderful control, great to pixel with!

Romppainen: Multi-Function 2002 it is! I don't know the original manufacturer as I've seen them under at least 5 different brands (Elite, Saturn, Sigma, Micro-Haendler and unlabelled). There is also a sister model 1001 which is basically the same stick with paddles and control stripped off and stuck in smaller metal case. They are indeed built like a tank, but for a micro-switched mechanism and such a short handle its throw is a bit too long for my taste.

As for the Bathandle, I can see your point there. I'm very near completion in collecting the Wico release line, and it has been interesting to notice all kinds of small differences between the Command Control models. I guess preferring the famous Red Ball over the Bathandle is mostly about personal taste. But when it comes to the Three-Way models there is more to say, Bathandles in those sets are different to the classic ones, having a small vertical pattern carved in it and the upper part of the shaft is slightly longer affecting the response time. If you are really into Command Controls and like especially the bat-type handle you should try their Joystick Deluxe, that beast will blow your mind!

Vent: I have warm feelings for QuickShot V which was my childhood gaming companion on MSX. The gigantic fire button made sure it was faster than any auto-fire! The long body and the suction caps made the joystick a splendid choice for joy-wanking games such as Hyper Sports... Dunno if it fits the C64, but if yes - I'd definitely want to buy one! I may have 2 original boxes left for this beauty at my parent's place.

Romppainen: Although this is not fully confirmed information, the reason behind the size of the fire button is probably that Quickshot once made a Colecovision joystick (SV-103) which had a full numeric pad at the front of the handle. After Coleco sales started to go down they took the cash saving route by recycling the same moulds and parts to put yet another Atari-compatible model on the market. They just slammed a single fire button in the place of the numeric pad and filled the holes for the two smaller buttons on the left side extension.

Taper: I think we covered our favourite C64 controllers now, so how about the other end of the scale? Let's talk a bit about the really shitty controllers that we love to hate!

Ilesj: Back in the day I had a Quickshot QS-131 as my second joystick. Dreadful! It had this large flight stick style handle with a trigger and a thumb button on a relatively small base without any buttons. Worst thing were the directional switches. It had the rubber mat switches you find in joy pads or remote controls under the buttons. And no other spring or mechanism for the stick! Imagine how it would be to have a large handle sticking up on the joy pad's directional pad. That's how it was, no tactile feel whatsoever.

Despite having the reputation of being indestructible, I managed to break my TAC-2. The shaft snapped. I bought a new one, but I never really liked that one. It was a later model with white base and a black plastic shaft. It was somehow stiff and spongy at the same time, not what you'd expect from a TAC-2.

Taper: Seems like you unfortunately obtained the very last TAC-2 model there. By then, Suncom had changed manufacturing plant to save money and also redesigned the joystick using cheaper parts. I remember how disappointed I was when I unknowingly bought one of those. They were nothing like the quality of the classic TAC-2 that I was used to.

Tao: Atari's original 2600-styled joystick is the most fragile crap ever made. As a lefthanded person the Epyx 500XJ (a.k.a. Konix Speedking) was of course a total nightmare, but luckily I never had to deal with it much. In fact I think I only tried it once.

Twoflower: The ones I like the least are The Bug, Speedking, any Quickshot joystick, The Boss and Konix Navigator. I accidentally broke one of Houbba's Speedking joysticks at a meeting a while back. It probably deserved it...

Taper: I really think The Bug is better than the rest you mentioned, Twoflower... However, I especially agree on The Boss. It might have sold well, but it's a totally worthless controller. Most people I knew had one of them, beats me why...

The classic brown Commodore joystick with a red button on top was really horrible as well. I had one boxed that accompanied my C64G (the Video SuperGame 64 package) and one day I got so frustrated with it that I borrowed my father's hammer, went out in the yard and smashed it to pieces. Then I cut off the chord and saved it while I threw the rest in the bin. It was that bad, but I kinda regret destroying it now since I had the original packaging and all.

A third shitty stick must also be mentioned. The joystick with Bart Simpson as a handle. Totally dreadful. Uncomfortable to hold, impossible to steer with. The only redeeming feature was that it had two 9-pin connectors attached, one for the Atari standard and one for Spectrum +2/3 joy ports. However, I had no Spectrum so it was worthless for me. Was it Cheetah that manufactured that one?

Romppainen: Oh the horror... Cheetah indeed, and those movie tie-ins were actually just customized 125's, if handles weren't enough to kill all the fun the internals definitely finished the work for them. There were also Alien and two different Batman sticks, at least. I haven't bothered to hoard these just for the (very borderline) collectable aspect, the only special stick built over the same base unit I have is the Tortoise which was just too damn adorably odd to leave behind when I stumbled on one...

Taper: I must confess my collection of C64 compatible controllers contains very few oddities, it's mostly your standard run of the mill sticks and pads in my drawers. Perhaps the only unique one I have is my own homebuilt arcade-stick. It consists of one very bulky wooden box painted black, coupled with an old arcade-stick that used to be mounted on a Danish JK arcade cab and two Sanwa buttons. The chord is actually the one from the butchered Commodore joystick I told you about before, so at least that one got a second life...

Romppainen: While speaking of oddities, have you guys ever stumbled upon Dan-Joy, a Danish-made joystick (wadda surprise!) that was meant to compete with Suzo Arcade but never really got air under its wings? It certainly looks like a clone sculpted with a blunt knife. An interesting little fact from the small snippets of information I've found reveal that our friend Mason was involved in design and production back in the days. I think these weren't ever widely exported and I can't remember ever seeing them advertised here either.

Taper: Looks like a sex-toy to me... Those Danes! I would handle that stick with gloves, who knows
where it's been (perhaps Mason knows, we should ask him).

Ilesj: I'm glad I wasn't alone with this thought!

Romppainen: Guys, my first comment when I got offered that one was pretty much the same...

Taper: Before concluding this article, we should talk a little bit about controllers for other platforms as well. We've already touched upon the subject, obviously the Master System pad has a following among C64 people since it's compatible with the Atari standard, but let's dive a bit deeper into various other platform sticks and pads.

Ilesj: Once at Alt Party I had my hands on a Dempa XE-1 ST2 that was connected to a MSX . It felt fantastic! I think it's a Megadrive stick, but should work with a C64 and other machines with joystick ports derived from the Atari standard. At least it's compatible with the Master System and MSX, so...

By the way, the XE-1 line of controllers are made by Micomsoft, who also manufacture the Framemeister up-scaler reviewed in the last issue of Attitude.

Romppainen: You are a little wrong there, Ilesj. Micomsoft made several dedicated models for a handful of consoles and home computers, although some of them were compatible with multiple standards, for instance MSX and X68000. I'd love to get one of those, but they are very hard to find even from Asian countries nowadays, and prices reflect the rarity factor. I have my ways to track down the most oddball stuff and I could source brand new boxed XE Pro from Japan in seconds, but with a price tag of $300, not speaking of additional costs like shipping and customs, which is a huge turn off until I win the lottery...

Tao: The Micomsoft XE1-AP might possibly be one of the ugliest controllers I've ever seen...

Taper: I must agree with Tao there... The XE1-AP looks as if the overgrown X-Box controller raped a Sega Saturn Night Into Dreams joy pad and produced a mutated offspring...

The ST2 model that Ilesj talks about looks great, though. While on the subject of Megadrive/Genesis controllers, they indeed work on the C64, BUT be aware! A Megadrive pad/stick will put extra strain on your CIA/6526 chip unless you make an adapter to interface between the pad/stick and the C64! [1] Putting extra strain on a CIA chip will not instantly kill it, but it will wear and tear and shorten its lifespan considerably. I know iopop built such an adapter a few years back.

Lynx: I also like the now almost classic PSX2 pad.

Taper: Yes, I like PSX joy pads as well. Recently bought two E-V Electronics wireless PSX controllers, but they were no good (a lot of lag and my 2,4GHz Wi-Fi seem to interfere with the controllers so I guess they use the same frequency band), so I went back to using my original wired Sony pads instead. I have a hard time coping with X-Box and N64 controllers though, they are abominations in my book. The Gamecube pad is decent I guess...

I think it's pretty clear after this discussion that Romppainen is the TRIAD member most fixated by sticks, so it feels just right that he gets the last words in this article...

Romppainen: I think everything is already quite clear to the readers without additional explanations, but the golden rule must be this. Small sticks with short throw are best for fast and action-paced games like platformers while large controllers rock when used with simulators and such.

And with those wise words, we end our joystick speciale - at least for now!


[1] This is because Atari styled joysticks either pull lines low (when activated) or are left as open connections (when inactive). The latter condition allows the lines to be pulled low by another sources (for instance the keyboard). Sega game pads on the other hand pull inactive lines high instead of low. If you press a key on the keyboard with one of these joy pads attached, one source is pulling the line high while another I/O line is dragging it down. This will put an extra strain on the 6526 chip!

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