Atari 7800 Controllers, or You Bastards Have Broken My Hands

Atari 7800 ProSystem with joystick controller

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

Case in point: the joystick for the Atari 7800. This was just a mess. I really don’t know what to think about it. 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 ergonomic 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 the flimsy controls were a disaster. Hmm, now that I think about it, this was the design mojo of the early 1980s. For some reason, everyone wanted videogame controllers that vaguely resembled bulky telephones. Intellivision is a perfect example; it could only play videogames like a bumbling buffoon. It was the George W. Bush of game controllers. The Colecovision controller design was slightly more sober, but stiff as a board. Your hands still cramped up, and there’s still an odd obsession with numeric keypads.

The Atari 5200 controller frustrated the life out of everyone, by making its 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 videogame 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 skip it, let the dumb kids break their hands. Their loss.

Which brings us back to the Atari 7800. It’s a better design than its peers, if only because the stick actually works and nothing falls apart. It’s still painful on the fingers, like some sort of CIA torture device, and will almost certainly result in full-blown arthritis one day.

So I don’t like the 7800 controller very much. It’s no shocker, and no loss, since the system 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, the Jack Tramiel family. They were the villains the videogame-loving geek squad loved to hate, no question of that. But they had class. They had drama. Say what you will about their management. They had the survival instinct of feral rats, which means in the post-psychedelic hippie era of videogames, they were the most fun. They knew how to fight and survive.

Today’s stiff corporate-consolidated business couldn’t make you laugh if they tried. A corporate mindset for videogames. How bizarre is that, I ask myself? This whole realm has always been a teenage slacker’s world, anyway. The videogame console sits right next to the stereo, the tape deck, and the record collection. Take away the wood paneling, and the classic Atari 2600 withers into dust. I’d kill for some wood paneling on a game console today.

Hmm, I think again, perhaps pain is part of the experience 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: 2084 or Xevious? The whole point of joining together four friends over Warlords was never to relax. Nuts to that. It’s time for Led Zeppelin and Ramones, Soundgarden and Public Enemy, loud fuzzy carpets and the buzz of cheap alcohol. At least that’s how it should be.

Alright then, I’ll take it all back. But only because the Atari 7800 occupies a nostalgic place near my heart. I really have no idea why. I never owned one back in the day. What was the point? There were barely a handful of videogames ever worth playing, and they were just more retro pop hits from the past. Galaga. Ms. Pac-Man. Robotron. Xevious. Asteroids. Rampage. The Atari 7800 was the first videogame machine to transcend time — Future Retro. 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 Light Show, with you and your buddies donning the rave party glow sticks.

I think I’ll get myself one of these systems 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, NES-style joypad. Once Nintendo took over, joysticks were out, and joypads were in, and Mario was tripping Magic Mushrooms with the Andy Warhol Plastic Spectacular. 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 Age of Trump the Beauty Queen 2016 give a rat’s ass? Who knows. Skip it. I want to play the game where George W. Bush launches an illegal war, crashes the economy, and gets thrown into the slammer for his troubles. Was that ever made for the Atari? I think it was called Midnight Mutants. I’m pretty sure that what it was. I don’t remember very much; the details became fuzzy after an evening of margaritas and jello shots.

But I do still remember the hand cramps from holding those stupid Atari joysticks. I won’t forget that. Bastards.

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