Digression: The Paddle Controller


Unfortunately, there is one crucial element of the gameplay for both Pong and Breakout that is difficult to come by in 2019 -- the paddle controller.  Controllers like the one shown were common features in arcade cabinets and home consoles in the early days of gaming.  They were ideally suited to one-dimensional motion because the rotation angle of the paddle controller corresponded to a physical position of the digital paddle on the screen.  This is fundamentally different from most modern game controllers, like the joysticks and directional pads, which are better suited for issuing motion commands relative to some nominal position.

To help clarify the difference, suppose I'm playing Call of Duty and I'm aiming my gun at the right side of a road, but an enemy appears on the left side of the road and I want to aim at him instead.  Pushing the joystick left tells the game that I want to adjust my aim to the left, but since it's commanding motion rather than position, I have to hold down on the joystick until I'm aiming at the desired target.  If I had initially been aiming further to the right, I would have to hold down on the joystick longer to get to the target.

Now, imagine that I'm instead using a paddle controller to set the horizontal aim of my gun.  I then just spin the dial so that it's pointing in the same direction as I want my gun to point on the screen.  This is absolute position control.  Position control has the advantage that my aim will adjust faster in proportion to how fast I adjust the controller, so I have complete control of both the position and motion of my aim.  This makes the paddle is both faster and more precise.   

So why don't modern games use paddles?  Well, mainly because they only work in one dimension!  It's fine for games like Breakout or Pong because your digital paddle only needs to move left and right, but to command two-dimensional motion you would need two paddles, which would be pretty confusing and would leave no hands free for other commands.  There are other controllers that can command absolute position, most notably the light gun (think Duck Hunt).  Unfortunately, while the light gun is better for two-dimensional aim than a joystick, it makes most other actions more difficult.  A first-person shooter like Call of Duty requires you to command both the aim and the physical motion of the character.  A light gun is great for the former, it's not so great for the latter.

Even considering the limitations of using position control, it's a bit shocking how hard it is to come by a paddle controller these days.  The best option I've found so far is to take an Atari 2600 paddle controller (yes, that's right, a 40-year-old controller) and put an obscure adapter on it called the 2600-daptor (found here).  Be warned, however, that old paddle controllers are known to be a little flaky, for reasons that I will try to explain.  The most important piece in a paddle controller is the potentiometer, a common electrical component that delivers a variable voltage over a finite range.  When the paddle controller is hooked up to a powered game console, it completes a circuit, the voltage of which depends on the state of the potentiometer, which in turn depends on the position of the paddle wheel.  As paddle controllers age, the potentiometer will sometimes accumulate dust and other gunk (see the picture) that causes the voltage in the circuit to vary unpredictably as you turn the wheel.  The effect of this in the game is usually that the digital paddle will jump around the screen erratically.

The good news is that flaky paddles can be cleaned.  The bad news is that you will have to become very intimate with your potentiometer in order to do so.  See this article  on Vintage Gaming and More for details on the cleaning process.  Of the original console paddles that I've come across while scrounging in my basement and on ebay, about half of them required cleaning in order to be passable game controllers.  It may be that there were new paddle controllers produced for the Atari 2600 Flashback series, but all of the online vendors I checked were sold out.  Feel free to leave a comment if you've come across better solutions to this particular problem.

Comments

  1. It's a shame that the other alternative to using a 'paddle' controller is making your own by using a spinner like the Spintrak or TurboTwist. They are quite expensive. That said, I did end up getting a TurboTwist and I'm planing on making a custom usb arcade controller out of it.

    I really feel that the paddle/spinner never got to be fully explored in regards to the gameplay it could offer. I wrote down a bunch of game ideas in my game design notebook and I'm hoping to try out a few when I get the controller finished. The unfortunate part is that there are VERY few people out there that could play them. I suppose the games would still be playable with a mouse, but it wouldn't be ideal.

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