Patrick Goss - MSN Technology editor
08/09/2009 09:51 | By Patrick Goss: Editor - Tech & Gadgets

Whatever happened to the joystick

whatever happened to joysticks © Atari / Speedlink /

Sometimes technology disappears completely, but often it just fades into the background – still existing, still being used and sold and, occasionally, desired, but probably looking wistfully back on past glories.

Which neatly described the joystick’s steady slide away form the THE gaming peripheral to a fondly remembered also ran. But the joystick’s tale is a long and convoluted one – and it worth looking back into its often mysterious and ill-studied history before explaining why it will rise from the ashes like the mythical phoenix.

The joystick’s invention arrived well before computers and games and it remains a controversial debate amongst scholars as to whom came up with an interface that translated human movement into mechanical through a single stick.

Classic Atari joystick now with inbuilt games © Atari

The first recorded use of the word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary is by French aviator Robert Esnault-Pelterie, but there is some talk that another Pilot, Missouri based James Henry Joyce got there first and named the device the Joyce-stick. On top of this, a Confederate submarine from the American Civil War was found to be controlled by a single stick when it was discovered in 2001.

Regardless of the truth – the joystick became an important control device – and the first “digital” joystick appears to have been used to guide German Henschel Hs293 bombs in World War II.

Computer Space – the first coin-operated arcade game used two mounted joysticks back in 1972, but perhaps what truly cemented the joystick as the control method of choice for gamers was the seminal Atari 2600 in 1978.

Zipstick © Speedlink

If you played computer games from the 1970s right up until the PlayStation finally swept away the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST, you will have used a joystick – but Nintendo’s joypad had already begun to steal a march on its more cumbersome rival and suddenly the joystick found that the games across the board that required its use were becoming less popular and less prevalent.

Whereas people had grown up using digital joysticks like the Zipstick and then analogue versions that were more accurate, the popularity of flying games and sports sims began to either wane or move away from the input device.

Popular consoles like the Nintendo began to replace the keyboard and mouse games and PC gaming increasingly found itself dominated by First Person Shooters or Real Time Strategy games that worked better with a mouse and keyboard combination.

Logitech still making joysticks © Logitech

Joysticks had by no means phased out entirely – but their popularity dwindled through generations of consoles – PC gamers no longer relied on them (unless they played flight sims) and the PlayStation generation were used to joypads which used directional ‘D-pads’ as their control method instead of true joysticks.

Xbox joystick © MadCatz

These thumbsticks bear stronger consideration – although they are reduced to joystick nubs – these have been integral to joypads since the original PlayStation, but as gaming becomes more sophisticated, the reliance on them has increased.

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