The Video Game Critic's Atari 2600 Controller Round-Up

Updated March 10, 2010



Atari Joystick
The original Atari joystick is the standard upon which all others are measured. It's ideal in size for most hands, and the fire button is conveniently located in the upper left. Although designed for right-handers, the controller can easily be rewired to accommodate lefties. The joystick shaft has a rubber cover that's easy to grasp. The design does have an Achilles heel however, and that would be the cheap white plastic core which applies pressure to sensors on the circuit board. These joysticks work great when new, but rough handling causes the core to break. Even under normal use the plastic tends to crack over time.

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Control: C
Style: C+
Comfort: B
Buttons: 1
Durability: F
Overall: C

Jamma Joystick
The Jamma is a rugged piece of hardware made from real arcade parts, and it's my controller of choice. I purchased this behemoth from the Goat Store many years ago, and was so pleased that I ordered a second one (in red). The buttons respond very well to tapping, and the joystick offers nice "clicky" feedback. It's big but tends to sit comfortably on your lap. Unfortunately, due to its light weight it lacks the stability of real arcade controls. Even so, this is hard to top in terms of accuracy and responsiveness. Due to its color and ridiculous appearance, my friends affectionately refer to this controller as "the Clown Penis".

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Control: A+
Style: C+
Comfort: B+
Buttons: 2
Durability: A-
Overall: A-

Tac-2 by Suncom
Several of my friends prefer the Tac-2, and Scott actually insists on using it for all of his Atari 2600 gaming. The Tac-2 is similar in size to the Atari joystick but sturdier. Its metal base gives the joystick the look and feel of solid construction. There's a fire button on each top corner to accommodate both lefties and righties. The stick is topped with an arcade-style ball, but a plastic seam around its equator reduces the comfort a bit. Scott has also confided to me that the Tac-2's rubber "feet" tend to wear off, leaving uncomfortable raised plastic in their wake.

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Control: B+
Style: B
Comfort: B-
Buttons: 2
Durability: A-
Overall: B+

Slik Stick by Suncom
This is basically a smaller version of Suncom's Tac-2 joystick. The joystick is shorter, but the ball is smoother. There is a single fire button, and it's downright tiny! The controller feels pretty comfortable but I suspect its small parts could induce muscle cramps over long play sessions, especially if you have large hands.

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Control: B-
Style: B-
Comfort: C+
Buttons: 1
Durability: ?
Overall: C+

Epyx 500XJ
This was really the first joystick to be ergonomically engineered, and the results are impressive. The Epyx 500 is the joystick equivalent of a Ferrari! It molds perfectly to most hands, and the fire button is accessed by the index finger. This design is ideal for most games, but less ideal for those that require constant button tapping. The joystick is perfectly sized, and its switches provide proper tactile and audio feedback. My friend Bobby always insisted on using this, and it served as my main Atari joystick back in the late 80's.

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Control: A-
Style: A+
Comfort: A
Buttons: 1
Durability: C+
Overall: B+

Pro-Stick with Sure Fire Control by BP Electronics
I received this joystick free at a classic gaming convention many years ago, and I guess you get what you pay for. This controller has a long shaft and you can grip it comfortably. Unfortunately, the base is so small and lightweight that you feel as if you're moving the base while holding the stick steady. A second fire button is located on top of the joystick, but it has too much "give" to be effective. The construction feels cheap.

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Control: D
Style: D-
Comfort: C-
Buttons: 2
Durability: ?
Overall: D-

Ultimate Superstick by Beeshu
Overloaded with buttons, lights, and controls, the Ultimate Joystick is often regarded as a laughing stock. The first time I handed it to a friend, he started laughing hysterically and exclaimed, "What the hell is this!?" The Superstick has four fire buttons, each with a red light that blinks when the button is pressed. If four buttons sound like overkill (it is), keep in mind that Beeshu used the same model for several systems (I also own a Turbografx version). The controller also has a "dial-a-speed" knob and a left/right toggle switch. Last but not least there are five oversized suction cups spread across the bottom. The joystick itself feels good and the buttons are easy to tap, but the shape of this controller is unwieldy and it's cheaply made. My friends describe themselves as "feeling stupid" when using it.

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Control: C+
Style: F
Comfort: C+
Buttons: 4
Durability: F
Overall: D

Powerplayer by Mindscape
This is another joystick I got free at a convention, and it's not half bad. Like the Epyx 500, this one tends to mold to your hands. Its innovative design features a gripped handle with a fire button you pull with your index finger. Unfortunately, if your fingers are too close together, your skin can sometimes "catch" where the button is pulled (ouch). The small joystick that sits on top is very clicky and responsive.

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Control: A-
Style: B+
Comfort: C-
Buttons: 1
Durability: ?
Overall: C

Wico Bat Handle
In the early-to-mid 1980's, the Wico joystick was the de-facto standard for gamers. Comfortable and durable, it's really the only joystick an Atari 2600 owner would ever need. My friend Steve insists on using this. The extended bat handle provides substantial leverage and is topped by a small white button. Its heavy base provides a feeling of stability and boasts an oversized red fire button that's very smooth and comfortable. A switch on the base allows you to toggle between the two buttons. This is one stick I would wholeheartedly recommend to collectors.

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Control: A+
Style: B
Comfort: A
Buttons: 2
Durability: A-
Overall: A

Video Command
This is basically the Atari 2600 version of the Fairchild Channel F controller. It has a single grooved shaft (for her pleasure) topped with a triangular shaped handle. This handle doubles as a joystick and fire button. As you can imagine, it doesn't work very well. First off, the lack of a base makes it hard to keep the controller oriented correctly. Next, pushing in the joystick while moving in a certain direction is incredibly awkward. Playing a shooting game is pretty much out of the question. Actually, playing any game with this is a bad idea.

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Control: F
Style: F
Comfort: F
Buttons: 1
Durability: ?
Overall: F

NES Controller converted for the 2600
Surprised? You should be! Many years ago I read an article on-line explaining how to convert an NES controller to work on the Atari 2600. It worked pretty well! Of all the Atari 2600 controllers I've reviewed here, this works as well as any. Still, most classic gamers insist on using a genuine joystick with the system, if only to retain the original spirit of the games. In fact, Scott contends that using an NES controller with the 2600 is tantamount to joining Al-Queda or the Communist Party or something like that.

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Control: A
Style: C+
Comfort: A-
Buttons: 4
Durability: A
Overall: A-

Paddle controller by Atari
Paddles are the original "analog" controllers, allowing players to move objects on the screen with pinpoint precision. Another advantage is how a pair of paddles plug into a single jack, allowing the system to support up to four players simultaneously. A large fire button is located on the left side of the controller, and it's comfortable to push with your thumb. The only problem with these controllers is their propensity to become "jittery" over time. Although there are various ways to remedy this, these controllers fall into the high maintenance category.

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Control: A-
Style: C-
Comfort: B
Buttons: 1
Durability: D
Overall: C

Driving controllers by Atari
These are almost identical to paddles, except they allow for continuous rotation in either direction (the paddles stop after you turn them so far). Unfortunately you can only connect one controller per jack. A single game supported the driving controllers, and that was Indy 500. I do not know if these controllers suffer from the same reliability issues as paddles.

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Control: A-
Style: C-
Comfort: B
Buttons: 1
Durability: ?
Overall: C

Keypad Controllers by Atari
Atari's keypad controllers were designed for boring educational games like BASIC Programming, A Game of Concentration, and Codebreaker. Each controller has twelve buttons which are pretty hard to push! I can't imagine using this uncomfortable controller for an extended period of time.

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Control: D
Style: D
Comfort: F
Buttons: 12
Durability: ?
Overall: D-

Video Touch Pad by Atari
This auxilary controller was designed to provide extra buttons for more sophisticated games. It was packaged with Star Raiders, and no other game ever supported it. The pad has twelve flat buttons, and in theory each game would provide an overlay to label the buttons. This controller is poorly designed. Since you're punching keys through a thick overlay, there's no feedback, and as a result you often needed to push a key twice before it registers. I usually remove the overlay altogether since it just gets in the way.

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Control: D
Style: C-
Comfort: D
Buttons: 12
Durability: B
Overall: D

Atari Trak-Ball
This controller is nicely constructed but not terribly useful! Only a handful of games benefit from this controller, including Centipede and Missile Command Trak-ball Edition. Using a trak-ball probably won't improve your score, but it can make a game feel more like the arcade. The ball provides for fast movement, but it's lacking in terms of precision. The oversized buttons are easy to press with your thumb or index finger. Over time my trak-ball has developed a bit of a squeak, and since there's no apparent way to open it up (no screws), I don't think there's much I can do.

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Control: B-
Style: A-
Comfort: A-
Buttons: 2
Durability: C-
Overall: B-

Wico Trak-ball
This trak-ball is smaller than Atari's model, but the ball itself rolls noticeably smoother. The controller lies perfectly flat, making it feel a bit more stable than Atari's model. This controller lacks a switch to toggle between trak-ball mode and the joystick mode, but that's no loss since the switch was never used. My Wico trak-ball seems to have held up better than the Atari version over the years. Still, with so few games to support it, it's hard to recommend a controller like this.

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Control: B
Style: B+
Comfort: A
Buttons: 2
Durability: A
Overall: B+

Booster Grip by CBS
This is really just an attachment that fits over a conventional Atari 2600 joystick. Its cord plugs into the second controller port, providing a second independent fire button for the CBS game Omega Race. This attachment contains two buttons that perform the same function. The top one is a bit awkward, but the front "trigger" works well. The grip feels comfortable, and tends to stay on the controller fairly well.

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Control: B-
Style: B-
Comfort: B-
Buttons: 2
Durability: ?
Overall: B-