Joysticks, steering wheels, trackballs are a large part of the magic behind arcade cabinets. These are the accessories, borne by an industry that was constantly exploring the many ways you can play video games. These attachments gave, and continues to give, arcade games an immersive depth that early home consoles lacked. Every cabinet, fitted with blaring speakers and different kinds of controls, was a world that beckoned players and their pocketful of change.
Below, we explore some of our favourite accessories and controllers to come out of the Golden Age of arcade games.
Where would we be without the classic joystick? While arguably less immersive than steering wheels or controllers shaped like actual guns, joysticks are an indispensable component of arcade gaming; as part of the culture as 8-bit graphics and colourful cabinets.
We love them for their simplicity and versatility. Unlike light guns or steering wheels, you can virtually play any arcade game with a joystick. The accessory has remained popular with arcade enthusiasts, and today you can even play PlayStation, Xbox, and PC games with your own joystick control panel.
Although many of us may associate the light gun with classics like Time Crisis and House of the Dead, the accessory is actually older than video games. The first light gun appeared in a coin-op game called Seeburg Ray-O-Lite in the 1930s. It worked by “shooting” beams of light onto sensing tubes affixed to the back of actual duck-shaped targets.
The light guns you probably grew up with works a little differently. Guns are fitted with a sensor that reads changes on the monitor triggered by the beam it emits. These are instantaneous, and happen too fast to be detected by the naked eye.
Light guns became a common site in arcades in the and 90s; a staple of a new wave of first-person arcade shooters. The features developed as games did, and today we have highly immersive guns, from units that cock as you reload them, to giant sniper rifles with a functional scope. As controls go, light guns are one of the best at providing an immersive experience that’s just hard to replicate with a mouse or controller.
Sweaty palms frantically rolling a smooth plastic ball doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of a good time, but trackballs are actually fantastic pieces of hardware. Not only can trackballs read which direction you’re heading, but also the speed at which you’re moving. It’s a device that allows for a higher level of precision and finesse, both of which are critical for dodging enemies or projectiles bearing down on you en masse ala-Centipede or Missile Command.
The trackball actually has a less than playful history. The concept was invented in 1946 by Ralph Benjamin, a British engineer. Initially, it was used for inputting data for predicting aircraft movements during World War II. The arcade trackball enjoys a lighter reputation, and helped popularise games like Atari Football, which is regarded as the first arcade sports video game.
Trackballs require more physicality than joysticks, which for us, is largely what makes them great fun. Cabinets with trackballs feel like a cross between a carnival attraction and a video game. Play can get intense, because movement speed depends on how fast you can roll. Wearing gloves is recommended to avoid blisters.
Spinners are little knobs that are closely related to trackballs. Like their larger, spherical cousins, a spinner tells the game which direction to go, and how fast to move.
Breakout and Tempest are two popular games that use spinners. In Tempest, you man a ship and its weapons through intergalactic war using buttons for firing and blasting and a spinner for moving between lanes. The combination makes it feel like you’re operating a real control panel for a spaceship, instead of just moving lines around a screen.
The first steering wheel accessory appeared in 1974 on Gran Trak 10, and arcade racing accessories have gone a long way since. Many deluxe cabinets are fitted with controls beyond the wheel, like a gear shift stick, gas and brake pedals, and a seat adjustment handle. You can simulate nearly everything you need to control the car, sans the actual vehicle.
In an arcade full of upright joystick-and-button games, sit-down racing cabinets are standouts. There’s a reason these machines always had a queue. We love these accessories because they make every turn and drift feel real, regardless of whether you’re chucking a Koopa turtle shell in Mario Kart or careering around a realistic off road circuit in a rally car.
Possibly the newest entrants on this list, instrument accessories first appeared on arcade games in the late 90s, popularised further by console rhythm games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero.
There are two types of music accessories you’ll find on cabinets: guitars and drums. Guitars use buttons to simulate notes and whammy bars to bend pitch. Drum peripherals are even more intricate. DrumMania has floor toms, pedals for the bass drum, and right and left cymbals–everything you need to turn any arcade into your very own Wembley Stadium.
Instruments make it onto the list because the accessories do a fantastic job of tapping into our sense of rhythm. Combos and streaks also feel as immensely satisfying as pulling off complex combos on Street Fighter 2. You might never have strummed a single note in your life, but guitars and drums can make anyone feel like a rockstar.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Flight Sticks and Yokes
Like driving games, flight simulators are typically large, dramatic affairs. Deluxe cabinets are often modelled after cockpits. Sega’s After Burner could tilt to simulate aircraft pitch, much to the delight–and nausea–of a world that was then obsessed with Top Gun and fighter jets.
Flight simulators really take off with the use of yoke sticks, which are essentially elaborate joysticks. Flight sticks are often fitted with multiple buttons, to simulate the different types of ammunition at the player’s disposal. Force feedback adds another layer of realism, allowing gamers to get a taste of a craft’s pitch, roll, and yaw—all for some change.