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Rotary Joysticks : A Small Retrospective

The rotary joysticks or「loop levers」as they're known in Japan, came to prominence in the arcade gaming scene during the mid '80s, thanks of course to the support from SNK who adopted them as their trademark control set-up for the majority of their arcade hits of the time. Although the first SNK game with rotary controls was the 1985 release「T・A・N・K」, most people credit (and with good reason) SNK's first major smash-hit「怒 IKARI」as the game that brought upon the golden era of rotary joysticks.

怒 IKARI received two sequels : the highly successful「DOGOU SOUKEN」(released later in the same year), and「怒 IKARI III」which came out when the novelty and interest for rotary controls was already fading away.

Other notable SNK games with rotary controls include「GUEVARA」,「BATTLE FIELD」(developed by ALPHA DENSHI for SNK),「BERMUDA TRIANGLE」, and「SAR : SEARCH AND RESCUE」.
The original 怒 IKARI control panel.

Another noteworthy supporter of rotary joysticks during their heyday was DECO, with quality titles such as「HEAVY BARREL」,「MAKYOU SENSHI」, and the more popular「MIDNIGHT RESISTANCE」.

But as fun as rotary joysticks might have been at the time, in the end they failed to become more than a novelty control gimmick. So when the '90s kicked in with SNK dropping their trademark control scheme to go with their new multi-game NEO●GEO MVS system, and as better and more advanced shooting games were being released, rotary joysticks pretty much vanished into thin air from the arcade scene without anyone really noticing or caring.

Nowadays rotary joysticks are generally looked upon very favourably by most retro arcade game enthusiasts, which is a very good thing.

But looking back to the '80s, were rotary joysticks really as great as they were advertised?

Personally, I think that in general the rotary joysticks worked great for the games which they were designed for, but in my opinion they never stood a chance at becoming a standard alternative to the classic 8-WAY joysticks like SNK wanted to at one point.

As most of you know, the most renown trait of the rotary joysticks is that they allow players to move in one direction while shooting in another.
most memorable rotary joystick games.

As most of you know, the most renown trait of the rotary joysticks is that they allow players to move in one direction while shooting in another.

But of course most you probably know as well that this is something can also be accomplished (whenever developers deem it necessary that is) simply by holding down the shoot button to remain locked in the desired direction.

The only real advantage of the rotary joysticks is that although they can only be pushed in the same 8 directions than the standard 8-WAY joysticks, they come with a special 12-WAY switch box that allows them to be rotated in 12 different positions, thus giving the player the ability to face and shoot in 4 additional directions not possible with the standard joysticks.

Unfortunately, as great as this might sound on paper, in reality only very few games had actual 12-WAY support, and those that did, like it's the case of「BATTLE FIELD」and「CAL. 50」, only showcased how unnecessary the additional directions were gameplay-wise.

I think the main problem with rotary joysticks is that they don't work that great with fast-paced/intense shooting games. They work like a charm on games that follow the basic gameplay formula of the SNK shooting games of the time, but not so much on games that demand a more quick and precise response from the player, in which case the rotary joysticks become more of a handicap, really.

It's also worth mentioning that games like DOGOU SOUKEN and HEAVY BARREL became infamous for wearing down their rotary joysticks fast, and of course worn-out rotary joysticks were a common sight back then, and also very problematic to deal with.

I also think that CAPCOM beat SNK in their own game with their cool「Rolling Switch」device released with their first CPS-1 game「LOST WORLDS」.

In short for those who never played the arcade game - the rolling switches are basically fancy 16-WAY rotatable buttons, that unlike rotary joysticks, are dedicated completely to shooting and aiming, and so they can rotated not only faster, but also more dynamically, and with superior precision and reliability.

In the end though, I think the issue with rotary joysticks will always be a matter of taste and identity, rather than of actual functionality.
The original LOST WORLDS control panel.

In the end though, I think the issue with rotary joysticks will always be a matter of taste and identity, rather than of actual functionality. After all, many of the already mentioned games owe their original success to their rotary controls more than to their actual gameplay, so even if they can be played fine with another control method, it's very likely that most people would still consider the original rotary controls to be the best.

Of course it would be impossible not to mention that a very relevant factor that contributes to this perception is certainly the poor quality of the home conversions that most of these arcade games received.

As previously noted, the easiest way to emulate the rotary joystick function, specially on the game consoles of the time whose controllers didn't had many buttons, is to lock the facing of the characters in one direction by holding down the shoot button. But while one would think that this method was a no-brainer substitute, for some reason the programmers in charge of the home conversions never bothered to implement it, and so most of these games turned out to be utterly disappointing in the control department.

In reality I can only remember the Famicom version of DOGOU SOUKEN using the view-lock.

However in this case it just wasn't enough to save this poor conversion that suffered from a myriad of other gameplay issues.

Fortunately SNK did things right with the Famicom version of GUEVARA, which in spite of featuring sub-par graphics and sound in comparison with the arcade original, it is nonetheless considered by many as the better version thanks to its faster-paced, non-stop intense shooting action that clearly surpasses what was offered in the technically-superior arcade game.
The much anticipated FC version of
IKARI was an emblematic letdown.

In conclusion, the rotary joysticks are undoubtedly among the most memorable and most fondly remembered novelties of the arcade gaming scene of the mid and late '80s. However, I still think that this control type was not without its flaws, and that among other things, it was clearly unfit for the more advanced shooting games of the '90s.

Can you imagine some of the most popular shooting games of the '90s like WOLF OF THE BATTLEFIELD II, SUNSET RIDERS, or even SNK's own METAL SLUG with rotary controls? I think it's more than evident that the rotary joysticks were not missed.


2010-09-03 04:40|Daisuki GeneralComments:3Trackback:0▲TOP


Ah, I remember playing Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga and this racing game that I thought was awesome, all on arcade machines. Unfortunately, I don't have many retro arcade memories. My most recent arcade memory though is playing Terminator: Salvation in my local movie theater lobby, which was a few weeks ago. I miss retro arcades though. Wish I had a MAME cabinet or something like that. I don't remember using those joysticks, in short.
posted by E123Wario54 on 2010-09-03 05:34 [ 編集 ]
See also: Front Line

Taito also had a kind of predecessor to Ikari Warriors in 1982 with Front Line. Though not a rotary joystick, it used a rotary dial that clicked into 8 positions. Character animations look kinda funny though. See also Taito's Wild Western for the same control scheme...
posted by btribble on 2010-09-17 23:46 [ 編集 ]

Yes, it's called「DIAL SWITCH」in Japan. All rotary controls are pretty much based on it.
posted by HERZOG on 2010-09-18 18:34 [ 編集 ]




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