The Atari Wireless Classic Joystick and Atari VCS Vault

Reimagining a Legend

ew Atari fans would disagree that the classic CX40 joystick controller is every bit as iconic as the legendary Atari 2600 video computer system itself. At the conception of “Project Ataribox” we felt it was mission-critical that this distinctive controller, like the system hardware, was modernized in both form and function.

Atari CX40 Joystick Controller and Engineering Diagram.

As many long time followers of the Atari VCS project know, the initial product designs by Dana Krieger debuted to much acclaim in 2017, and the joystick (and modern controller) were further refined in partnership with the incredible industrial designers and engineers at SurfaceInk and Atari VCS peripherals partner PowerA.

An Old Friend in Need of a New Twist

Assorted Atari Wireless Classic Joystick prototypes and test mules.

Re-introducing and reimagining an iconic, but decades-old product and ensuring its modern day relevance is challenging. The Atari VCS team wanted to capture the essence of what made the original joystick great, while adding new features and improvements that would deliver an enhanced modern experience.

The first images of the new Atari Classic Joystick were teased ahead of the Atari VCS 2018 Indiegogo campaign. The new joystick hardware featured a familiar-but-modern profile that traded the chunky aesthetic and rubber boot of the original CX40 controller for a more slimmed-down, premium design that was in harmony with the modern aesthetics of the new Atari system hardware.

Everything about the new design was smoother and sleeker, with an upscale textured finish and rich, glossy highlights. The joystick’s classic red “fire” button was, of course, in its familiar spot on one corner, along with the tall vertical main stick, now surrounded by a shiny round dish in place of the original’s corrugated rubber rings. A segmented circle of red LEDs illuminated from below the plastic surface at the edge of the dish, echoing the embossed, orange-painted ring on the CX40. This LED ring illuminated whenever the red fire button was pressed and also reacted to the directional inputs on the stick as it moved.

The new joystick design also had two new buttons familiar to today’s gamers and digital media consumers; a “back” button and a “menu” button, both intended to better integrate with a modern, multi-layered on-screen interface. The joystick prototype also featured wireless Bluetooth functionality and a micro USB port for recharging the integrated battery. The Atari team felt it was a solid initial effort, but as the engineers and gamers began testing it with classic Atari 2600 and arcade games, it quickly became apparent that it was a fun first-draft of something that could and would get even better.

New Design from the Ground-Up

Engineering Team at Work.

With the new Wireless Classic Joystick, the Atari VCS team wanted to do more than update the form-factor, they wanted it to enhance the play of classic Atari arcade and home games, while also encouraging the creation of a new generation of arcade-style games; games that would be best-experienced with the Atari Classic Joystick on the Atari VCS.

Assorted research and development diagrams.

During initial testing of the first joystick prototype, our engineers were reminded of the stiff, “crab claw” feeling in their hands that took them back to their childhoods; caused by an intense “death-grip” while punching the corner red “fire” button. Several decades of ergonomic peripheral designs have proven that the CX40 didn’t have the best setup for such an active and aggressively-used button, even if it was a “must” for the new design.

Assorted research and development diagrams.

The team knew they could deliver a better ergonomic experience. In addition to making the traditional corner button and grip on the unit more comfortable, one of the first new additions to the joystick’s “2nd draft” design was the placement of a secondary “fire” button on the corner of the unit’s body. The engineers tested several different button sizes and locations, with multiple hands of all sizes; testing and retesting until they got it “just-right” for the most testers.

In-hand testing of joystick inputs and control locations.

When a gamer holds today’s Atari Wireless Classic Joystick, its thinner body, modern shapes and pleasant textures offer an incredibly natural-feeling grip, with a perfectly-placed bumper trigger that allows for rapid and comfortable pressing with an index finger. Two rubber rails running along the bottom housing — instead of traditional small round “button feet” at each corner — add additional traction during intense gameplay.

Pushing the Limits

Reinforcement rod.

All that improved grip provides very good leverage for pushing and pulling the center directional stick. Unfortunately, the test teams quickly broke the slim new sticks on numerous early prototypes while aggressively playing classic Atari games… the way they were meant to be played. Anyone who grew up with the original Atari 2600 knows how much abuse the old joystick controllers would take, so easily-snapping joysticks was not acceptable. In addition, the testers who like to move the joystick by placing their thumb on top of the post found that when they were not breaking the early prototypes by pushing them hard, their thumbs were frequently slipping off the smooth flat top cap of the cylindrical stick.

LED testing.

Working with the team at PowerA, the Atari VCS design engineers made additional enhancements to the vertical stick. First they beefed things up inside the shaft with a reinforcing* post. They also added a slight scallop to the top cap that allows a thumb-user to keep a better hold on the stick. The engineers also integrated a modern “rumble” motor to enhance the feedback provided by the LED ring. An illuminated “home” button emblazoned with Atari’s iconic Fuji logo completed the look. But there was still one remaining feature that the team was determined to include.

Putting a Fresh Spin on Things

The most significant and challenging addition to the new Atari joystick was the incorporation of a “twist” input into the center stick. This rotational input, intended to replicate the paddle and driving controllers that made games like Pong, Breakout and Tempest so fun to play on the Atari 2600, 5200 and in the arcades, became a must-have for the Atari VCS hardware team.

Engineering exploded view diagram.

The first few sets of revised joystick prototypes all suffered from one shortcoming or another when it came to the new twist function. Some prototypes felt great, with pleasant and familiar amounts of tactile feel, but were lacking the necessary degree of sensitivity for playing the classic games. Other units had very high sensitivity, but lacked resistance in the actuator, making the joystick rotations feel very disconnected from the experience. Still others had too much resistance or unwanted detents that made for a “clicky-feeling” rotation. On top of finding just the right balance of sensitivity and resistance, the team needed to find a suitable rotary encoder and sensor combination that was small enough to fit within the device’s existing design structure.

Engineering diagrams.

Ultimately, and after many extra weeks of testing different combinations, the team identified and selected an optimal setup using a “Hall” sensor. Hall sensors are well-known in the world of high-fidelity audio product manufacturers for their extreme sensitivity. Most often used in volume controls and mixer controls, Hall sensors are always in high demand, and this year’s pandemic-related shortages made them particularly difficult to secure.

Worth the Wait

We are confident that the end product was worth the extra time and effort. The new Atari Wireless Classic Joystick is an amazing part of the VCS experience and capably fulfills the team’s goal of bringing unique new arcade-style experiences to classic Atari games. In fact, the familiar Atari Vault collection for the VCS features many games that utilize the unique features only available when playing with the new joystick.

Atari VCS Vault: Fully-Optimized for the Classic Joystick

The Atari VCS Vault that comes free with every Atari VCS, and the Atari VCS Vault Vol. 2 DLC have been optimized for the new Wireless Classic Joystick and the team has compiled it’s Top Ten favorite Atari Vault classics they suggest fans play first:

  1. Pong — paddle function and vibration
  2. Red Baron — acts like a plane joystick
  3. Breakout/Super Breakout — paddle function and vibration
  4. Tempest — precise rotation
  5. Warlords — precise rotation helps gameplay
  6. Centipede/Millipede — fast simplified movement works well
  7. Liberator — Enhanced aiming
  8. Lunar Lander — Combination of rotation and joystick direction blends really well
  9. Major Havoc — Rotation control adds to the fun
  10. Missile Command — Fast movement for precise aiming

Also, as previously announced, the Atari VCS version of Missile Command: Recharged has also been optimized for use with the Atari Wireless Classic Joystick (or Modern Controller) and there are more optimized games coming.

It won’t be much longer…

With the incremental research and development, evaluation and selection of parts, and testing, we knew the Joystick was going to be the last hardware off the production line — and that was before the pandemic. As we shared last month, shortages of a critical part ensured that the new Wireless Classic Joystick crossed the finish line slightly behind the project’s other hardware pieces.

The majority of the products comprising the initial Atari VCS Indiegogo batch is in the warehouse, and once the joysticks arrive the fulfillment team will begin the sorting and packing process to prepare for shipping.

The entire Atari team looks forward to finally putting the Atari VCS into peoples’ hands in the coming weeks. There are more announcements, news and plenty of fun and excitement ahead!

— The Atari VCS Team

*Correction: Atari had incorrectly stated that there would be a steel reinforcing post inside the joystick. While this was a concept that had been proposed during the design process, it did not make it to the final product. However, the final design underwent extensive reliability testing at the factory and the center stick endured more than one million cycles of stress-testing without failure. As with any product, excessive stress can cause breakage, but Atari and PowerA stand behind the product and do not anticipate any major failures when the joystick is used as intended.

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