A few weeks ago, my friend Alexander (do you remember him?) invited me to his house. He could not wait to show me the Amiga 600 he had just bought on the cheap, at a flea market.
Unfortunately, his joy was short-lived: the two joysticks included in the “bundle” were poor quality, and – as soon as we connected them to the Amiga 600’s ports – we realized they were also in poor conditions.
After overcoming his initial disappointment and vigorously throwing both joysticks in the garbage, Alexander asked me if I could recommend him some good controllers as a replacement and -unaware of that – gave me the idea to write this post.
Over the years, I reckon I have tried several controllers (a euphemism for hundreds) and I think this is an excellent opportunity to make an Amiga joystick ranking list featuring my top 5 picks.
Before starting out, I would like to make clear it deals with 9-pin joysticks. This means that they are compatible with other retro systems, among them the Atari, the Commodore 64, the Amstrad, the Spectrum and the Sega MegaDrive.
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5. Competition Pro: play like a Pro – by Kempston Micro Electronics
Average price: $45 (shipping excluded)
A rather ambitious slogan to promote what is probably the most famous and recognizable retro joystick ever, as well as a favourite for many. Without a doubt, the Competition Pro is an above average product, which was built with long-lasting materials. Thanks to its different versions (black-based, camouflage, transparent, et cetera… ), it quickly became a gaming status symbol (if not a cult object).
Why only at number 5? Let us say that – despite using microswitches – I have always found the shaft spring a bit too hard for my taste. In my experience, the Competition Pro is great for 15-20 minute gaming sessions. If you want or need to play more (say you are in a tournament), I suggest that you alternate or use other joysticks.
Having to maneuver such a precise yet hard shaft will end up tiring your hand, and significantly affect your performance.
4. Zipstick – by Delph Tool Co. Ltd
Average price: $35 (shipping excluded)
“The Competition Pro’s first cousin”. This is how we would describe the Zipstick back in the day, when someone asked what it was like.
Their aesthetic, qualitative similarities are in fact remarkable (the Zip was produced by a Kempston’s subsidiary company, after all), but it is their differences what makes the Zipstick better than its cousin.
First of all, the shaft is a lot softer, and you are unlikely to experience any wrist pains, even after long gaming sessions. Secondly, I have always clicked better with the Zipstick’s square fire buttons, rather than the Pro’s round ones. Last but not least, the former’s buttons use excellent microswitches.
As for its cousin’s buttons, every model – except one – uses the so-called leaf switches and quite frankly, the feeling is not the same. Oh, that “one” is the 2000 model, that is, the only Competition Pro whose buttons use microswitches. The result leaves something to be desired though, as the buttons tend to often jam, causing an obvious sense of frustration.
The fact that the Zip was released a few years later than the Pro leads me to believe, that the former is none other than a revised version of the latter.
3. Tac-2- by Suncom Technologies
Average price: $70 (shipping excluded)
I have a love-hate relationship with this joystick, and somehow I consider it a wasted opportunity. With a little more attention to detail, it could have really become the greatest (retro) joystick ever. To begin with, the Tac-2 has no microswitches at all, which shows that they are not essential in order to produce a technically efficient joystick. On the contrary, using cheap, bad quality microswitches strongly affects a controller’s functionality (see Competition Pro 2000).
That said and despite the above mentioned lack of microswitches, the Tac-2 shaft boasts an extremely short run and a surprising precision.
That metallic-grey 8-way stick with that black plastic ball on top is world-class. Unfortunately – and again, I would say – problems arise when it comes to the fire buttons: they work with brass contact plates which are prone to oxidation, thus needing care more often than not.
When the plates begin to oxidise (normally after 6-12 months of use), the buttons immediately become less responsive. Obviously, the joystick can be opened, and you can periodically clean the plates with some rust removal products, but that will not help much. The Tac-2 will never be the same and you will have to get used to a different sensitivity.
I care to point out that what I described above happened 25-30 years ago, with any brand new Tac-2. I therefore advise against purchasing any second-hand units still circulating (Suncom Technologies shut down decades ago), unless you are able to replace the brass plates.
2. Maverick QS-128F – by Quickshot
Average price: $20 (shipping excluded)
A great, elegant, precise, durable joystick! Simply the best ever produced, among those that do not use microswitches. Unlike the aforementioned joysticks, the Maverick has a large, wide base and – thanks to its suction cups – can easily be placed on a flat surface for easier play. As previously mentioned, the QS-128F has neither microswitches nor plates (luckily); It uses rubber contacts instead, and the overall feeling is awesome.
The bad news is that such rubber contacts tend to wear out over time. The good one, though, is that any little gamer from the 80s – who went on to become a computer repair technician as an adult – can replace them and make your beloved Maverick work like new again. It is worth mentioning that the QS-128F has a twin brother – named QS-138F – that is fully equipped with microswitches. Unfortunately, it is just another example of low quality microswitches making the shaft imprecise (which is very evident in sports games).
PS. Do not use any Maverick models with a Commodore 64 or you will irreparably damage your beloved vintage home computer. There is little information about it, but it looks like the cause should be sought in the different functions performed by Sega consoles’ port pins, compared to the C64. Different functions may imply different voltages when giving input to a device, and a wrong voltage can cause a machine to stop working for good.
Back then, very few people knew that such joystick was originally designed for Sega Platforms and sadly, I was not one of them. Had I known that 29 years ago, I would have prevented my schoolmate Simon from plugging his Maverick into his brand new Commodore 64.
Yes, he was inconsolable…
Honorable mention: The Arcade – by Suzo International
Average price: $30 (shipping excluded)
I discovered this joystick when I was hooked on Swos 96/97, and it was my battle buddy for 8 months, before being replaced by the number one on this list.
Mistakenly called Suzo (which is its manufacturer’s name, instead), The Arcade distinguishes itself because of its short, narrow base and its single fire button residing at the front center of the former.
It is just its unusual shape that makes The Arcade suitable for fast-paced games, especially the ones where you need to frequently change directions (Swos anyone?).
Although the shaft has a reinforced inside made of steel, the overall use of poor-quality materials quickly takes its toll on the joystick’s functionality. After 6 months of use, both the microswitch-equipped shaft and the leaf switch-equipped button start to become loose and imprecise.
And again, this happened more than 20 years ago, so please do yourselves a favour and avoid buying it second-hand now, it will only give you a headache.
I left it out of my top 5 picks for a reason, after all…
For the readers who are wondering: “If poor quality ruled and even the best joysticks had their own drawbacks, then what were others like?”
Well, you must know that back then the average life span of a joystick was no more than a couple of months (if that). The oftentimes mentioned poor build quality and the often unprofessional ergonomic design caused gamers to even buy 10 joysticks a year.
Do not panic, it was common practice, back in the day.
Personally, I have vivid memories of shafts coming off in my hand or buttons getting permanently stuck on a joystick base for no apparent reason. 😀
There are obviously exceptions to this, such as the number one on this list… 😉
1. Long-shaft Albatros – by Alberici S.p.A.
Availability: very low
Average price: $70 (shipping excluded)
The best of the best, period. An absolute masterpiece of gaming engineering by this Italian company.
The first time I saw a friend using an Albatros, I thought I was in front of another lemon. Those small buttons seemed just “unpressable”, while that long, thin shaft looked like it could break at any moment. I could not be further from the truth: the joystick worked beautifully, the microswitch sound was both rhythmic and harmonic and above all, my friend – a mediocre gamer until that moment – had turned into a semi-god. 😀
Obviously, I tried it immediately, but it was NOT love at first sight. On the contrary, I realized that it was a very difficult joystick to master, especially if you were accustomed to “use and break” controllers.
Fortunately, Christmas was at the door and I got one from my parents. I needed a two-month “feeling out process” to get familiar with my Albatros, but after that we never separated.
It is very simple: the long-shaft Albatros enables you to play to the best of your potential. Incidentally, I think highly of both its short-shaft version and the red-ball handle model, but they are not on the same level as the former (which – for me – borders on perfection).
Its precise, soft, sensitive shaft, its responsive buttons and its top build quality are just some of the features that make the long-shaft Albatros the best Amiga joystick ever released hands down.
It goes without saying that such a product could not be cheap: it was expensive at the time (not less than 30-40 dollars, boxed) and costs twice as much today as a second-hand 25-30 year-old joystick, even after being out of production for more than 20 years.
But it is more than appropriate to say that an Albatros is for life:
I got my first long-shaft model for Christmas ’97 and it is still fully functional. After millions and millions of clicks, its microswitches are still working fine. Absolutely indestructible!
The Albatros continues to fly – and the flock has grown
Save for sporadic exceptions, the Albatros is the only joystick I use when playing Amiga and it has been like that for 21 years now.
For this reason I sent Alexander on a flea market/online scavenger hunt, but – as I supposed – he had no luck. There are only a few expensive units left for sale, because their fortunate owners just hang on to them.
Luckily for him, I am one of those fortunate owners, so I decided to halve the previously mentioned flock and lend him indefinitely 2 of the 4 Albatros that I own.
In order to thank me, he told me that he was going to train intensively with the intention of trashing me both at Swos and at Speedball (it is all about old scores to settle and old gaming open wounds… lol).
I am still waiting for a new gaming invitation, but at this stage I do not know whether I will ever get it… I suspect I gave him false hope about the Albatros.
Yet I only said that it was a great joystick, I did not say that it would work miracles … 😀
In any case, I will keep you posted!
Did I miss any? Do you feel there are some high-profile exclusions? Then please let me know in the comments, I will be more than happy to reply.
Pps. The joystick is called “Albatros” indeed. No spelling mistakes.