After last episode’s fairly deep dive into the world of Volkswagen semi-automatic transmissions, I thought this week it might be fun to do some more old driving video game stuff and maybe something a bit more hands-on. But nothing too involved, something that if someone liked the idea, she or he could replicate it while killing time before going out or something. Something quick and dirty. And that’s pretty much what I got, with this really crappy kind-of-motion driving DIY controller.
I was thinking about old video game driving controllers, and, specifically, the old Atari driving controller:
Now, there’s a few notable things about this driving controller: first, it looks nothing like an actual steering wheel or any part of a car, except maybe for the radio volume control, and B. it was only used for one game, Indy 500.
It was a decent controller, for what it was, but it looked just like the normal paddle controller and, despite turning a full 360° and having a different internal mechanism (rotary encoder vs. potentiometer) it just wasn’t much like driving.
Real steering wheels had been on arcade machines since the 1970s, and at least one home console, the Colecovision, offered a real steering-wheel-and-pedal add-on as a pack-in controller with the game Turbo.
For most consoles and computers of the 1980s, though, the expected controllers for nearly all games, including driving games, were simple digital joysticks—just a collection of five on/off switches, one for each direction and an action button.
These could be made to work for driving games, but it was never very realistic and never really felt like driving, since we don’t drive with stubby little joysticks.
So, I wanted to come up with a way to get some of that real(ish) driving feeling while using the same basic digital joystick inputs.
I’d done this before, on an old Lancia I converted to be a life-size driving controller for a museum installation. For that I used mercury switches embedded in the steering wheel, but for this I wanted to figure out a way to do it with crap anyone may have lying around.
So, with that in mind, I took a plastic steering-wheel like thing, and rigged up a crude pendulum-like setup which let you tilt the wheel to make turns.
It really couldn’t be simpler: I connected a weighted metal “bob” via wire to the GROUND pin on the Atari controller jack (the same connector was used on the majority of 1980s home computers, so this will work on a Commodore or an MSX or a Sega or a bunch of other stuff) and then I connected two other wires to the LEFT and RIGHT pins.
So, when you tilt the wheel, the dangling bob will lean to the side, making contact with the LEFT or RIGHT wire/contact, sending that signal to the console, and, hopefully, turning your little pixelated car.
Now, I threw mine together pretty fast, and my connections weren’t great, so the contact between the GROUND bob and the directional contacts was spotty at best.
But I think if you took some time to do this right, you could have a digital driving controller that at least faked the feel of an analogue wheel.
Maybe one of you out there will want to give this a real try? If you do, please send pics or video so I can be delighted! Because, as you know, I love that shit.