Gaming Lows #1: Arcade Joysticks and Why They Sucked

Updated: Feb 23

Hi everyone!

Gaming is great, we all agree. Except when it isn't. There are some things about gaming that are bl00dy annoying, frustrating or downright unfair. In 'Gaming Lows' we take a look at some these low points in gaming.

My first topic of indignation – non-ambidextrous controls!

Not All The Same

I have a message for the people who make video game and arcade controllers:

"Not everyone is right-handed! Are you aware of this, or did you not get the memo?"

Being semi-ambidextrous in the hands, and cross dominant in the eyes, this has been the bane of my life. This applies both to gaming, and to real-life in general.

For example, the layout of gamepads felt counter-intuitive and just plain wrong to my young hands, which is another reason I largely avoided console gaming as a child.

Nintendo NES Joypad
Controls on the left, buttons on the right? No thanks.

At the time the layout made no sense to my young self, and my young self felt that he had proof!

Exhibit A - Cars in the UK have their steering wheels on the right side of the vehicle. The wheel is held in the right hand, whilst the gear stick, indicators and other buttons are controlled by the left.

Fiat Uno Dashboard from 1988
The inside of a Fiat Uno from 1988. Note the positions of the steering wheel and the gear stick.

Exhibit B - The same is true for the controls of real-world aircraft and helicopters, where the flight stick is placed firmly in the pilot's right hand.

 The Cockpit of the F-35 lightning II. HOTAS
The Cockpit of the F-35 Lightning II. Which side is the stick and which side is the throttle?

Exhibit C - In turn, the flight sim joysticks and HOTAS systems that seek to emulate these real-world controls also place the joystick firmly in the gamer's right hand. As an example, I present to you the suggestively named Thrustmaster.

Thrustmaster T-Flight Hotas X Joystick
Stick in the right hand, throttle in the left. I rest my case.

I found this 'backwards' control set up to be an even bigger problem in the arcades.

Games with simple controls, such as 1943 were manageable, but when it came to games with more complex inputs it all fell apart. And nowhere was this more apparent than with Street Fighter 2.

Street Fighter 2 coin op arcade cabinet
Sticks on the left, and soooo many buttons on the right...noooo!

I simply could not get my head, or rather my hands, around it. Pulling off fireballs was

an embarrassing non-starter, and dragon punches were an impossible pipe dream.

This rendered the game almost unplayable for me. And back then it was 'Street Fighter 2 or nothing!' Therefore I was relegated to the sidelines, able to do nothing more than cheer on the players – much like the poorly animated ‘behind people’ that populated many of the backgrounds.

The parallel was not lost on me even then. Even the trench-coated guy in Ken’s stage was having a better time than me.

Ken's Stage - Street Fighter II Champion Edition - PlayStation

You know who I’m talking about, and what everyone thought he was doing with that hand in his pocket. *wink*

Video by PlayingWithHistory

Mortal Kombat was not much better. On the rare occasions I managed to win a match my enemies would remain regrettably alive and intact.

With several years of practice, I was finally able to get to grips with the SNES and Megadrive joypads. This was just in time for University (or 'College' for our friends across the pond.)

This inevitably led to the dorm Street Fighter Wars. Which I usually won.

I’m sure losing my friends at the same rate was purely coincidental…..

Six button SEGA Megadrive gamepad
My weapon of choice - the six-button SEGA Megadrive gamepad


Thankfully the era of dual analogue thumbsticks did much to rectify this – if the sticks were the wrong way round, you could swap them. This is assuming the game allowed you to configure the controls that is. Games that either did not then, or do not now, will be a rant for another time. In the next article to be precise…

What are your thoughts on this? Has this been a problem for you, or someone you know? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

EDIT: I have recently learnt via this video of a theory as to why arcade joysticks were on the left – to make more money. According to the theory, in the very early days of video arcades, the joysticks were on the right and the buttons on the left. This was to cater to the predominantly right-handed population. Video arcade owners discovered however that players were spending too long on games without putting in any extra coins. Put simply, they were playing too well and thus not dying (in-game) very often. Therefore, they did not need to purchase continues.

Video arcade owners needed players to die more often and thus pump in more coins. To do this they needed to make the games harder. And the way they did this? Swap the sticks and buttons around on the cabinets, so that the predominantly right-handed population would now have to control their sprite via their weaker hand – thus putting them at a disadvantage and making the game harder for them to play.