They Used To Be On The Right, Right?

I was totally confused when I saw the NES controller. It wasn’t a thick box, like the Atari 2600 controller. It was a flat rectangle. It didn’t have a joystick. It had a d-pad. And, worst of all, the d-pad wasn’t on the right but on the left. The player would have to use the left hand (or thumb, as it were) to control game movement, not the right. This was not just confusing but off-putting. Being right-handed, I was certain that I’d never be able to play that way and so asked for an Epyx joystick controller to go with my NES.

For years, I have thought that Nintendo was the ones to move video game direction controls to the left, mostly because I remember how I reacted to the NES gamepad. But as I’ve been searching for a control panel for my multicade project, I’ve discovered that this isn’t so. Not only do most control panels today have the joystick on the left, but many classic games did as well. Space Invaders did (the one that had a joystick, anyway; some only had buttons, but those were also on the left), as did Galaga, Donkey Kong, and Street Fighter (which is the one I initially blamed when I discovered that most of the modern control panels have the joystick on the left).

So why was I so surprised when I saw the NES gamepad had the directional control on the left and why have I did thought all these years arcade games had their joysticks on the right. Well, it’s probably because some did have them on the right. Centipede, for example, had the trackball on the right, and Tempest had the spinner on the right.

Others had it in the middle. This is especially true of those games that had only a joystick, such as Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, and Frogger. Since there were no buttons, there really was no left or right, so I could play these games with my right hand.

And others were ambidextrous. They had buttons on both sides of the joystick to accomodate both right- and left-handers. Kangaroo was ambidextrous like this, as was Burgertime and Moon Patrol.

Not only so, but you did operate the Atari 2600 joystick with your right hand. At least I did. I held it in my left, hit the fire button with my left thumb, and operated the joystick with my right. This is also how the Epyx NES controller was designed.

So this isn’t a case of me remembering wrongly. At least not entirely. Some games had it on the left, but others did indeed have it on the right, exactly where a right-handed man like myself thinks it belongs.


Doug is a child of the 80s who was raised in Ohio and is now living the life of oblivion in the bay area of California.

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6 thoughts on “They Used To Be On The Right, Right?

  1. Michael says:

    I used to have a Konix Speedking (same as Epyx 500XJ) and I would love to get my hands on one of those again for my C64 and Amigas.
    Well that and a Suzo Arcade Turbo joystick.

  2. About five years ago I ran across a deal for several Epyx XJ500 joysticks new in the box for $10/each. I bought all he had (six), gave two a friend, opened two, and have two spares in the closet “just in case”.

  3. Doug says:

    I adjusted to the NES gamepad surprisingly quickly and never used the Epyx except for The Legend of Kage.

  4. Drahken says:

    Arcade games have always been pretty random with joystick placement. Around the time of street fighter they seemed to stabalize with the stick on the left (at least for the most part), but prior to that they were all over.
    As far as consoles go; My columbia house system (a rebranded 2600 clone made by coleco) had the button on the left side (literally the side) of the controller. Then I played an NES and the control pad (which was new & strange in and of itself) was on the left. For me at least, I find this arrangement actually works better than the other way around (I’m right-handed btw). My right hand is quite nimble, but my left hand is much more steady. Trying to use the buttons with my left hand is quite awkward (unless you’re dealing with an old shooter, where you can just hold the fire button down for the whole game), between having to hit them rapidly & having to hit the correct ones each time. In contrast, you usually don’t have to move the controller as much as the fire/action buttons, plus to move the controller you just rock your hand or thumb in the appropriate direction, much easier than finding the right button so that you don’t kick when you need to jump or vice-versa.

    I’ve never heard of that epyx controller before. The only NES joystick I’ve seen is the advantage, and it has the same button layout as the standard NES controller.

  5. Doug says:

    I had the same thought about the Street Fighter influence on arcade games. I can’t prove it, but since the multicade controls boast that they have a “Street Fighter” set up and since Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat required more controls than most games before them, I’m blaming Street Fighter for the current state of affairs. I could just be a crackpot in that, though. What I do know is that I will program my multicade controls so that I can use the right joystick and the left buttons, thereby putting the joystick on the right where I think it belongs. That might be a cato, but at least I’ll try it.

  6. MrX_TLO says:

    Back in the day I had an Epyx 500xj and a similar Wico Ergostick that I hacked (both) to have selectable autofire ripped from a couple of broken trigger style joysticks.

    Later I used arcade parts to make some decks and a good time was had by all.

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