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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