Tempest 2000: Controls

Tempest had a knob. Rotary controllers of this sort weren’t uncommon in videogames of the day — why, the very first videogame to hit it big, Pong, used a pair of knobs. But they’re not common on today’s home computers or gaming consoles. (As far as I know, the last console to provide knobs as a standard feature was the Atari 2600.) I suppose the steering wheel controllers sometimes used for driving games are effectively a knob variant, but that seems cumbersome for the purpose. (If you’ve actually tried using a steering wheel to control a non-driving game, I’m curious about how well it worked.)

The usual way to compensate for this on a PC is to substitute the mouse, which works pretty well — like the knob, it’s effectively an analog device, allowing quick and precise movement by mapping motion on the screen directly to motion of the controller. It doesn’t work quite as well as for Tempest as it does for Pong and its ilk, though. Pong maps the rotary motion of the controller to linear motion on the screen, so switching to a controller that uses linear motion actually makes the mapping a little simpler and more direct. Tempest, on the other hand, has genuinely rotary motion on screen. Any mouse-based control scheme is going to wind up either (a) moving the player in the opposite direction from the mouse motion some of the time, or (b) being more complicated than the simple two-direction spinning of the original.

Now, Tempest 2000 has the additional handicap of having been developed primarily for the Atari Jaguar, a machine that had no knobs, no mouse, not even an analog joystick. It was built with a digital D-pad in mind, and the port supports nothing better. I might as well use the keyboard; switching directions is slightly faster that way. It’s probably not as bad as it sounds, though. The art of using digital controls to simulate analog ones is well-developed by now, and probably familiar to most gamers, if only subliminally. But it does suffer the inversion problem already noted about mouse controls. Pressing left moves you clockwise and right moves you counterclockwise, even when you’re at the top of the tube, where clockwise is right and counterclockwise is left. One gets used to this, but it’s easy to get momentarily confused, and every moment of confusion is a potential death.

Not every level in the game actually involves a closed curve — about half of them have endpoints, and are equivalent to lines. They’re lines bent into various shapes (one of the early ones is in a V shape that always makes me think of the Videlectrix logo), but motion on these levels is essentially linear rather than rotary. Does this make it easier? Not always! Context and perspective are important here. Some of these levels put the line above the middle of the screen, so that the monsters are below you — think of the normal tube-like view, but with the bottom half of the tube cut off. Or rather, don’t, because if you do, you’ll expect the controls to be inverted, like they are on the top half of a full tube. They’re not: left means left and right means right, just like you’d expect. The fact that I find these levels so confusing shows something about how quickly intuitive expectations can be changed.

2 Comments so far

  1. game-SAGA on 9 Sep 2008

    I was wondering how the question of controls would be handled on the PC. In a game like this where the quickness and accuracy of one’s input is so essential I might not have attempted it had I been a completist like yourself. I once played Gyruss clone that had a control scheme using the using the directional keys, one for each quadrant of the circle. With a little practice, you could get pretty smooth movement by rolling along them, holding ‘up’ and ‘left’ to go to the upper left corner for example. That might not work here what with all the strange shapes involved.

  2. Tim Knauf on 10 Sep 2008

    Fascinatingly, Jeff Minter actually built in the facility for the game to be controlled with a rotary controller, despite the fact that Atari never manufactured one. Wikipedia has a small amount of information:

    And what do you know – someone has (fairly recently) had a go at manufacturing and selling an appropriate device:

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