Estimated reading time: 5 minute(s)

I noted in previous articles that I had a Sega Dreamcast when I was a kid. I was given a Dreamcast a few days after its launch on September 9, 1999. Although the Dreamcast had a strong launch, it faded quickly – along with Sega’s console business – and was discontinued in April 2001.

The Dreamcast was the first of the sixth generation video game consoles, and I maintain that there has never been (and likely never will be again) a more dramatic difference in power and capability than what existed between the Dreamcast and the most powerful console of the previous generation, the Nintendo 64. There was a definite shock and awe effect from seeing the orca scene in the Sonic Adventure demo.

Although the Dreamcast was ultimately not commercially successful, it was an innovative console in its day, and it retains a community of hobbyists more than two decades after its discontinuation. Many of Dreamcast’s big ticket games were not of much interest to me when I had mine, but I still have fond memories of Sonic Adventure, the early NBA 2K games, Chu Chu Rocket, and a classic launch title called Pen Pen Trilcelon.

Photo of a Sega Dreamcast and controller. Credit:  Evan-Amos, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Evan-Amos, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Looking back on the Dreamcast, my favorite feature of the console was its excellent controller. It lacked some amenities that became common in subsequent controllers such as a second joystick, and it was dinged for its lack of buttons. Today, it is perhaps most remembered for its slot for PDA-style memory cards (a concept that should return). But I remember the controller first and foremost for two reasons. Firstly, t it was very comfortable to hold – I dare say only surpassed by the Gamecube controller in that regard. Secondly, the Dreamcast had, bar none, the best joy stick and trigger buttons that I have ever used.

While I have always been fond of the Dreamcast controller, I never thought much about how it actually worked. What made its triggers (which were put to great use for shooting free throws in the NBA 2K series) and joystick so unique? I found the answer in an unexpected place – an article that made the first page of Hacker News (much like we did on two occasions in May).

On June 3, 2022, Shiro! published an interview with Mr. Kenji Tosaki, a former peripheral development manager at Sega who was behind a number of controllers and other accessories for the Sega Saturn and Sega Dreamcast.

The Saturn was Sega’s penultimate console, first released in Japan in 1994 and in the United States in 1995. I acquired a Saturn well after its release and never had many games for it. I did not play one of its best-known games, NiGHTS into Dreams, nor do I know much about its specifics. I had been vaguely aware that a special controller had been designed for it to make up for the fact that the regular Saturn controller used a D-pad instead of a joystick, but I never actually saw the controller. Mr. Tosaki designed the controller, and his description of a controller that I never held piqued my interest.

The 3D Control Pad measures the tilt angle of the pad with a magnet and a magnetic sensor.

Kenji Tosaki

After explaining the technical aspects of how the joystick worked, Mr. Tosaki explained why he thinks that the system was better than current joysticks (note he also compared the Nintendo 64’s joystick favorably to current technology):

Sony’s current 3D sticks are adopted from the PlayStation’s Dual Shock Controller, and since then, both Nintendo and Microsoft have licensed the same technology. … Durability is poor, and the center point shifts easily. I definitely did not want to adopt it…

Kenji Tosaki

I have generally had good luck with my controllers, but joystick durability issues have been a persistent concern. Our own Victor V. Gurbo recently had a joystick drift issue with his Nintendo Switch Lite – unfortunate in that case since the joystick is part of the console.

When I read Mr. Tosaki’s explanation of the magnetic Saturn joystick, I immediately wondered if that was what made the Dreamcast’s joystick so pleasant to use. He continued:

I remember that development of the Dreamcast controller started right after the development of Saturn’s 3D Control Pad. I planned the initial design concept and was in charge of research for the man-machine (control input) interface, which also started around that time.

Kenji Tosaki

Unfortunately, Mr. Tosaki did not discuss the Dreamcast controller in as much detail as he discussed the Saturn controller. However, I came across a Wiki article which provides a concise explanation of how the Dreamcast joystick and trigger buttons work.

The triggers each have a tiny magnet attached to the end of the trigger arm. When the trigger is depressed, the magnet is pushed toward a sensor mounted on the controller’s circuit board. Through the process of induction, the magnet creates resistance to the current passing through the sensor. On the bottom of the magnet is a layer of foam padding. Pushing harder on the trigger compresses the padding, which brings the magnet closer to the sensor. The closer the magnet is to the sensor, the more resistance is induced. This variable resistance makes the triggers pressure-sensitive.

First the trigger buttons:

NBA 2K used the triggers in an interesting way for shooting free throws. The player would see a left and right arrow pointing away from the basket. In order to make a free throw, the player had to finesse the arrows to converge over the basket. The higher the in-game player’s free throw stat was, the less finicky the arrows would be.

The joystick also used a magnet:

The thumb pad also uses a magnet, along with four small sensors. The sensors are arranged like a compass, with one at each of the cardinal points (north, south, east, west). The base of the joystick is shaped like a ball, with tiny spokes radiating out. The ball sits in a socket above the sensors. Spikes on the socket fit between the spokes on the ball. This allows for an extraordinary amount of movement without letting the thumb pad twist out of alignment with the sensors. As the thumb pad is moved, the magnet in the base moves closer to one or two of the sensors, and farther from the others. The system monitors the changes in induction caused by the magnet’s movement to calculate the position of the thumb pad.

I also came across a short 2013 YouTube video wherein a creator who goes by arfink took apart a Dreamcast controller to show the internals of the joystick and trigger buttons along with a technical explanation of how things worked.

It was interesting to learn how the Dreamcast controller and my favorite all-time joystick functioned. While Mr. Tosaki noted some reasons why his joystick design did not ultimately become the standard, I concur with him that it is better than the PlayStation’s joystick standard (I would also concur with him that the Nintendo 64’s joystick was superior, albeit it had some major durability issues if used to its full effect in Mario Party). The Saturn and Dreamcast joysticks serve as a reminder that sometimes the best technology does not prevail. While I hope to see the Nintendo Switch continue for years to come, reading this article makes me hope that Nintendo looks at doing something interesting with respect to joysticks and controllers for its next console. It was Nintendo, after all, that brought us the Wii Remote in 2006 (which Mr. Tosaki also praised).

I conclude with an aside. While we are on the subject of good and forgotten joysticks, let us remember the excellent Neo Geo Pocket Color’sclicky stick.”