by Kevin Steele
Latest Update: May, 2004
If you’re into MAME gaming, eventually
you will inevitably feel the unavoidable urge to build or buy an arcade
control panel, just so you can play all of those classic arcade games “the
way they were meant to be played.” If you decide to build your
own arcade controller, there are a lot of choices that will need to be
made, but one of the most important is the type of controllers to include.
For many, deciding to add an arcade spinner
is an important choice. Used in games such as Arkanoid and Tempest, spinners
can be used in almost any game that requires, well, spinning. If you’re
shopping for a spinner controller that is MAME-compatible, these are
good days. There are four different arcade spinners currently available,
from two different companies. Each spinner has its own design, and each
has strengths and weaknesses. That makes choosing one a bit more difficult.
(L-R): Tron, Tornado, Push/Pull, Model 3 (top) and Pro (bottom)
(L) The Original Tempest Spinner, and (R) The Oscar Vortex
In this roundup I hope to be able to compare
and contrast each of the spinners, pointing out what makes each unique.
In addition to the MAME spinners, the arcade-original Tron and Tempest
spinners are included in this roundup just so that you can compare the
newer spinners to what was actually used in the arcades.
There are two main companies making spinners
for MAME cabs: Oscar Controls and SlikStik. Both make their own custom-designed
spinners, each with a different “philosophical” approach
to the spinner design process.
Controls makes three of the four spinners included in the roundup.
The owner of Oscar Controls, Kelsey, strives very hard to create “arcade
authentic” controls that are based on the designs of actual controls
used in the original games. For example, the Oscar Push/Pull spinner
is closely modeled on the original Discs of Tron spinner, and Kelsey
actually studied an original Discs of Tron spinner in the design process.
The Vortex spinner, likewise, is faithfully modeled on the Atari Tempest
on the other hand, seems to be working very hard at creating the “ÜberSpinner” — Christian
of SlikStik told me that he wanted the smoothest spinning arcade spinner
ever created. With a spin time of over three minutes with only a flick
of the wrist, I'd say he’s well on the way to his goal. I don’t
know of any actual arcade machine that used a dual-bearing design like
the Tornado, but it certainly seems like a great spinner design.
Parts is Parts, Right?
A spinner is actually a fairly simple
controller, so there really isn’t all that much to one: a knob,
a shaft, a flyweight (to give it some mass for spinning), an encoder
wheel, an optic board (to read how fast the encoder wheel is spinning),
an encoder board (to translate the optic readings into something the
computer can use), and a bracket of some sort to hold everything together.
All of the Oscar Controls spinners use
a custom optic board, which can be mated to a number of different encoders,
such as the Opti-PAC, Hagstrom ME4, or a USB-only mouse interface from
Oscar Controls (which is basically the guts of a mouse, including the
microswitches for the mouse buttons!).
Oscar Controls Optic Board
The SlikStik Tornado spinner uses the
same encoder and optic board used in the Happ Controls USB/PS-2 compatible
trackballs, which includes both the dual-optic sensors and encoder electronics.
The spinner cannot be interfaced with an Opti-PAC or Hagstrom encoder
(it doesn’t need to), but it does support both USB and PS/2 interfaces.
SlikStik Encoder Board
Here’s a brief overview
of the “participants” in this roundup:
||Original Tron Spinner
This is the “old skool” spinner here – a genuine
arcade spinner from an old TRON machine. It’s large, heavy,
and it spins. But how does it compare to the new generation of spinners?
Now replaced by the Vortex, the Oscar Control Pro was designed to
spin, and spin well.
Taking spinners in a new direction, the Oscar Controls Push/Pull
spinner adds the ability to push down and pull up the spinner.
Great stuff, but how does it spin?
||Oscar Model 3
This is the “basic” model from Oscar Controls – it
does the job, it has a small footprint, and it’s relatively
inexpensive. But does it get the job done?
The successor to the Oscar Pro, the Vortex is closely modeled on
the Atari Tempest spinner. Is it a worth replacement to the Pro,
and how does it compare to the spinner that inspired it?
The new kid, an ultra-smooth dual-ball bearing design
that seemingly spins forever. But does that actually help gameplay?
Original Tempest Spinner
The arcade original spinner with a "need for speed." Designed for
fast spins and quick direction changes, can it teach the
newcomers a thing or two about spinner design?
To evaluate each of these spinners, I
ran them through a number of grueling (fun) and exhausting (very fun)
play-tests. I also tried to rank each spinner on a number of different
criteria, including ease of installation, design, ease of use, spinner
sensitivity, and more.
Installed and Ready for Testing: (L-R) Pro, Push/Pull, Model 3, and Tornado
(Tron Spinner in Front)
Side Shot of the Installed Spinners
Underneath the Spinner Table
With the setup out of the way, let's go
ahead and look at each of the spinners in this roundup, and what makes
each of them unique...