In 1992, when Nintendo Super NES and Sega Genesis took control of home video games, Gravis brought console style control to the PC with his GamePad PC. It sold well and opened the door to a new gameplay style on PC. This is what makes it very memorable.
Why is the GamePad PC Extraordinary
Apart from Nintendo mania that has been raging in the US since at least 1988 (thanks to the success of the NES blockbuster), it was several years before for the first console style gamepad that made its way to IBM PC compatibility. Advanced Gravis Computer Technology based in British Columbia (then known as its PC joystick) took the first step with the four-button Gravis PC GamePad.
At the time of the GamePad release, the best-selling PC game genre leaned towards non-action, such as RPGs, adventure games, flight simulators, and strategy games. This matches the platform. An ordinary PC has (relative to a game console) sufficient RAM, plenty of rewritable disk space, and a keyboard or mouse as input devices.
PC clones also do not contain special graphics hardware to handle smooth, scrolling gaming fields in games like Super Mario Bros.
At that time in the realm of a bold shareware game, freely distributed on BBSes, the console style action gameplay began on PC. Mario’s style platformer, Captain Comic, led the package in 1988 and became an underground hit.
Two classic shareware: Captain Comic (Left) and Commander Keen (Right).
The Shareware publisher, Apogee Software, was followed by the success of Captain Comic with platforms such as Commander Keen (1990) and Duke Nukem (1991). Both of them utilize the advanced fine EGA rolling coding technique developed by John Carmack. These new techniques allow the swamp-standard PC to simulate NES-style scrolling for the first time.
After VGA graphics cards were widely available on PCs, and processor speed increased (which allowed faster graphics before hardware acceleration), more games became action oriented. Time is then ripe for a PC controller with digital direction control.
At that time, GamePad PC had captured the market with quite large leads and became the de facto standard for console-style PC games.
Illustration of a 15-pin PC joystick port from the IBM Game Control Adapter Manual.
Before going to the PC GamePad, if you want to use the game controller on your PC, you use a joystick. The standard 15-pin PC game port is an optional feature that starts as a special expansion card and then switches to the sound card. It was designed for analog joysticks, rather than digital controls which were common in gaming consoles at the time.
So, it takes a logical and engineering leap (though, not a very difficult one) to provide digital style console game control through an analog interface. Gravis is ready and willing to make that jump. As such, the company was valued handsome with products that remained best-sellers until the end of the 90s.
Avoiding Mining Patents
Apart from PC specifications and game genre innovations, another reason it took so long to see a PC-based gamepad might have to do with patents. In 1982, Nintendo released the Donkey Kong Game and Watch, the first product with a cross-shaped pad (D-pad).
This D-pad proves there is an inexpensive way to package the four-way direction control into a small space. One year later, the same D-pad headed for the Nintendo Famicom, Japan’s predecessor to the Nintendo Entertainment System. The design is characteristic of home video games.
Nintendo holds patents on the D-pad design, so when other companies try to emulate the control scheme, they must make changes to avoid patent infringement. For example, Sega turns a different four-way pad into a round plastic with four sections raised on its Genesis controller.
Gravis took an approach similar to his GamePad PC, which also included a round directional pad. It also takes it one step further by inserting a small plastic joystick that you can insert into the directional pad. Using this stick proved to be very awkward in practice. One could speculate it was only used to avoid infringement of Nintendo’s basic game controller patents.
Gravis PC GamePad feature.
However, there is room for innovation in Gravis’s section. In the first PC game controller, PC GamePad includes four action buttons. By default, IBM PC game ports can only support two, so the game must be specially programmed to utilize all four on the Gravis pad.
If a game doesn’t support four buttons, you just flip a button on the bottom edge of the pad, and the extra button becomes the turbo version of the original two buttons.
Another innovation is the second switch on the GamePad that makes it possible to play left hand. When activated, you can rotate the GamePad 180 degrees and control the D-pad with your right hand, and the buttons with your left.
With four colored buttons and a round design, the GamePad PC seems to be designed to resemble the Super Famicom pad, but caution is also taken here. Unlike the Super Famicom (and Super NES), Gravis GamePad is not symmetrical. The tilt design is uncomfortable, but can be ergonomically better.
Hidden buttons (other design options that might be guided by patent issues) are also more difficult to press.
Although the GamePad is certainly not perfect, it did a very good job at the time.
Want to know which games people play with their Gravis PC GamePads? Now, as we mentioned before, GamePad works best with platform-action shareware titles, like Commander Keen, at first. But players soon found that it was also useful with almost all types of PC game actions, including first-person shooters, such as Wolfenstein-3D and Doom.
Shortly thereafter, many PC games that natively support Gravis GamePad, and all four buttons. The controller is even displayed in some games. For example, the classic shareware Epic Games, Jazz Jackrabbit, includes what appears to be in-game advertisements for PC GamePad.
“We like those games for early PC games,” Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, said by email. “So, we promote it whenever we have a chance and they send us (and players) a lot for free. I don’t remember if there was money involved.”
Finally, more complex controllers (such as PlayStation-esque Gravis GamePad Pro) come to the market. Then, USB came and killed the need for a 15-pin game port.
However, many PC gamers in the 90s will always have nostalgia specifically for the original GamePad PC – even if some of them don’t like it.
How to use Gravis GamePad on a Modern PC
We have of course succeeded in console style PC games since Gravis PC GamePad. At present, we can easily use Bluetooth controllers from the main consoles (including Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PlayStation 4) with our modern PCs. Platforms like Steam can also turn our PCs into a smooth, console-like experience.
But if you have a vintage Gravis GamePad (or an old IBM PC joystick with a classic 15-pin connector), you can still use it on a modern PC with a USB adapter. This can be a fun way to restore old PC games if you pair it with DOSBox and a copy of Commander Keen.
Have a nice play!