Saturday, 3 September 2011

Twist and go?

Looks amazing...but is it any good?
I recently treated myself to a little bit of retro indulgence, and got my mitts on a quirky little number from the early days of the Playstation...Namco's elusive NeGcon controller (which is actually pronounced 'neh-gee-con'...apparently).

Released in 1995 during the initial hysteria of the PSX, this curious looking thing was in fact the first analogue controller available for the fledgling console, pre-dating Sony's own (terrible) DualShock controller by a couple of years. Designed almost exclusively for racing games (Ridge Racer et al), Namco's little hybrid of controller and steering wheel found real favour amongst hardcore fans of the genre, due to the vastly superior level of control on offer when compared to a standard d-pad.

The premise of the NeGcon is fairly simple but also genuinely clever, for anyone who's not familiar, it works like this:

The two halves of the controller are connected by a joint that swivels, allowing one half to be twisted relative to the other. In a racing game, this would be used to steer the car and the amount of turn is dependent on how much the controller is twisted. This design enables the NeGcon to be held like a regular controller or more importantly, like an actual steering wheel, depending on preference of course.

The overall layout is similar to the regular PSX controller, but with a few big differences. The X and square buttons have been replaced with I and II, and are actually analogue (this was so far ahead of it's time), and are used predominantly as accelerator and break. Triangle and square are replaced with a and b, but remain digital, and are used mainly as option and select buttons. L2 and R2 have been removed completely, leaving just one shoulder button each side, the L button has also been made analogue, giving a nice balanced feel.

It all sounds a bit counter-intuitive but frankly, it's brilliant.

For some reason I've always had a soft spot for weird controllers and accessories, (sounds strange I know) and having sadly missed out on the NeGcon back in the day, I’ve been determined to finally pick one up for quite a while. Recent time spent replaying Ridge Racer and Ray Tracers further rekindled my desire, but having never even seen one in the flesh (so to speak), I assumed it would be hyper rare and needlessly expensive. Surprisingly this was not the case and I managed to snag one (brand new at that) from Amazon for a mere £5.50 (postage included)...happy days indeed.

So what’s it like to use then?

Well my first impressions were pretty dire actually. As soon as it arrived I excitedly fired up Ridge Racer and set off...power sliding straight into the wall at the first turn. Hmm, looks like all those years of "thumb hard down" d-pad shenanigans have me conditioned to the point where I just couldn't get the knack of twisting through a power slide. It seems Ridge Racer was just never going to work without serious practice...

No time for that at the moment though, then I remembered that Wipeout was supposed to be particularly responsive to the lil on went 2097, and after a couple of minutes it all started to make sense. The control you start to have over your ship is immense and the ability to make the tiniest of corrections almost seamlessly really does take the game onto a new level, in fact it's possibly akin to learning the game afresh.

The NeGcon is one of those peripherals that you really do need to practice with, the more you use it though, the more of a rapport you build with it, and the more confident you become when using it. After just a few hours I tried to going back to a regular Sony DualShock controller and that was when I really realised just why Namco's little oddity is so highly thought of. The d-pad and even the analogue sticks on a DualShock don't come close to providing the feel and precision that the NeGcon does, and you soon start wondering how you ever raced without one.

Surprisingly for a peripheral that sold in such few numbers, the vast majority of racing games (and even some that aren't - Ace Combat for example) on the PSX and the PS2 support the NeGcon, which to me, shows just how good it is.

In my eyes the NeGcon is no match for Nintendo's N64 controller (the generation's true star), but it showed early on that analogue was indeed the way forward, and (in racing games at least) rewarded gamers with a totally new level of design and control. Although I'll probably never use it as much as it deserves, I'm chuffed to have finally added to it my collection. It's a quality little product that was light years ahead of it's time and it's a shame it was shunned so much when released. And the fact that it was produced by a third party makes it even more of a marvel...big congrats to Namco.

In other obscure controller news...I also managed to grab the NeGcon's equally reclusive little brother, the JogCon at the same time, and it was bundled in with the brilliant Ridge Racer Type 4...not too shabby.

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