Forget PS5 Controllers – Try Retro Gaming on Your iPhone with This 1977 Atari Joystick

iPhone X and Atari 2600 CX10 joystick Credit: Will It Work? / YouTube
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Support for gaming controllers on the iPhone and iPad isn’t necessarily new — accessory makers have been creating proprietary game controllers for the iPhone since the advent of the App Store, and there have been a few Apple-licensed game controllers available for a few years now — but it definitely swooped into the mainstream last year when Apple added support for PS4 and Xbox One controllers in iOS 13 and tvOS 13.

It’s also been advancing in iOS 14, with a new iOS 14.3 beta released this week that even adds support for PS5 controllers, despite the new console having just launched.

So using a game controller with your iPhone is not a new thing by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re tired of all of these newfangled and complicated game controllers that are out there, it seems that you actually might be able to make a return to a simpler time.

In one of its classic technology throwback videos, YouTube channel Will It Work?, which has previously shown such crazy combinations as an Iomega Zip Drive and vintage 1986 Apple Hard Drive connected to a modern iPhone, now demonstrates how you can actually connect a 1977 Atari 2600 Joystick to an iPhone and play classic retro games such as Ms. PacMan, Asteroids, and Pitfall.

The YouTuber, Niles Mitchell, actually went to the trouble of tracking down the original version of the Atari 2600 joystick in question, notably the CX10, which was only produced and sold with the game console in 1977, the first year that it was commercially available. Later packages included the cheaper CX40 model, which felt considerably stiffer.

Not surprisingly, an Atari joystick that was made 43 years ago (which, for a bit of perspective, is the same year the very first Star Wars movie hit theatres) isn’t going to have any obvious way of connecting to the Lightning port on a modern iPhone, so it was necessary to jump through some hoops to pull this off.

The first tool in the Will It Work? arsenal was a GBros adapter, a device that’s already available for connecting GameCube and Wii Classic controllers to a wide variety of devices from a Nintendo Switch to an iPhone.

Mitchell also indicates that it’s a little tricky to connect the GBros to the iPhone, requiring a trip into the iOS Accessibility settings and add it under the Bluetooth Switch Control as an accessibility device. He actually first demonstrated this process in another video last month that showed connecting a wide variety of other unsupported game controllers to an iPhone, including a GameCube controller and the DK Bongos, all via the Bluetooth Accessibility options, which effectively make it possible to pair any unsupported game controller with an iPhone or iPad.

However, the Atari joystick posted an additional challenge, since it’s not inherently supported by the GBros adapter, so Mitchell had to add another piece to the puzzle in the form of an “inter-console” adapter, which is made by a company that creates “raphnet” adapter designed to convert retro console controllers to USB. In the case of the Atari joystick, however, Mitchell picked up a special cable that converts the Atari DB9 connector (which was also used for early Sega systems) to the Wii classic controller connector.

After hooking it all up through the GBros adapter, Mitchell was able to demonstrate that he could successfully play an iOS-native version of Ms. PacMan on the iPhone. After that, he visited a website that allows classic Atari 2600 games to be played in a browser — essentially a free game streaming service — and since they can be played in Mobile Safari with the touch controls, they can also be played with the Atari Joystick.

Mitchell first demonstrates this with a game of Activision’s classic Pitfall, followed by Atari’s Adventure, Asteroids, Hero, Superman, and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, describing the games as playable on an Atari 2600 controller “the way it was intended.”

As Mitchell adds in closing, the Atari CX10 Joystick marks a new record for the oldest thing he’s yet connected to an iPhone, which was previously a vintage 1986 Mac hard drive. With the iPhone X used in the video, it’s effectively connecting two pieces of technology almost exactly 40 years apart, although of course there’s no reason it wouldn’t work on the latest iPhone 12 devices either.

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