This Weird Driving Controller Had Force Feedback Before Steering Wheels

Illustration for article titled This Weird Driving Controller Had Force Feedback Before Steering Wheels
Photo: Adam Ismail

One of the fortunate things about racing, compared to other sports, is that it’s relatively easy to simulate in a virtual setting. The experience of playing NBA 2K, for example, doesn’t correspond to any of the physical skills required to actually play basketball in real life. Those of us who love to drive are fortunate, then, that our preferred activity translates naturally to the digital realm.

The rise of sim racing and pro-grade steering wheel and pedal sets has certainly helped blur the line, but even that’s a relatively recent development. Before then, the arcade was the only place you could get that fix. If you were playing games at home, steering wheels were more like toys, and the technology simply didn’t exist to produce anything better at the time.

Nevertheless, that didn’t stop some ambitious peripheral makers from trying new things. One particularly active company in this space was Namco, a mainstay of arcades that flourished into a hugely successful developer of games for home consoles, particularly when the PlayStation boomed. Namco was responsible for Ridge Racer — one of the biggest racing game franchises in the world around the middle of the decade. Therefore, the company was in a unique position to deliver something a bit more natural for racing than an ordinary controller, even if it couldn’t make a full-on steering wheel for the home like its Ridge Racer arcade cabinets had.

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Namco’s first shot at this was something called the Negcon (pronounced “neh-gee-con”), a rather simple-looking pad with four face buttons, two shoulder buttons and a D-pad. However, you weren’t supposed to use the D-pad for steering — rather, the Negcon was split into two halves that could swivel against each other, and you’d twist them in opposing directions to corner. The Negcon was supported by nearly 40 games following its release in 1995, most of which were racing titles, and was a modest critical success even if it never caught on commercially.

Three years later, Namco replaced the Negcon with a newer controller that was also designed for racing games, but operated in a completely different fashion. This one was called the Jogcon, and instead of twisting, it had a dial mounted in the center that you’d steer with your thumbs while you controlled throttle and brake via the shoulder buttons. Even more impressive, this tiny 2-inch-wide wheel had force feedback, which was barely a feature of racing wheels at the time.

Namco launched the Jogcon alongside R4 Ridge Racer Type 4 in 1998, and heavily marketed the controller as the optimal way to experience the game. The pairing made sense; R4 represented the technical and creative peak of Namco’s golden years and the Jogcon was exactly the kind of overengineering you’d expect from an enormously prosperous Japanese game producer circa the late ’90s. It seemed the Jogcon and R4 were made for each other.

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Note the divot at the top of the Jogcon’s dial. You’d think it was there for your thumb to rest in, but it only serves as a marker to show when the wheel is pointed straight. The proper way to steer is with both thumbs.
Note the divot at the top of the Jogcon’s dial. You’d think it was there for your thumb to rest in, but it only serves as a marker to show when the wheel is pointed straight. The proper way to steer is with both thumbs.
Photo: Adam Ismail

While I’ve never used a Negcon, I do happen to own a Jogcon. It was a gift given to me last year by Andrew Elmore, a musician and graphic artist who also released an album of R4-inspired original music called “Real Racing Roots 2019.” (If you like Ridge Racer, definitely check it out!) Considering R4 is my favorite game probably ever, I was excited to finally experience it the proper way.

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Unfortunately, the Jogcon doesn’t do R4 any favors. This game handles like a dream with a D-pad or DualShock analog stick, but the Jogcon’s cavernous dead zone and notchy imprecision, in addition to the general awkwardness of using your thumbs to work together like tiny hands on a tiny steering wheel, makes it less natural than it might seem.

I’m sure if I kept at it for a long while and only played R4 this way from here on out, I might get accustomed to the Jogcon, but I just don’t see a need. It’s a shame because you’d imagine the dial’s force feedback would shine in a drift-happy game like R4 where you’re always countersteering. Yet, no matter how much I tweak the sensitivity and feedback strength in the game’s options, something’s always amiss.

Evidently, I’m not the only one who feels this way, because the Jogcon never enjoyed the widespread support of its predecessor, and thus, was only usable in four games: R4, V-Rally 2, Ridge Racer V on the PlayStation 2, and a port of Breakout, of all things. The controller does have a Negcon compatibility mode, where the dial translates what would have been twisting motion on the Negcon, though this configuration doesn’t benefit from force feedback. This means the dial doesn’t self-center, and handling becomes very sloppy.

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The Jogcon concluded Namco’s driving controller experimentation with not a bang but a whimper. Then again, perhaps it was inevitable. The very same year the Jogcon released, the first racing wheels with force feedback, like Microsoft’s Sidewinder Force Feedback Wheel, began hitting the market. These peripherals took the earliest PC racing simulators like Grand Prix Legends to a whole new level. Once those caught on, and once analog sticks became a ubiquitous feature on every controller, there was little need for curious in-betweens like the Negcon or Jogcon. If nothing else, at least they look pretty nifty today.

Staff Writer at Jalopnik. 2017 Fiesta ST. Wishes NASCAR was more like Daytona USA.

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DISCUSSION

I have a rather curious import on the Sega Saturn, Wangan Trial Love [ 湾岸トライアルラブ ], that actually requires the Saturn wheel to work properly and if you don’t have the wheel it can be a real pain to actually play the game. The game is one of those quirky visual novels released during that time that just happens to be about street racing and would have never came state-side as-is.

If you use the Saturn’s standard controller to play the control scheme is setup to where you have to use the directional pad to shift into whatever gear you’re trying to select, along with having to press C to clutch. So imagine if you were holding a Saturn controller. You’re trying to steer with non-analog L and R on top of the controller (something I’ve never liked with any racing title), accelerate and brake with A and B, but to shift gears you have to hold in C while using your left thumb to move the gear selector between gears including neutral (so a second to third gear shift requires three buttons presses, while holding C). The Saturn wheel circumvents all of this as detailed in the game’s manual by allowing it’s L and R ‘paddles’ to select the gears, as you have to ‘steer’ with the wheel anyways. So far I’ve not found a real viable way to circumvent any of the control scheme with the Saturn controller, as it’s programmed schemes do not match the wheel and there’s no way to ‘free select’ button schemes. And it kills me because there’s an entire stack of other buttons between X, Y, and Z that could have been doing SOMETHING.

I never bought the Saturn wheel peripheral as I always thought that a steering wheel without pedals was kind of silly (no offense to the Negcon, as I don’t considering it a true ‘steering wheel’). On the other hand in the 1990s I used to play a tremendous amount of racing games on the PC, such as Papyrus’ NASCAR and Indycar games, and the numerous F1 titles that released during the time, and I did buy a wheel and pedal for my PC. You are very much correct however; most every driving peripheral on the market today with force feedback is light years ahead of anything that was available 20+ years ago. If I would of had a LogiTech G29 when something like Grand Prix Legends or GP3 came out I probably would have enjoyed them more than I did.