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Click here to view a video preview of this review!Mame Spinner Roundup


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.

The Companies

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.

Oscar 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 spinner.

SlikStik, 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

The Players

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?
Oscar Pro
Now replaced by the Vortex, the Oscar Control Pro was designed to spin, and spin well.
Oscar Push/Pull
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?

Oscar Vortex
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?

SlikStik Tornado
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...

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