Review: SpeedLink Competition Pro USB (Inc 99 Best Of C64 Classix)

Review-SpeedLink-Competition-Pro-USB-BoxIf there was ever an instantly recognisable and iconic joystick which countless home computer gamers fondly adored, it was the Competition Pro Joystick. Fast forward a few decades and this legendary peripheral is back, bundled with a selection of Commodore 64 games on disc. RetroCollect dives into the deep end with an expansive review.

What is a Joystick?

Joysticks as a way of controlling sprite based characters were first introduced to the masses in 1977 when the Atari 2600 console was released. The now iconic stick that accompanied it was made up of a rigid black plastic base, a spring switched 4 way stick, a single button and a 9 pin (DE-9) connector. It may not have lasted too long and guaranteed you a blister every time you picked it up, but regardless of its flaws the 2600 joystick created a benchmark others strived to reach, with the DE-9 connector becoming the de facto standard for joysticks throughout the 80s and into the early 90s.

Home computers such as the Atari 400 and 800 series; the Commodore Vic 20 and C64; the MSX; even the Amstrad CPC range, all accepted Atari style joysticks through their included DE-9 ports; however in 1983 the ZX Spectrum was released with the strange omission of the joystick input. Partly due to Clive Sinclair wanting to position the computer firmly as a business machine over anything else, and partly due to a complete lack of foresight it would seem, gamers on the new rubber keyed 48K system had no choice other than to use keyboard controls for their games. It was a small micro electronics company from Bedfordshire, England that would not only give Spectrum owners the joystick port that they were missing, but they would also produce one particular range of sticks that would define an era.

Where competitor’s interfaces mapped the input of the joystick itself to key presses, the Kempston Joystick Interface used port 31 (IN31 in Basic on the ZX Bus) to give independent control of the joystick’s functions. The peripheral consisted of a simple a plastic box that plugged into the Edge connector on the back of the ZX Spectrum and allowed the user to plug an Atari compatible joystick into the included DE-9 port. Due to the quantity of Atari style joysticks available in early 1984, the Kempston Joystick Interface gained popularity very quickly. Games programmers began to code in support specifically for Kempston users and the interface was the machines biggest supported peripheral right up until the computers last commercial breath in the early 90s.

Introducing the Competition Pro

A few months after the release of the joystick interface, Kempston began to offer joysticks that could take advantage of their newly released peripheral. Manufactured by Dynamics Marketing (whose parent company went on to manufacture the Zipstick and Cruiser ranges amongst others) the Competition Pro would become the stick of choice for the serious games player and would be one of the few peripherals that spanned both the 8 and 16 bit computer markets.

In what would seem like a homage to the Atari 2600 joystick that came before it, the original Competition Pro was made up of a strong square black base, two red buttons on the front (catering for left hander’s too) and a large self centreing, spring loaded, steel shafted pommel that resembled the stick found on an arcade machine, complete with a ball mounted on the top which would improve grip. The internals consisted of a metal on metal leaf switch design allowing it to be easily repaired by its owner, however later refinements would include the use of micro switches instead of the leaf switch mechanism, auto fire and slow motion via a toggle on the back of the base and even a multitude of colour options which included ten variations directly mimicking the colours of football teams, launched to commemorate the 1990 World Cup.

As the years passed, the Competition Pro became the standard for others to follow and many imitations on the design would grace the market. Even in today’s world of increased technology and ergonomics, the joysticks iconic design has its place and following, being resurrected in the Commodore 64 Direct To TV Plug & Play unit of 2005-2007 (a feature on which starts this very issue), and more recently in the USB and DE-9 remakes of the original 5000 Clear joystick, now distributed by German computer and video game peripheral company SpeedLink.

Modernising old technology

Review-SpeedLink-Competition-Pro-USB-Inc-99-Best-Of-C64-ContentsThe package received consisted of an imitation Competition Pro joystick, a CDROM which entitled itself 99 Best of C64 Classix and a single sheet quad fold installation guide explaining just three steps in the usual plethora of languages.

Except for the two extra triangular buttons on the base, and the addition of the USB connector, from the outside, this is for all intents and purposes an original Competition Pro 5000 Clear stick. The base is made from a semi transparent rigid plastic, the six included micro switches emitting a satisfying click when pressed and the pommel, although seemingly stiff, can be remarkably accurate. Inside the base we see 6 micro switches and the rapid fire board at the bottom right, with the C clip at the pommels base.

Although this is a USB version, SpeedLink have also released this joystick with a retro DE-9 connector which can be used in any compatible port including the old 8-bit computers amongst others. As a 100% plug and play device, there are no drivers necessary for the main Windows operating systems (XP, Vista & Windows 7), the joystick being recognised as a SPEED-LINK Competition Pro in Device Manager. Within the Vice emulator, the two triangular top buttons are not used, and the two main fire buttons are counted as one input so both left and right handed players are catered for. Outside of Vice, however, all four buttons work independently so the stick can be used on other emulators and even with original PC games too. While the hardware really is a work of art, the bundled CD leaves a lot to be desired.

Limited legal emulation

Compiled by Magnussoft, the disc contains version 2.1 of the Vice emulator and a selection of what it describes as the Best of C64 Classix. Magnussoft are old hands at the compilation game, a company formed in 1997 publishing and distributing its own games and licensed titles under many different labels, it has to date churned out four C64 compilation CD’s, several Amiga discs and a combined Retro CD as well as plenty of new titles for the PC and MAC. The Commodore 64 discs in particular each hold 500 games, although the CD included here claims to have selected the 99 best of. A bold statement indeed.

Inserting the CD presents us with an auto-start installation, written entirely in German, although those of us who are seasoned in PC installations screens will recognise the layout and will be able to click through the setup with ease, culminating in the displaying of a bespoke menu system used to launch the included games. Looking like a cheap Gamebase inspired front-end, we are presented with the games in alphabetical order, separated into four sections by numerical tabs. Each game has a screenshot, the year of release, publisher and link to the game manual if it has been included in the pack, although only a few of them have. There are four music tracks that accompany the menu, each of them selectable from a small control panel at the bottom, it’s just a shame they were not original SID tunes from some of the chosen games, however, the music can be switched off if you prefer.

Review-SpeedLink-Competition-Pro-USB-Inc-99-Best-Of-C64-EmulatorThe first game in the list, 500cc Motomanager, epitomises the lacklustre approach this accompanying CD seems to have had in its creation, spoiling the retro experience somewhat so it’s a good job that the Competition Pro is not tied to just the games on the disc in this respect. Why this particular game has been chosen for this compilation is a question you will be asking yourself more than once as you plough through the mundane in an attempt to find the odd diamond in the rough. Upon pressing the large play button, the Vice emulator starts and presents us with a loading screen, followed momentarily by the first problem. A message asks us to “turn the disk on side 2 and press space” which is fine if you have used Vice before as accomplishing this will be second nature, however, being a newcomer to the emulator will pose a problem. There is nothing in the quick install guide to tell us what to do in this situation and it is only after looking through the Vice help files online that it all becomes clear. The second side being referred to has been saved as disk 2, so after locating it in the Games directory, attaching it to the drive in Vice and pressing space as instructed, the game moves on.

A short while later and the games main screen appears, as does another indication of the CD’s poor construction. Before launching the game, the frontend menu told us that the game was released in 1992 by Ivan Venturi, however the information within the game itself contradicts this by declaring that it was written in 1991 and coded by Stefano Balzani, with Ivan simply supplying the graphics. Something minor you may think, but this happens more times than not with the games included in this set and is something that, with a little attention to detail could have been corrected. The game is stuck on the main screen with all button presses from the Competition Pro proving futile. Vice as an emulator is an amazing piece of programming and has even managed to include two small sets of boxes that light up to indicate the corresponding input from either one of two connected joysticks, however our stick does nothing to light any of them up. Problem number three.Again, nothing in the quick install guide, so it takes a few minutes to check out the Vice help files once more and we soon realise that the joystick has to be selected in Vice before it will work in game. Vice gives you two joystick ports with which to connect joysticks to, however, once again a lack of information means that, for this game at least, it is matter of trial and error before you realise that port two is the preferred port. Unfortunately, there are some games on the disc that will only accept the joystick being attached to port one, although this was only discovered after the aforementioned trial and error. It would have been nice to have seen a note on the frontend to denote what joystick port was necessary for each game.

Once set up, the game plays just as it would on a real C64, however, the final problem and the biggest of them all can only be regarded as a major oversight by Magnussoft. When the game needs to access a specific side of the disk on a multi-sided disk game, the emulator expects to see a file with the universal .d64 extension. For reasons only known to the Magnussoft management, the first side of this, and all other multi-disk games on the compilation, have been saved as .VSF files. These are (V)ice (S)napshot (F)iles which are a complete snapshot of the emulator, including progress and memory allocations, at any given time. When loading a .VSF file you are recreating the exact situation the emulator was in when the file was created. This can be seen more clearly with the included Championship Sprint game, which when loaded takes you directly to the track editor screen, something that can only be achieved if the user was in that particular part of the game at the time the .VSF was created.

Unfortunately, 500cc Motomanager is not the only multi-sided game that suffers from this particular issue. There are a total of seven games that this affects, including the epic Turrican and Turrican II, rendering them impossible to complete. If this was not bad enough, the remaining games consist of the following:- seven games who’s language is entirely in German; eleven text adventures (yes, text adventures included on a CD that is bundled in with a joystick, we were puzzled too); three games that would not calibrate with the Competition Pro at all, one that would not allow us past the language select screen and one that forcefully shut Vice down upon loading the game file. There are three graphically controlled adventure games that are individually listed and then listed again as a trilogy, a game listed as separate titles in both English and Spanish and then there are the five included Jeff Minter titles which you either love or loathe.

This leaves a total of 59 unique and playable games (or 64 with the Minter additions). Quality titles within the remaining 60% or so include Beyond the Ice Palace, Bomb Jack and Ghosts ‘n Goblins from Elite Systems, and Nebulus, Uridium and Zynaps from Hewson, so there are a few AAA titles amongst the dross. Even when I did manage to find a game worth playing when exiting Vice I was presented with a screen telling me that it could not save its settings. This meant having to assign the joystick to the correct port with associated settings every time I launched a game on the emulator. The good games in this collection fail to make up for the games that simply do not deserve to be on a Best Of compilation, and all in all, it’s an experience I would prefer to forget.

It’s obvious that SpeedLink included the CD as an afterthought. The lack of included information on the Vice emulator and the games themselves does nothing to dispel this perception, neither does the installation programs on screen-instructions being presented entirely in German. With this in mind, you have to ask yourself firstly why SpeedLink allowed this to be distributed in this state, and secondly if the quality of the other cd’s in their range are of similar build, how did Magnussoft get the gig in the first place?

SpeedLink Competition Pro USB Review Summary

I, like many others, I’m sure, purchased the SpeedLink Competition Pro USB Joystick and 99 Best Of C64 Classix package so that we could get our once blistered hands on a modern joystick with a retro feel. The joystick itself is solid, responsive and although noisy thanks to the 6 included microswitches, is a pleasure to use regardless of the application you are using it in. The bundled compilation disc however lets the package down considerably.

This joystick would be better off sold sans CD for a cheaper price, as for me anyway, the disc gave little added value, if any. I would recommend downloading the latest version of Vice and then heading along to any of the available websites to download your own games and making your own Best Of compilation, as if the games on this one are classed as the best the C64 could offer, maybe I was justified in buying a Amstrad CPC464 back in the day after all?


Last Updated ( 13 October 2011 )  

Comments 

(Link to this comment) Lord_Santa 2011-10-13 10:57
a great review; which adds valuable information for those whom had any thoughts of purchasing the product in order to get "a quick fix" of the good old days

unfortunate to hear about the lousy compilation disc, but gladdening to hear that the joystick itself is quite capable

I have however heard that USB-joysticks have a very slow reaction-time, compared to keyboard
is this anything you can confirm?

I myself use Keyrah 8-bit to hook two TAC-2's up via a C-64 (without mother-board and instead have the Keyrah installed) and the joysticks are then "emulated" as key-presses within any emulator I run it

thus I get "the quickest response-time" available (from what I've been told)

the idea of four separate buttons does sound intriguing (I'm thinking Xpadder could help me resolve the issue with emulators not recognizing all four) since there are a lot of CD32 games, etc. which allow/require 4 buttons
(Link to this comment) Simon_G 2011-10-13 22:41
Thanks for the kind words regarding the review.

As for the USB lag, I found none at all when using the stick in VICE or any other emulator for that matter. Not tried the keyrah setup you mention, but I found the Comp Pro to be more than adequate for its purpose. I usually use a Microsoft 360 wired controller if I am being totally honest, purely due to the fact that it is comfortable enough to use for hours at a time. As a lefty, the Comp Pro USB tends to hurt my hands so I only use it in short bursts.
(Link to this comment) oldgamerz 2016-08-03 19:32
I never was much into Joysticks but I love Atari VCS. I was thinking of buying the compilation before I read the full review. I'm glad I read it now I know that it is broken, but at least everyone says the Joystick works :-)
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