Saturday, April 22, 2017

Ball Breaker

A typical arcade trackball.
(image from Arcade
I really need to get off this weird controllers kick. First it was the spinner, then it was Sony and Microsoft's respective motion controllers, then it was the arcade joystick, and now it's a trackball. For those of you not familiar, the trackball is a pointing device that was popular in the early 1980s. You roll a billiard-sized ball with flicks of your wrist, moving a crosshair (or subatomic steamroller, or cuddly gem-hoarding wildlife, or what have you) across the screen. 

The beauty of the trackball is that it's not only exciting to use, it's uncannily accurate too. Give it a hard spin and your sprite zips to the opposite end of the screen. Gently nudge it with your thumb and your character moves a couple of pixels. You don't see the trackball too much anymore, but it does resurface from time to time in arcade sports titles like Capcom Bowling and Golden Tee Golf. It just feels right to control your ball in those games with, well, another ball.

She makes it look easy.
Trust me, it's not.
(image from Pinterest)
What's frustrating about the trackball is that, like the spinner, it's not readily available to consumers. Sure, you see computer trackballs in stores, but they're too small for frantic twitch gaming, and they're not exactly easy on the wallet. You can get a proper arcade trackball from online retailers, but those are even more expensive, and don't work with computers by default... you'll have to shell out even more money for an adapter.

So the only remaining option for the penny-pinching gamer is to build a trackball from scratch. It can't be too hard, right? You just suspend a ball over a mouse laser, wire up a few buttons, and you're done. Ah, but you have to find a way to make the ball spin freely, and that's when things get tricky. One hacker found a cost-efficient way to do this, but using the applicator from a bottle of Ban deodorant is a little too low-rent for my tastes. After all, a man's got to have his dignity. You know, when he's prancing around as a cast-off Care Bear.

Hey, shut up. It was a good game!
(image from Amazon)
The ball bearing,
the source of all
that is spinny.
(image from Pinterest)
The only way to do this right is to bring ball bearings into the picture. Bearings give you the frictionless spin you need for smooth gameplay and an authentic arcade experience, but once again (SIGH...) they're not readily available, and they're not cheap. You need five of them to build a trackball, PLUS shafts and rollers for each axis, PLUS a specially designed case to hold the bearings in place, PLUS... a Tylenol for my sudden splitting headache. The bearings, shafts, and rollers alone will cost you forty dollars from an arcade parts dealer. You can save money by getting your bearings from other sources, but they're not really designed for this purpose, and hell if I know where else I can get the shafts and rollers.

I'm pretty sure I can make this trackball myself. It's just going to take time, patience, and research. And most likely, a few tufts of torn out hair.

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