There have been a number of unique controllers and peripherals used in video games over the years.  From the Sega Activator to the U-Force to the Power Glove, if you can think up a way to have signals transmitted to a console, it has probably been experimented with.  There were games specifically designed to only work with these controllers also.  Our favorite robot R.O.B. only worked with two games before retiring to collect royalties off Pat the NES Punk DVD sales.  Trackball controllers first showed up in arcades in the late 1970’s, being featured in popular games like Atari Football, Centipede and Missile Command.  Looking to make an impact in Nintendo-dominated North America, Sega released the Sega Sports Pad for the Sega Master System in 1987.  Was bringing a trackball home to sports gamers a recipe for success?

The Sega Sports Pad is a large controller with two arcade-sized buttons to replicate the standard 1 and 2 buttons on the Sega Master System controller.  The placement of the trackball defies home gaming convention in its layout.  We are, of course, used to the directional pad being on the left but everything is reversed here, making it especially cumbersome (at first) for left-handed gamers trying to use the trackball.  The trackball itself is solid, with all the familiar finger-pinching of the arcade experience.  The Sports Pad released in North America is different from its Japanese counterpart in that there are two switches in the upper left of the controller.  The first, noted by either a single dot or four dots, indicates a sort of turbo or rapid-fire option (the four dots) for the buttons.  The second switch defaults to the right under “sports” but gives you the option to change to “control”, which designates the controller for use in non-Sports Pad games.  These options were completely absent in other regions.  The complete library of Sega Sports Pad-required games is limited to two titles, with one additional sports game programmed to use the trackball.

Great Ice Hockey

Great Ice Hockey is a bare bones experience, pitting you as Team USA in the single player mode against the standard Olympic hockey countries of the late ‘80s.  In order to keep up with the speed of the CPU, you need to use short strokes on the trackball, almost mimicking the skating stride of your players.  This is not an easy task and can very demotivating your first few times out.  Passing is actually somewhat crisp but the controls around shooting the puck on goal take away any good the other gameplay has built up.  I can be breaking away on the net and swipe the trackball as I hit the shoot button and it’s like a 95 year-old man is pushing the puck on goal.  I know it’s possible but I still haven’t scored a goal in this game.  The goal-tending requires you to move the trackball to control the goalie, while you’re also trying to somehow get the puck back from the computer.  This is the opposite of fun and turns the entire game into a frustrating exercise of trying to not get blown out by the computer.  Interesting tidbit, the Japanese version of Great Ice Hockey was only released through a magazine contest that coupled the title in with a Sega Sports Pad giveaway (before the Sega Sports Pad’s official release in Japan).  No box was ever made for it.  The Japanese version was only released through a magazine contest that coupled the title in with a Sega Sports Pad giveaway (before the Sega Sports Pad’s official release in Japan).  No box was ever made for it and the game is considered quite rare.  The US version, when complete, goes for around $15.

Sports Pad Football

Football works better with the Sports Pad because your hand has time to rest between plays, a big upgrade over the constant movement and general soreness that can be attributed to Great Ice Hockey.  Sports Pad Football is a horizontal playing field, similar to Tecmo Bowl and the later Joe Montana Football on the Sega Master System.  The single player mode is pretty unique.  You only play on offense and start the game down 42-0 to the CPU.  That’s certainly different, but without a second Sports Pad you’re locked out of the bulk of the game and despite a number of fictional teams, there is little drama with always having to come back from 42-0.  Gameplay-wise, passing is to one of three receivers, rolling up, right or down while pressing the pass button.  This is executed leaps better than Walter Payton Football, another football game on the Sega Master System.  Running plays work ok, they just require a lot of trackball spinning which gets old pretty quick.  You have eight plays to choose from, with a varied enough amount of formations and plays to make it interesting.  In one of the earliest examples of masking your play-calling for when you play against a friend,  a square box cycles over each play during your selection, even after you have selected your play and until all plays have been cycled through.  Sports Pad Football is an elementary experience and again banks on you having a second Sports Pad to play with a friend, rather than delivering a captivating solo game.  It is also one of the rarest and move valuable sports games on the Sega Master System as complete copies can go for up to $25 or more.

Great Soccer

Known as Sports Pad Soccer in Japan and a pack-in there with the Sports Pad controller, Great Soccer’s use of the Sports Pad is optional.  Having the ability to use the regular controller is a welcome relief after mediocre experiences in other sports.  Complete copies of Great Soccer will usually run you $8-$10.

As noted earlier, the North American Sports Pad is usable with other games by changing the right switch to “control”.  This enables the system to read the trackball as if it were the regular directional pad.  I first gave it a try on Slap Shot, the Sega Master System’s 1990 answer to Blades of Steel on the NES.  The trackball is a little sensitive in menu screens but the Sports Pad absolutely works and in a game with constant movement like ice hockey was very effective.  I also gave Double Dragon a try and had similar results, although swiping left or right often lead to me walking around constantly trying to headbutt people (again because of the sensitivity).

Sports games are inherently meant to be played with others and therein lies one of the biggest problems with the Sega Sports Pad.  In order to best experience what Sega was trying to deliver, you needed two Sports Pads.  So back in the day you either had to buy two Pads yourself (sold separately and no pack-in title either) or have a friend that a) had a Sega Master System and b) enjoyed sports games enough to buy a Sega Sports Pad.  I’m sure these long-shot scenarios happened somewhere and while a trackball can work in some sporting arenas (like bowling or Golden Tee), neither experience with a Sega Sports Pad-exclusive game left me wanting to seek out a second Pad and play more.  Like other failed peripherals from its gaming generation, the Sega Sports Pad sounded great on paper, but failed in its execution to deliver a fun and replayable experience.