Spinners and Dials

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A Spinner is a knob that can be spun rapidly in either direction to move an on-screen paddle or character. Spinners provide precise analog control like a mouse, but act only along one axis. Spinners were used for many popular early arcade games such as Pong, Tempest, Arkanoid, and Tron.

What is a Spinner?

You might remember the spinner from games like Tempest and Arkanoid. The player turns a knob to move the on-screen character. But what's going on behind the scenes; what's that knob attached to?

Underneath the control panel, the shaft comes down from the knob above. Mounted on the shaft, is an optical encoder wheel- a flat disk with notches cut around the outside edge. These notches pass though a set of infra-red optics, that detect the notches as they spin by. There are two sets of optics, spaced such that they see the notches spin by just a little bit out of sync. The combined signal from both of these optics tells the game which direction the disk is turning, and how fast. This is also how a trackball works, as well as a ball-type PC mouse.

If you are buying or building a working spinner for your cabinet, you will need the Spinner (the mechanical part,) the optics(the part that watches the spinning,) and the optical encoder (the part that sends info to the computer.) If a manufacturer advertises "USB Connectivity" that generally means that it is an all in one solution, and no additional parts are required. Otherwise, you'll find that optics are generally included, but an encoder is not. In the rare occurence that your spinner does not have optics included, they can be built with parts from your local electronic store, or you can build them based off of a mouse hack. If the unit does not ship with an optical encoder, you can purchase one from an aftermarket seller. You can find out more about optical encoders here.

Note: Paddles, while similar to spinners in that they rotate and have knobs, are usually based on potentiometers (like a volume knob on an old TV or radio), rather than the optics in a spinner. Spinners, as the name suggests, spin. There is no end to how many times the knob can fully rotate in any direction. They often move things in a game in a circular fashion, as in Tempest or TRON. Paddles are the precursor to the spinner. The paddles found on early arcade games (like pong) rotated a full 360 degrees but used a 360 potentiometer (or pot) rather than an optical encoder. Since a pot requires physical contact, they tend to spin less freely than a true spinner. MAME adds to confusion by classifying 270 degree steering wheels as paddles. This is false as most, if not all arcade games that actually used paddles used 360 degree paddles and 270 degree wheels used a regular linear potentiometer (like a radio knob, which can only turn so far). There is such a thing as a 270 degree paddle though, just to make things even more confusing. As a matter of fact, many pong clones used the 270 degree paddles as they were cheaper. Most of your home versions of pong also used the 270 degree paddles. Most emulators will let you play paddle games with a spinner, but spinner games are generally not playable with paddles, mostly due to the fact that paddles just don't spin that well.

Spinner Varieties

  1. Tempest- Fast spinning lightweight spinner, which is very popular with arcade enthusiassts. It has 72 teeth on the encoder wheel, with nylon upper and lower bearings on the shaft. This was the model for the Oscar Vortex aftermarket spinner.
  2. Arkanoid- The "geared" spinner. Rather than mounting the encoder wheel directly to the shaft, the Arkanoid spinner used two sets of gears between the knob and the encoder wheel, to make the spinner extremely sensitive. While the encoder wheel only has 24 notches, the gearing causes 486 notches to pass through the optics for every turn of the knob! Due to the lightweight and friction from the gearing, the Arkanoid spinner stops the instant you take your hand off the knob.
  3. 360° Steering Wheels - Games like the original Pole Position and Sprint 2 used steering wheels that were essentially giant spinners. The Pole Position steering wheel, for instance, was geared similarly to an Arkanoid spinner. However, the gear ratio was only 5:1 to a 24 notch encoder wheel (96 notches per wheel revolution). This and the mechanical advantage of the large steering wheel rather than a small knob, let the wheel spin freely. Sprint 2 (and Sprint 1, and probably Sprints 4 and 8)used an ungeared 38 notch encoder cup, and spun freely.
  4. Discs of Tron Push/Pull- This spinner used a giant 128-notch encoder wheel with a push / pull switch feature built into the spindle shaft. When the player pulled up or down on the spinner, a leafswitch was activated. This was used to control the high / low aim of the disc in later levels of the game. Zwackery also used a Push/Pull spinner, and Forgotten Worlds used a push only (no pull) spinner. Oscar Controls marketed a Push/Pull spinner with a slightly different design, and a smaller 72 notch encoder wheel, but it is no longer available for purchase. The Oscar V2 had a Push option, and a Pull kit was rumored to be in the works before Oscar Controls closed down.

Spinner Brands

GGG's TurboTwist 2 spinner
Ultimarc's SpinTrak spinner


The successor to their original TurboTwist, the TurboTwist 2 is relatively new to the spinner scene. The most instantly noticeable feature of this spinner is its very small footprint; it is designed to fit a standard 1 1/8" pushbutton hole and occupies little more space inside the control panel. The TurboTwist 2 has a dual ball-bearing design with all components sealed inside its housing. The TurboTwist 2 has an extra-high resolution encoder wheel, and comes with it's own USB or PS/2 Opti-Wiz interface. The interface can be configured to put the spinner on the X, Y, or Z mouse axis, and will control other optic devices on the remaining two axes, such as a trackball, or additional spinners/steering wheels/optical rotary joysticks. Several optional extras are also available for the TurboTwist 2, such as a novel mini steering-wheel and a heavy 'energy storage cylinder'.

GroovyGameGear also sells the "TurboTwist High-Low" push/pull spinner, appropriate for games such as Discs of Tron and Forgotten Worlds.


Ultimarc recently announced their own contribution to the spinner market. The SpinTrak uses a sealed-component design (the encoder wheel and other components are protected inside the spinners housing) and is compatible with SlikStik's custom spinner knobs.

Defunct Spinner Brands

SlikStik's Tornado spinner
Apache Controls' Blackhawk spinner

Oscar Controls

Oscar Controls was a popular manufacturer of spinners for the hobbyist market until recently. Several models were produced over the years, including the Model One, Pro, Vortex, Push/Pull, and V2. These spinners did not include an encoder and required connection to an Opti-Pac or to a mouse hack.


The Tornado was billed as the "longest spinning" spinner on the market. With an extra-small footprint, and dual-bearing design, the Tornado was very well made. Plans to sell the Tornado with a plain-jane optic card were also announced.

Apache Controls

Ever since the original Atari Discs Of Tron push-pull NOS spinners disappeared from the market and Oscar Controls stopped producing their push-pull spinners, they have been highly sought after by collectors and arcade restorers. For further details take a look at the RetroBlast review of this spinner.


The Cyclone had a dual-bearing design, with a lower resolution encoder wheel. The Cyclone shipped with an optic card, but no interface.

Build Your Own Spinner

For those of us who would prefer to build their own spinner or cannot afford a retail unit, with a few spare parts that most likely are already lying around, can easily build your own. Here are some links to help you along your way:

Nathan Strum's Cheep Spinner

DHansen's Arcade Stupidity Spinner

BYO "Nasty-Spinner" Thread

List of compatible hard drives:

WD Caviar 1200 210 MB Drive

WD Caviar 11200 1.2 GB Drive

  • Please feel free to add to the list of compatible drives if you have successfully built your own spinner with a drive that is not listed.

BYO "Arkanoid (I) spinner from VCR parts" Thread


Which games originally used a spinner

The list below is non-definitive, but can be used as a guide to find the most common games that can use a spinner.

Conventional spinner games

  • Arkanoid arkanoid
  • Arkanoid - Revenge of Doh arknoid2
  • Blasteroids (version 4) blstroid
  • Wolf Pack (prototype) wolfpack
  • Tempest (rev 3) tempest
  • Tron (set 1) tron
  • Mad Planets mplanets
  • 720 Degrees (set 1) 720
  • Aztarac aztarac
  • Forgotten Worlds (US) forgottn
  • Kozmik Kroozr kroozr
  • Crater Raider crater
  • Wheel Of Fortune wfortune
  • Victory victory
  • Omega Race omegrace
  • Cameltry (US) cameltry
  • Cosmic Chasm (set 1) cchasm
  • Dark Planet darkplnt
  • Vs. Hot Smash hotsmash
  • Boxing Bugs boxingb
  • Star Trek startrek

Push/pull spinner games

  • Discs of Tron (Upright) dotron
  • Zwackery zwackery
  • Forgotten Worlds forgottn *(only push)

Horizontal roller

  • Major Havoc (rev 3) mhavoc
  • Moonwar moonwar
  • Kick (upright) kick

Vertical roller

  • Drag Race dragrace

360° Steering Wheel

  • Super Sprint ssprint
  • APB - All Points Bulletin (set 1) apb
  • Pole Position polepos
  • Pole Position II polepos2
  • Road Blasters (set 1) roadblst
  • American Speedway (set 1) amspdwy
  • Bad Lands badlands
  • Demolition Derby demoderb
  • Danny Sullivan's Indy Heat indyheat
  • Speed Freak speedfrk
  • Ironman Stewart's Super Off-Road offroad
  • Ironman Stewart's Super Off-Road Track Pack offroadt
  • Turbo turbo
  • Konami GT konamigt
  • Buggy Challenge buggychl
  • Championship Sprint csprint
  • Fire Truck firetrk
  • Fire Truck firetrk
  • Grand Champion grchamp
  • Hot Rod (turbo 3 player) hotrod
  • Monte Carlo montecar
  • Stocker stocker
  • Super Speed Race sspeedr
  • Final Lap 2 finalap2
  • Subs subs
  • Mille Miglia 2: Great 1000 Miles Rally (95/05/24) gtmr2
  • Over Drive overdriv
  • Redline Racer (2 players) redlin2p
  • Sprint 1 sprint1

Horizontal paddle games

  • Boot Hill boothill
  • Clowns (rev. 2) clowns
  • Super Breakout sbrkout
  • Avalanche avalnche
  • Beam Invader beaminv
  • Gee Bee geebee
  • Warlords warlords
  • Field Goal fgoal
  • Blue Shark blueshrk
  • Circus circus
  • Sea Wolf seawolf
  • Sea Wolf II seawolf2

Vertical paddle games

  • Destroyer destroyr
  • Lunar Lander (rev 2) llander

Two Spinners on a control panel; is it worth it?

The answer is an unequivocal maybe. There are several factors to keep in mind when trying to determine whether you should buy and install 2 spinners on your control panel.

  1. Budget- Spinners are somewhat expensive. Buying 2 aftermarket spinners with optics will set you back about $80-$160.
  2. Software- Can your software support 2 mice at the same time. Make sure you have a version of mame that can support 2 spinners if they're both individual USB units. If you have them both plugged into an Optipac this won't be a problem.
  3. Space- Depending on the model, spinners can take up a lot of room under the surface of a control panel. The Oscar Controls Push/Pull spinner was approximately 5.5x6" for instance. Also, the more spinners you have, the less room you may have for other features and joysticks.
  4. Games- Most importantly, do you like any games that use more than 1 spinner? Below is a (non-definitive) list of multi-spinner games
    1. Paddle Games
      1. Arkanoid Returns
      2. Off the Wall (Atari)
      3. Off the Wall (Bally Sente)
      4. Warlords (uses 4!)
      5. Pop'n Bounce
      6. Plump Pop
      7. VS Blok Breaker
    2. Flying
      1. Blasteroids
      2. Two Tigers
    3. Driving
      1. Super Off Road
      2. Super Sprint (uses 3!)
      3. Championship Super Sprint
      4. Bad Lands
      5. Ironman Ivan Stewart's Super Off-Road (uses 3!)
      6. Ironman Stewart's Super Off-Road Track Pack (uses 3!)
      7. Danny Sullivan's Indy Heat
    4. Other
      1. Atari 2 player games
      2. Puzzloop / Puzzloop 2
      3. Puzzle Bobble 2/3/4 (a.k.a. Bust a move)
      4. Forgotten Worlds

If I can have only a spinner or a trackball... which should I choose

insert pro/con arguments here relevant links in msg board. delete links once the info has been added.

See Also