Take control. (PC game controllers) (Buyers Guide)
by Denny Atkin
Did Luke Skywalker destroy the Death Star by hitting the Return key? Did Pappy Boyington become the Marines' top World War II ace by mastering the cursor keypad? Did Nigel Mansell become a top-ranked Indy car driver by learning to steer with a mouse? Of course not. So why are you still playing PC games using the keyboard and mouse? Grab a joystick, yoke, or game pad and take control!
You can turn your businesslike PC into one of the hottest game machines this side of an Air Force flight simulator, but to do so you'll need a controller that sizzles. Luckily, today's PC game controllers bear little resemblance to the fragile rubber-and-plastic digital joysticks of Atari VCS days. Whether you're looking for a simple game pad to play arcade games like Doom or a 3-D control device to explore virtual reality universes, you'll find a wealth of available choices.
Any Port in a Storm?
There are a few things to consider as you get ready to select a controller. If you're going to add a game controller to your system, you'll need a joystick port on your PC. Many systems now ship with a joystick port included as part of a multifunction card or sound card. However, those ports generally don't work well on fast systems, and some don't support the extra lines necessary for using a second joystick or a joystick with multiple buttons and a throttle. Your best bet is to buy a dedicated speed-adjustable game card; you'll find that top-quality offerings from Advanced Gravis, CH Products, and ThrustMaster generally sell for about $25 on the street.
Playing on Your Lap
Until recently, most laptop computer users were stuck with using the keyboard for game control if they didn't have a docking station with a joystick adapter plugged into an expansion slot. Now there are two solutions for gaming on the road. (Both of these will also work with desktop PCs, but a dedicated game card is a better choice there.)
Colorado Spectrum's Notebook Gameport connects to the serial port of your laptop and includes a pass-through for your mouse. It fully supports two sets of joystick lines, so you can use four-button sticks, throttles, and rudder pedals. Colorado Spectrum is depending on developers to add support for the Notebook Gameport to their games, so you'll want to check to make sure that your favorite simulations support it. I used it with F-15 Strike Eagle III on a Gateway HandBook486, and it worked splendidly.
Genovation's Parallel Game Port also supports two sets of joystick lines, but it connects to your parallel port. Instead of relying on developer support, Genovation has created its own drivers for dozens of games. This approach means drivers are available for some old, but still popular, games that had no hope of being updated by the publisher for laptop compatibility.
Demanding game players are no longer satisfied with a simple two-button joystick. In order to avoid having to reach for the keyboard in the midst of the action, they seek out one of the new top-of-the-line multifunction sticks. These use the extra data lines that are assigned to a second joystick to add more buttons, throttle control, and even rudder control.
QuickShot's Super Warrior is a good choice if you're looking for an inexpensive full-function joystick for flight simulations. It sports four fire buttons, a throttle control dial, a gimballed stick mount, suction cups for desk mounting, and a cushioned rubber "BioGrip" panel on the back of the control stick. Like most of the QuickShot controllers, the Super Warrior has a turbo fire switch that, when selected, will make the fire buttons send rapid pulses to the computer when you hold them down. This is great for saving wear and tear on your trigger finger in games that don't have their own automatic fire functions.
Suncom's FX2000 has the most far-out design of any of the controllers I looked at--this stick would look right at home on the control panel of a Martian War Machine. It's billed as "the ultimate flight control stick." Well, not on this planet. It has only two fire buttons and a very limited stick throw range. There's a throttle control dial on the front of the stick, but it's mounted so that you rotate it left to right instead of front to back, which doesn't feel natural. Also, the throttle feels like a leftover volume control from a transistor radio--it even clicks when you move it from the off position. The FX2000 does have switchable autofire and suction cup mounts. Unfortunately, the FX2000 sacrifices functionality for form.
A much better effort from Suncom is the superb FlightMAX Advanced Flight Control console. This hefty controller includes a very comfortable stick with two fire buttons. You can use a switch to select whether to use the throttle control on the left or right side of the stick, a feature that makes this the premier multifunction stick for lefties. Suncom's Saturn Ring stick mount gives the stick equal tension in all directions, making it as easy to move the stick northeast, for example, as to move it west. A unique feature is a slider on the front of the stick that acts as a rudder control, a fantastic addition that comes in very handy for flight simulator landings. Unfortunately, FlightMAX has only two fire buttons, which keeps it from being the premier choice for combat flight simulations.
Fire buttons aren't lacking on the Gravis Analog Pro, which sports five of them (two perform the same function, as PCs can only support four button signals). There are three buttons on the stick handle, and two more on the base; these can be assigned to any button signal. The handle is padded with foam, making it extremely comfortable. Unfortunately, the handle may be a bit small for some adult hands--it needed to be about an inch taller to fit my hand well. There's a throttle control on the left side of the base, but it's easily confused with the button function selectors, and it's difficult to adjust during game action. You can disable the throttle if you need to use a second joystick, a nice touch. The Analog Pro has a unique adjustable-tension centering feature--you can select how hard you have to push the joystick to move it off-center, or you can disable the centering completely.
Gravis is about to release its next-generation joystick, the Phoenix Flight & Weapons Control System. Although it wasn't available for testing as this feature was being written, it certainly sounds impressive. The stick will sport analog and digital throttle and rudder control, as well as 47 different button function. Gravis says its configuration programming will make setting up the button functions a snap. Check this one one out before you make a final purchasing decision--not only is it packed with functionality, but it has a truly innovative design. It looks more like it belongs on the weapons control panel of a Klingon Battlecruiser than on your computer desk.
The CH Products Flight-Stick Pro is based on the company's original Flight-Stick, long popular with dedicated flight simulation fans. CH Products has removed the annoying clicker from the throttle control and increased the number of fire buttons to four. There's a directional control on the top of the stick--a four-position conical switch known to players as a "coolie hat" or "Madonna button." This switch is used in many simulations to change the view direction out of the aircraft. Although it's similar to the switch pioneered on the ThrustMaster FCS, it's not electrically compatible with that switch, so it won't work with some older games. However, drivers are available for popular games such as Falcon 3.0 and Microsoft Flight Simulator to enable the view switch. All four buttons and the view switch are mounted on the top of the stick handle, making for a top-heavy stick; I'd rather have seen some of the buttons mounted on the stick handle, as with the ThrustMaster sticks. Even so, with its smooth gimballed mount, comfortable trigger rest, handy throttle dial, and view switch, this is the joystick I use most.
If you're on a tight budget, you should check out the new CH Products Jetstick, which has only two buttons and no throttle but has a quality gimballed mount for smooth movement, as well as an extremely comfortable grip. Another good budget alternative is QuickShot Warrior 5, a two-button stick with turbo fire that's available at a rock-bottom price.
The ThrustMaster Solution
ThrustMaster offers a high-end joystick, but that's only part of the company's game control solution. A full ThrustMaster setup--consisting of the Pro Flight Control System (PFCS), Mark II Weapons Control System (WCS), and Rudder Control System (RCS)--gives you HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) control, which lets you put the keyboard aside and immerse yourself in the virtual reality of your game.
The PFCS is a heavy-duty version of the original FCS stick. The design is based on the actual control stick used in the Air Force's F-4 Phantom II jet fighter. Four buttons are mounted along the stick handle, making them easier to reach during simulated combat than those on the FlightStick Pro. There's also a view switch on the top of the stick. The Pro version of the FCS differs from the original in that it has a heavy metal base and very strong springs. It takes some real force to move the stick from side to side, just as in a real aircraft; this keeps you from overcontrolling in games. You should try this stick before buying it; if the force needed bothers you, you might want to go for the standard FCS. The FCS has a plastic base and is easier to move from side to side, but it's otherwise identical to the PFCS. Many players who've tried the PFCS swear by its stiff, realistic response and can't go back to a standard joystick. The only real glitch with the ThrustMaster joysticks is that they don't include trim adjustments, relying instead on your software's calibration capabilities to adjust centering.
The Mark II WCS is a programmable throttle control that sports five buttons and a three-position rocker switch. The original WCS was factory programmed with commands for a variety of flight simulations; when new programs came out, you had to replace a chip in the controller to add support for those. The Mark II WCS is fully programmable, solving that problem. You simply download an appropriate setup file from your PC for the simulation you're about to play. These setup files list keyboard commands that will be sent to the program when you press various buttons or switches. Setups are included for most popular simulations--Falcon 3.0, X-Wing, Comanche, and others--and new simulations such as F-14 Fleet Defender are shipping with Mark II WCS definition files on the program disk. If your sim isn't supported, you can create your own definition files; you can also alter the predefined files if you don't like the default setup. The Mark II WCS also lets you reprogram the buttons and view control on ThrustMaster joysticks, allowing you to add support for the extra button and the coolie hat to programs without that functionality built-in. If your program supports throttle control, the Mark II WCS can act as a standard analog throttle. If not, it can operate in a digital mode where it sends keyboard throttle control commands to the game. With the Mark II WCS, you'll never have to search the keyboard during combat again--it's a must-have for flight sim players.
Dedicated sim fans will want to complete their setups with the RCS pedals. These sturdy aluminum-and-plastic rudder pedals have a two-foot-wide spread and can make all the difference during low-speed combat and touchy landings. With all three controllers attached to make for a complete HOTAS setup, the experience is so realistic that you might not feel comfortable playing without a crash helmet.
The Yoke's on You
For some games, such as commercial aviation simulations or driving games, a joystick just doesn't seem like a natural control. For these you'll want to check out a control yoke. Like the yokes found in aircraft, these resemble steering wheels, but you can also push and pull them for vertical control.
CH Products' sturdy Virtual Pilot yoke would look right at home on the control panel of a Cessna. This heavy-gauge plastic yoke clamps to your desk and sports realistic trim controls and a T-shaped throttle at the top of the main box. Not the most glamorous of the yokes examined here, it makes up for lack of flash in authentic design and quality of construction--this yoke is built to last.
A little flashier is Suncom's G-Force, an all-black yoke that looks like something you'd find in an ultramodern bomber or airliner. It's easy to find a spot to mount this yoke on your desk, as it includes both suction cups and clamps. The throttle isn't as nice as the one on the Virtual Pilot--it's a slider on the front of the control wheel--but the wheel itself is a bit more comfortable to use, especially in applications where you'll be pressing the fire buttons a lot. Also, there's a directional lock on the column that will keep you from being able to move it forward or backward, for use in driving games.
QuickShot's AeroAce 5 is definitely the most visually interesting of the yoke controllers--it looks like it's straight out of Star Wars. It's the only yoke here that features a turbo fire feature on the fire buttons. It has a gimmicky, but sort of neat, artificial horizon on the front of the yoke that's marginally useful for figuring out when you've centered the controls. There's no throttle control at all, and no clamps--you're forced to use suction cups, which may not work well on your computer desk. Not as comfortable to use as the Suncom and CH Products offerings, the AeroAce 5 will appeal primarily to kids who think it looks really cool.
Finally, really serious driving aficionados will want to check out ThrustMaster's Formula T1 control. Constructed of aluminum and heavy-gauge ABS plastic, this realistic controller includes a full-size steering wheel and shift lever, along with floor-mounted brake and gas pedals.
Come Up to My Pad
If you've spent much time on video game consoles such as the Genesis or CD32, you may have gotten accustomed to joy pad controllers. These are now available for the PC as well. Although they're not well suited to simulations and driving games, they're the controllers of choice for fast-action arcade games where your hands can quickly tire when using a full-sized stick.
QuickShot's StarFighter 5 is a good basic controller, with a turbo fire feature and two fire buttons. Suncom's Command Control pad is similar, but includes five buttons: Two are standard fire buttons, one acts as if you were pressing both primary buttons together, and two are turbo fire buttons. The premium choice is the Gravis PC GamePad, which includes four fire buttons, single-shot or turbo fire, and a small handle which screws into the game pad and turns it into a tiny joystick. Lefties take note: The PC GamePad can be switched for left- or right-handed operation.
In a category by itself is Logitech's new CyberMan, a six-axis controller that can not only be moved forward, backward, left, and right, but can also be twisted to the side or moved up and down, giving you full movement in three-dimensional space. It connects to a serial port and can work with or replace a mouse (it doesn't work very well as a mouse, though). My favorite feature is feedback--the game can cause the CyberMan to vibrate in response to your actions. Few games support CyberMan now, but that should change soon.
Take Off, Eh?
As you can see, there are tons of options available to the PC gamer. Your choices will depend on the games you're playing, as well as on personal preferences. But be sure to check your applications to see whether they support esoterica such as extra buttons, throttles, or rudder pedals before spending hundreds of dollars on these extras.