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The array of joysticks on offer is massive with price varying almost as much as the styles of sticks themselves. The trick is buying a stick suited to your needs and not something that either doesn't do what you need or has extras that you'll never use. The reason there are so many sticks on the market is because they each fulfill a particular niche… so let's take a stroll through the joystick forest and sort out the slender silver birches from the mighty oaks….
Ever since the very first home consoles, joysticks were the way to control your games. It wasn't until Nintendo brought out their first console, the NES, that joypads even made an appearance. Since then, controllers suited to specific game styles have gradually developed until now it's pretty near essential to have the right controller for the game you want to play.
So if you're looking at platform or simple action games like LEGO: Star Wars or arcade racing games like Need For Speed: Underground, you might well find a joypad more suited to your needs. Similarly, the more involved, complex racing games like GTR or TOCA Race Driver 3 will be much more satisfying with a wheel and pedals.
So what type of game does that leave for our humble stick? Well in the main you'll be needing to get yourself a joystick for any sort of flight or space simulation game of any type. X3, the latest space simulation/trading game can be played with the keyboard but a stick makes it far more intuitive… and don't even bother trying out Pacific Fighter with the keyboard, you'll just crash a die… a lot. The reason for this is that the keyboard is a digital input… it's either on or off. So using that to fly a plane is like trying to drive a car by yanking the wheel all the way to the right or left to turn and slamming your foot on the accelerator or brake to go or stop. Joysticks have analogue input, meaning they have proportional input. Move the stick a little and the plane will move a little… move it a lot and the plane will do the same. This gives you much smoother control and hugely reduces the chances of going out of control and crashing.
For quite a while Logitech were the maker of choice if you wanted a decent stick but back then all sticks were limited to using the gameport that came supplied on many soundcards. Also acting as a midi port for music fans, this connection often limited the joysticks functions to just 4 buttons, a hat switch, throttle and x and y axis. This was often enough for the sims of the day as they weren't that complex but as sims became more involved, the joystick started to be less and less adequate.
Around this time Thrustmaster came in with what is still regarded as the daddy of all joysticks and wasn't even called a joystick… this monster of a stick was modelled on a real F16 control column grip, had a separate throttle with even more buttons and came with a manual thicker than most flight sim instruction books… The age of the flight-stick was upon us.
For a few years there was a massive gap between the CH flight-stick range with separate throttle (known s a throttle quadrant) and even rudder pedals, the cost of which would set you back almost as much as your PC. At the other end of the scale, for far less money you could pick up a stick with perhaps two hat switches, a built in throttle and 8 buttons… and once you'd patched Windows 95, you could have a shift function on the stick giving you 16 buttons and more control to your sim.
Then a new player on the joystick scene arrived with a few innovations that gamers were crying out for. Saitek, a long time maker of electronic chess sets among other things, crashed into the flight-stick arena with the X35. What made the X35 stand out from the crowd was it's novel use of a keyboard pass-through cable. With the programming software you could effectively trick your PC into thinking the keyboard was being used when you were actually pushing buttons on the flight-stick. Now no-one can argue that this emerging technology was without teething troubles as the software tended to be very fussy and often you'd find buttons seemingly stuck down or non-responsive… but it was a step in the right direction for affordable flight-sticks.
Saitek followed up the X35 with the Cyborg the first customizable joystick capable of being switched around for right or left handed users as well as featuring height adjustments for smaller or larger hands. It's sub £30 price point made it an attractive entry level stick for first time flight sim gamers too.
The next innovation to hit the joystick world was that of force feedback. This new feature relied on motors mounted in the base of the stick to relay in-game movements back up the stick to the user. Used properly, force feedback can be very helpful but is dependant on game designers not being over-zealous with how much movement is fed back up the stick. In a combat flight sim it can come in very handy to let you know if you're taking hits. In a more sedate, purist's style of flight sim, force feedback can forewarn you of stalling or turbulence… but how effective and realistic it is depends very much on how well the game has been written.
Which stick is for you?
So now you know all about the various sticks, how do you pick one for you? The answer to that question is dependant on several factors… the style of game you'll be playing, how serious you are about it and how much you're prepared to spend.
Let's say you're just starting out with a flight simulation like Pacific Fighters. This is a good place for most eople to start as the game itself has several options to make it easier for the beginner. But what will be essential from the start is having a joystick of some description to play the game. So let's take a couple of basic sticks such as the Logitech Exteme 3D Pro Twist Handle or the Saitek Cyborg EVO Hi-End. These are two similar sticks with similar price points. Either of these sticks will suit the ‘beginner' sim pilot as they're not overly complicated and still provide a great deal of flexibility as you become more used to the game you're playing.
The Logitech stick features 12 buttons, an 8 way hat switch, a throttle slider and, for rudder control, the whole shaft of the stick can be twisted. Similarly, the Saitek stick has an 8 way hat switch, twist rudder and built in throttle but it differs from the Logitech stick in featuring 2 shift buttons giving multiple functions to each of each nine buttons. If you're looking for good quality, easy to use ‘entry level' sticks, either of these represent excellent value for money and versatility.
If force feedback grabs your fancy then before you buy it's well worth trying it out first as some people find that it interferes with their game more than it helps. Force feedback is very much a personal preference, so trying it out on a friend's machine first is recommended.
Both the above joysticks could be considered general purpose sticks for use with most sims, perhaps driving games and even platform/action games… so now we move firmly into the ‘flight-stick' category with the Saitek X52. This is a fully feature stick bristling with buttons, hat switches, sliders and dials and is aimed very firmly at the flight sim enthusiast.
The X52 is the latest in Saitek ‘throttle and stick' line, being the next step on from the original X35 and it's successor, the X45. The X52 addresses many of the quibbles users had with the X45 and brings futuristic looks and functions to the gamer whilst keeping within a very affordable price range.
In total, including shift and mode buttons, the X52 can be programmed with over 150 keypresses, each of which you can assign to any button or dial you fancy. This brings you firmly into the world of ‘hands off keyboard' flying where you never have to touch the keyboard even to do the most obscure of tasks whilst in the air. The real challenge with a flight-stick like this is programming it in the first place and then remembering which button at which setting does what you programmed it too.
Unless you're a serious ‘hardcore' flight sim enthusiast, the X52 probably covers every conceivable need for a long time ahead, being just as adaptable whether you're flying a Spitfire over Normandy , an Airbus over the Alps or an X-Wing across the galaxy.
Finally, what has to be the last word in flight-sticks come from Thrustmaster. Their top of the range HOTAS (Hands Off Throttle And Stick) Cougar flight-stick system commands a premium price for the ultimate in realism. Modelled on an F16 Block 52 control stick, the HOTAS Cougar may not be as feature rich as the X52 and offer less flexibility in the programming stakes but the built quality is unsurpassed by anything else on the market. Avid flight sim enthusiasts swear by the Cougar though it remains far more a purists stick than something for the mainstream gamer.