Tuesday, July 31, 2007

My Kingdom For A Simple, Solid Joystick

Ok, I've been lax the last few days. Besides, there's not much coming out interesting lately, so the slacker-feed's been drying up. I'm going to make up for it now, with some original content. And what's the kind of original content I'm best at? Why, griping of course.

A half dozen or so months ago, my friend Josh who sometimes comments around here as the oh-so-subtle pseudonym "PPMcBiggs" showed me the new joystick he got. I was a little dubious about it because it looked to be one of the joysticks I hated back in the golden days of the PC Flight Sims... you know, the kind with too many buttons of too high sensibility in awkward places, flimsy plastic construction that creaks audibly in all but the gentlest of grips, and an insubstantial base which lends the peripheral the propensity to lift up off the desk when you try to operate it instead of allowing the stick to change axis with the base.

It looked like this. (image no longer exists, sorry)

In truth, he didn't seem that enthralled with his new joystick either, and it was easy for me to see why. The thumb buttons were awkwardly placed, all the buttons had unsatisfactory tactile feedback (too easy to push but too hard to know if the computer knows you actually pushed it or not), and there were all those "extra" buttons in quasi-convenient locations which meant the only finger with which you could actually grip and move the stick was your ring finger. All the other ringers were taken up by triggers, secondary triggers, thumb buttons, alternate thumb buttons, hat switches, pinky buttons and the like. And even then the plastic still creaked like it was ready to buckle.

Let me tell you about the joystick I had back in the day, playing Chuck Yeager's Air Combat on a 386 with a mono sound blaster and thinking it was all the shiznit.

Well, first, let me show you the joystick I inherited from my father. Behold, the PC Jr. Joystick -

This bad boy was an old-school 2-axis analogue joystick. No throttle, 2 buttons (the second button was up on the left shoulder), and little trim adjusters for when the thing invariably got uncalibrated. This was the king joystick for all the old games back in the days of their 4 (or if you were lucky, 16) color glory. I ninja'd the hell outta some fools with this joystick on Dad's old Tandy 1000.

Then for about 4 months I had a "Quickshot Warrior 5" which was ok... it had suction cups on the bottom to keep it attached to the desk despite the narrow base, and a switchable "autofire" mode for those games you had to hammer buttons fast on.. but its analogue bits wore out fast and it stopped working.

Then I got this, the joystick of joysticks of the day... The CH Products Flightstick. The prince, nay, KING of the 15-pin analogue joysticks.

Note the simple ambidextrous design. The wide, sturdy base. The throttle dial. The buttons had just the right amount of tactile feedback, the base was wide enough to keep it from tipping over (though at times even that wasn't enough for me, and I ended up duct taping a book belonging to my father to the bottom to add to the weight. Ironically, the book was called "Getting the most from your money." I only chose it because its width was exactly the width of the joystick base and it had a nice, thick, 2-inch-thick-book heft to it).

This was the joystick of kings. I played Chuck Yeager on it. I simulated flight according to microsoft. I battled the kilrathi as a Wing Commander and I piloted my X-Wing down the Death Star's Trench, then switched over and rescued the Emperor in my Tie Fighter.

But after years and years of service, even the old CH flightstick wore out, for as awesome as it was it was still a mere analogue joystick. But fortunately by this time digital/optical joysticks were starting to become affordable. I ended up replacing it with a Microsoft Sidewinder 3D pro, which while not ambidextrously ergonomic, did ok. It also had that "creaking when you squeeze it" problem, but it did the job well and had a VERY wide and heavy base, definitely working in its favor.

That was the last joystick I ever bought. I think it's still in a box in my closet, somewhere. Who knows, maybe it still works. The problem is, it (like all my other joysticks in the past) is an obsolete 15-pin dinosaur. Nobody even bothers with 15 pin ports on their computers any more, unless they have ancient sound cards or are enthusiastic midi-composers (and even then I think a lot of those guys have gone USB as well). These days, if you want a joystick, you have to go USB.

This is where we come to problems.

As illustrated by the logitech abomination at the top of this list, PC joysticks have gone down a dark, if not useless, path. Everything these days is taking cues from those worthless motherloving bastards over at Thrustmaster, who even in the heady days of my youth were making fragile, temperamental joysticks with too many buttons which you were never sure if they were adequately pressed or not so you ended up breaking them off.

Joysticks need to be sturdy. They need to be simple of design. They need to have heft, good tactile feedback and a slight tendency to auto-center. At least on that last one, people have gotten the hint, but look at the choices these days.. even abarring the one my friend got (the Logitech Extreme 3D pro USB, if you were wondering).

Those cornobblers over at Thrustmaster are still doing their thing, unfortunately... At least I hear they've learned the lesson of needing a heavy base...

Saitek's got THIS little gem, careful you don't touch it at all or I have a feeling all your missiles will be firing simultaneously.

And then there's the Logitech "Freedom" cordless joystick... Too bad I get the feeling it'll be tumping over to the bottom left and bottom right constantly, and the only thing multiple thumb buttons does for me is ensure I never hit any of them correctly.

Are you starting to see what I'm talking about? Too busy, often too flimsy, and just plain downright not fun. I think the demise of the PC Joystick has been largely to blame for the demise of the PC Flight Sim game genre. There have traditionally been three areas where PC games far outshone their Console counterparts, and those 3 were First Person Shooters, Real Time Strategy, and Flight Simulators. And the PC gaming industry has just let the flight sims go straight to fallow. Hell, half the "flight sims" like Freelancer that came out in the last 5 years have actually been geared for mouse, not joystick.

Maybe if there were some decent, inexpensive yet sturdy and dependable joysticks to play with that weren't concerned about finding places to mount 58 impossible-to-program buttons somewhere on the surface of the stick, devs might actually see a market for some good flight sims again. And that's the word from Bandit Camp...


Anonymous said...

I have to assume you've never used that Saitek: they're all I've used for years. It's very solid, with a pretty hefty spring loaded in there. The feel to the buttons are great, too, they give a hearty and satisfying click.

JP said...

Yes. Yes indeed. I have purchased and retired 3 sticks in the last couple of years (looking for something that will suffice for Battlefield 2 - not even a hardcore sim!). NONE of them has even come close to my FCS - which btw would still be in service if I could fix the x-axis pot. Well it is 15 years old.

Just one good stick. It has to have a trigger (duh), a thumb button, a hat, a big heavy base and a throttle. A pinky button and a topside thum button would be ok too. And if you're not going to put in the effort to make a good set of pedals to go with it, then it needs 3 axis. The thing should be firm but not stiff.

How hard can it be?

devilham said...

I have been using a microsoft force feedback sidewinder 2 for that last couple of years and have been very happy with it, I even bought a second one through ebay (as microsoft has ceased manufacturing joysticks)after my asshole cat chewed through the usb wires one too many times (I patched the wires 3 times, until it was too short to use). Solid stick, good feel, heavy base, reasonable amount of buttons.

Anonymous said...

Yep, MS FF2 is the way to go if you can find one. I have one I'm using and one in the box in the back of the closet for a backup. I to have done the joystick fight and the FF2 was the only stick I find that works well for me. Since MS has ended production expect to pay $100+ on ebay for a good used one.

Anonymous said...

My favorite joystick was the Sidewinder Precision Pro, with the little shift button on the bottom. Sadly, a spring broke after many years of use. I have a Force Feedback 2, but the lack of the Shift button, and the differently shaped Thumb buttons just don't do it for me.

Dirk Ramrod said...

If you guys are willing to spend ~ $100 per stick, the CH Products line of joysticks are for you. I have a Fighter Stick and a Pro Throttle and I've used them without incident or breakage for the Battlefield series of games since BF1942.

Anonymous said...

For Battlefield (1942, Vietnam, etc.), I use one of the Microsoft Sidewinder variants that has a throttle and 8 buttons. Buttons 3 and 4 which are close to Button 2 on top (but not too close), serve as my rudder, very effectively.

For Falcon 4.0, Vietnam Medevac and IL2, I use the top of the line CH Fighter Joystick, Throttle, and rudder pedals.

Both sets of controls are excellent for their intended purposes.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree. I with there was a modern version of F-22 TAW, and a decent / simple usb stick like the old CH was.

TrouserJihad said...

For most people the direct descendant of the beloved CH Flightstick would be a great choice. The CH Flightstick Pro, it can be had for under 80 bucks, and it's as rock solid a stick as you're gonna find anywhere, with the fewest amount of buttons under your thumb to be had. As an added bonus, it doesn't look totally ridiculous.

Then there's the TM Cougar HOTAS. But that's for the obsessed few, like myself.

Anonymous said...

Wow, another person loves the sidewinder 3d pro!!
I loved that joystick for a number of years too! I got it in a package deal with one of the mechwarrior games. I've tried several joysticks and didn't like them nearly as much.

In fact, you can still use many analog joysticks on modern computers with modern sound cards.
There was a known bug where it would not work with systems at or above 100mhz bus. And MS said they weren't planning on fixing it with a driver fix, you just had to buy the new sidewinder series (precision pro I think was the name), which is total crap compared to original. The redesign actually hurts your hand after an extended playing session, and they did weird things to button placement.
There were other things about it that I hated too, because I bought one as a replacement and had to return it, it was unusable.

MS used to have a knowledge base article about this 100mhz thing, Q236113
However, they've since removed it. Now the closest article is here:
It says simply that XP support for it has been removed, but you can manually add and use it as a totally nerfed 2 axis 4 button joystick.

Way to go MS!

BTW, the sidewinder 3d pro is actually a digital joystick internally :)

I'm now using a thrustmaster, fox 2 pro USB.
I really like the programmable thrustmaster stuff (you can program buttons and stuff), and this is a very reasonably priced joystick ($20ish if you hunt around).

[A3D]Butcher said...

Madcatz had a good line of PC sticks in the Panther line. They've since stopped making PC peripherals. I still use a PantherXL stick & trackball combo unit in FPS games, rewired/modded for USB. An above poster mentioned the CH flightsticks - I've heard good things there as well.

Anonymous said...

Ironically, the ancient PCjr joystick you have on top is the best of the bunch. I had one just like it made by CH once upon a time. What makes them so fantastic is that you "steer" them with the muscles in your index finger and thumb much like using a pen. That's *far* more accurate than trying to steer your arm and wrist on one of those bigger pilot style sticks. Try a guns-only dogfight with both styles back-to-back and you'll see the difference.

Andrew said...

I bought a logitec freedom 2.4 stick today and instantly hated it.

Its now in a pile of pieces since the action was impossibly tight for me and i cant get it back together after weakening the main spring.

It was junk anyway.

I was supposed to have fun with it and ended up just torturing myself with frustration

andrew said...

I got my logitec freedom 2.4 back together again after weakening the spring while under compression with the heat from a candle. It does now feel more realistic.

Next problem is to work out how to use flight simulator X demo. Not sure if its the demo or my computer. Changing views to see out of the window and see the instruments seem exstremely difficult!! This is after all the easy part in real flying. It would be more realistic if they provide a heads up display with an attitude bar in my view rather than all of the graphics that prevent forward vision.