Today's sophisticated joysticks have enough buttons, bells and whistles to make a real jet jockey jealous.

January 29, 2001|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

In the early days of PC gaming, flying a virtual airplane meant punching the keys on your number pad to move your fighter up, down and sideways.

So it followed that after six months of violent maneuvering in Microsoft's Flight Simulator in the late 1980s, my first computer gave up the ghost. I'd learned my lesson: get a joystick.

A decade of technological improvement - driven by thousands of games - has turned the simple joystick I bought into an electronic art form. With programmable buttons, throttle controls and add-on rudder pedals, today's joysticks are complex enough to make a real jet jockey jealous.

To help you get the most out of the holiday season's gifts of flight simulators and driving games, we've tested seven joystick-style game controllers that will save your keyboard and help you have more fun with your PC.

But first a little history. Joysticks trace their roots to a short-lived game console released in 1976 by Fairchild Camera & Instrument Co. called the Video Entertainment System. The VES was controlled by a hardwired pistol grip with a plunger-style button on the top that could be rotated, twisted or pressed. To Leonard Herman, author of "Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames," the Fairchild joystick looked more like a bomb detonator than a kids' toy.

In 1977, Atari borrowed the term "joystick" from the aviation world when it unveiled its Video Computer System. Earlier Atari Pong games didn't have joystick-style controllers, since Pong didn't need much controlling. But new games needed a cursor that could be moved in any direction. Other manufacturers took notice, and within a few years, a half-dozen systems hit the market with the joystick as their primary controller. The first generation of home computers from Commodore, Radio Shack, Atari and Apple was designed to accept joysticks, too.

Unfortunately, the IBM personal computer wasn't designed with games in mind, and it took a while before the industry standardized on a system that incorporated a joystick port into the computer's sound card. Serious gamers used separate expansion cards designed strictly for games, which often led to conflicts. Those problems have largely disappeared with the advent of the plug-and-play joystick, which connects through the PC's Universal Serial Bus port.

What makes a good joystick?

Above all, a joystick must stand up to constant pounding, so it should be sturdy, with a solid heavy base to keep it from flipping during violent maneuvers.

After that, it depends on how you're using it. The traditional joystick was based on a fighter plane's control stick, but most civilian aircraft and many military planes, including the P-38 and Spitfire fighters of World War II and virtually all bombers use a yoke control, which is more like a car's steering wheel. A yoke controller may also feel more natural with auto racing games.

For even more realism, you may want a joystick that comes with a throttle control or a set of rudder pedals. I have decent desk and floor space in front of my computer, so I enjoy having a joystick, throttle and set of rudder pedals at my disposal. If you're short on space, a compact joystick/throttle unit makes more sense.

Although the original joystick came with a single "fire button," the best of today's controllers have an array of programmable buttons so you don't have to hunt and peck for the right key to raise your landing gear or turn on your Porsche's lights.

Good joysticks also have at least one point-of-view (POV) button, known as a "hat," that that allows you to view your environment from different directions.

If you like to feel the rumble of the ground beneath your wheels when you take off from Chicago O'Hare Airport, you'll probably want a force-feedback unit with extra motors that not only produce sound, but also make the joystick buzz, rattle, hum, shake and thump, depending upon what you're doing - or what's being done to you.

Finally, remember that all games don't support the advanced features of all joysticks, so check with the publisher or joystick maker before trying to match one with the other.

All the joysticks reviewed here require a USB port on a 266 MHz Pentium PC running Windows 98 or later. Some of the joysticks, including Thrustmaster's Top Gun and Saitek's X36F will work with Macs running recent versions of Apple's operating system. Check the manufacturer's Web site or the box for minimum system requirements.

Saitek X36F

This sleek, programmable joystick and its companion X35T throttle ($100) make flying the not-so-friendly skies a pleasure. The most comfortable joystick in our roundup, it offers dozens of programmable button tasks. Every button is in the right place, so you don't have to wrench a finger from a socket to reach something important. A rocker switch on the throttle makes precise rudder action possible when not using pedals.

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