Any game, like any job, is made easier and more enjoyable if you have the right tools. Consider this: you don’t see Shane Warne walking out to bowl with a rugby ball in his hand, Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t play soccer in sandals, Vladimir Kramnik wouldn’t dream of taking on Lazaro Bruzon without a full complement of pawns, bishops and knights.
Computer games are no different. While many games work superbly using only the standard keyboard and mouse, others really do benefit from the use of an appropriate, dedicated gaming controller.
Sure, you can operate them from the keyboard if you wish, but that’s a bit like playing backgammon without the doubling die, or poker without money – much of the fun is lost.
Unfortunately, there is no ‘one size fits all’ gaming controller. Different games benefit from different types of hardware. Something that is ideal for killing monsters in a shoot-em-up is not necessary the best device for piloting a 747 in Flight Simulator, and vice versa.
However, unless you play every genre of game out there, the odds are that one or two carefully chosen controllers will provide you with everything you need.
The grand-daddy of gaming controllers is the joystick, with a history that dates back to the early days of microcomputers. The very early joysticks – typically designed for long-forgotten home-oriented systems such as the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST – were relatively primitive devices, but that didn’t prevent a whole generation of teenagers from becoming experts at playing games.
Not all gaming controllers work with all games. Unless you only play recent, Windows Vista compatible games, make sure that any joystick you buy will work with your chosen software. Spending a few hundred bucks on a useless joystick is enough to spoil anybody’s weekend.
Any Port in a Storm
Nearly all gaming controllers need a game port. This looks a bit like a serial port, and is found on the vast majority of sound cards. However, some controllers have special needs. They may need to slave power from your keyboard or mouse port. They may need to send and receive extra information via your serial port. If you have a modern notebook computer, then you may not have a game port. However, the odds are that you have a USB port or two, or three. You need one of these, or else a docking station which provides a game port.
Feel the Force
Most games today put you in situations where you are doing things, and also where things are happening to you. Fire a real gun and it recoils, fly into turbulence and an airplane’s controls start bucking, drive on a dirt road and the steering wheel has a mind of its own, catch a large bass and the rod wiggles.
During Adam and Eve’s time, they had to imagine all this. The technology is called Force Feedback. Fire a virtual gun and you feel the recoil, fly into software-generated turbulence and… well, you get the picture.
It works, and it works well. Force Feedback joysticks and steering wheels add another dimension to gaming, and are great news for people who play the right sort of games. But don’t splash out the extra for a Force Feedback joystick unless you are confident that you will really be able to feel the force in your favorite games.
Programming a joystick? Isn’t that the job of the people who wrote the game? Not necessarily. A programmable joystick lets YOU decide whether the canon is on button one and the throttle on button three and vice versa. For enjoyable game play this is practically essential. Look for it.
Joysticks are great for serious flight simulators and games which require you to navigate a 3D world, but if you’re into arcade style games then a gamepad can be a simpler, cheaper and just all-round appropriate option. While a joystick can be used with one hand, a gamepad needs two hands. Therefore, it is essential that it provides all the controls you need for your game because you won’t be able to get at the keyboard while playing, unless of course you have three hands.
If dedicated pilots need special hardware, so too do keen users of driving simulations. You can feel a bit odd piloting a Boeing with a joystick, but using one to slot a Ferrari through an Alpine pass is just plain daft. The answer is a steering wheel.
Do consider Force Feedback if you play the kinds of games that support the technology. It does add a lot of fun to the gaming experience. And after all, that’s what we’re after, isn’t it?
By Sandra Prior
Sandra Prior runs her own websites at http://usacomputers.rr.nu and http://sacomputers.rr.nu.