Fancy Joystick: In Search of Joy in a Post-Sim World

Dozens of dials and nozzles and nipple-like nubs. Sixty-five dollars of hat switches, toggle bars, and high-priced special effects. Capable of radiating more blue LED light than any two Wiis.

In a long line of over-priced peripherals, some stand out as thoroughbreds. The Saitek X-52 is one such beast, a high-powered relic from a more civilized age.

One can't really talk about joysticks without using words born from a tragedy. Like doomed star-crossed lovers, I was cruelly separated from my previous joystick, a workhorse of a Microsoft Sidewinder, by the harsh realities of technological advancement. USB was the happy dagger before me, snuffing out my outdated peripheral in its prime.

Too lazy and cheap to shell out for a gameport converter, let alone a new stick, I waited--until years later, I looked around, and the entire simulation market had disappeared like disco.

Gone were the X-Wings and the Freespaces, the Janes and the Longbows, the Wing Commanders and Mechwarriors of old. In their places were cheap knock-offs and budget titles, fool's gold that would only seem like real fun to an untrained Best Buy observer. The entire market had slowly dissolved like a Final Fantasy boss, and there was no fist-pumping fanfare in its absence.

Instead, its replacements were one-time console packages, with their disposable tie-in controllers that verge on the obscene. $150 for an Ace Combat 6 flight stick. $150 for a joystick, to play a single game, and that more shooter than sim. $200 for a Steel Battalion control pad, a thing so monstrously geeky as to act like a black plastic can of toxic female repellent.

No, the Saitek X-52 is a rare bird in the mad jungle of simulation gaming. For a paltry $65, I was able to pick up a throttle/joystick combo with enough dials to control any two spacecraft. For a mere $65, I was instantly transported, taken back to my childhood, those days of knee-balanced juking and throttle-slamming acceleration. For only $65, I was back in the saddle again, ready to fly straight into the heart of darkness--modern simulation gaming.

Simulating Fun
Eager to relive the glory days, and to finally immerse myself in the best that the waning genre has to offer, I loaded up the gold standard in commercial flight simulation, Microsoft Flight Simulator X. And by gold standard, I mean the only one.

Choices be damned. Selecting a modest Learjet, Saitek in hand, I was ready to simulate flight to its fullest Microsoft-branded representation.

If only my computer was. No amount of buttons can save you from poor programming. On a machine that crunched Crysis at 1080p, I was skipping through the sky like a bad French animation, jerking left and right, expecting Homeland Security to issue a shoot-down order at any moment.

Lowering the textures to a bland mess, two steps above Star Fox, I eventually achieved some modicum of stability. My framerate was holding at a blazing 20. Autopilot enabled, I took my hand off the joystick, and eased back into my chair. Everything was running smoothly. I turned to the left, and watched the dark clouds drift across the shining face of the moon.

After nearly nodding off twice, I had to face the facts: flying a red-eye from LA to New York is about as exciting to do in a video game as it is in real life. When your missile key is mapped to a view of a lake, and no amount of nozzles or sliders can get a stewardess to bring you a cup of coffee, and even the voice-over tutorial guys sound bored, it's time to land any lofty expectations of high-flying fun.

Stalling Out in Sturmovik
Rebuffed, but only somewhat discouraged, I knew I needed a jolt of combat to truly make sense of the X-52, a joystick that sounds more like a classified fighter plane than a computer peripheral. To wit, I loaded up IL2-Sturmovik, the most highly-praised of all modern combat flight sims. And by modern, I mean released in this decade.

Sitting on a dusty runway in the cockpit of a fully-loaded P-40 Kittyhawk, ready to blast off in defense of Pearl Harbor, I was pumped. On went the engines with a thumb-press of a huge "E" button. Down went the flaps with a flick of the precision slide. Throttle, forward. Let's do this.

Unfortunately, the pilot in front of me--unseen by my realistic in-cockpit view--was not as enthusiastic with his throttle, resulting in a nasty bumper-to-propellar collision that I couldn't have possibly anticipated. On the next try, some lucky Japanese bastard managed to strafe the poor guy, leaving a giant roadblock in the middle of the takeoff strip, thoroughly screwed over by emergent gameplay.

Turn the page for more on joysticks and O.J. Simpson. _PAGE_BREAK_ On my third attempt, all obstructions cleared, I finally made it to the wild blue yonder, only to realize that I would make a terrible WWII pilot. Stalling out more times than I can count, and only managing to shoot down one plane--my own wingman, who I posthumously dubbed Goose--I quickly realized that a great flight stick does not necessarily make a great pilot.

My ineptitude aside, IL2 is missing one key element of all great shooters--namely, any presentation to speak of. A block of text before each mission doesn't exactly inject me with an appreciation of history, or properly prepare me for any ass-kicking action to come. Is this a history book, or a video game? Are we bespectacled computer nerds, or joystick-wielding men?

Battlefield Blues
Giving into this new bare-bones philosophy, and hastily retreating from the realm of realistic simulators, I turned to one recent series which I had played plenty before, but had always wished to use a flight stick with--Battlefield. Maybe an infusion of pure arcade action would be what I really needed to get the most out of my new joystick.

One has to imagine the goings-on in the Saitek lab as they considered the form-factor of the anything-but-diminutive X-52. The "bigger is better" mentality clearly evident in every way, it surely must be a product of the company's US design team. The X-52 is truly the Hummer of joysticks, driving down the road of the peripheral market like 4x4 in Manhattan traffic, and completed with useless features, like a missile safety-lock, and an LCD-displayed stopwatch.

That being said, trying to cram a keyboard, mouse, and two joystick controllers onto the same amount of desk space is an impossible feat. Swapping between the various inputs was like trying to juggle rocks in the middle of a Baghdad firefight. Once in the air, I had a few scant seconds of controlled flight, before either being shot down or crashing, and then it was back to the keyboard and mouse.

The sad thing is, even Battlefield 2 is showing its age. And it hardly stands as a perfect justification for such a joystick. One could just as easily use a gamepad and achieve similar results, with much less of a clutter-bomb spreading destruction across your workspace.

Grim Conclusions
Feeling dejected and depressed at my outmoded hobby, I shot an accusatory gaze at the Xbox 360 controller, sitting on my desk like a killer on trial, O.J. on the witness stand.

Did you, on the night of November 22nd, make joysticks irrelevant? May I remind you, you are under oath.

I didn't bother waiting for an answer. The sad verdict is, even O.J.'s hand would fit the perfectly molded contours of the 360 controller, and I lamented at the injustice of the thing.

And so I returned to my gaming junk drawer, new joystick slackly held in hand. Inside the Ark-like tomb laid a bone-yard of peripherals past--multitudes of mice and microphones and other media. There sitting in the corner was my once-prized joystick, the Microsoft Sidewinder, coated in a thick layer of dust, staring up at me like a stuffed dog. Since its inception, the Sidewinder line has been neutered by its breeders, transformed into a ridiculous mouse, like a poodle with a bad haircut.

I noticed a few discarded discs obscured underneath the coils of its cabling. Peering beneath the mess, pushing aside diskettes and dongles, I found myself taken aback. Why, it's my old friends! TIE Fighter Win 95 Edition! Freespace 2! European Air War! Grim Fandango! Grim Fandango?

"Hey ese," it seemed to say, "you can steer Manny with a joystick, too!"

"Hijole! I forgot!"

Minutes later, I was listening to the soothing growl of Robert Loggia's Admiral Petrarch, spinning my way past beam lasers and away from missile spreads, hunched over my joystick in a semi-hug.

Like all some good things--disco, boy bands, and black and white movies--simulation gaming can decline, but it will never die.