Are All Game Controllers Created Equal?
Although game controller is used as a generic term (indicating any hand-held, desk-bound, or portable device that accepts player input), there are actually four basic types of controllers in use today. Controllers are divided into
Traditional joysticks: Although computer gaming on the Atari and Commodore started out with eight-position plastic joysticks (the four compass points and four angles), today's joysticks allow full 360-degree directional movement. Joysticks are almost exclusively used by flight simulators (both civilian and combat), so you may never need one unless your goal is to practice your pilot skills.
Gamepads: These controllers are descended from the gamepads first introduced on the Nintendo and Sega home video game systems, and still popular on today's Xbox and Sony PlayStation systems. A typical gamepad has either one or two directional pads for movement and anywhere from two to eight buttons.
Gamepads are often used in conjunction with a keyboard because most don't offer enough buttons to handle the baker's dozen of key commands in today's PC games.
Steering wheel/pedal combinations: Racing fans will immediately fall in love with these controllers, which can even include a shifter. The typical steering wheel controller clamps to your desk or table, while the pedals are contained in a separate unit at your feet.
Mouse/trackball controllers: These controllers are the most recent inventions in PC gaming technology, usually integrating a pointing device (either a mouse or a trackball) with a mini-keyboard or array of programmable buttons. Depending on the game, they may be used in conjunction with a keyboard, or they may have enough function buttons to be used alone.
No matter what type of controller you select, the features that every gamer desires on a controller are the same. Here's a short shopping list of features to look for when choosing a controller:
Programmable buttons: This one's a no-brainer: Every gamer should invest in a controller with programmable buttons! Most games enable you to change the default keyboard assignments to other functions — essentially the same as programming the keyboard — but the same is usually not true for basic controllers without programmable buttons.
With a programmable controller, you can assign virtually any possible keyboard or mouse function to your buttons (some high-end controllers can even run a simple "script" of sorts, which automatically performs multiple functions with a single press of a key).
For example, you may assign a button for the 1 key, which swaps your weapon — or, with a macro, it can be a combination of the 1 key followed by the R key, which swaps the weapon and then reloads.
USB connection: Today's controllers use your PC's USB port — if you're considering buying an antique joystick that uses a serial or gameport connection, make absolutely sure that your PC has the proper port to accommodate the controller, and make sure you can download a device driver for the controller that works with today's versions of Windows.
Wireless operation: These controllers don't need a direct cable connection to your PC, which allows you to relax some distance away while gaming. Some wireless controllers include their own receiver unit, whereas others use Bluetooth technology — again, make sure your PC supports Bluetooth before you buy, or pick up a USB Bluetooth adapter.
A longer warranty: Although you may not be one of those gamers who throws an innocent controller halfway across a room after losing a race, your controllers still take a heck of a beating . . . in fact, the typical gamepad endures more punishment than any other component on your PC. Because of this rough treatment, get a controller that offers at least a two-year warranty, and the longer the better!
Support for lefties: Are you a left-handed gamer? Suddenly, many of the high-end, ergonomic controllers are off-limits because they're especially made for the right hand. The best controllers on the market accept left or right-handed grips, from hands of all sizes, and the button design can be used by either "secondary" hand.
Auto-fire: Although realism is important, you may also find yourself flying a Starfighter against the dreaded Space Gargoyles of Planet 99 — and that's when you'll appreciate the opportunity to fire your lasers as fast as possible! An auto-fire control will fire your weapons as fast as the game allows, and without interruption (sparing you a sore thumb).
As with other peripherals — like monitors, headphones, and speakers — take time to play a few minutes of your favorite game in a computer store with the controller that you're considering, or buy from a store that accepts returns!
All controllers look great in the box photographs, but it takes a few close calls in your favorite game to evaluate whether the layout, the buttons, and the feel of a controller are right for you.