Back in the days when sims were simulations, when players flocked to their PCs in droves to experience the bleeding edge of game design, there was only one peripheral that could satisfy our cravings for precision and power. Sidewinder. Despite being a software company, Microsoft created the very best joysticks on the market- and in our opinion, some of the the finest gaming technology of all time.
To this end, let's take a reverential journey back to the glory days when Sidewinder dominated the peripheral scene... and delivered some of the innovations that we consider to be "next gen" years before their time. Sixaxis? Bah. You don't know you're born.
Sidewinder, we salute you.
Precision Pro: The Joystick Of The Gods
Sidewinder originally released a basic, perfectly weighted joypad back in the early nineties; followed closely by the bare-bones 3D Pro joystick that offered the first taste of the greatness that was to come. In 1995, however, we were treated to a masterwork of bona fide gaming perfection. The Precision Pro.
The Precision Pro was revolutionary, beautiful and utterly peerless in its day. The chunky, uncomfortable stylings of the 3D pro had been kicked to the curb in favour of a sleek ergonomic design that fit comfortably into the hand; with perfect stability and weight distribution. Most impressively, the drivers included the ability to map complex selections of advanced keystrokes to any of the multifunction buttons - allowing us to lock S Foils, divert shields to full front and order our wingmen to attack with a single jab of the thumb.
This was impressive enough, but it's all in the name. Sidewinder brought us greater precision than we ever thought was possible from a joystick, and with it, opened up daring flight manoeuvres that left the opposition reeling. We weren't just pilots any more. We were Gods.
But the best was yet to come.
Microsoft forged the first force feedback technology to create what is- in our opinion- the finest controller of all time. Take it away, Carl.
Force Feedback Pro: The Rumble In The Digital Jungle
Thank you Jon.
For those that caught my first Why We Love article last year, you’ll know that back in the day Space Flight Sims were my game of choice. Originally I used a cheap and crappy joystick to interact with the daring antics on-screen, but once that died in the line of duty I needed to acquire a replacement. With my birthday being around that time I knew exactly what to go for; the Sidewinder Force Feedback Pro. It was a beast of a peripheral device (the base alone was bigger and heavier than most joysticks) that provided an array of programmable buttons, three axis’ of control thanks to the ability to twist to joystick to perform those barrel rolls, and most importantly, the ability to deliver tactile feedback. The accompanying software allowed you to alter the level of power it delivered, catering to those that preferred a light touch or a heavy feel, as well as providing a selection of demo rumble modes (the chainsaw mode being particularly intimidating.)
However once you got into the action, by god you felt a part of it. The crowing achievement of the Force Feedback Pro was the ability to make you feel you were in control of a deadly weapon, not just playing a computer game. It didn’t matter who you were fighting; Imperials, Kilrathi, Shivans, any enemy you were engaging was made to feel like a deadly adversary, each laser blast and explosive missile able to shake the room when the rumble ability kicked off. Of course, when you were performing insane manoeuvres at breakneck speed, the Force Feedback Pro ensured that each kill I achieved was delightfully satisfying.
I still rue the day I was forced to retire it upon upgrading my soundcard and removing the compatible midi port (and before you suggest it, USB adaptor alternatives are unable to support the rumble, removing that option) because to this day, even with the fantastic efforts Saitek provide, I still believe it was the best joystick ever made. It currently resides on top of my wardrobe, hoping for the day it can be called back into active service.
And now we return to your regularly scheduled writer.
Freestyle Pro: The Father Of Tilt Control
Many gamers consider tilt controls to be a next-gen fad. After all, Sony and Nintendo continually pretend that their motion-controlled peripherals are somehow innovative or groundbreaking. Unfortunately (and somewhat embarrassingly), Microsoft beat them all to it with a revolutionary gamepad that was years ahead of its time... back in 1998. Ladies and gentlemen: I present the Freestyle Pro.
Its hefty banana-shaped bulk contained a variety of tilt switches that let us manipulate our space fighter, jet or even motorbike by simply rotating the pad in three-dimensional space. We freely admit that the technology wasn't perfect (and I wouldn't recommend it for a trench run), but the Freestyle Pro was genuine gamechanger that would inspire similar technological advancements nearly a decade later. I hope you've learned something today.
After their crushing cancellation of the Sidewinder series back in 2003, Microsoft re-entered the foray with a few Vista-related controllers. But it just isn't the same. The glory days were well and truly over, heralding the decline of space games and flight simulations that persist to this day. I still keep my Precision Pro next to my PC despite its reluctance to run on the new drivers... and secretly, I long for a flight sim renaissance that will return the brand to its former glory. After reading this, I hope many of you will too.