Skip to main content

The Sidewinder Shall Not Sleep Tonight

It's not all that often that I peer curiously at a flight sim these days, but when I do I absolutely relish the chance to bring out ol' faithful. I've been lugging the Microsoft Sidewinder Force Feedback 2 joystick around with me for years, even though it's been out of print since around 2002 and is no longer supported by Microsoft. It's a relic, but God help me, it's one of my proudest possessions.

With each passing year I become convinced that's it, it's all over for the Sidewinder, that I can't justify keeping this giant lump in my house anymore. Finding archived drivers whenever I dig it out is always a headache, and every new operating system is surely the final nail in its untimely coffine. By some miracle though, Windows Vista SP1 and the Win 7 beta recognise it automatically, so for now I don't need to worry that there haven't been new drivers for a half decade. I only discovered that just now, and I grinned like a loon when I did. Sweet Sidewinder, you shall live again! Sadly, the force feedback effects is absent - if I want that, I need to return to XP. Better than nothing, anyway.

I'm aware there are probably far better joysticks out there, but I love this one, and this one alone. There's just something about its oversized unfussiness - today's joysticks seem so angular, spiky and hostile, though I'm sure I'd probably get less hand cramp from them if I could get past the poor first impression. The sidewinder is subtle, and almost looks sculpted rather than constructed. In many ways, it's the least Microsoftian piece of hardware you could imagine, safe from the awkward ostentatiousness and slap-in-the-face branding that often characterises their forays into the physical. Please, forgive me one "they don't make 'em like they used to."

Traditionally, I'm a bit nervous about flight sims, purely because precision isn't something that comes easily to me, but I find the Sidewinder 2 reassuring. I've won bouts of Crimson Skies with it, I've gunned down legions of robots in Mechwarrior 4 with it, and I threw a massively wobbly when, having diligently dusted off the old dear for the occasion, I discovered Freelancer didn't support joysticks. It's the most faithful piece of hardware I own, yet I only use it once a year at best. I see nothing in today's joysticks that, to my luddite eye, supersedes this, so I'm strangely bitter that it's been so entirely abandoned by its creator. At least I can still use it for now, but surely, surely Windows 7's successor won't cater for it. It's a proud possession living on borrowed time.

Every time I do dig it out, I'm both mesmerised and horrified by its bizarre piece de resistance. Mounted in its shaft - no giggling at the back, please - is a light sensor. When you wrap your hand around the stick - I said no giggling! - and thus cover the sensor, it springs suddenly, startlingly upright. Alright, alright - erect. Happy now?

Yes, for some inexplicable reason, someone's built an erection simulator into this fine joystick. This is a robot death-penis. It's like porn and witchcraft rolled into one. There is, I suppose, something vaguely useful about a joystick that auto-rights itself to the centre whenever you reach for it afresh, but by Christ it's disturbing. Somehow, it makes me love this tired old hunk of plastic and wiring all the more: a ridiculous relic of yesterday that's still fit for today's games. You've fought hard, trusty soldier - but the war ain't over yet.

Favourite joysticks then, readers? Or are you far too cool for that these days?

Read this next