We are living in a golden age of gaming. Cinema-quality, emotional, immersive experiences are more accessible than ever. However, as gaming has become more widespread, control schemes have homogenized. Virtually every single game can be played with a simple dual analog gamepad or KBAM.
In many ways, this is a good thing. We don’t have to relearn how to control every single game. Move with the left stick. Look with the right stick. Mouselook. WASD. Control to duck. Spacebar to jump. You know the drill.
To some degree, control homogeneity is a good thing. Once you’ve learned one game, you’ve learned them all. Rather than wondering how you ADS, you can focus on the mechanics of this particular game. Devs can focus on immersion and innovation rather than reinventing the wheel, and we don’t have to reconfigure our muscle memory every time we sit down at a new game.
But it wasn’t always this way. Decades before the Playstation 1 / XBOX generation standardized the dual analog controller, we had knob controllers for Pong, Centipede’s trackball, the X-Wing cockpit, and more. If you’re lucky enough to live nearby an arcade today, you might still find stompy Dance Dance Revolution machines, eight-player Daytona USA rigs, and light gun games. My favorite rhythm game of all time, ReRave, made the best possible use of its massive multi-touch screen.
I contend that gaming peripherals can deepen our engagement, provide a better experience, and even improve our performance in certain competitive games. Speaking as someone who owns a pile of peripherals, I say that if you think a peripheral might improve your enjoyment of a game, you’re probably right.
The first and perhaps best example is the fighting game genre’s arcade sticks. While a fighting game can be played well on a gamepad (particularly games like Blazblue Crosstag Battle, which was designed with one in mind), there are real benefits to using a full-sized fight stick.
The first benefit is authenticity. The fighting game genre started in the arcades, and a fighting stick mimics that experience. Higher-end fighting sticks even include arcade-accurate Sanwa and Seimitsu buttons.
The second benefit is ergonomics. Putting every button on a flat surface allows you to utilize every finger on your hand, rather than just your thumbs, making it easier to complete combos. The button arrays on fight sticks are also arranged in a curved formation that mimics the natural curvature of your fingers when laid against a flat surface. Given that fighting tournaments can last hours, protecting your precious carpal tunnels is imperative.
A good fight stick can also improve your performance in-game. Arcade buttons provide a haptic click that lets you know that you successfully hit the button, which is great when you’re executing complicated combos. Inside the stick’s base, the gates around the joystick itself can make executing special moves easier. In particular, square gates can make precisely hitting the “down-back” and “down-forward” directions easier.
Then there’s my fighting game controller of choice, the Hit Box. My stupid hands tend to screw up quarter circles; they often end up a “third circles” and instead of throwing a fireball, I leap into the air and jab, then get shoryukened to death, over and over.
The Hit Box replaces the joystick with four directional buttons, making that sort of accidental input impossible. Up is a larger thumb button, while left, down, and right are placed in such a way that they’re easy to hit with your ring, middle, and index finger, respectively.
This seems weird and kind of stupid until you realize that certain special movements are much easier to execute when you replace your stick with a set of buttons. Dashing is faster when you can double-tap buttons instead of a stick. Instant dragon punches, walking dragon punches, and Tekken wavedashes are all easier with a Hit Box. Without a Hit Box, I never would’ve gotten as deep into fighting games as I have.
Getting in the driver’s seat
When COVID-19 canceled all motorsport everywhere this year, sim racing took off in a huge way. Sim racing hardware was sold out for months, and professional drivers started tearing up the virtual track. And for good reason – skill in sim racing and real-life racing translates surprisingly well. During the pandemic lockdown, sim racing provided me with a feeling of freedom and power that was difficult to find anywhere else – and it wouldn’t be the same without my wheel.
While gamepads and arcade sticks are roughly in the same ballpark, gamepads and racing setups are worlds apart. A force feedback wheel and pedal setup can transform a racing game into an immersive full-body experience. I purchased a Thrustmaster T300RS on a lark a few years ago and fell deep down the sim racing rabbit hole.
The racing wheel’s force feedback is key. It’s not just the buzzy vibrations we’re used to in our gamepads. Force feedback (or FFB) provides information about the surface that we’re driving on and how well our rear wheels are gripping that surface. You almost always want to be driving to the absolute edge of your tire’s grip, and FFB wheels help let you know when you’re there.
I’ve since added a set of Thrustmaster load cell equipped T-LCM pedals. Even the most basic set of pedals provides greater precision than triggers, and a good set of load cell-equipped pedals can actually improve your lap times. Cheaper pedals use potentiometers to measure the distance that you’re pushing the pedals, while load cells measure the amount of force you’re applying. This is closer to a real car and allows you to use muscle memory when braking, which can make your laps more consistent.
I’ve also added a TSS Handbrake Sparco Mod+, which is fantastic for the rally games I spend most of my time playing. While these games allow you to activate your handbrake by pushing a button on your wheel or controller, having an actual handbrake to pull provides more precision. Pushing a button is a binary on/off, while the TSS Handbrake provides some granularity between 0-100% braking; my drifts are much more controllable now.
Racing with a controller is a ton of fun. I ground out a lot of hours on my PS4 gamepad in Gran Turismo Sport before I decided to take the plunge and get a wheel. But racing with a full setup is pure excitement and a full racing rig makes it easy to forget that you’re sitting at your computer.
Flight sim hardware was a quiet, generally underappreciated category of gaming peripherals, quietly hanging out in the background. But this year, Microsoft released its latest version of Flight Simulator and EA released the sleeper hit Star Wars Squadrons, and retailers couldn’t keep hands-on throttles and sticks (HOTAS) on the shelves.
I’ve been a fan of flight sims since my dad taught me how to play Tomcat on the Atari 2600. But it was the comparatively next-gen Wing Commander and X-Wing that really seized my interest. Before the dual analog era, the only way to get an authentic space flight experience was with a flight stick peripheral. These games and that old flight stick seized took me out of my small central Jersey town and shot me into outer space where I battled Kilrathi and made Death Star trench runs.
While Microsoft Flight Simulator is a bit too crunchy for me (though check out our guide if you want some awesome peripherals that work with it), playing Squadrons with my Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS took me right back to those joyous childhood feels. I absolutely loved screaming “NEVER TELL ME THE ODDS!” while dogfighting TIE Fighters and flying full speed around (read: into) asteroids. While Squadrons had initial issues with HOTAS joystick dead zones, it fixed those issues in the patch.
In terms of game mechanics, it can be tough to fire two weapons at once with a gamepad in Squadrons. The default mapping uses the bumpers and the triggers to fire off primary and secondary weapons. While you can use both buttons by using your index and middle fingers, it’s awkward as hell. With a HOTAS, it’s simple to fire two weapons at once and I did, often!
A good peripheral can make a game more immersive, more joyous, and it can help feed the escapist fantasy we could all use right now, cooped up in our houses. There’s a lot of talk in gaming right now about realism, artistic statements, and political reference. And that’s great and I welcome it. But the world is a lot right now – let’s make sure to take a minute to kick ass, drive fast, and fly high.