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Flight sticks and throttles for flight simulators

Hardcore gamers will likely want a joystick to maximize their gaming experience, but the type of joystick to purchase depends largely on its purpose. Retro gamers or those looking for maximum control of arcade-style fighting games will want an arcade stick, discussed later in this report. This section covers flight sticks: joysticks designed specifically for flight simulation, particularly for combat aircraft. Taller and thicker than arcade sticks, flight sticks require that you grip the shaft with one hand, the way you would grip the handle of a gun. They have triggers at the forefinger to fire weapons as well as other controls on the stick for functions like loading weapons or locking in on targets. The best flight sticks also come with throttles, separate controllers with at least one lever that you push and pull to control acceleration. If you are more interested in flight simulation of civilian aircraft, you'll want to look at steering yokes and rudder pedals, covered in the section on steering wheels.

The flight stick that thrills more critics than any other is the Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog (*Est. $500), which is modeled after the controls of an actual A-10C Warthog airplane (HOTAS stands for hands-on throttle and stick). The controller receives perfect or near-perfect reviews from consumers at Amazon.com and Newegg.com, while GamingNexus.com and CombatSim.com give it glowing feedback in extensive, enthusiastic reviews. The hardcore sim editors at SimHQ.com dedicate four articles to the HOTAS Warthog, two of hands-on early impressions and two full-blown, multipage reviews.

Other controllers are made from plastic and position the myriad buttons and switches on the controller to be more user-friendly, but less realistic. Not the Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog. "Replete with dozens of buttons and switches, all accurately shaped and located to match those in the A-10 [airplane], the Warthog has the look and feel of true military equipment," Dave Gamble writes at GamingNexus.com, a sentiment echoed by virtually every reviewer. A flight stick, dual throttle and replica control panel are included in the package. The unit consists of aluminum and stainless-steel components, which makes the HOTAS Warthog incredibly hefty and sturdy.

The build quality carries over to the connections; users and reviewers alike report that the flight stick is easy to set up and start using. Reviewers say the included customization software is easy enough to use that even rookie flyers will be able to assign keyboard or mouse macros to the individual switches and buttons, while simultaneously including tons of in-depth configuration options that can keep veterans tinkering long into the night. SimHQ.com says that although the included documentation is thorough, it's rife with grammatical and spelling errors that may trouble new buyers.

Dave Gamble at GamingNexus.com and Chris Frishmuth at SimHQ.com are both experienced real-world fliers, and they -- along with the other reviewers -- report excellent, realistic response from the HOTAS Warthog. Frishmuth is a veteran Saitek X52 Pro Flight Control user, but he's blown away by the quality of Thrustmaster's offering, calling it "the pinnacle of flight simulation controllers to date." He says that unlike his Saitek X52 controller, the HOTAS Warthog features no play in the joystick whatsoever (meaning the controller picks up movement without delay), although he says X52's gamer-friendly throttle is more comfortable that the Warthog's realistic dual-throttle version.

Reviewers are also impressed with the feel of the flight stick and throttle, which utilizes realistic tension designed to match the feel of the controls in an actual A-10C airplane. "The solid feel and life-like button and toggle throw forces lend an air of precision and authority that other controllers just can't match," Frishmuth writes. The HOTAS Warthog also beats out the Saitek X52 Pro Flight Control, the Saitek X-65F Pro Flight Combat Control System (*Est. $400), the Logitech Flight System G940 (*Est. $300) and the CH Products FighterStick (*Est. $100) in an extensive series of motion benchmark tests at SimHQ.com.

The only flaw many critics find with the Thrustmaster flight stick is its exacting level of detail in replicating the A-10C airplane controls. "The Warthog is so customized to the A-10 that it would quickly become confusing to use when mapped to anything else," Dave Gamble writes at GamingNexus.com. Frishmuth disagrees after taking the HOTAS Warthog for a whirl in several flight simulators. He remains impressed throughout, although he warns that you may need to spend some time in the included software to make everything run smoothly. "It is worth mentioning that you'll have to remember that whatever control you assign to the proprietary named switches (such as EAC ARM/OFF) must be memorized since you can't re-label the switches," Frishmuth says. A few Amazon.com users report receiving poor customer service from Thrustmaster.

The Saitek X-65F Pro Flight Combat Control System offers a metallic build and enough bells, whistles and switches to make any flight-sim fan happy, but unlike the Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog, it isn't a replica of any specific airplane's controls. It also comes with force feedback, extensive programming options and responsive, realistic controls that elate most reviewers, but a couple negative aspects keep the flight stick from drawing the same all-around accolades as the HOTAS Warthog. Joe Keefe at SimHQ.com repeatedly finds his planes rolling out of control when he tries some tricky moves. "It's a very frustrating feeling to have the aircraft do something you don't want," he writes.

Also, the flight stick itself doesn't move and instead relies on force-sensing technology, which doesn't sit well with about half of the handful of Amazon.com users who review the product. One flat-out hates the technology, while others say they repeatedly encounter a bug that causes the flight stick to incorrectly identify the center position. That creates major issues controlling a plane in a flight sim, and is only correctable by fiddling with advanced configuration options for hours on end, the unhappy users report. Newegg.com users report that using the X-65F for extended periods creates wrist discomfort as well.

The older and more reasonably priced Saitek X52 Pro Flight Control System (*Est. $150) also scores well with reviewers despite its age. Thanks to its top-of-the-line features and admirable accuracy -- for less money than the wallet-breaking Saitek X-65F and the Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog -- it is easy to see why the Saitek X52 Pro Flight Control is such a reviewers' darling. In addition to a joystick, it also has a throttle with a unique multi-function display (MFD) that compatible programs use to communicate game-specific commands and information that you might not see on your computer screen. Multiple reviewers point out that its black metal parts offer improved look and feel, superior durability and enhanced realism over the silver plastic of its predecessor, the discontinued Saitek X52 Flight Control. Many reviewers also comment on its responsiveness and precision and appreciate its comfortable feel, especially due to its adjustable hand size. SimHQ.com notes that the joystick seems to have lost the "dead zone" that plagues many other game controllers, although IGN.com editors say it is limp in comparison to the Thrustmaster Cougar (*Est. $100).

Perhaps reviewers' favorite feature is the extraordinary flexibility Saitek gives you for its myriad array of buttons and switches. The joystick has 10 controls (three toggle switches, a two-stage trigger and three additional fire buttons, two eight-way hat switches and a pinkie shift switch), and the throttle adds another six (two fire buttons, one eight-way hat switch, two rotary controls and a clutch button). Hat switches are used to change your viewpoint in the game -- as if you were turning your head. You can program the controls and save them in separate profiles and even download profiles created by other users, allowing for an endless variety of ways in which the joystick and throttle can emulate real-world flight situations. Unfortunately, the complex software doesn't come with a manual and the help files included with the flight stick are the same as for the previous, less feature-rich model. To add to the complications, some users say they have difficulty installing the controller's drivers.

If value is your top priority, then the Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS X Flight Stick (*Est. $50) might be your best option. Although you won't find the same utterly realistic feel, vast array of switches or the customization options of the more expensive models, reviewers say this controller does a great job of providing the basics. It packs 12 buttons, five axles and a detachable throttle, but no force feedback. Although users report that there is a small dead zone -- or a range at center where slight motions are not recognized -- overall they come away largely pleased. About.com names it the best budget stick available, while over a dozen users at Newegg.com give the Thrustmaster T.Flight HOTAS X Flight Stick a strong 4 out of 5 overall rating with tales of (mostly) excellent results. Amazon.com owners are even more impressed; of the more than 140 reviews posted, 100 of them are perfect 5-star scores while another 30 or so award the stick an excellent 4 stars, adding up to a 4.5-star overall rating. A number of small drawbacks are noted, but users are mostly very happy with the controller.

We also found a couple of lone recommendations for the older Thrustmaster HOTAS Cougar (*Est. $35) and the CH Products FighterStick (*Est. $100), but neither of those flight sticks draw the same acclaim or attention as others models covered in this report. Additionally, both of those controllers are several years old and often out of stock at many online retailers.

Arcade sticks for arcade-style combat games

Retro gamers and those who like to play arcade-style combat games may find the various triggers, switches and precision controls on a flight stick unnecessary. Many prefer a small joystick that you grip from the top or with the tips of your fingers, accompanied by flat buttons your other hand can press in myriad combinations to create a frightening array of power punches, kicks and holds on unwitting opponents. These arcade sticks emulate the layout and design of real arcade games, and some people even use these devices to set up their own genuine arcade box at home. Fighting and arcade-style games have fallen out of vogue in recent years, making new arcade sticks a rarity. Fortunately, a handful of older models are still available and perform just as well now as they did years ago.

Although reviewers do not cover arcade sticks for the PC as thoroughly as other game controllers, the Mad Catz Street Fighter IV FightStick Tournament Edition (*Est. $150) gets more glowing reviews than others.

The Mad Catz Street Fighter IV FightStick Tournament Edition comes out on top of an arcade stick roundup at Gamespot.com, receiving a perfect 5-star score. According to that site, the Mad Catz Street Fighter IV FightStick Tournament Edition uses the exact same joystick and buttons as the actual "Street Fighter IV" arcade machines, creating an authentic arcade experience. System function buttons -- such as the select button and the Xbox guide button -- are tucked far away into the corner to prevent accidental pressing during heated bouts, and there's an option to disable them completely if needed. A control panel allows users to select between two different turbo speed settings for every button. Mad Catz even makes it easy for modders to tweak the internals of the stick, although that voids your warranty. Reviewers say the two extra buttons added to the right side of the panel often receive accidental button pushes as you become used to the controller, but the problem fades away quickly.

"This official Street Fighter IV joystick is the closest you can get to the arcade experience without importing a Japanese cabinet and setting it up in your living room," GameSpot.com gushes, and forum members at GameTrailers.com agree; the majority of users recommend the Mad Catz Street Fighter IV FightStick Tournament Edition in a 2010 thread dedicated to determining the best PC arcade stick. In addition, about 90 combined users give the stick a perfect average score on Newegg.com and a 4.4 out of 5 on Amazon.com, though several note that the PS3 version only works on PCs that are downward compatible with the older USB 1.1 standard (USB 2.0 or 3.0 is found on most modern PCs, although one user notes that Intel or VIA chipsets are USB 1.1 compatible).

Budget shoppers may consider the Hori Fighting Stick 3 (*Est. $50), which gets 8 out of 10 stars from IGN.com, is designed for the PlayStation 3 and comes with eight buttons instead of six, but is still PC-compatible. For Xbox players, the Hori Fighting Stick EX2 (*Est. $50) was a decent choice, especially for gamers in cramped spaces, but its availability is very limited.

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Saitek X52 Pro Flight System Controller
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $169.95 $131.15   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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CH Products Fighterstick USB
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $149.95 $97.79   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Xbox360 Fighting Stick EX 2
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $59.99   
Average Customer Review:  
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PS3 Fighting Stick V3
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $59.99 $52.00   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Thrustmaster T-Flight Hotas X Flight Stick
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $49.99   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Xbox 360 Street Fighter IV FightStick Tournament Edition
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $149.99   
Average Customer Review:  
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Saitek PRO Flight X-65F Combat Control System for PC
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $399.99   
Average Customer Review:  
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Logitech Flight System G940 Force Feedback Joystick
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $299.99   
Average Customer Review:  

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