The joystick is a peripheral that, since gaming’s earliest days, has been an instantly recognisable symbol of the industry. In more recent decades, this primacy has been somewhat supplanted by the gamepad, but the joystick is still closely associated with PC gaming. Here is a short history of the joystick’s journey from early hardware pioneer, to has-been peripheral and back prominence again.
One of the first universally recognised joysticks was the CX10, which appeared alongside the Atari 2600 in 1977. The Atari 2600, and its associated controller, were such a huge success that the Atari joystick port became an industry standard connection.
Somewhat ironically, it was the Atari 2600 console that paved the way for widespread adoption of the joystick on the PC. As the 80s rolled in, Nintendo and Sega took the console world by storm and standardised the use of the gamepad. Meanwhile, the joystick made itself a comfortable home in the PC market, thanks to its natural match with more complex games such as flight simulators and spacesims.
Given game industry trends during 80s and early 90s, it made sense that the joystick found a home on the PC. Games such as Microsoft Flight Simulator were a staple that encouraged the development of more advanced joystick peripherals, while the booming spacesim genre also ensured that the joystick was an essential peripheral for any gamer’s PC — trying to play Wing Commander, X-Wing or Descent with anything other than a joystick was a chore (trust me, I tried).
The 90s also saw the rise of dedicated peripherals companies such as Saitek, Thrustmaster, CH Products and Logitech beginning to dominate the joystick market. Logitech launched its famous WingMan line in 1994 (just in time for the best spacesim ever, TIE Fighter).
But it wasn’t just flight and space sims that saw widespread joystick use — the joystick was also a popular peripheral for PC platformers (such as the numerous Apogee classics), driving games, and even first-person shooters (the joystick was a popular way to play Wolfenstein 3D and Doom). One of the first high-quality joysticks I owned was the Logitech WingMan Warrior — a joystick designed specifically with first-person shooters in mind.
The WingMan Warrior featured a red knob that was designed for strafing left and right, while the joystick was used to turn and move forward and backward. The manual even included a tutorial on the FPS tactic of “circle-strafing” — keeping your target in your sights while you strafe in loops around them.
The late 90s saw the rise of the 3D first-person shooter — Quake exposed the limitations of the joystick with the addition of the Z-axis into gameplay, and the now-classic mouse and keyboard combo became the standard. The joystick still stubbornly held on — LucasArts’ Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight received only one patch, and that was primarily to fix issues with using a joystick controller (remember the days when games were released without the need for patching??).
Alongside this new generation of shooters, the mouse-centric RTS genre rose to fame, while the spacesim genre began to witness a slow decline. Joysticks didn’t die off completely — the Microsoft SideWinder and Logitech WingMan were in fierce competition for a dwindling market, producing two very popular force-feedback joysticks. The SideWinder went hand-in-hand with Microsoft’s Hellbender (1996), and the joystick was great for games like Motocross Madness.
However, as genres that most benefited from a joystick began to lose popularity, so did their associated peripheral. The joystick still had a home amongst the enthusiast flight-sim crowd, and companies like Saitek, CH and Thrustmaster dominated with their high-quality, expensive joysticks. But this niche market wasn’t enough to maintain the dominance of the joystick, and the market contracted to the point where choice for entry-level joysticks dwindled. This was also around the same time that the console market began to really explode like never before, while USB gamepads became more and more common for the PC. Even spacesims like Freelancer incorporated control schemes designed around the mouse and keyboard rather than the joystick.
The late 2010s saw some big shifts in the games industry — the rise of indie developers, crowdfunding and, as a result, the appearance of Star Citizen. Whatever your thoughts are about Star Citizen, it had a big influence on the re-emergence of the spacesim genre, and within a few years, we had Elite: Dangerous and No Man’s Sky. Together with some great new games in the flight simulator genre (IL-2 Sturmovik and War Thunder), the joystick began to enjoy somewhat of a revival. Those of us who had survived on the slim pickings of the Logitech Extreme 3D Pro (a very decent entry-level joystick) suddenly had new options, such as the Thrustmaster 16000M.
In the context of the wider industry, the joystick and its associated games are still a niche market, but the industry is also several orders of magnitude bigger than it was in the 90s; a niche market today is likely to have just as many (if not more) consumers as a mainstream market did in 1995. The joystick is synonymous with gaming, and even though its primacy has been supplanted by the gamepad, it is still an instantly recognisable symbol of the industry.