Long have I dreamed of returning to my heady days as a young and ambitious TIE fighter pilot. Serving the Empire, chasing down rebel scum, and sitting in briefing rooms while sweeping my gaze over giant metal doors and watching them open and close as if controlled by the Force. It was a long time ago (the early 1990's) in a bedroom far, far away (central Florida), and with the recent appearance of the LucasArts X-Wing/TIE Fighter games both on Steam and GOG I'm finally going back.
It'd be foolish, though, to time travel into the past without bringing some advanced technology with me. There's obviously been quite a lot of advancement in PC flight stick technology in the past two decades, so I thought I might introduce some recent tech to the vintage game and see how they get along.
Enter PC Gamer's Thrustmaster Hotas Warthog flight stick and throttle. This isn't just new to TIE Fighter, it's new to me: I haven't had a joystick for my PC since around the time I originally played the game. The Warthog is a far cry from the stick I used then, which had two (maybe 3?) buttons, a hollow plastic stick that creaked and cracked when squeezed too hard, suction-cups on the bottom that didn't stick to anything, and its finest quality: being the cheapest thing I could find at the time.
I'm using the 1998 version of Tie-Fighter from GOG, so naturally you can't just start it up, grab the Warthog, and vaporize some rebels without doing a little configuration first. While you can remap the controls in-game, the Warthog's throttles aren't recognized (though the buttons on the throttle can be assigned) and with the throttle plugged in, the stick initially didn't work at all, due to the stick and throttle being counted as two separate controllers. Using TARGET solved the dual controller problem, but I still couldn't get the throttle to work as a throttle.
Luckily, the internet's got forums like Yoda's got midi-chlorians, and in forums you can find people who have done all the things you don't know how to do. I found a TARGET profile on this GOG forum page, which has buttons and throttles mapped. Thank you, forums! I ran the profile through TARGET and fired up Tie Fighter, and it worked! Sort of.
Flying a TIE fighter using the Warthog's thruster is pretty great, though not perfect. Pushing the throttle up and down didn't gradually increase my ship's speed, but moved it through set valves: 0%, 33%, 66%, 100%. Still, it's pretty darn cool to push the throttle forward and have the ship respond, and far more rewarding than tapping or holding down a key.
The Warthog's stick, I found, didn't do quite as well. The biggest issue I had was with the trigger, which I would consider to be a Very Important Button in a game like this. First, instead of being able to simply hold the trigger down to fire repeatedly, I had to pull the trigger separately each time. I'm as weak as a malnourished kitten, but I have to imagine it'd be a strain on anyone's finger after a few minutes, as that trigger button is pretty stiff. The game also seemed to interpret my pulling of the trigger as an attempt to activate the hyperdrive, which is how you end a mission. Thankfully, my TIE fighter wasn't equipped with a hyperdrive so firing a shot didn't automatically send me rocketing back home at .5 past lightspeed.
The real game-breaker with the trigger was that after about five minutes of play, the game would completely stop responding to the button altogether, leaving me with nothing to do but fly around peacefully. And flying around peacefully doesn't exactly label me as officer material in the Empire. Still, it was pretty cool to be piloting a TIE Fighter again, and feeling a lot more like an actual pilot, even with those issues.
The Warthog is definitely a step up from the weak sauce plastic joystick I used originally, and even a partially working thruster is great fun and adds a lot to the simulation. Even if it worked perfectly, though, I think the Warthog is probably a bit overkill for TIE Fighter's needs. I'm still glad I tried it, and that it's even possible to try it: one of the things that makes PC gaming so great is that there are ways run old games on systems it wasn't meant for (in this case, Windows 7), and with hardware it's never met before.
If you've got suggestions on the perfect stick for TIE Fighter (or if you've had better success in making the Warthog work), let me know in the comments!