Get control over games. (computer games) (column)
by Orson Scott Card
Try as they might, gamewrights don't have complete control over the way you experience their games. As more and more games rely on nonstandard devices-something besides the keyboard, the screen, and the hard disk-your enjoyment depends more and more on the right tools.
But where to turn for guidance? Where can you find the right tool that will bring life to the game, without interfering with the quality of the play? Ask another game player-like me. Here's my guide for the game player's indispensable toolkit.
Sticks. I've used a lot of joysticks over the years, and for a long time I thought there was no such thing as a good PC joystick. Once you've played with that tough old bird, the original Atari joystick, with its firm resistance and delicious tactile feedback, those wimpy little toothpick joysticks you're forced to use on IBM-related machines are faintly disgusting.
Does any game actually use the IBM-joystick's capability of registering how far you've moved the stick? I don't think so. They only register the same things that the Atari stick reported so cleanly and simply-up, down, left, right, or center. So we put up with all that wimpiness just so the IBM stick can report information that no game ever uses.
Despite my dislike of the whole idea of the IBM joystick, I'm glad to report that somebody actually makes a good one. Epyx's hand-held joystick, the 500XJ, is the most comfortable, responsive joystick in the IBM world-and it's the only one that belongs in the same league as the Atari stick.
Balls. What the IBM joystick's designers didn't anticipate was the little box with the ball in it-the mouse and the trackball. When we want subtle information about how far and how fast, that's what we use.
I've tried a lot of mice, and for the sheer feel of it, there's no comparison to the Microsoft mouse. It cradles in the palm of your hand, it responds beautifully to natural and easy wrist movements, and when it gets dirty and binds up, you just pop off the collar, drop out the ball, and blow the box clean.
There is something better, but I don't think it's made its way to the PC world yet. On my Amiga I use the optical Boing Mouse from GfxBase (408-262-1469). It doesn't give quite the tactile feedback of the Microsoft mouse, but it has the advantage of never getting dirty and binding up like a shopping cart wheel.
On my upstairs machine, the portable that I use for my writing, I need a mouse for a few jobs. (Well, all right, for a few monochrome games.) But the way I use my desk doesn't work well with a mouse. I surround myself with the piles of books and notes that I'm using for current projects; I can't afford to keep a mouse pad's worth of space free and clear.
So I decided to buy a trackball. I first tried the most traditional design-big ball in the middle, buttons above it. It was awful. What was I supposed to do, move the ball with my palm?
My next try was a nice hefty poolball-sized item with big buttons framing the ball on either side. It was much better, but my fingers just aren't dexterous enough to move the ball with speed and assurance.
Then I bought Logitech's Trackman, and I'm happy. This is the trackball that has you move the ball with your thumb, while your fingers rest on the buttons off to the side. Logitech's promos aren't hype; they're true: The thumb really is more dexterous than the fingers. With the ballistics feature turned on, I can move all over the screen with simple, quick, intuitive movements. It still isn't as comfortable and easy as a mouse, but where a mouse won't do, the Trackman will.
Sounds. I always figured that when I wanted good sound, I'd use the Amiga. But then it became clear that too many good games with good sound were being put out for PCs only, and I wanted to hear them. So I sprang for the bucks to buy the Roland MT-32. The only trouble is its memory conflict with the Racet laser drive (a rewritable optical disk drive) I use for backup. When faced with that choice-well, backup comes before play.
When I got my 486, I moved the MT-32 into it and fell in love. It sounds great. In the meantime, I bought an Ad Lib board for my 386 machine, and it had no conflicts with the laser drive. While it isn't quite as lush-sounding as the MT-32, it still sounds great-and many games make good use of both sound boards, either for sound effects or for background music. (Both boards require you to buy a simple amplifier and a pair of speakers.)
There are some peculiarities, at least on my systems. When I'm playing Railroad Tycoon, there are times when the Ad Lib board doesn't get the message to turn off a particular sound effect, so I have to spend several minutes listening to a whine or a hiss before I can get the thing to shut down. Very unpleasant.
The MT-32, on the other hand, is consistent: Every time it's first used, no matter where I have the volume set, it turns on at full blast and calms down only after I've fiddled with the knob.
But hey, once you've played with either sound board installed, playing without it feels like watching a movie with the soundtrack turned off.