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Controllers and retro sims part 1: Axis of confusion


TM Warthog throttle
TM Warthog throttle

In the old DOS days of yore you might have a joystick, sometimes a joystick and throttle and if you were very lucky a joystick, throttle and rudder pedals. One controller would act as a 'hub' and the rest would plug into it (usually with some proprietary cable) and a Gameport cable would run from the hub controller into a Gameport socket in your soundcard. You might have had 2 or 3 controllers but as far as your pc was concerned it was a single Gameport device. You'd plug it all in, calibrate the controllers in the game and away you would go.





Fast forward a few years and the Gameport has gone, to be replaced by USB. Later USB controllers like the Saitek X45 or Logitech X52 Pro would continue to use a similar design. One controller would be the hub and the rest would plug into it (still with a proprietary cable). Now a USB cable runs from the 'hub' controller into a USB port. But as far as your pc was concerned it was still a single USB device.


These days we'll often find that the mid/high end controllers are USB devices in their own right. My Warthog stick, throttle and rudder pedals are each a USB device, this has some important implications for retro flight sims.


DOS Flight sims


Most (if not all) DOS flight sims will support a maximum of 4 axes. I can't think of a DOS based sim requiring more than 4 axes, and some games will only support fewer. Those 4 axes will be:


  • The joystick X/Y axes.

  • The throttle (collective for helicopter sims) axis.

  • The rudder axis.


Windows 10/11 (I'm assuming that's the platform most of us are using) has a limit of 8 axes per USB device. So a USB HOTAS controller should be able to supply enough axes for our DOS flight sim.


Emulators would really like to see is a single device with 4 axes or fewer. It'll be ok with a single device with between 4 and 8 axes, but it's probably not a fan of multiple USB devices. If I just try and use DOSBox-X with my joystick, throttle and pedals connected. It'll happily ignore the stick and pedals and only pick up the throttle as a 4-axis device.


Controllers, devices and axes.


So the question we need to ask is:


Given the controllers I wish to use, how many devices and axes is that?


If it's a single USB device with 4 axes or fewer then an emulator like DOSBox should find them all. There may still be to be some configuration but they are available.


If it's a single USB device with 4 -8 axes then an emulator like DOSBox should find the device but you may have to tell it which axes you want to use.


If it's multiple USB devices and/or 8 axes or more then we need to take a look at virtual controllers.


With my Warthog stick, throttle and rudder pedals I have a total of 3 devices and 10 axes (I think). In my case I need to create a virtual device for my Warthog devices and rudder pedals.


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