Unless you are a hardcore fan of flight simulators, you probably don’t have a flight stick at your desk. There was a time when flight sticks, or more generic “joysticks,” were an essential PC gaming accessory, but Windows’ support for Xbox-style gamepads grew as the demand for games that simulate aerial and space combats decreased. Now, they’re somewhat of a niche product.
That may well change this year. Tomorrow sees the launch of Microsoft Flight Simulator, a gorgeous and ambitious project that marks an incredible upgrade for the series — and it’ll be available to anyone on Xbox Game Pass. Later this fall, meanwhile, Star Wars: Squadrons promises to re-create the tense space battles of the X-Wing and TIE Fighter games from the ‘90s. I wouldn’t dream of playing either with a gamepad, so I wanted to find a good entry-level flight stick that’ll do them justice.
How Microsoft Flight Simulator returned to the skies
I expect that Thrustmaster’s new $69.99 Airbus-branded Sidestick, which I’ve been testing for a while, will be a popular choice. (Its full name is the TCA Sidestick Airbus Edition.) It’s designed as a 1:1 replica of the sidestick used in the Airbus A320 — a famous differentiator from Boeing’s traditional yokes — and it works with Microsoft Flight Simulator right out of the box without any need for setup.
I wouldn’t describe the Sidestick as a premium product, as it does feel a little plasticky in places. But overall, I was impressed for the price. The base is solid enough, the movement of the stick itself is convincing, and it’s just vastly more satisfying to use than a gamepad.
The Sidestick is not lacking in input options or customizability. There are 12 buttons on the base and four on the stick, as well as an 8-way hat switch (for looking around the cockpit), a twist lock, and a throttle slider that can be configured to serve as an extra “button” at the bottom of its throw. The stick also ships with swappable side buttons that let you set it up as the right or left seat of an airliner based on where you place the wider red button module, or you can go with the narrow or wide options on both sides.
The throttle slider is the Sidestick’s biggest weak point. It feels flimsy, and the markings on the stick’s base don’t do much to help you gauge positioning. It does the job, though, and if you want to upgrade down the line, this Sidestick is compatible with Thrustmaster’s TCA ecosystem of pedals and throttles. A matching $99.99 Airbus throttle quadrant is set to ship next month.
I can’t claim to be experienced in the mechanics of flying actual planes, but I can say that Microsoft Flight Simulator feels infinitely more convincing with this Thrustmaster Sidestick than an Xbox gamepad. The way it provides more resistance and gives you finer control over three axes of movement in the air is really not something you can replicate with a little thumbstick. A stick like this, if not this specific one, should be considered essential for Flight Simulator.
In preparation for Star Wars: Squadrons, I also went back and tested the Sidestick with some old games like TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance, and it worked great, despite being ostensibly designed for simulating civil aviation. These Star Wars games relied heavily on keyboard controls back in the day even if you did have a joystick, but the Sidestick’s banks of programmable buttons are useful for things like managing shields and laser power on the fly.
If you’re interested in these games, you should really think about getting a flight stick, and Thrustmaster’s TCA Sidestick Airbus Edition is about as solid an entry-level option as I could imagine. At $69.99, it’s in the ballpark of regular Xbox One controller pricing, but it offers something entirely different. The only problem might be getting your hands on one since it’s already out of stock through Microsoft — but if you can, it comes highly recommended for what it is.
Photography by Sam Byford / The Verge