Win95 and Hardware
The Arrival Of Windows 95
As I remember things, Windows 95 was intended to be a milestone for gaming in the GUI. I still have copies of the two big Activision releases, Earth Worm Jim and Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure. Those incredible side-scrollers took things a whole lot further than they were back in the old "16 bit" days, and as corny as they may look now, they showed us a little of what Windows 95 was capable of. In looking back on the research, it seems that Microsoft had a huge hand in making sure there were some big releases of games for Windows 95. Fury 3 was a Windows 95 update of Terminal Velocity, actually published by Microsoft and it showed that they were serious about trying to make Windows a viable gaming platform. Yes, it was sluggish and not as graphically rich as it could have been, but Microsoft was making the effort.
We also saw a serious financial commitment when Microsoft purchased RenderMorphics to help work on early versions of Direct X and Direct 3D. Microsoft had heard the horror stories of how inefficient it was for developers to get at the system hardware through Windows, and Microsoft wanted to make sure it addressed those issues. As we all know now, Direct X took many, many years to develop, but with the last couple of versions, it has really started to come together (more on that a little later). The point is that Microsoft was showing the gaming community it was serious about the software, going so far as to purchase entire companies to obtain key technology and expertise. They showed that they were willing to go out on a limb and actually become a game publisher and put money behind titles. Microsoft usually doesn't get things right on the first, second or even the third try, but they usually keep plugging away and trying to improve their products so that they meet the original expectations. It may be that they are stubborn, or it may be that they care, but whatever the case, gamers were starting to see the benefits of that work.
The Joystick That Would Become Legend
The first piece of Microsoft gaming hardware I ever laid eyes on was the Sidewinder Pro 3D joystick. It is still my opinion that this was one of the single best gaming products ever created. I have never given it up, and I never will. I have tried dozens and dozens of sticks, but this one is still one of the two best I've ever tried. I first got wind of this bad boy during a Mech Warrior 2 promotion. This special edition of Mech Warrior 2 came bundled with the Sidewinder Pro 3D and was designed to take full advantage of it. Boy did it ever.
The construction of this stick was so solid it put most others to shame. Even after all these years, the hardware works flawlessly every single time I use it. It had everything: a ton of buttons, a throttle, a torso-twist and a hat switch. It was a perfect match for Mech Warrior 2, and anyone who has played the combination knows that is no exaggeration. Not only did this stick work digitally in Windows 95, but it could work in analog mode as well, and it included emulation modes for either a Thrustmaster or the revered CH Flight Stick Pro.
It had a nice, heavy base, which reminded me of the old Gravis stick, but with a more useful and ergonomic design. It had a nice hand rest so that you could play it without too much fatigue. It came with some basic but functional software that let users program keystrokes into each button in case certain games did not support all of the features. It was designed to be a transition product, and it was a huge, huge success. When I went to the computer store the first few times, they were always out. It seemed that people were buying the bundle just to get the stick. Mech Warrior 2 was just an afterthought. At the time, $89 did not seem excessive for such an incredible stick, and before long I was a Mech Warrior 2 addict. It worked with Descent 2 as well, and with that stick I was able to play both games online and do pretty well, if I do say so myself. In Descent 2 I could use the hat switch to glide in all directions, I could configure the throttle to move forward and back, and I could use the extra buttons to switch weapons, release missiles and a whole lot more. In Mech Warrior 2, thanks to the incredible torso-twist, I could easily run circles around my enemies while blasting them apart. Microsoft made a big impact with this product, and it set the tone for things to come. Microsoft was serious about its gaming hardware.