A couple of days ago, we posted a feature that looked back at when Microsoft decided to enter the gaming PC and keyboard market with technology from Razer. Of course, many of you may remember that Microsoft had already released a number of gaming PC gamepads and joysticks under its SideWinder brand before that was ultimately retired.
While the SideWinder game controllers and joysticks mostly looked and acted similar to other devices made by others, there are a couple of products that stood out as, well, different than the others. One of them was definitely the Microsoft SideWinder Strategic Commander (say that three times fast) which first went on sale in 2001.
At first glance, you may think that the Strategic Commander was a PC gaming mouse. However, Microsoft labeled it as a joystick, and that’s because the base of the product is not meant to move on a flat surface like a mouse. Instead, the upper half of the “joystick” is designed to be held by the left hand. It can be rotated slightly and also moved up and down and from side to side.
As the name strongly suggests, the Strategic Commander is made for strategy games in general and real-time strategy games in particular. At the time the product was released, the RTS game genre was at its most popular, with games like Blizzard’s Warcraft and Starcraft, EA’s Command and Conquer franchise and of course the Age of Empires games from Ensemble and Microsoft. So it made some sense for Microsoft to offer a gaming accessory that was made for that community.
The upper half of the Strategy Commander had six programmable buttons made for a person’s ring, major and index fingers. You could use the included software to customize how they worked in games. On the right side of the device, there were two zoom buttons, which were made specifically so RTS gamers could quickly zoom in and out of a map.
Three shift buttons were also available, so you could press one of the six buttons on time, and one of the shift buttons at the same time, to perform even more in-game actions. Microsoft said up to 72 different commands could be programmed.
A record button is also available so you can reprogram the six main buttons on the fly. Finally, the lower base of the device had a button that could be used to switch between three stored game controller profiles.
The included Strategic Commander software allowed users to create and modify controller options and profiles for games. Microsoft had 30 pre-created profiles for a number of games. Some reviews mentioned that the joystick could also be a great controller for first person shooter games.
Speaking of reviews, they were a bit mixed. ActiveWin.com stated at the time, “Even if the device targets a very specific market, every strategy game addict should buy it to change the way he plays.” However, Neoseeker wrote that the lengthy use of the joystick could lead to cramps in the hand, and that it was made for small or average hands. Since the Strategic Commander was made to be used on the left hand only, that meant left-handed people who need to use a regular mouse in that position were out of luck.
Microsoft ended up discontinuing the SideWinder Strategy Commander, and indeed the entire SideWinder PC gaming accessory lineup went into a period of hiatus for several years in 2002 before being revived again briefly in 2008 (perhaps we will write about that someday). However, there’s no doubt the company was trying to do something different with this product, and it remains a curious oddity among Microsoft PC game products.