Above all, a joystick must stand up to constant pounding, so it should be sturdy, with a solid heavy base to keep it from flipping during violent maneuvers.
After that, it depends on how you're using it. The traditional joystick was based on a fighter plane's control stick, but most civilian aircraft and many military planes, including the P-38 and Spitfire fighters of World War II and virtually all bombers use a yoke control, which is more like a car's steering wheel. A yoke controller may also feel more natural with auto racing games.
For even more realism, you may want a joystick that comes with a throttle control or a set of rudder pedals. I have decent desk and floor space in front of my computer, so I enjoy having a joystick, throttle and set of rudder pedals at my disposal. If you're short on space, a compact joystick/throttle unit makes more sense.
Although the original joystick came with a single "fire button," the best of today's controllers have an array of programmable buttons so you don't have to hunt and peck for the right key to raise your landing gear or turn on your Porsche's lights.
Good joysticks also have at least one point-of-view (POV) button, known as a "hat," that that allows you to view your environment from different directions.
If you like to feel the rumble of the ground beneath your wheels when you take off from Chicago O'Hare Airport, you'll probably want a force-feedback unit with extra motors that not only produce sound, but also make the joystick buzz, rattle, hum, shake and thump, depending upon what you're doing -- or what's being done to you.
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