Old Game, New Controller: Descent

I’ve been playing a lot of games lately.  In fact, I seem to have more games in my collection than I have time to play so I just rotate in or out as my tastes dictate.  (I got Carmageddon working under DOSBOX.  The less said about that game the better.  It doesn’t help that I have bought more games from GOG and at dollar stores recently but…)

An old game I’ve been playing lately is Descent.  I have the entire Descent series (three games) and the entire Freespace series from GOG.  I’ve had trouble playing the original Descent games (Descent and Descent 2, which used the same engine) because neither of them supports my controller very well.  DOSBOX, the virtualization software for DOS games, only emulates the native PC joystick interface—four axes on two sticks, and four buttons. 

This does not work well nor play well for this game, for reasons I’ll explain later on.

There is a solution.  Descent is one of several games whose source code has been released;  The Build engine of Duke Nukem and Redneck Rampage (not that I own these), and most famously, Doom, has also released as source.  I have played and loved Doomsday, the 3D engine for Doom and Doom 2.

A German Descent fan has developed D2X-XL, a Descent 1/2 game engine that runs on modern machines.  It, like Doomsday, implements the full lighting and shading effects that we expect from a modern video card at modern resolutions, including 16:9, which I now use.

Most importantly, it supports modern controls. 

D2X’s install is moderately complex for a typical gamer;  install the game in a directory outside “Program Files” (I have “\miscprograms\games\”) and copy the game data files from a copy of Descent 1 or Descent 2;  if you bought the GOG edition as I did, they are in C:\Program Files\GOG.com\Descent 1 and 2\.  If you run the D2X executable, it will give you a dialog box explaining which files are missing.

(If you are on a x64 system, the GOG files will be in \Program Files (x86).  D2X comes in a 64-bit version, so you may want to read the instructions on how to use that.)

I won’t go into graphics setup as that will vary;  my elderly nVidia card had to have most of the settings dialed way down so my screenshots won’t look as cool as they would be on a modern card and motherboard (next year maybe.)

The controls are set in Options/Controls/Customize Joystick. 

Before I go on, I must say that Descent is one of the more complicated games to play and control.  Only flight simulators are more specialized than this game.  In the game, you pilot a spaceship down the corridors and passages of a mine, battling rouge mechs, trying to destroy the mechs and the mine (via a reactor you blow up) in order to go on to the next mine.  Your ship has controls on all three axes, and you not only pitch and yaw like an aircraft, but you also move laterally left and right, up and down, forward and back.  And, like a fighter jet, you have an array of weapon systems to manage .

How I ever liked this game when I was younger, I do not know.  (In those days, a joystick with a hat switch was the thing to play it with.)

Here is my setup for using the XBox 360 controller.  I’ve had this controller longer than any other and I love it.

In this game, as in most games by default, the left joystick control is joystick #1 and handles the pitch and yaw.

The D-Pad control on the bottom left is not used.

The left and right “bumper” buttons (or shoulder buttons if you will) fire the primary (laser) and secondary (missile) weapons.  Here’s where it gets complex.

The right joystick, unused by most games, is used to slide (translate) from left to right and up to down.

The right trigger engages forward thrust.  The left trigger engages rear thrust.  In this controller, the triggers are treated as an extra axis and will register partial trigger movements (though not in Descent.)

The white Back button cycles through your primary weapons;  the white Start button does the same for secondary weapons.

Button A fires a flare—very necessary in most mines that are dark;  button B will bank the ship with the joystick when it is held in.  Button X replicates the forward thrust control;  Button Y replicates reverse thrust.

The joystick controls themselves can be pressed for an extra button each.  They, like the D-Pad, are unassigned.  Of the remaining controls in Descent, most are either infrequently used (cruise mode) or too dangerous (bomb release) to warrant being available on the controller.  I’ve tried to make this logical for the way I play, and it has seemed to work.

A skilled player, of which I am not one, can make his or her ship do pirouettes all day with this controller.  I’ll just settle for surviving to the next level.

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