Mathias's projects when he was still in high school during the 80's:
Primitive plotter: http://www.sentex.net/~mwandel/tech/plotter.html
Primitive 1-pin dot matrix printer:
Primitive Commodore 64 drum scanner:
Home made wooden Joystik:
The next step up is a current limiting stepper motor driver. These can handle more voltage and current, and have the sensing to avoid burning themselves out. You still have to provide pulses for each step. Go for at least this level. Stepper motors use considerable power when stopped, and you need current limiting on all but the tiniest motors. Otherwise you get to choose between overheating and too weak.
Next are drivers and controllers on the same board. These accept commands over USB, I2C, or a few other data paths, and take care of operating the motor. If you're not into really low level programming, this makes life simpler.
In fact, a Commodore 64 or a TRS-80 Color Computer were some of the cheapest "microcontroller development kits" at the time.