May 13, 2011

Bats, Balls, and Gates

When I was a kid, there was nothing better than the sights and sounds inside a busy video game arcade. They were these wonderful, dimly lit dens, filled with cacophony of overlapping electronic noise, lit only by the rows of flickering CRT screens. If you listened closely you could pick out individual games, recognize titles and hear new ones you hadn't discovered yet.

Nothing was more exciting than walking into an arcade and finding a game you'd never seen before...I still remember the first time I saw a Street Fighter Alpha machine. This was Street fighter...but the game looked...different, more stylized, with much smoother animation. Plus, who were all these new selectable characters? Wait, that's Chun-Li, but she's got a totally different costume! It pretty much made my tiny brain explode, and I had just about the same reaction every time I discovered something new. I vividly remember watching some teens play Virtua Fighter when it was originally released, and you should have seen me the first time I played Metal Slug.

Much of this nostalgia is due to the fact that I was just a kid, maybe 12 or so, when I first discovered these places. I just remember those machines being so much larger than life. Every game had its own massive cabinet, standing tall and proud. They weren't just games, they were monuments...tributes to the digital adventures they held within.

Anyway, the reason I bring up my love for arcades is that it helps explains my obsession with joysticks. I've been trying to recreate the "arcade" experience at home for years, so for every console I own I've got to have at least one joystick to pair with it. Many people prefer joysticks because of the additional precision and control they can offer, especially with fighting games. For me, it's mostly about the nostalgia. I'm actually much more competent with a standard controller, but there's just something fun and nostalgic about using a stick.

So, here's where the trouble starts. Why is it that in arcades, the stick has a "bat" shaped top on the stick, while most of the quality home versions have a "ball" top? I vastly prefer the bat style, both because it matches the arcades and it's what I'm "used to", but also because the ball tops are just uncomfortable in my hands, they're too small and I can't quite get a grip on them. (I'll take a moment here to acknowledge all the possible phallic puns and double entendre here. Get ready, because it's probably only going to get worse.)

The short answer is that "American" arcade sticks have traditionally used the bat-top style, while "Japanese" arcades have always favored the ball-top. The sticks currently available for purchase all use Japanese parts, so they have that same style. (That's about as over simplified as an answer on this subject could possibly be.)

What's nice about this, however, is that since these home sticks are made with genuine arcade parts, you can simply swap out the pieces you might want to change. An arcade owner might need to replace a button or worn out stick, and now so can the home gamer, easily and quickly.

I decided to take a closer look at 6 of my favorites. Much closer actually. I'm not going to get in depth at all here, I'm just going to zoom in and focus on the actual "stick" component to see how each one compares to my ideal vision of the perfect joystick.

The Advantage

The Advantage isn't the first home joystick, but it's the one that many kids from the 80's will remember the best. If you didn't grow up with Atari, this was probably the first stick you would have become familiar with. This thing truly lived up to its name, those Turbo buttons were essential back in the day. It's amazing that there was a time when your proficiency at playing a game was directly related to how fast you could push the buttons. That's how it was though, and oh how sweet it was to mow down bad guys using Mega Man's default proto canon, or conquering Gradius effortlessly with the aid of the slow motion option. Yes, for those not aware, when you used to pause a game it would just...pause. Sometimes a little "PAUSE" would show up on the screen, other times it would simply freeze the action. So, if you happened to have a controller that could rapidly pause/unpause, you created a slow motion effect that would allow you to carefully traverse the trickier sections of a difficult game.

Anyway, as cool as this stick is, it's less of a genuine "arcade" stick and is more closely related to a D-pad. Instead of an 8 way digital switch system for the input, it's basically a D-pad under the stick, and leaning it in a direction with press down on the corresponding input. With a "real" stick, there is a durable switch system that recognizes when the stick is pointed in one of 8 directions (or neutral). I have some sticks for the Saturn that use the D-pad construction, and they tend to wear out and break with even casual usage. The accuracy also suffers, and when you're engaged in a heated match of Marvel Vs Street fighter, every input counts.

Tekken 5 Tenth Anniversary Arcade Stick

Not a bad stick, and something I bought because my big Pelican stick is incompatible with the slim PS2. I'm not really a Tekken fan, but I am obsessed with all fighting games to some degree, so I usually end up buying them anyway. I found this stick on clearance, and it actually came packaged with Tekken 5, which was a nice bonus and almost made up for the fact that it has shirtless Tekken dudes all over it. It's using the Japanese style of construction, with the ball top and a square restrictor gate, which limits the movement of the stick. You can still input the 8 directions, but you're doing so within the confines of a square. This is something that many people won't even notice, but it's always bugged me. I vastly, vastly prefer a circle gate, which was the default in many American arcade machines. This is a solid piece, manufactured by one of the giants in the joystick industry, Hori. It's gotten a decent amount of use, mostly for the various King of Fighters collections I've accumulated for the PS2. It's good but it feels "loose" to me, not quite as solid as I'd prefer.

Pelican Universal Real Arcade Stick

This was my favorite for a long time. It was my Xbox stick, and it served me well in many Dead or Alive matches and endless rounds of Capcom vs SNK 2. It has a circle gate, a large bat top, and big, loud, concave buttons that "snap" when you tap them. It's built with solid wood that is heavy enough to feel substantial, but light enough to keep on your lap for hours. I fucking LOVE this thing. It's like I was able to tear the controls right out of a mid 90's cabinet and bring them home. The only fault, and this is a big one, is that it doesn't work with the PS2. It's supposed to, but due to a manufacturer's defect, it simply shorts out the rumble function on the console and then isn't responsive at all.

I wasn't aware of this when I got the stick, so of course the very first thing I did was when I got my Slim PS2 was plug this sucker in. Instead of spending the next few hours playing through my King of Fighters compilations, I sat there with a non-functioning stick and a brand new PS2 that no longer supported the rumble feature. Luckily, the stick still worked fine on the Xbox, and I've gotten around the "no rumble" issue by using a wireless Logitech controller. It's a superb controller, and for some reason the rumble works fine (I believe the issue is that the system can't send the rumble signal through the cord of the controller, but it can still send it wirelessly. It's an actual, physical problem resulting from a tiny fried chip in there somewhere.)

ASCII Saturn Stick

This is an excellent stick, vastly superior to the other shitty Saturn "Virtua Sticks" I had been using previously (the only sticks I've had that actually broke on me, even with just casual use). My Saturn collection consists almost entirely of fighting games and 2D shoot-em ups, so the stick got a ton of use. It has a bat top and an octagonal gate, which is better than the square gate on the Tekken stick, but again the whole thing just feels a bit "loose" to me. I know there are a lot of "pro" players that love this looseness, but I like just a bit of resistance. I like it when the stick unmistakably returns to the neutral position, and sometimes this one almost feels like it's flopping over a bit. Still, I love the looks of this stick, aesthetically it's quite sleek and dare I (OH NO, INNUENDO.)

Agetec Dreamcast Arcade Stick

I found this beauty at a local game shop and bought it without hesitation. I ALWAYS wanted one back when the DC was still in stores, but no one carried it and importing was too expensive. It has a ball top and a square gate, neither of which I prefer, but it's just such a well put together stick that it doesn't even matter. This thing is just gorgeous, and it's in flawless condition. I mean, look at it! It's art.

Not ugly artwork, a simple, classic design, sold construction and a beautiful, classy color scheme. I sat down for a few rounds of Project Justice when I bought this and it was just good. I should also mention that this stick is the modder's choice, it's the most altered stick out there and its guts are the basis for countless custom tournament sticks. It's made by Agetec, aka ""Ascii Game Entertainment Technology", aka the same guys that made the Saturn stick I'm so fond of. It's a Japanese style construction, and even though it has both a ball top and a square gate, I still love it just the way it is.

Marvel vs Capcom Tournament Stick

This was given to me as a wedding present by my Best Man, who you all know as Equidist, the other contributor to this blog. It's a BEAST. It's somehow even heavier than my Pelican stick and just a bit larger (although not as thick). The art is pretty awesome, normally I prefer a stick without any gratuitous images plastered on the face, but this is pretty damn cool. I also like that it's a generic Marvel vs Capcom, it's a bit more timeless that way. Back in college, Equidist and I used to play Marvel vs Capcom 2 on the Dreamcast for hours, and while I'd like to think we were pretty evenly matched, he always managed to kick the shit out of me with Shuma Gorath. Every damn time... Anyway, this Madcatz stick was made with Sanwa parts and once again uses the Japanese construction style, with a square gate and a ball top. It's too bad, because besides that this stick is awesome...if only there was some way to just...modify those few little details...

What's this? Why, it's a superior bat top and a circle gate, manufactured by Sanwa!

Let me just bust this case open for a second...

Here we go, the square gate has been removed and the blue circle gate is firmly in place. Now I just need to put this back in there...

While I'm at it, let's get that annoying ball off. I'll just toss that aside...

...and it looks like Shiro has found a new toy! He was totally into that ball for a solid ten minutes.

And now...perfection! This is it, my ideal joystick. It looks and feels just like those cabinets that I first played Street Fighter Alpha on. The only real difference is that the buttons are still convex, not concave...but that's a tiny detail and I kind of like them. If anything, this stick is now a great hybrid of the American and Japanese styles, the best of both worlds (as far as I'm concerned).

If you're interested in learning more about modding and the vast, vast scene out there for this stuff, check out the forums over at Shoryuken. I've barely scratched the surface here, there are fans that get way more involved with the modifications they make, changing the artwork and even the button layouts. There are a select few that actually take the time to build entire sticks from scratch. Hardcore, man. Hardcore.

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