Saturday, August 11, 2012

On Joysticks

The hype surrounding Persona 4 Arena's release temporarily reignited my passion for fighting games such that I felt compelled to mod my Xbox 360 MadCatz Tournament Edition "S" FightStick to be compatible with the PS3 as well. It was a fairly straightforward job, as I just purchased an already assembled PS3 controller circuit board, which I then had to install into my 360 stick. Looking back, I'm not sure why I ever had a 360 stick to begin with, seeing as how all my fighting games (including Persona 4 Arena) are on the PS3. Also, since I already had a PS3 stick, you might wonder why I had to mod my 360 stick to turn it into a second PS3-compatible stick. I don't intend to make a hobby of this, but I suppose it was something kind of fun to do, which also kept me busy for a day while unemployed.

When I was younger and more passionate about fighting games, I once thought to myself that, one day when I found the time, I would build my own joystick. Eventually, so I imagined, I would even study up on all the necessary skills and labor to put together a complete arcade cabinet, once I had the funds and a place of my own to keep it.

Mind you, this was around the early 2000s. In those days, your only options for arcade-quality joysticks for PS1/PS2 were to 1) build it yourself, 2) order one from MAS Systems, or 3) pay someone advertising on the newsgroups/forums to build one custom for you. No matter which route you went, if you wanted real arcade parts and quality construction, you would be looking at spending $100 minimum (usually closer to $200). Anything you could find in stores from MadCatz, Pelican, Nuby, etc. would be complete junk.

As the fighting game community grew online, and fewer and fewer members of it remembered or cared what the local arcade experience was, the rugged American-style sticks peddled by MAS and other small operators fell out of favor. Japanese sticks by Ascii and especially Hori started to become more sought after. Online fighting game "professors" were able to break down the science of why lighter, looser stick levers and convex buttons were the way to go if you wanted to achieve your full potential. When Hori released its "Real Arcade Pro" controller for the PS2, sporting a genuine Sanwa JLF stick straight out of the Japanese arcade cabinets, it quickly became lauded by importers as the new standard in home joysticks, never mind that the buttons were still not Sanwa but merely Hori knockoffs.

Many American console players finally got their first chance to see what joysticks were all about in 2005, when Namco bundled Tekken 5 for the PS2 with a Hori stick. Although both the buttons and stick were cheaper Hori parts, rather than genuine Sanwa, the build was otherwise the same as the Real Arcade Pro, making it perhaps the first fairly high-quality joystick widely available in the US. By this time, Hori had released the Real Arcade Pro 2 in Japan, which featured Sanwa buttons and stick, and anything less was soon being declared garbage by joystick aficionados. Nevertheless, pretty much every casual-to-semi-competitive player I knew in the US was using the Tekken 5 Hori stick.

Things changed in a big way, however, when Street Fighter IV came out in 2009, accompanied by the official Tournament Edition FightStick from MadCatz. Selling for about what you would expect to pay for a custom-built joystick, it was the first domestic, mass-market stick to feature a full complement of the highest-quality Sanwa parts. Its success pushed Hori to finally pursue the US market more aggressively with new premium joysticks.

With these recent developments, my old dream of one day building my own stick has been abandoned, not because I've realized it's unrealistic (as has been the case with so many other dreams), but because it has become obsolete. There's no longer any need to build a custom stick in order to compete or capture the "authentic arcade experience." Nowadays, you can easily (though still not cheaply) get a domestic, licensed-by-Sony/Microsoft stick from MadCatz or Hori, and it will be as good as any stick that you could build yourself. In fact, I have two of these MadCatz sticks for some reason. And I don't even play or enjoy fighting games nearly as much as I used to!

Well, I suppose it might still be fun to try to build an American-style stick with a bat top. Or maybe a "left-handed" joystick (I used to think it made more sense, as a right-handed person, to have the stick on the right side and the buttons on the left). Or maybe one day I'll even build that arcade cabinet.

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