After a few mediocre years of playing with the Sanwa JLF, I decided recently to swap the ubiquitous Japanese joystick lever out of my Mad Catz Arcade FightStick Tournament Edition S and install in its place the less widely known Crown CWJ-303A.
Fighting game enthusiasts may recognize the Crown as the arcade stick lever of choice of South Korean player Seonwoo Lee (AKA "Infiltration"), who used it throughout his dominant run in 2012, during which he achieved the "double-double" of winning both the Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012 and Street Fighter X Tekken championships at both Evo and the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary Tournament. Infiltration is not on Crown's payroll, nor has he ever actually endorsed the stick as key to his edge over the competition. By all accounts, he uses the Crown lever simply because that's what he first learned to play Street Fighter on, and so he's personally more comfortable with it. It makes sense, because Crown is a leading manufacturer of arcade parts in Infiltration's home country of South Korea.
Introduction to Korean Joysticks
In Japan, Sanwa Denshi has long been the market leader in manufacture of arcade parts, its JLF lever the established gold standard among serious fighting game players. Japan being the originator and reigning power in most tournament fighting games, the rest of the world tends to follow its lead, and Sanwa lever and buttons are nowadays considered mandatory on any commercial joystick marketed as "premium," "pro," or "tournament edition."
That said, South Korea has its own history as an undeniable powerhouse in fighting games. In addition to being the home of Infiltration, South Korea has been recognized for generations now as the strongest region in the world for Tekken competition. There has consequently been, among hardcore enthusiasts of Tekken and other 3-D fighting games, much attention paid to the distinct qualities of Korean joysticks.
The first thing one probably notices about the Crown stick is that it features a "bat top" (referring to the shape of it resembling a baseball bat), as opposed to the "ball top" found on virtually all Sanwa-based joysticks sold by Mad Catz, Hori, Razer, etc. The Crown stick should not in any way be confused with the similarly shaped sticks manufactured by Happ, which were prevalent in American arcades in the days of Street Fighter II. (And, to this day, if you happen across an old Street Fighter II arcade machine in a random bar or wherever in the U.S., the joystick will more than likely be a Happ.) Happ sticks are bigger, have a matte texture, and are noted for their heavy resistance (or "clunkiness," depending on whom you ask), whereas the CWJ-303A has a smooth finish and is much closer to the Sanwa JLF in its lightness. To be sure, depending on one's grip style, a bat top may offer a substantially different experience from a ball top. But the more essential difference between the Crown and the Sanwa is not anything that can be discerned from a photo, but rather in how the Crown lever handles.
The Fanta Stick Difference
The Crown CWJ-303A is what is known as a "Fanta stick" (get it?). Unlike the majority of sticks, including the Sanwa JLF, Korean Fanta sticks do not contain springs to center the lever, but instead utilize a rubber grommet to provide resistance. The rubbery tension of a Fanta stick is often described as "mushy," and I really can't think of any better way to put it, but the difference in feel is immediately apparent. The Crown is somehow both looser and tighter than the Sanwa. Compared to the Sanwa, the Crown lever is less stiff when in neutral (that is, when the stick is in its default centered position). It will actually jiggle a bit if you just flick the top with one finger, whereas the JLF will barely budge. On the other hand, when you pull the Crown lever to the side, although it still pulls easily, the Crown offers slightly more resistance than the JLF, as you can feel the rubber wanting to pull you in the opposite direction back to neutral. The effect is difficult to convey in just words, but I would say it is as though the rubber exhibits a readiness to both follow you out of neutral and also to guide you back to neutral. The spring-based Sanwa JLF, meanwhile, only bends to deliberate force (no jiggle), but, once you apply that force, it becomes limp in your hand, only going where you take it, until you let go of it altogether.
The practical advantage of the rubber tension system is that it helps you to more effortlessly go from neutral to a direction to again neutral. Anybody who has played a lot of Tekken should understand why that would be a huge advantage in that game. Nearly all attacks in Tekken and other 3-D fighting games depend not only on which button you press but also on which direction you hold (or non-direction, in the case of neutral), so, in order to properly utilize your full repertoire of attacks, you must be able to switch between directions and return to neutral in an instant. Also, in Tekken, standing guard is performed by leaving the lever in neutral, so it helps to be able to quickly snap to neutral for defense. Given the advantages that rubber-based Fanta sticks offer, one begins to grasp how the Koreans have so long been dominant in Tekken.
But I've never been a player of the 3-D games, and I picked up the Crown CWJ-303A specifically for use with Street Fighter. So what advantages does a Fanta stick offer there? In Street Fighter and other 2-D fighting games, there isn't nearly as much occasion for having the lever in neutral. Amateur players will even often "hedge their bets" by holding "down-back" in the middle of their attacks, so that, in case the attack doesn't succeed, they're ready to crouch-block (which, rather than neutral, is the safest "default" posture in most 2-D fighting games). The one essential Street Fighter IV technique that a Fanta stick can help immensely with is dashing (also a huge deal in 3-D games), which is performed with the repetitive motion of "forward, forward."
If you play these games primarily on a gamepad (which is how I first learned Street Fighter) or keyboard, then it probably isn't too tricky a task at all to tap "forward" twice in rapid succession. But this is the one motion that I've always had an especially hard time translating to a Sanwa JLF stick. The motion would really be more accurately represented as "forward, neutral, forward." On a gamepad or keyboard, that neutral input is so subtle that it might not even register in your mind that you did it. The game registers it, however, in that moment when you lift your thumb or finger off the "forward" key the first time, right before you press it again. On a joystick, there's no "lifting" of fingers off directionals. The equivalent might be letting go of the lever, so that it automatically re-centers to neutral, but nobody would ever seriously let go in the middle of a match. Still gripping the lever after pulling "forward" once, the joystick player must then guide it back to neutral as a deliberate motion, before pulling "forward" a second time. Obviously, you want to do this as quickly as possible, but if you do it too quickly, you might accidentally shorten the motion, failing to return all the way to neutral between the two "forward" inputs, in which case the game would just read it as you pulling "forward" once and then holding it, leading to your character merely walking forward instead of dashing. The CWJ-303A and other Fanta stick levers make the dashing motion much easier to perform, because the rubber tension system more naturally snaps the lever to and from neutral, assisting the player's repetitive motions almost in the same manner that gravity guides the back-and-forth swinging of a pendulum.
Rubber grommet versus spring aside, one other distinguishing characteristic of the Crown stick is that it comes with a circular restrictor gate. This is the hole that restricts the range of motion of the lever. For comparison, virtually all Sanwa-based joysticks at retail feature square gates. Square is the established standard in Japanese arcades, but there have always been vocal adherents of octagonal and circular gates as well. Each has its advantages, and mostly it's a matter of preference. As you might expect, a circular gate makes for smoother circle motions (for special moves like Ken and Ryu's Hadoken) than a square gate. On the other hand, because there are no sides or corners on a circular gate, there is consequently less certainty as to where one direction ends and another begins. This is of particular concern when playing as a charge character like Guile, which requires you to constantly hold "down-back" for ready access to both the Sonic Boom and Flash Kick. With a circular gate, since you don't have corners to help you feel out the diagonals, you kind of have to just intuit where "down-back" is located.
I tried out the Crown lever on a number of games, including Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition, and even Tekken 6 (even though I really haven't a clue what I'm doing in that game). Spending just a few minutes with it in training mode in each game, I found myself instantly preferring it to the old Sanwa JLF. The quickness of the Crown's return to neutral was almost a revelation, as finally I could dash consistently on a joystick.
The one motion that was at first a little tricky on the Crown was the Flash Kick ("down (hold for 2 seconds), up"). As the lever crosses from "down" to "up," it has a tendency to linger for just a split-second as it passes through neutral, which is something that doesn't happen on the limp Sanwa. That split-second difference was screwing up my timing, but it's nothing that can't be overcome with a bit of practice.
So would I recommend the Crown CWJ-303A? Yeah, sure. Using Infiltration's stick won't all of a sudden make you the equal of Infiltration. Still, the Crown at least felt better to me than the Sanwa, and, that minor difficulty with the Flash Kick notwithstanding, I personally didn't feel I'd given anything up in the exchange.
I ordered my Crown lever from Mad Catz for $24.99 plus shipping and handling. It comes with a wiring harness, which is necessary if you intend to install the lever in any of the standard retail sticks from Mad Catz, Hori, Qanba, etc. No instructions whatsoever are included, however, and the process is not exactly plug-and-play intuitive. I managed to install it with the aid of a helpful YouTube tutorial by Donovan Myers, and, even then, the wires on my harness did not correspond to those of the same colors in his video, so it took a bit of trial and error.
Alternatively, you can also import the lever from eTokki, the South Korean shop operated by Ryan "Laugh" Ahn, the former training partner of Infiltration and a world-class Street Fighter IV competitor in his own right, who was involved in the development of the CWJ-303A (also known as the CWJ-303FK, which appears to be just a different regional code). It's slightly cheaper there, but you also have to order a wiring harness separately (maybe one with colors matching those of the Donovan Myers install guide), as well as deal with international shipping times.
If you're not ready to perform a stick mod, Mad Catz also sells the pre-built Mad Catz Arcade FightStick KE (Korean Edition) for PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. This stick comes with the Crown lever and Sanwa buttons, but they're cased in the smaller body normally used for Mad Catz's "Standard Edition" FightSticks, despite the FightStick KE being priced at the same premium rate (currently $129.99) as their full-size "Tournament Edition" sticks.
In any case, it's a bit of an investment, so obviously the Crown lever should only be a consideration for players who are serious about fighting games.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that the CWJ-303A is not, by most informed estimates, a top-of-the-line Fanta stick lever; it just happens to be the only readily available option that can be installed in the most common high-end joysticks currently on the market. Performance aside, I can tell that the build on the Crown product is cheaper than what players have come to expect in a Sanwa-dominated market. My Crown bat top has a pronounced parting line in the mold, a tacky "CROWN" etched across the top, and a sharp edge on the bottom. All of these present minor and needless sources of tactile discomfort not present when playing with a Sanwa JLF.
The import-only Myoungshin Fanta Stick is the original Fanta stick lever, and it seems to be regarded among enthusiasts as the gold standard for Korean sticks, but there is no Myoungshin Fanta available that will fit inside a Mad Catz FightStick without a lot of extra work. If you're hardcore enough to even consider the Myoungshin Fanta, then maybe the importing and modification processes involved would be no great hurdle to you. For me, the Crown is as far as I'm willing to go right now.