If you’re like most people, you play games on your console of choice using the controller that came with it. Maybe you’re using a third-party controller, but it probably looks a lot like the controller that shipped with the console.
But if you’re a fan of certain types of games, specifically fighting games, you might have looked into another type of controller: the arcade stick. Also known as a fight stick, these are well-suited to certain games and ill-suited for others. Whether or not you even might want one depends on a few different factors.
Just What Is an Arcade Stick Exactly?
As the name implies, an arcade stick functions much like the built-in controls on the arcade machines of yore. You typically have the joystick on the left side and the buttons on the right. You’ll occasionally find left-handed or ambidextrous sticks as well, though these are rare.
Unless you’re specifically looking for a smaller arcade stick, the enclosure is usually fairly big. Expect it to take up your entire lap. Some are even bigger, especially if they’re meant to be easily modded, but we’ll get to that later.
Arcade sticks are hardly new. The first example that many readers might be familiar with is the NES Advantage for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Since those days, arcade sticks have been available for nearly every home console. You might even have used one to play Tekken 2, which sits high up on our list of PS1 games still worth playing .
Arcade Sticks vs. Standard Controllers
There’s a reason that arcade sticks are also known as fight sticks. Fighting games of both the 2D variety (like the Street Fighter series) and the 3D variety (like the Soulcalibur series) are the main reason these controllers sell so well. You’ll find pros at fighting game tournaments using controllers, but arcade sticks are more common.
Fighting games often involve complex input sequences that include precise actions on the directional pad. This is what makes the stick on an arcade stick so important.
For more complex fighting games, a standard controller would have you quickly tapping shoulder buttons alongside face buttons. It can be much easier when all these buttons are arranged side by side on an arcade stick.
You might have noticed that there is only one joystick on a standard arcade stick. On the other hand, modern console controllers have dual analog sticks. Any game that uses both sticks simply won’t work with an arcade stick.
Types of Arcade Sticks
There are a few different types of arcade sticks. By far the most common is the “ball top” type. This refers to the spherical shape of the top of the joystick. These types of sticks originated in Japan, but have been adopted worldwide.
You’ll also find “bat top” sticks, with a more elongated shape at the top of the stick. These were originally popularized in the United States, though they’re becoming far less common. Most arcade sticks you’ll find on sale these days use the ball top.
Pick and Choose Your Parts
When you buy an arcade stick, it comes will everything you need. More expensive models will have better parts, of course. That said, you can start off with certain cheaper models and then swap out the parts with those you prefer. Some players even do this with more expensive arcade sticks.
The parts that count in an arcade stick are the joystick itself and the switches. A cheaper stick will lead to imprecise movements, while cheaper switches can be harder to press and can get stuck. Upgrading one or both of these aspects can make your arcade stick play much better.
There are a few different brands that make parts for arcade sticks. One of the most popular brands is the Japanese brand Sanwa, which makes both sticks and buttons. Happ is a U.S. brand that also makes aftermarket parts but seems more focused on providing parts to arcade owners.
You’ll find most players recommend Sanwa, Seimitsu, or Hori parts. Players often turn to Sanwa for one more key part of an arcade stick that we haven’t touched on yet.
While the joystick in an arcade stick transmits the actual inputs, a restrictor gate controls its range of motion. Restrictor gates come in a few different shapes, with the most common being square and octagonal.
Most arcade sticks ship with square restrictor gates out of the box. These make hitting diagonal inputs like forward-down, which are often key in fighting games, much easier. Most of the time you won’t even hit the actual gate with a square type since the input will register on the joystick sooner.
Some players prefer octagonal gates, as they can feel closer to an arcade machine. This largely depends on what arcades you’ve been going to. Diagonal inputs aren’t as easy to register with an octagonal gate, but circular motions can be easier.
There are other gates, like circular gates, but they’re far less common. When it comes to square versus octagonal, it’s a matter of preference. Many players seem to prefer square gates, but heavy-handed players who “ride the gate” sometimes prefer octagonal.
Customization Isn’t Just About Performance
While the largest aspect of modding an arcade stick comes down to how it feels and plays, it’s not the only aspect. Players often like to trick out their sticks, using different button colors and joystick ball colors to customize the look.
Some arcade sticks come with fancy printed designs, while others let you add your own custom art. These typically offer templates that can help you print a design that will fit the surface of your arcade stick perfectly.
Putting Your Arcade Stick to Use
If you’ve decided on buying an arcade stick, you might already have some games that will work well with it. Fighting games like Street Fighter V, Mortal Kombat 11, Soulcalibur VI, and others work particularly well, but they’re not the only option. Retro collections like the Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle, SNK 40th Anniversary Collection, and others will work well too.
Arcade sticks aren’t just for console gamers, either. Plenty of them work just fine on a PC. If you’re looking to get your old-school gaming fix on your PC, take a look at our guide to playing retro games on your PC completely legally .
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