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Arcade Sticks for Fighting Games: Why They're Worth Your While(and Money)

Updated on September 26, 2012

Is the switch worth it?

So, you're looking at these seemingly bulky, cumbersome controllers that tend to weigh several pounds and require an at least relatively stable surface on which you can place them in order to get any practical use out of them. For years, you've been playing platforming, sports, action, adventure, role playing, and many other genres of games with no complaints regarding ease of execution of the in-game commands, attacks, moves, and so on, but you see many players specifically in the fighting genre(particularly the professional players) using these heavy controllers in high-level tournaments with prizes for their winners in the thousands of dollars. "What difference could it possibly be make that's worth forking over two or three times as much money for," I asked myself in the days when my Mad Catz FightPad seemed pretty ideal for games such as Street Fighter IV, Blazblue: Continuum Shift, and Marvel VS Capcom 3: A Fate of Two Worlds.

Long story short, I was on the other side of the fence once, as many reading this may very well still be: Accustomed to using a gamepad or analog stick to control most or all console and/or PC games. After all, I'd grown up from the middle of the Atari age, played countless NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, Playstation, XBox, and PC games in my days with no apparent issue, even when Street Fighter II made its console debut in the early 1990s. It was a long process, and, for me at the time due to my financial situation, an expensive one, to finally arrive at my eventual conclusion that an arcade stick is an inherently superior controller in the world of 2D fighting games to any other, including the classic gamepad.

To an extent, how one feels with a certain controller *is* subjective; having spent more than two decades playing almost every console game(all the way back to Super Mario Bros. for the NES) with a gamepad, it only seemed natural that a stick would be disorienting. Over time, however, I was able to pinpoint what the physical characteristics are of a good stick that simply makes executing moves far easier in the long run.

Specific advantages

If you're anything like I was when first exploring the world of pro players and wondering what could possess them to use seemingly cumbersome and pricy arcade sticks rather than the more universally-known gamepad, you probably want some basic reasons listed quickly, so here are a few:

  1. Perhaps the most obvious advantage over, say, the standard XBox 360 controller or PS3 Sixaxis controllers is button placement. The buttons on these controllers are further apart than they are on those you'll see on a fighting game arcade cabinet, and the typical 3-over-3(or sometimes 4-over 4) layout of these machines is preserved in their home console counterparts, making it a simple matter of keeping your fingers resting or hovering right above the buttons, so that you can use three or four fingers to hit these six or eight attack buttons, rather than having to move your thumb all the way from, say, the "hard punch" button to the "light kick" one in certain situations. Equally important is the fact that hard punches and kicks, as well as "all three punches/kicks" commands on normal console controllers are typically assigned to the shoulder buttons, requiring you to use your index fingers to press them. This may seem to be a negligible difference in precision with timing on the surface, but even an experienced player will have more trouble in games that sometimes require timing of attacks and combos within two or even one frame of animation(!) if they're having to hit two attack buttons with an index finger while their thumb does the other work. It's just naturally more disorienting than having to only process which of the top or bottom row of buttons is to be hit next, especially when stick users only have to press their finger down lightly over a button it's already close to or resting upon to execute the proper button sequence with good timing.
  2. Button size matters as well. You don't want to miss the attack, and while muscle memory does factor into getting used to where *any* button is regardless of its size, there's more room for being a few millimeters off if the buttons you need to hit are an inch or so in diameter rather than being closer to a centimeter-wide area in most pads. As with the button placement issue above, any slight mistake in execution could cost you the round or even match!
  3. The stick itself is probably the hardest part of these controllers to get used to, but it can really pay off in the end, and one reason for this is the variety in ways to hold it during play. Even if one particular way of gripping the stick doesn't feel natural for you, there is a seemingly endless number of grip styles and variations used, and even top players haven't reached a consensus on which is best, largely because not everyone's hand is the same size. Great sites like even contain guides on choosing a particular grip, complete with photos to help you out, and some players report trying out three or more before settling on just the right one, improving their game as they find their ideal method. The ball-top stick, standard in Japanese controllers, allows more variety in grips than the American bat-top style, as the ball can be gripped with the entire fist or a few fingers. Many will even cup their hand beneath the ball top, lightly squeezing the shaft below it and flicking their hand/wrist in the proper direction without having to exert pressure from the fingers to influence their character's direction.
  4. It might sound completely alien to say that a stick can be moved faster on reaction than a pad, but think about it: A pad generally requires you to at least roll your thumb to another of the eight directional buttons that make it up as a whole, and in many if not most cases, you'll have to *raise* your thumb from the pad, move it to the new direction, and press down again once that end of the pad is reached. This all happens in a fraction of a second even for newer players, of course, but when your hand is already "anchored" to a stick, you'll actually spend less time moving your *entire* hand to jerk the stick in any of the eight directions, and just like the button issues mentioned earlier, this issue with directional inputs becomes less of one once you've gotten the feel of the stick. To tap a pad twice in order to dash(standard in modern 2D fighters these days) might be a little closer in total time required to that of the stick, but when moving from the up to down, left to right, etc. positions, a stick is more forgiving when you suddenly have to block or otherwise avoid an attack, or even execute a special move. When using charge characters such as Chun Li or Vega, you'll probably find it easier to recharge special moves by simply holding back on the stick for the required amount of time, quickly flicking it in the opposite direction and pressing the appropriate attack button, and returning to its "charging position" with the speed allowed by a stick than you normally would on a pad, making multiple uses of the same special move easier to churn out in shorter timeframes!
  5. When looking at a diagram of the restrictor gates inside an arcade stick, you'll see that the type most common in Japanese sticks is the square gate, while in the United States an octagonal or circular gate is generally used. There is much debate as to which of these is preferable - an octagonal shape will, for example, make circular motions easier at first, but these and other motions can be done easily on a square gate with practice, and there is more room for error with a square gate with hitting diagonals, since their design has larger "engage zones" for those directions, giving you a larger amount of space in which diagonals will register. It's worth mentioning that most pro players do seem to use square gates, which both major manufacturers(Mad Catz and Hori) use for their sticks by default.


Well, that's about it! Be sure to take your time and if possible visit electronic stores to test out models you're interested in. My final advice is to not be too set on sticking with what you're used to - many players eventually get the hang of a stick and never go back, mostly because the advantages listed above become very helpful, while the newness to the type of controller eventually is no longer an issue as they adjust to its differences with a pad. Good luck!


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