A Beginner’s Guide to Joysticks and Fightsticks

I’ve been playing a lot of fighting games and Street Fighter IV recently, and while I’m looking to up my game through practice, I still want to have the right tools for the job – and this means having a good fightstick. I currently have a Mad Catz Tournament Edition (TE) for the Xbox 360 which uses a Sanwa joystick and buttons – and frankly it’s excellent.

However, I’ve been trying to take my new-found fightin’ chops back to some older games like the Street Fighter Alpha series, SNK Vs. Capcom etc, and for that I have an X-Arcade (XA) dual-stick with a PS1/PS2/DC/Gamecube/Wii adapter. While the X-Arcade stick is okay for fighting games, it’s absolutely nowhere near as good as the TE, and quite frankly I perform pretty poorly with it – missing simple shory’s, ‘doukens and supers all over the place.

A MadKatz Tournament Edition fightstick

An X-Arcade Dual Stick joystick

I know I can do these moves consistently on the TE, but I live in a world of fail on the XA i.e. if I flub an ultra on the TE I’m disappointed, but I’m barely able to even make an ultra on the XA. So what’s going on?

Disclaimer: I’m by no means an expert on joysticks and fightsticks, for that you might be best served by taking a look at the Shoryuken forums – but I can and have been doing a lot of reading and research, and thought it might be useful to document the core stuff in a single article which I hope you find useful. If there’s anything inaccurate in any of the below then corrections or feedback are always greatly appreciated.

Bad Workman Vs. Tools

The answer lies in the heart of battle, as Ryu would no doubt say – but he’d be wrong, because the answer lies in the fightstick hardware. As we know, or should know, a joystick has four major components:

  • The case (or chassis),
  • The joystick itself,
  • The buttons, and
  • The printed circuit board (PCB) which controls the timing / format of the signals.

With regard to terminology, we’ll say that a fightstick is a joystick that has a certain set of characteristics which make it well suited to playing fighting games, these relate to:

  • The layout (i.e. positioning) of the joystick and buttons,
  • The size, type, throw and tension of the joystick (more on these later),
  • The size, shape, displacement, loudness and activation force of the buttons, and
  • The features and responsiveness of the PCB.

Let’s take a brief look at each of these to see how they work and what combination of features will make for a great fightstick…

Cases, Button Configurations and PCBs

The case is just that – a box to which we mount the joystick, buttons and PCB. There are lots of different button layouts, some with two rows of 4 buttons in a slight curve like the TE sticks, some with two rows of three and then two underneath like the XA stick, some for three or four button fighters (VirtuaFighter, King of Fighters etc.), and some with internal storage for cables and such.

As fightsticks tend to take a lot of abuse, the case should be rugged / robust. It should also be relatively weighty and ideally have some rubber feet to stop it slipping around if you place it on a coffee table. I’m not too interested in delving into cases right now, although to be honest I like the ‘two-curved-rows-of-four’ layout on the TE far more than the ‘two-flat-rows-of-three-(plus-two)’ style of the XA as it seems to just fit the span of my fingers better without needing to fumble about.

A fightstick with a four button layout

A fightstick with a Mortal Kombat layout

The PCB in the stick performs two roles, it pushes voltage through the wires connecting the joystick and buttons to the PCB so that it know when joystick directions or buttons are being held (i.e. the action closes a circuit) and it then encodes the joystick state in a format suitable for whatever platform you’re using whether that’s Xbox, Playstation, PC or what have you. You can choose or change joystick PCBs based on the platform you want to use the fightstick with, and some PCBs can support multiple platforms.

Although my understanding is that various PCBs may have more ‘lag’ than others (i.e. they take more time to process and output a signal), it’s not really the aspect of fightsticks I’m most concerned with at the moment, so instead I’m going to mainly concentrate on joysticks and buttons in this article.

Joysticks

Joysticks for fighting games come in two main styles – the Japanese style with a ball-top (like a TE stick), and the American style with a bat-top (like the XA stick).

A comparison shot of bat top vs ball top joytsticks

Depending on whether your joystick has a ball-top or a bat-top can affect how you hold the joystick, whether it’s like a wine glass with the stem of the joystick between your fingers and your thumb on top, or whether you hold it with your fingers wrapped around it. Everyone will have their own preference for what feels best and works best for them.

The other major difference between the American and Japanese joystick types is the throw, that is: the distance that the joystick must travel when moving from the extremes of one side to the other.

American joysticks tend to have a greater throw than Japanese ones, and the throw distance itself is controlled by a combination of:
– The length of the joystick (obviously the longer the joystick itself is, the further the top of the joystick will travel to go from one side to the other),
– The size of the actuator,
– The location of the microswitches and/or angle of the metal tab attached to them, and
– The dimensions of any restrictor plate which might be fitted.

Looking at the bottom of a joystick in the image below you can see a (square) actuator which pushes directly against the microswitches, and a round actuator which pushes against a metal tab attached to the microswitch in the image below that. Both work in the same manner in that the microswitch ‘nub’ must be pushed in to complete the circuit and activate the signal:

A joystick with a square actuator

The microswitches and actuator of an X-Arcade joytstick

In both of the above images, the silver ‘C clip’ at the bottom of the joystick holds the actuator in place, and is under pressure from the spring (more on which later).

If you think of the joystick as having a pivot near (but not precisely at) the base of the shaft – then as you push left on the joystick, the actuator at the bottom of the joystick moves right, and as you push the joystick up the actuator moves down etc. When you have two microswitches depressed, say up+right, then the PCB knows to send the top-right-diagonal signal (which is likely to be just the ‘bitwise OR’ of any pressed direction signals).

The larger the actuator (i.e. the shorter the distance from the actuator to the microswitch ‘nub’), the less distance the joystick must travel in order activate the microswitch.

Because the throw on the Japanese-style TE is so much less than the throw on the American-style XA, I figured this might be what was causing me to flub my rotation based moves (shory’s, ‘doukens etc.) on the XA. To change the sensitivity of a joystick, that is, adjust the travel before the microswitch activates, you can either:

  • Increase (more sensitive / smaller ‘deadzone’) or decrease (less sensitive / bigger ‘deadzone’) the size of the actuator, and / or
  • (if you have microswitches with the metal tabs) Bend the tabs slightly towards (more sensitive) or away from (less sensitive) the actuator.

Adjusting the actuator sensitivity

I’m after more sensitivity, so while some people buy or 3D print new actuators which are slightly larger than their current one (and to be fair that’s the best choice) – I’ve gone somewhat ghetto and just wrapped the outside of the actuator in a couple of loops of black electrical tape and bent the microswitch metal tabs towards it a little more. The effect of this is that the joystick is easier to use in fighting games, and my success-to-flub ratio has increased… but I still miss diagonals a lot due to another major factor – which is the tension in the joystick.

Note: Bending the tabs should be a very slight adjustment, so don’t curve them like a banana. If you do bend them too far you can have a direction ‘stick’ (that is, you push a direction, and the joystick doesn’t centre properly so the previous direction signal remains on).

Joystick Tension

The tension of a joystick is the force that pushes it back to the neutral position when it’s not being pushed in a direction. This is either controlled by a spring (most common) or magnetically (less common, a little more expensive, and can be prone to misalignment from what I read). A stronger spring means that the joystick snaps back to the centre quicker, but also that you have to exert more force to move the joystick in the first place to register the movement.

You might think (as I did) that the force required to move any joystick is so small that surely this can’t make much of a difference – but it turns out that it does. I can play for hours on the TE fightstick and my hands are absolutely fine, but I can only play for about an hour on the XA and my hands start to ache because the joystick tension is quite high. Spring strengths tend to go from around 2lb for a very loose, low resistance joystick up to around 9lb for a very stiff joystick that’ll give your arms a real workout.

Assuming a spring-tensioned joystick, you can modify the tension like this:

  • To lower the tension of a joystick, you could (although I haven’t tested this) disassemble the stick and snip perhaps one turn out of the spring. If you decide to try this then perhaps start small and increase by small amounts as required, because while it’s easy to remove a section of spring you’d need to replace the spring (or add a small spring, see next point) if you’ve gone too far and the joystick no longer has enough force to centre properly or activates a direction when you just mean to rest your hand on it.
  • To increase the tension of a joystick, you can either replace the spring with a stiffer one, or you can insert a smaller spring inside the existing spring to shore it up.

Joystick springs

Some games benefit from a higher tension, for example I read that Marvel Vs. Capcom players like it for a better ability to do the super jump (down then up quickly) – but I want something which I can play for extended periods without hand-ache and missing diagonals because I’m not pulling hard enough on the sticks, so a low tension stick like on the TE is definitely what I’m after.

Joystick Gates

The final piece of the joystick puzzle is the restrictor gate which controls the joystick’s allowable range of movement, which in turn affects the ‘feel’ of the joystick. The main types of gates are:

  • Square (four-way) gates,
  • Diamond gates,
  • Octagonal (eight-way) gates, and
  • Round / Circular gates.

A sqare gate and an octaogonal gate

Gates are commonly misunderstood, and I’ve seen a lot of questions about them – but this is the crux of it as far as I understand things:

  • A square gate allows a full range of motion – this means that you can hit top-left, bottom-right etc. but the resistance / feedback from the joystick does not ‘guide’ you to any of the cardinal directions (i.e. ‘pure’ left, ‘pure’ top-right etc.),
  • A diamond gate is just a rotated square gate, this means that you cannot hit top-left, bottom-right etc. because the diamond shape does not allow it – however you are ‘guided’ to the cardinal left/right/up/down directions if you push a direction which is not completely ‘pure’,
  • An octagonal gate allows a full range of motion, but unlike a square gate this time you are guided to each of the eight directions if your joystick direction is slightly off from the ‘pure’ direction you’re going for (but it’s not a smooth path when rotating through quarter-circles), and finally
  • A circular gate allows a full range of motion, and while it will not help redirect a push direction to a cardinal / ‘pure’ direction (any restriction force will be directly in opposition to direction of the push), it will provide guidance if you adjust the initial push direction, and it also allows for smoother and easier rotation than a four or eight-way gate, which makes a circular gate ideal for ‘rolling quarter-circle’ moves, like the ones I’m having trouble with on the XA with the octagonal gate.

Obviously for a fightstick we want eight directions available, so that rules out the diamond gate – leaving square, octagonal or round, where each type of gate will have a slightly different feel. There’s a great article over on slagcoin.com about restrictor gates and how they affect the ‘deadzone’ (i.e. the range of motion of the joystick which is not engaging any direction) which you can read here: http://www.slagcoin.com/joystick/restrictors.html – but I’m thinking that for a fightstick where you want quarter-circle motions, a circular gate will be the best choice.

Buttons

Joystick buttons are typically sized at either 30mm (full-size, most common), 28mm (medium, least common) or 24mm (small, less common) – the TE uses full-size 30mm buttons, while the XA uses 28mm. This size measurement is not exactly the size of the button itself, or even of the button and the surround – it’s the size of the hole into which you place the button, which is typically slightly larger than the button itself but smaller than the surround (so the surround can sit on top of the case).

In the image below you can see that the button itself (the part that depresses) is 0.875 inches across, while the button is rated as 1.125 inches (28mm) and the button plus the surround is 1.3125 inches across:
Example button dimensions

In terms of how far the button depresses (the travel of the button), a smaller travel distance typically corresponds to more sensitive and ‘faster’ buttons, as when you push the button that slight pressure triggers the button near instantly without it having to travel and ‘bottom-out’ to register a button press. As fighting games rely on very small frame windows, anything we can do to minimise the time between us deciding to press the button and that button press being registered is a good thing.

Finally, in terms of the button shape, there are three major styles of buttons: Japanese buttons are convex (i.e. rounded on top, like the TE), American buttons are concave (there’s a depression on top, like the XA), and then there’s flat buttons which in my experience you tend to see more on old fruit machines (i.e. ‘pokies’) and parking meters and stuff more than on joysticks.

Different types of buttons: concave, convex and flat
Different button types (from left to right): Concave, Convex and Flat.

On concave buttons, the concave helps move your finger into the centre of the button when you press it non-centre, and makes it harder for your finger to slip off the button accidentally. However, the downside of this is that it also makes it harder to slide your finger from one button to another (you have to lift off more).

Another downside of concave buttons is that if you use the side of your thumb (so not the fleshy pad of a finger) for the lower buttons on a typical fightstick setup, then you end up pushing on a ridge formed from the outside of the button and the surround, which digs into you. This sounds really minor, but over time will make your thumb ache so it’s worth avoiding.

Although buttons can have rubber actuators that provide the resistance when the button is pressed, any high quality buttons will have microswitches, just like the joystick. In fact, the microswitches on joysticks and joystick buttons are the exact same ones commonly used on mechanical keyboards and the like (i.e. a microswitch is a microswitch is a microswitch – it doesn’t matter what you use it on).

Microswitches

Microswitches have three terminals: ground, normally open, and normally closed. The typical wiring is between the normally open terminal and the ground, meaning that when the button is pressed a circuit is formed. We could connect the normally closed and the ground terminals which would mean that the circuit is always formed and only when we push the button do we break the circuit – but that’s really of no use in fighting games.

A diagram of a microswitch showing the ground, normally open and normally closed terminals.

Microswitches themselves come in one of three main configurations in terms of the resistance they offer to you jabbing at them. These are:

  • Linear response,
  • Tactile bump, and
  • Tactile bump with click.
A microswitch with a linear response
A microswitch with a tactile response
A microswitch with a tactile + click response

The linear response style (left) is used on the TE – you push the button, it depresses, and the force required to depress the button remains constant. Although debatable, I’d say this is the ideal for a fightstick.

The tactile bump style (middle) is used on the XA – you push the button, it gives a little, then the resistance increases a little, and then as it ‘activates’ as the resistance decreases and it gives some more. This may prevent some accidental button presses because you have to overcome the ‘bump’ pressure threshold for the press to register… but I’m not convinced that’s really necessary or even desirable at present.

The tactile bump with click style (right) is a tactile bump that simply adds a clicking sound as it activates. Quieter buttons would be my personal preference, and you can get some GamerFinger buttons which are specifically designed to be as quiet as possible in operation.

The amount of pressure required to activate the microswitch is measured in grams (g) or centinewtons (cN – hundredths of a Newton) where you can convert between with 1g = 9.81cN. A very low force would be something like 45cN, while some are 50cn, 60cn, 75cN etc. and they top out at around 150cN. Again, typically, lower force is better for fightsticks, unless you find buttons accidentally triggering if you brush against them with a shirt sleeve or such.

The final thing about buttons and microswitches is that the button and the microswitch are typically only snapped together (not glued / bonded together), so if you found you wanted a lighter activation pressure on your current buttons it should be possible to just get microswitches with a lower pressure rating and swap them out.

Wrap Up

I think that’s pretty much everything I can think of that I’ve learnt about joysticks recently. To modify my X-Arcade stick I’ve ordered a pair of IL Eurosticks which are American style with direct microswitches (no metal tabs) and a round gate, along with a bunch of IL Convex 28mm buttons with Cherry D44X 75cN microswitches which should all be be drop-in replacements (i.e. no baseplate drilling or adapter required to fit stuff), and I’ll write a short follow-up article about them once it’s all up and running.

Perhaps even with these upgraded parts I’ll still be living in failville (population: me), but with any luck they’ll make a real difference and bring back to life a generation of fighting games which I never had the hardware to appreciate back in the day.

Cheers!

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