The Joystiq Joystick, chapter 1: Parts

Jordan Mallory
J. Mallory|01.10.12

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You see that video up there? That was taken at Arcade UFO in Austin, TX, during its 2011 fall Ranking Battle tournament series. The fight was between me and the arcade's owner, Ryan Harvey, and took place on a custom built Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet, one of the few in existence at the time. I'm the guy playing Kitana, and if you watch the whole thing, you'll see that I'm also the guy who loses.

That's all right though, because I should have lost that fight. Fubarduck (as Ryan is known in the fighting game community) is an exceptional fighting-game player, as his multiple Top-8 finishes at EVO will attest, and his combo execution was far more solid than what I was laying down with Kitana. Ryan had won, I had learned something about fighting Johnny Cage, and we all moved on. Right?

Well, in a perfect world yes, but unfortunately we live in a world where this fight is available on YouTube. By now I've watched it dozens of times, and at this point I can pinpoint every single mistake I made over the course of those matches. Most of them were strategic mistakes, granted, but there were also execution errors: Because the arcade parts Ryan uses in his cabinets are far superior to the parts in the $35 fight stick I practice with at home, I was at a disadvantage.

High quality joysticks and buttons are light, accurate and require very little manual force to move. Cheaply made parts, on the other hand, are stiff and less responsive, and as such require a lot more effort. My hands, being acclimated to a sub-standard stick, were expecting to work a lot harder than they needed to. I was forward-jumping instead of dashing, doing directional normals instead of neutral normals ... The whole fight was a mess, looking back.

It was a good fight, though, because it made me realize how important it is to own a proper fight stick once you get serious about competitive fighting games. After all, a craftsman's tools are as important as the skill he has acquired, as far as the final result is concerned. To that end, I'm going to build my own, custom fight stick, and you're coming along for the ride.

And oh, how we will ride. Over the next few weeks, you and I will be going on a journey of passion, dedication and self-discovery as I build the apparatus for a better, punchier tomorrow. I'll be documenting and explaining the process as we go, so hopefully you at home will learn a little something about building a stick as well, should you ever find yourself in a situation similar to my own.

For the purposes of this build, I'll be using the wiring diagrams and button templates from Slagcoin's construction guide. If you're planning on making your own fight stick, the wisdom contained within is indispensable. So! Let's get started.

The PCB Predicament:

There are a lot of different ways to build a fight stick, and what system you're building it for plays a major role in how it will be constructed. Most technical variations, however, concern the stick's PCB, or Printed Circuit Board. This can either be gutted from an existing controller for your system of choice, or purchased online (which I'll get to in a bit.)

Generally speaking, purchasing a stand-alone PCB from a parts retailer is always the "cleaner" option, as they often require less (or no) soldering and are designed specifically with arcade sticks in mind. On the other hand, repurposing the PCB from a controller is usually more cost effective, although the process requires more skill with a soldering iron and can result in a cluttered interior for your stick.

So, how do you know which method to use? If your budget isn't an issue, the decision was probably made when you bought your console: See, the Xbox looks for a verification chip on every controller, in order to make sure that it's an officially licensed product. The only way to circumvent this lockout is to either license the chip from Microsoft, or spoof the Xbox into believing the chip exists, which is nearly impossible.

As a result, stand-alone third-party PCBs for the 360 are extremely rare and generally rather expensive; the only option under most circumstances is to gut a controller. I'll be building a PS3 stick using solderless components that will also make button/joystick replacement quicker and easier in the future.

What you'll need and where to get it:

The Joystick.

There are a boat load of arcade-parts manufacturers in the world, but the three worth paying attention to are Sanwa, Seimitsu and Happ. Sanwa and Seimitsu are both Japanese companies that produce "ball-top" joysticks and pushbuttons; if you've used a top-tier Mad Catz or HORI fight stick in the last year, you've used their parts. Happ is a North American company that makes "bat-top" joysticks and pushbuttons, the kind found in every mall arcade in existence throughout the 90s.

Choosing a stick is, above all, a matter of personal preference. Sanwa, Seimitsu and Happ are all roughly analogous to one another as far as build quality and durability is concerned; the only appreciable differences between the three types of stick are the top (ball or bat), the size (Happ sticks are generally longer) and the gate shape (square for Sanwa/Seimitsu vs. round for Happ). Pretty much anything you get from these three companies will be an upgrade compared to what came with your existing budget stick, so don't worry too much about which brand to go with. I have chosen a Sanwa JLT-TP-8YT, which is available at Focus Attack, Lizard Lick, Arcade Spare Parts and various other retailers. Pay close attention when ordering your stick, as they often do not include a ball/bat top; I'll be using an LB-39 Bubbletop from Seimitsu.

The Buttons.

The same companies that manufacture joysticks also make the pushbuttons you'll be using, and most of the same conventions apply, meaning that there's not much difference in quality between the brands and it's mostly a matter of personal preference. There are two very important things to pay attention to when selection your buttons, however: Diameter and snap/screw type. 30mm is the standard button width used on most arcade cabinets the world over, so unless you're building a miniature stick or have very dainty hands, you'll want to avoid anything smaller.

Pushbuttons are primarily made to either snap into place, or be "screwed" into place via a nut-and-bolt method, where the button assembly itself acts as the bolt. Snap pushbuttons take up less space but are more difficult to replace, whereas screw-in pushbuttons can be easily removed, but require more room to mount. Since my goal with this stick is ease of part installation and replacement, I'll be using 10 Sanwa OBSN 30mm screw-ins, available at the usual places.

The PCB.

Rather than gutting a Dual Shock and burning myself several times with a soldering iron, I've opted to use the Cthulhu PS3/PC PCB from Godlike Controls. This PCB was designed and built by Toodles of the Shoryuken Forums, specifically for custom made fight sticks. It allows for solderless connections between the PCB and pushbuttons/joytick and is also PC compatible, which will be useful for anyone traveling to parallel universes where fighting game tournaments use PC versions of games. The Cthulhu is available directly from Godlike Controls.

Wires 'n things.

The wires used to connect your pushbuttons and joystick to the PCB can be anywhere from 20 to 26 AWG, stranded or solid, however stranded is generally recommended as flexibility is extremely important in the often-cramped interiors of a fight stick. Since simplicity is king on this build, I'll be using a Sanwa JLF-H wiring harness for the joystick and 21 pre-cut lengths of wire crimped with .110mm QDC terminals for the pushbuttons. Pre-cut wiring can be purchased from Focus Attack, while the wiring harness can be found at all of the retailers linked previously.

The case.

Building the case is arguably the most expensive and time-intensive part of building your own stick, depending on your experience with woodworking, which tools you have access to and what types of materials you decide to use for the case itself. Unlike picking other parts, however, it's important to have designs for the case ready to go before purchasing the materials, since any mistakes made will likely be costly and difficult to reverse.

Know that anything from plywood to instrument-quality tonewoods can be used to construct a stick. I recommend avoiding particle board and chipboard if you can help it, as they're messier to work with, not as structurally sound as other woods and often result in a cheaper looking final product.

Some retailers like Focus Attack and Lizard Lick offer pre-made cases, but using a pre-built case significantly increases the cost of your build and dramatically limits your customization options. It's one thing to use a standard button layout, but it's another thing to have no say in the size, weight or materials used in something that is supposed to be uniquely your own.

I'll be covering the specific materials I'll be using for our case in our next installment, as we venture into the world of schematics and planning in ...

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