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An Arcade Adventure Part 4: Taking Control

Welcome back, I took a bit of a break while I was on vacation but I’m back now with Part 4 of my Arcade Adventure (check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). In Part 4 I’ll be talking about controllers and the difficult decisions one can face when picking the right controllers. The theme of these articles seems to have become “decisions I didn’t think would be tough but were”.

The short version – if you want to make a machine that plays just like an American machine (Street Fighter 2 in the U.S. for example) buy either Happ or IL parts. If you want a Japanese feel, buy Sanwa or Seimitsu. If you want an all in one solution you can buy from X-Arcade, they have complete kits, they’re in the American style. Not a lot of choices to make there and they have a controller board available (although it’s a bit pricey). They get mixed reviews in build it yourself systems and you’re stuck with black in the kits and no choices on the switches. If you want cheap and quick you can buy kits on Amazon, but be cautious of quality. If you want customization, Japanese style, or the best reliability and experience, read on.

What Brand Should I Get?

Before brand we should talk about regions and styles really quick. Basically you have Japanese style controls and American style controls. I’ll get into the differences in each of the sections below but suffice it to say that there are plenty of them. The quickest way to distinguish regional designs is usually the “bat” top vs.”ball” top, Japanese sticks have round tops where as American sticks are round at the top and taper down making them taller.

You’ll be confronted by a lot of different brands when you’re looking at arcade parts. If you’re looking for the easy buy you can find a lot of no-name brands on Amazon, I recommend some caution with these as I’ve seen many reports of issues with buttons getting stuck and way too much tension in controllers. But they’re cheap and if they work it may be all you’re looking for. If you’re looking for name brand you have two primary choices for both American and Japanese style controllers.

You can also pick up kits from X-Arcade for American style controls. It’s probably the easiest way and from a play quality stand point it’s about average. Their control boards would be problematic for cocktail builds because it’s one board for two controllers and the included wires aren’t quite long enough to do a clean install that way. As I mentioned before they also lack choices in their kits. There also appear to be some hoops to jump through to get the controller board working with Raspberry Pi’s and I’ve read about some mixed results. So, for some builds I’m sure they’re fine, but for more advanced builds go custom.

The two big American style controller companies are Happ and IL (Industrias Lorenzo). While they make “American” style controllers, neither of them make their controllers in the US. Happ was the original big supplier of American style controllers. Originally those controllers were actually made by IL, until Happ bought a company and started producing their own. So, IL sticks and buttons are actually the most like original American arcade buttons you can get. They also have a better quality reputation. That said by looking at them you’d pretty much never know which was which. They’re also nearly identical in price. I went with IL Euro sticks and buttons on my cocktail cabinet.

For Japanese style controllers you have Sanwa and Seimitsu. They make almost identical sticks, but they have some differences in their buttons. People tend to prefer Sanwa sticks, they’re what are in a lot of the pro level tournament sticks. Cost of Seimitsu and Sanwa are pretty comparable. They look the same but parts aren’t interchangeable, ball tops in particular won’t work on both, they have different shafts. Still the overall design is the same, my only suggestion is try to put just one brand of stick or button in your machine for ease of maintenance and replacement parts. For my next project I’m going with a Sanwa stick and Seimitsu buttons.

How Much is Enough?

The first question you’ll need to answer is, how many buttons do I need? In my case I was setting up a 4 player setup, so I knew I would need a lot of buttons. I also knew how many buttons the cabinet called for, but would that be enough and would I need to cut my own button layouts? The cabinet supports 8 buttons per controller (that’s 32 total buttons for those playing along with the home game). Two of my controllers are setup for horizontal play and two setup for vertical play. The two vertical controllers double as players 3 and 4 for games like Gauntlet and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. After looking at the games the cabinet will have it became clear that most games were one or two button games. The main exception being fighting games, which require 6 (usually). Two buttons for each player are for coin and player start. The minimum number of function buttons to change game and emulator settings is 2. This gave me plenty of buttons on the vertical sides but lacking at least a couple of buttons on the horizontal sides.

There isn’t really a good place on the control panels to add buttons. However, I can drill two holes in the side and add buttons there. At this point I haven’t done that. It’s really not much of a stretch to reach over to a vertical control panel and hit one of the menu buttons. I will probably add them at some point just for convenience. So, 32 buttons will work just fine. Color wise I went with white for the start buttons (sans player icons because the controllers are for different players depending on whether you’re playing horizontal or vertical games) and black for all the other buttons. I may match the colors of the buttons to the joysticks at some point but the black looks pretty good.

Concave or Convex?

In the arcade world of Japanese versus American arcade design this is one of the bigger differences. American buttons are concave, Japanese are convex. I much prefer feel of the concave American buttons, it makes it easier to rest my finger there for high speed button pushing (which is very important in Raiden, 1942, Gyruss, and Joust. The games I’ve been playing the most). Most people familiar with arcades in the 80’s and 90’s will be familiar with these concave buttons (they’re often referred to as Happ style buttons. Happ being the original supplier of most American arcade sticks and buttons).

A side note here on button style, it does go beyond the top of the button. There are different designs of buttons, some of which won’t work in builds where the panel is more than 1/8th of an inch deep (most of the Sanwa buttons are for smaller panels). The kind that uses a washer to screw in are much more flexible (Happ buttons fall into this category), but they’re also taller in most cases (Seimitsu has some nice buttons that are shorter and threaded). Be aware when you’re shopping for buttons that there’s more than just color and price to look at. Japanese and American buttons also have different sizes of terminals so you’ll need different connectors for them, which is important when selecting a controller board (we’ll get into that later).

How Many Grams?

If you decide to go with Happ style buttons you have another choice to make, what type of switch. Most Japanese style buttons don’t have easy customization of the push weight of the buttons, but Happ style buttons have a lot of options. On the low end you have 20 gram buttons. 20 gram buttons take almost no effort to push and are great for rapid fire (this is what I went with). If you want a more satisfying click you can go all the way up to 150, but most people keep it in the 50 to 75 gram range. If you’re buying off Amazon, odds are you’ll be getting 75 gram buttons unless they say something else. I have one set of these and while they’re not to my taste necessarily they work just fine and that’s what really matters to most people.

Button Wrap Up

If you go with custom buttons there’s a pretty big swing in cost per button. If you get a cheap set you’ll be paying about $1 for the button and the switch combined.

     Cost: $1 to $3 Per button. You can push it up to $5 if you really want to.
     Where to Buy: Amazon.comArcadeShock.com, ParadiseArcadeShop.com
     I’ve bought from all 3 and had good experiences.

Bats or Balls?

Japanese sticks have a ball top and usually have a square gate that governs the motion of the stick, while the American style sticks have a taller bat top and no gate giving a more fluid motion. What does that really mean, Japanese sticks hit hard on the diagonal and can get stuck there, but the diagonals are better defined. Meanwhile, American style sticks have a smoother circular motion (especially useful for games like Gyruss which is all about moving in circles). American sticks also usually take more effort to move.

With Japanese sticks you can switch out the square gate for an octagon gate that makes it feel much more like an American stick. You can also get a bat top for most Japanese sticks. Even with a ball top though Japanese sticks won’t feel exactly like an American stick. Here it’s about feel, and probably what you grew up with. If you want to recreate the feel of a Street Fighter 2 cabinet from an American arcade go with IL American style sticks.

With Japanese style sticks you also have a lot of customization options with the ball or bat, you can spend $100 on a high end ball top. You can also get an accessory for Japanese sticks called The Link which will let you remove the ball top on portable systems making them much easier to transport.

There’s a big rabbit hole to go down here with other styles of controllers, spinners, balls, and steering wheel setups come to mind off the top of my head. I’ll dig into that if I ever decide to add one of those to my build or start a new project using one of those.

Joystick Wrap Up

There is a huge swing in joystick costs and it’s specific by style

     American Cost: $10-$15. Don’t spend more on an American stick.
     Japanese Cost: $10-$50. A Sanwa stick is $20 without the ball top, then there are accessories. You can push this up over $100 pretty quickly if you want.
     Where to Buy: Amazon.comArcadeShock.com, ParadiseArcadeShop.com

Bringing It All Together

OK, you’ve picked out your controls, you know what buttons and what joystick. Now you have a final decision to make. Up to this point you’ve just been buying parts that have metal tabs coming out of them (for the most part) you’ll need something to plug them into. If you’re doing a Jamma build, you can skip this part, you’re done, go plug your harness in and play some games. If you’re doing a MAME build you’ll need a USB encoder (or to wire directly to a Raspberry PI’s GPIO but I’m not a big fan of that for several reasons, the first being you can only do one controller that way). Yet again you have plenty of choices for USB encoders.

Earlier I talked about X-Arcade, they have a control board which is seen as two joystick controllers. This does not come with wiring for the Japanese style joysticks which use a connection different from American sticks.It’s pretty nice for stand alone sticks and gives some more options there, but it may be overkill for a cocktail or stand up table, unless you’re wanting to add spinners or track balls, then this is something to look at. Cost: $39.99 for 2 controllers. link

Ultimarc makes an encoder called the I-Pac. The base I-Pac can support up to 32 buttons, plenty for a two player build, way overkill for a one player build, just short of the 38 total inputs needed for a 4 player build like mine. They have an upgraded one that does 56 inputs (and nicer ones beyond that if you really need to get insane. They’re pretty popular, but definitely overpriced for my build. I would probably go with one of these if I was doing a spinner in a non-cocktail table. Cost: I-Pac2 $39.00, I-Pac4 $65.00 link

Zero Delay USB Encoder. This is the most basic encoder you can buy, it’s available from several sellers on Amazon. It’s stripped down, it supports a joystick (either Japanese or American) and 12 buttons. It also has a Turbo function and a couple of other bonuses if you’re looking for something just a little bit fancy. It connects via USB and shows up as a joystick. I have 4 connected to my Rasbperry Pi MAME build and they work very well. They’re super cheap in comparison to the others and some of the Amazon kits ship with them. Cost: $12.99 for 1. $22.00 for 2 link

Now you know what it takes to put together an arcade joystick. Next up I’ll talk about final assembly and playing games on my incredibly awesome Arcade Machine. I have some other arcade projects ideas which I’ll probably be talking about shortly.




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