Introduction to Arcade Sticks / Fightsticks

Back in the days there used to be video game arcades where you could go play on big arcade cabinets. Games were controlled with a joystick and push-buttons. Many spent plenty of time and coins in such game centers in their younger years. Over the years these arcade halls started to disappear, in big parts because of home consoles that became increasingly popular and powerful.

Especially in Japan, Akihabara, game center arcades still thrive way more than here in the West. There are buildings with multiple floors of just arcade cabinets, full of all kinds of arcade games.

Even if there really aren’t anymore arcades around in these parts of the world, the arcade controllers have been around from the start of the gaming era, and still remain, but in a bit different form.

These days arcade sticks are often referred to as fightsticks, which is largely thanks to Mad Catz and their Fightstick products.

Arcade sticks sold today are mainly aimed for the fighting game community (“FGC”), and as it’s a rather small niche, the market for the sticks is limited.

Therefore the sticks can be quite expensive. For quality entry-level sticks you should be prepared to dish out well past $100. You can go lower for budget sticks that are below $100, but then you should know their shortcomings. There’s often a possibility to build on the initial budget purchase with modding, where you replace the low-quality stock parts with better, quality parts. If you want to get more serious with arcade sticks, that is.

Why would you want an arcade stick?

Arcade Stick

For some old-timers it’s in big parts because of nostalgia. Maybe you want to relive some of that magic from the past. Maybe it’s just your preferred controller to play games. Many of today’s 2D games can be played with an arcade stick (as long as the game doesn’t require you to use a second analogue stick), not to mention all those classic 2D games and shoot ’em ups!

For others it’s because they want to try to up their game and get better in their favorite game. Maybe an arcade stick can raise your skill ceiling?

Or just out of curiosity.

Or because they’re fun as heck (and cool).

It’s a very specialized controller, and it’s possible you will control your fighters with a newfound accuracy. If you love fighting games, it could be worth a shot!

Not just for fighting games

Arcade sticks work really well with old – and new – shoot ’em up (“shmup”), side-scroller and arcade games like Pac-Man, Binding of Isaac, Pinball games, Ikaruga, Sine Mora, Castle Crashers, Gradius, Metal Slug, and many, many others. Think of all the old NES/SNES games.

Mostly any recent games work with an arcade stick that doesn’t require the use of the second stick on the controller.

Is a fightstick better than a gamepad?

Yes and no. Most of all it’s a matter of prefence and what you are used to. Many fighting game pros play at a competitive level with just a normal gamepad. But it’s generally considered that in many fighting games it’s way easier to do certain moves with a joystick than with a small D-pad, like more precise and defined movement.

I’d still wager that many players will perform notably better in games with an arcade stick once they get used to it, so yes, it can be “better” and raise your skill cap.

For me hitting buttons with my fingers is way easier, and it feels like my attacks comes off way faster. Hardest part to master is the joystick.

Benefits vary from game to game, and what is easier for one, is harder for the other.

One thing is for sure:

Your thumb(s) will not get sore and tired from playing a long time, like it tends to happen with a normal gamepad.

Is it hard to play with a fightstick, is there a big learning curve?

Hori RAP.N Tekken 7 Edition for Xbox One

Yes – initially. You will likely suck really bad when you’re just starting out, and will keep losing to worse players. But there’s also the other side of the scale, where you immediately find the stick easier to use, hence improving your gameplay from the get-go.

It can take anywhere from days to several weeks until the new arcade controller starts to “click”, and months to master, depending of course how much you play in a day. The chances are, you’ll end up loving it when you can pull off new moves and combos with ease.

But it could also be that you find that an arcade stick is not for you in the end, and you prefer a normal gamepad instead. This is a valid fear many have. What if you spend $100+ only to find out joysticks aren’t your thing? Arcade sticks are very specialized controllers, after all. They mainly work in fighting games and simpler 2D arcade games, not with the most AAA games released today.

It’s a big investment to buy a proper fightstick. But also think of it this way:

If you buy the cheapest possible equipment, isn’t it also possible that it will affect your enjoyment of using it?

Think if you buy a shitty guitar that doesn’t sound or play well. How fun is it learning with that?

If you buy the cheapest stick, you’ll probably outgrow it quickly. Then you might be regretting that you didn’t save that little extra to get a better stick from the start.

You could sell it, but if it’s the cheapest stick around, and used, there’s probably not that much interest. A known quality stick is an easier sell and keeps their value better.

Or maybe you were smart enough to buy an “upgradeable” (moddable) stick. If you’re not afraid of modding (and voiding the warranty), you can make your stick better by modding it.

If you find arcade sticks aren’t for you, or are too expensive, consider a specialized “fightpad”

Hori Fighting Commander 4 for Playstation 3 and 4

These are more like regular gamepads, but designed in a way that fits better for fighting games.

For example the officially licensed HORI Fighting Commander for PS4 or HORI Fighting Commander for  Xbox One.

They have a better D-pad and better button layout, tailored for fighting games. On Hori’s fightpads you can adjust the hardness of the D-pad.

The uses for these fight gamepads are also limited, because they don’t include the analogue stick that’s in a regular controller for consoles. But these are a cheaper option than a fightstick.

If you love fighting games, give one of these a shot!

Are there any other uses for an arcade stick?

You could build a cheap emulator or arcade machine with a Raspberry Pi, and play old games with it. Or if you’re really handy and want to be one of the coolest persons around, build your own arcade cabinet!

Interested in buying an arcade stick?

If you’ve decided you want one, read some pointers from the buyer’s guide to know what to think of before buying a stick, or head straight to find some of the best arcade sticks for each platform.

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