In preparation for this week’s release of Street Fighter IV, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at available arcade fighting sticks. There aren’t a lot. The two main contenders for your arcade stick dollar are the Hori EX2 and the new Mad Catz Arcade Fightstick .
Before I get into the head to head, a little about myself…
Background – Street Fighter II
When Street Fighter II (SFII) hit, it was a phenomenon. Single handedly launching an entire genre of games, SFII captured the imaginations of arcade gamers with its unprecedented number of playable fighters, vast moveset for each character, a unique and challenging button configuration, and an enormously deep fighting system. The most exciting feature, as it turned out, was the head to head action.
What was intended as a secondary play mode quickly became the dominate one and multi-player suddenly became a much bigger deal. It isn’t difficult to see how the current obsession with death matching online got started. Matching your skill up with that of another person was infinitely more satisfying than playing against AI.
I was on the fringe of this when it first hit. I was a little intimidated by the complexity and depth of the game and a lot intimidated by the human opponents. I watched people play for months at grocery stores and the nickel arcade down the street from my house. I watched how people played, learning the mechanics of it all on my own and developing strategy. One fateful July, I found myself at Peter Piper Pizza at my cousin’s birthday party and I was standing in front of an empty Street Fighter II machine.
I chose Ryu and managed to fight my way through the 8 main characters and two deep into the four bosses on one quarter. I felt good and like a badass. I felt like I was ready for human competition. I was wrong.
In the years that followed I would find myself schooled something terrible as I learned the nuance of the various characters as well as the etiquette of the arcade. SFII was coming to home consoles and I dropped $150 to import it from Japan so I didn’t have to wait for the US port. I spent hours and hours and hours playing at home and at the arcade.
Early shoddy treatment made me bitter and a friend and I decided to start hustling at the arcade. Not for money, but to embarrass. At home I would win bets by winning matches with my eyes closed, only using certain moves and once with the controller upside down on my lap while screwing the controller back together. I was pretty good.
Background – Street Fighter III
Street Fighter III came out and I was just as obsessive.
After a short stint of dating and managing social milestones like losing my virginity I was back at the arcade. I made children cry. I beat a guy in 8 seconds while I had a migraine which left me without peripheral vision and absolutely no feeling in my left hand.
You Need a Stick…
So that is where I am coming from. I have played a lot of Street Fighter in a lot of venues with a lot of different control schemes and in various states of disrepair. So when it comes to the new game, I want to have the best. Since I will be playing on the Xbox 360, that means getting an arcade stick. Seriously, I would rather play on a modded arcade machine that won’t let you go backwards than us the 360 controller for Street Fighter. The D-pad is just that bad.
Luckily, there are other options. You can get the Mad Catz control pad with a 6 button configuration and an improved D-pad, but that is mostly for people who played primarily on the home consoles. For the arcade purist like me, you need to have a stick. There are a few different sorts of sticks out there, notably the expensive but enormously high quality Arcade-In-a-Box sticks and the just a bit less expensive Mad Catz Champion edition stick, but I am going to focus on the two that are the most easily acquired and most economical options.
Hori EX2 Arcade Stick
The Hori EX2 is part of a line of Hori sticks that have catered to different fighting games. This particular stick was released in conjunction with Virtua Fighter 5. Unlike the previous DOA stick, this one is fairly simple looking, a white and green color scheme and a multi-colored 6 button layout and that is it. The package includes some Virtua Fighter stickers if you want to customize, which was a nice change from the lame silk screened graphic on the DOA stick.
The Mad Catz Arcade Fightstick is large and sturdy with an 8 button configuration and a silk screen Street Fighter IV graphic across it. The buttons are mostly white with two sporting black.
Aesthetic matters aside, at first glace the two sticks don’t look that much different. They are both essentially thick boxes you can put on your lap or on a table. They both feature the classic lollipop top stick favored in Japanese arcades and feature convex buttons. That is where the similarities end.
The Hori stick is a very simple stick. The casing is thick and weighty enough to stay put on your lap when you are doing your circular joystick moves and vigorous tapping on the buttons. Where lesser sticks would fly off your lap and knock the cat through a window, this one doesn’t move no matter how into the proceedings you get. Turning the stick gives you the satisfying click you are looking for in a responsive controller and the button presses are crisp with no sticking at the wrong time. The 360 button (or PS3 button if that is what you are rocking) is in the center of the top of the stick, generally out of the way of you flailing fingers as are the start, back, LB and
RB buttons. And that is pretty much it.
In practice, the stick feels pretty good but it doesn’t take long to notice that some of the moves are not dialing in as smoothly as you might like. I found that it is sort of sticky when trying to jump forward. In a general sense, the controls are fine for an amateur fighter or someone not looking for extreme precision but when you are used to having the moves right there (like with the wonderful Dreamcast stick) it can be distracting.
Going online with the stick (playing Super Street Fighter II Turbo Remix), I found I was fighting the precision as well as lag. Again, it is not really terribly noticeable until you need to pull something special or specific out in a tight spot and it just isn’t there for you. There is nothing worse than getting stuffed in the face while watching your character crouch and jab instead of lighting your opponent up with a hadoken. That being said, I did manage to shut down a jab throw artist who was using every cheap move in the book with this stick. The dude was doing things that would have gotten him dragged to the parking lot for a much more one-sided and real street fight than he was looking for but even with some niggling precision problems I was able to straight ruin his shit.
Mad Catz Arcade Fight Stick
When I heard that Capcom was going to Mad Catz for their official licensed controllers I was horrified. Mad Catz has had a long history of failure and, in some cases, damage systems on which they were used. My hopes of a great licensed stick faded fast and I resigned myself to just sticking with what I already had. Early reports came in that this was a new age for Mad Catz with this offering and I decided to give it a try. I was not disappointed.
The Mad Catz stick is bigger, thicker and heavier than the Hori stick. On paper that may sound as if the stick will be a bit much for lap play but it is very comfortable. The bottom part of the casing angles down to give your palms a much more comfortable resting place than any other stick I have ever used. The weight guarantees that the thing won’t fly off your lap or move around too much and the rubber grips on the bottom makes for a sturdy table experience.
When I first touched the stick itself, it felt really loose. It clicks the way it should but I was worried that it would be even more imprecise than the Hori stick, but when I got in game I found that the stick was enormously precise and smooth. I have had experiences where my hands feel clumsy on the stick but here it feels perfectly natural and your hands can fly. The buttons feel nice to the touch and are just as responsive as you would hope for. The button configuration itself is a bit of a problem as there are two extra buttons and can lead to mistaken orientation and disastrous results in a pinch. Reconfiguring the button assignments in the options menu will fix this so it isn’t a huge drawback.
The Xbox button is at the top left of the stick along with a programmable turbo feature for all the buttons, an addition that worries me for online play. I am not looking forward to cheapsters using this to get an edge in a fight. In the same area you can adjust the stick assignment from D-pad to Left Stick and Right Stick. I can’t imagine why you would want to change this but it allows for use with other games. The most useful feature is also found here by way of a switch to lock the face buttons so you can’t accidentally shutdown your X-Box right as you are about to shut down your opponent. The Start and Back buttons are actually on the back side of the stick so there is no chance of accidentally hitting either of those.
In online play, I found no problems at all with the Mad Catz stick. It was quick, responsive, and precise. When I was playing with the Hori stick I thought I had lost a lot of my skill and I was enormously rusty. When I picked up the Mad Catz stick, I realized that, while I am rusty, I am not THAT rusty.
Comparing the two sticks, I like things about both. I like the basic features of the Hori stick. I don’t think there is any place for Turbo on a competitive game stick. All that is going to do is make the playing field uneven and give an edge to weaker players who need a crutch. I never had that in the arcade and people shouldn’t have it now. The Mad Catz stick, besides having reasonably useless extra features offers a very precise play experience and an almost flawless control experience. If you were to put these two sticks together it would be perfect.
At the end of the day your choice of sticks comes down to your needs as a player. If you have to have the best control available for under $100 then the Mad Catz stick is the clear favorite. If you are more casual but you can’t abide the standard controller (and in the 360′s case, this means everyone) and don’t want to drop $80 then the Hori EX2 is the way to go. Despite my complaints, it is a fine stick for the more casual player and with a low price tag, it is a very viable option. If you find yourself wanting more, you can always upgrade to the Mad Catz.
Or you can do what I did, which is to buy both so that guests in local multi-player can play with a stick no matter what. Thankfully house rules dictate I get the Mad Catz, but at least I am giving them something better than a hopelessly broken D-pad.