Arcade Fightsticks, And How To Build Your Own!

With BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle hitting America’s shores on June 5th, I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I’m more hyped for this game than I’ve been for a similar offering in this area for..   well..  years.

While I’ve played a nice share of Japanese arcade-style fighting games before (Guilty Gear, BlazBlue, and Under Night: In Birth – EXE Late, etc.), I’ve always used a console controller for them in the past.

After finally deciding to take the plunge to get an honest-to-God fightstick, I quickly found that pre-built fightsticks are, in my opinion, stupidly overpriced. Something with the parts that I wanted specifically would land me somewhere in the ballpark of $250 – $300. But, is that price really justified for what the fightstick entails? In typical Caleb fashion, I wanted to find out the truth!

So, after doing some Internet cruising between a couple evenings, I spec’d out a way to build my own fightstick for a fraction of the cost of a pre-made stick. The question is: is my way better, or have I built something that’s garbage compared to an industry professional’s fightstick?

The Parts List (And Why I Wanted The Parts I Did)

Firstly, let’s look at the features I wanted in my stick:

  • Wooden chassis
  • Sanwa-brand joystick
  • Sanwa-brand octagonal restrictor gate
  • LED-capable acrylic buttons
  • Retro-style vibe to the completed fightstick

While the wooden chassis, retro-style vibe, and LED buttons are a matter of aesthetic personal preference that most people would understand, it’s probably worthwhile to clarify on the Sanwa components since these will make a notable difference on the quality of your fightstick.

Sanwa joysticks are generally regarded as the industry standard for professional-grade fightsticks due to their texture and durability. Most arcade machines in Japan’s arcades feature Sanwa components direct from the factory as they’re renowned for being ruggedly built and performing well. Ok, that makes sense.

Now, for the restrictor gate. Variable restrictor gates, in my opinion, are one of the critical factors that separates a mediocre fightstick from a stellar one. Why? A restrictor gate is a composite plastic insert that sits at the very base of the joystick level itself, and prevents it from being moved too far in a certain direction. Nearly 100% of joysticks will feature a square restrictor gate from the factory, but many professional arcade players prefer an octagonal gate – the reason for this is that it prevents the stick from accidentally going too far into one of its movement corners and cancelling a “sweep” or “anti-air” move.

You can see the difference pictured below:

If you’re not sure about this part and you’re looking to build your own fightstick, I’d encourage you to at least purchase a joystick for your build that has a restrictor gate that you can change – so you can decide for yourself down the road if this is something you want to experiment with without having to purchase a completely new stick assembly.

Alright, so these are the parts I want, most of which are readily available on many Internet storefronts for reasonable prices. Many providers will sell you an entire “kit” that contains the joystick, buttons, circuit board, and all the necessary wires to hook everything together with. While this may sound intimidating to some, there’s no soldering involved and the instructions are pretty easy to navigate in these kits.

I went ahead and purchased a Sanwa kit off of eBay for around $40 total that contained my joystick, buttons, wires, and circuit board. Next, I purchased an octagonal restrictor gate for my stick for $7 off eBay. For my chassis, I found that if you search for a large wooden jewelry-style case on the Internet, you can find an assortment of wooden chassis in this area for $20 – $30 that can easily be modded into a workable case. Adding in some $5 eBay brass antique-looking corner guards for it, and I was set for a chassis. For some added flavor, I found a $3 external screw-mount USB extension cable that I can make a nice-looking plug on my chassis with.

The best part? I’m only $85 deep and I’ve already got all the components that the pros use, with my own custom chassis that I can mod to my hearts content!

Putting It All Together!

After spending an afternoon in front of the drill press with a few different hole saws, I was able to get the chassis prepwork finished. Moving on from there, a light coat of wood oil gave me a nice-looking finish; adding in the brass corners gave the edges a nice look. The only thing that was left afterward was to start screwing and wiring in the components.

Wiring in the components went without a hitch for the most part. While the connectors themselves aren’t labeled directly, you can work out which leads go to which ends of the connection adapters by mapping out a few of the wire traces to which ones go to power and which ones are obvious grounds. A quick Internet search yielded a few good walkthroughs for the specific model of circuit board I had, allowing me to know what went where. You can also match the button topography to that of whichever fightstick you want to model after – and you can also easily change this layout later if you want to either by switching cables or within your PC’s software.

If you have a non-LED board, it won’t matter which leads go into which connectors on the underside of the buttons since you’re basically wiring together a simple electrical switch. With LED buttons like I had, however, you can only connect the leads a single way – because an LED, as implied by the name (Light-Emitting Diode) contains a diode which only allows current to flow one way. As such, you’ll need to pay attention to the lead pinouts in your instructions to make sure you’re plugging in to the right connectors.

Plugging everything into my PC for the button test once things were all squared away, I found that my PC detected the fightstick layout as a Generic USB Joystick but otherwise loaded default drivers for it out of the box on Windows 7. The joystick felt good, and the buttons had good weight to them.

If you’re using Steam for your games, you’ll need to open Steam -> Settings -> Controller, and configure your controller layout to correspond to the button layout that you want to correlate to on an Xbox 360 controller. While Steam’s interface for this is a little clunky as of this writing, I was able to get the layout done after a couple of tries.

With this done, I was ready to proceed to the actual game test.

Controller to Fightstick – Transition Thoughts

The primary reason I wanted to make the jump to a fightstick from a controller was that I found myself frequently making bad “sweeps” on a controller because in the heat of a fight, using your left thumb to do this by itself didn’t give me enough control to get this right 100% of the time. My thought was that using my entire left hand for this instead would help me cut through my otherwise physical shortcomings in this area.

My sweep reliability noticeably improved upon switching to the fightstick; I had a notable degree of greater control in my movements now. It also greatly helped that the joystick would both physically and audibly “click” when you changed axis movement enough to trigger a directional input – which made it really easy to know when you went far enough in your sweep.

​Getting used to the new button layouts took some time, however. I retained the same layout as I did when I first wired the stick (matching the Madcatz TE2+ layout), but had to re-learn many of the wrist motions that had otherwise been ingrained into muscle memory over the years. Once I had the new motions down, I feel that I can more reliably hit combos now as opposed to before.

I couldn’t sense any input delay on my stick when I got into Guilty Gear XRD: Sign. The movements seemed to be fluid once I got the new feel nailed down, and mis-inputs became a thing of the past since because of the physical feedback from moving the stick, I can now hit combos with far greater reliability. Am I a pro? Heck no – but I at least feel like I could grow into one if I allocate enough time to.

    ….but who in my shoes would have the time for that “kids stuff”, anyway?   🙂

Final Thoughts

The grand total that I spent on my fightstick build came to $82.37. If I hadn’t gone for some of the aesthetics that I did (the wood oil, brass corners, and USB coupler socket), the price could have been dropped to $68.11.

For the money that I put into it, I feel that I’ve got a comparable fightstick to some of the industry “big shots” and their fightstick offerings. With Sanwa components and modularity, I’ve got an arcade-grade setup at home now – for a fraction of the cost that it otherwise would have cost me.

But, to put this in perspective, let’s match my setup up against Qanba’s Drone Fightstick, which would land you $79.99 if you’d purchased it new. This should give a good indicator of what the bang to buck ratio is.

Qanba Drone Fightstick:

  • ​​Qanba’s in-house non-LED buttons
  • Qanba’s in-house joystick, non-modular
  • Plastic chassis, non-weighted, non-modular
  • PS3, PS4, and PC compatibility
  • Weighs in at 4.4 pounds

Caleb’s Custom Fightstick:

  • Sanwa-brand LED buttons
  • Sanwa-brand joystick assembly, modular
  • Wooden chassis, weighted, modular
  • PC compatibility
  • Weighs in at 6.5 pounds

The only backdraw to my build is that it will only work on PC, whereas other sticks have cross-functionality. Otherwise, it tends to exceed industry expectations for the price tier that it’s it.

Overall, I’m thrilled to have a sweet fightstick now that works for what I need it to. And after testing it on a couple other games such as Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, I’ve found it will work for a plethora of other games besides arcade-style fighters.

At least now I have a decent way to unload some steam at the end of the day.

Caleb Huggenberger is a 31 year-old systems engineer, old-school guitar and amplifier builder, and Eastern culture enthusiast. Outside of long work days, he enjoys electronics engineering, cast iron campfire cooking, and homesteading on his acreage in the Indiana countryside.

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