If you've spent any time viewing esports events, such as Evo, Chinatown Beatdown, or East Coast Throwdown, you may have noticed that a great many of the entrants play their games of choice not with a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One controller, but with a fight stick.
Fight Stick vs.Game Pad
Fight sticks are special video game controllers tailor made for, well, fighting games. They duplicate the feel and visual aesthetic of the classic, Street Fighter-inspired, joystick-and-two-button-rows layout found on arcade uprights.
"Fighting games started in arcade cabinets that used joystick and buttons for controls, and using an arcade stick replicates the arcade experience at home," said Kaz Ohira of Hori, Inc, a premier fight stick manufacturer. "Joystick and buttons allow for extremely accurate input, and these parts are what players look for in an arcade stick. Hori was one of the first companies to bring the arcade experience to the home console, and we strive to provide high-quality products with features to enhance the overall gaming experience."
It's that arcade feel of gripping a lollipop- or baseball bat-style joystick in your hand, and manipulating buttons with the other that draws people to adopting fight sticks. It's not a nostalgic feeling, either. There's an actual tactile reason why you see many fighting game players lugging fighting sticks to local and international tournaments.
Reyes Reyes III was one of them. The retired tournament fighter found it difficult to use a standard console controller while playing Vega/Claw in Super Street Fighter IV. Due to the game pad's combination of four face buttons, bumpers, and triggers, Reyes discovered that he had to hold the controller in an awkward, uncomfortable position in order to successfully reach all of the buttons.
"The controller mapping was getting excessive to the point where it was a detriment," Reyes told me at a Chinatown Beatdown tournament in New York's Lower East Side. "I decided to buy a $50 casing for a stick."
Reyes bought a PCB for the stick's interior, and found someone to wire it for multi-system compatibility. "It feels like second nature, as I grew up in the arcades," he said. "You don't get a controller in an arcade."
Budget and Premium Options
If, like Reyes, you have a yearning to switch to a fight stick, there are many manufacturers to explore. The aforementioned Hori is perhaps the best known fight stick maker now that Mad Catz has ceased operations, but it isn't the only company putting out sticks. Mayflash, Qanba Q4 RAF BlackQanba, Razer, and a handful of others also produce fight sticks.
Fight stick prices are typically grouped in two categories: Budget ($99.99 or less) or Premium ($100 or more). If you have zero fight stick experience, I'd recommend exploring the budget stick space, as you can pick up one without spending too much moolah. Hori, for example, offers the $49.99 Fighting Stick Mini 4, which is compatible with the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4.
"This stick may not have all of the bells and whistles compared to our premium arcade stick lineup, but we have made sure that quality isn't compromised with the lower cost," said Ohira. "We recommend this stick for the novice players who want to learn to play on stick as well as more experienced players that are looking for a portable stick to take on the road."
A budget stick gives you just the basics, but a premium stick opens the door to new features. For example, Hori's top-of-the-line Real Arcade Pro 4 Premium VLX fight stick's larger size and button layout are designed to replicate Taito's popular arcade machine design. It also includes a cable storage compartment, touchpad functionality, and the ability to easily pop the top to change or replace buttons and interior parts.
Not Just for Fighting Games
Though fight sticks are literally made with fighting games in mind, they are perfectly viable controllers for other arcade-style video games, such as Ikaruga or Metal Slug 3. Basically, any game that doesn't require dual analog sticks is rife for fight stick enjoyment.
"There is some utility to playing stick with games that aren't fighting games," said Reyes. "Playing Puzzle Fighter on a stick doesn't change the game play at any point, but it feels more whole than using a pad."
Time to Buy
If all this sounds appealing, it may be time for you to invest in a fight stick. There are many options to consider before opening your purse or wallet, so I've culled a few essential tips to assist in your purchasing decision. Enjoy your new fight stick.
1Select Your Platform
The most important thing you should do before buying a fight stick is to determine the platforms on which it shall be used. Some fight sticks are designed for exclusive PlayStation use; others are designed with the Xbox in mind. Fortunately, PC players don't have to dwell in such walled gardens. Due to the open nature of the Windows platform, players can use PlayStation or Xbox fight sticks out of the box or with a bit of software tinkering.
I experienced this first hand when a friend gifted me a Hori Real Arcade Pro 4 Kai. I used the stick to play The King of Fighters '98: Ultimate Match Final Edition, Garou: Mark of the Wolves, Street Fighter V, and other games without issue, despite the fact that PC isn't one of the listed compatible platforms. That said, some of the PlayStation 4-centric features, such as image sharing and touchpad functionality, didn't work on PC.
2Determine Your Budget
This is addressed in the meat of this piece, but it bears repeating, as price will determine the features that come with your fight stick. Budget sticks offer the basics, and have basic functionality. You can pick up one, such as the pictured Hori Fighting Stick Mini 4, for $99.99 or less.
Premium sticks start at $100, though you often find them priced in the $149-$199 range. You'll find the rare fight stick that eclipses the $200 mark, but those are usually reserved for special edition sticks or an oddity like the joystick-less Hit Box Arcade. You get much better build quality with a premium stick, as well as easily accessible interiors for repair and modding purposes, and matted bottoms and rubber feet to keep the stick in place as you're making fast inputs.
This, of course, generally speaking. Higher profile brands often see some of the once-premium features trickle down to their entry-level sticks.
3Pick Your Parts
A person unfamiliar with fight sticks may mistake the controllers as more or less the same, but with different designs. That couldn't be further from the truth. There's a lot of variety, including the number of buttons (six vs. eight), button layout (straight alignment vs. Namco Noir vs. Taito Vewlix), joystick style (lollipop vs. baseball bat), and joystick gate (circle vs. diamond vs. octagonal vs. square).
And, if you're in it for the long haul, you'll want to find a stick that uses real arcade-quality parts that will handle the wear and tear that comes along with long play sessions. Thankfully, there's quite some distance between now and the 1990s and early 2000s, when buying a stick meant dealing with suspect parts that couldn't handle intense fighting game action.
4Buy a Custom Fight Stick
This is what happens when you realize that stick is the only way to play a fighting game, and you want one that's tailor-made for your obsessions. With a custom stick, you aren't limited to what fight stick manufacturers choose to sell. Instead, you can select (depending on the stick builder) the case, joystick, gate, button types, and custom art.
Jony Fraze is a highly regarded source for custom sticks. A fighting game fan since the 1990s, Fraze knows what goes into to crafting an attractive, well-balanced, and functional stick.
"I've always been a creative dude, so when I bought my first stick, I said 'I can do this myself,'" Fraze said in a telephone interview. "There's a lot of discipline involved, such as electrical work, graphics, and design.
"The reason my sticks are designed the way they are is because that's most comfortable for me," Fraze said. "If there's a sharp edge on arcade stick, it turns me off. If the Plexiglas is raised, or a screw is in the way, it turns me off. And I don't like them heavy. It has to be light to be in your hand."
Fraze's prices are on the higher end of the fight stick spectrum, costing roughly $300-$400, but he makes all his products by hand. And with care. Last year, he built me a beautiful Art of Fighting-themed stick that's compatible with Dreamcast and Neo Geo. It's my favorite stick for mixing it up in retro fighting games.