Friday, February 18, 2011

Complete Nerd-Stick

That fine old game controller, the joystick, seems to be increasingly uncommon amongst the general gaming population and yet there's a pretty big sub-market for high-end and even custom versions.

Ever since I started playing on home consoles, I've had to buy a joystick for use as a controller. The need stems from all the arcade playing I used to do before the NES resuscitated the console market from the post-Atari days. Joysticks... really crappy ones... were the standard on the old Atari 2600, the most popular home machine before the NES. But I didn't get into the 2600 too much... or the Colecovision, or the Intellivision, or the Atari 5200. My video game time was spent on quarter munchers.

There were some different input devices scattered around the arcades. All-button layouts for a lot of games. A steering wheel for any driving game. A spin knob for Tempest. A trackball for Centipede. There were cool custom devices like the the periscopes for Battlezone or Sea Wolf. But mostly it was a little knob or bat-shaped stick jutting up from the panel and with it you moved Pac-man around the maze or alternately blasted aliens and rescued humans in Defender. It was a simple, durable way to translate directional inputs, leaving the other hand free to push whatever buttons were needed.

When the Nintendo Entertainment System came out, I got the little brick 'd-pads' just like everyone else. I wasn't TOTALLY unfamiliar with the concept because years before I'd had a friend with an Intellivision. I'm not sure why the Intellivision pads are considered so awesome now. Back in the day I hated them so much I wanted to jam them up a stray dog's butt and then shoot the dog, hoping the controller got crushed in the death throes. The NES pads were better (to me) but it wasn't even a week later that I tracked down a Toys 'R' Us carrying official Nintendo joysticks. And these things were pretty damn awesome at the time. MILES better than the Atari 2600 stock versions. They worked with every game and made every game better. I think the only NES games I didn't use them for was Pinbot and other pinball simulators because it was unnatural to move a stick for the left flipper and push a button for the right. With the d-pad you could 'press a button' for both flippers to make it much more like actual pinball.

When I upgraded to a Genesis, there were no joysticks immediately available. I was pretty frantic. There had to BE joysticks released, since I was not a particularly early adopter of the console, but it was like a month or two before I could lay my hands on some. So before that happened I took a fairly heavyweight screw and drove it right into the middle of the directional pad on the Genesis controller. It stuck up about an inch, and it made all the difference in the world. It was not super comfortable... I got a pretty sore thumb nudging the screw around instead of cradling a joystick in the hand as I normally would... but it was a workaround that kept me from dying a bazillion times trying to learn how to get along with a d-pad. And when I finally did get the real joysticks, again my enjoyment of the console skyrocketed. And these were some goshdamn cool-looking pieces of hardware too, all-black with lights above the buttons. Both these and the NES sticks had turbofire buttons, which really helped considering that, as cool as the joysticks were, their base size and button placement didn't allow me to hammer the fire controls with anything like the speed and stamina I could manage in arcades.

So in the years since, every time I've bought a new game console I've immediately gotten a joystick (or two) to go with it. I don't use them for every game any more. When Sega released the analog pad for Sega Nights on the Saturn, I finally started using the type of analog thumbstick controller that everyone else had been using for months on their Playstations (the predecessor to the dual shock controllers that are synonymous with Sony now). The thumbstick was kind of like the old screw I put in my Genesis pad, only a lot more comfortable. Hours spent on the Dreamcast (bought after the Saturn, I skipped the PS1 for awhile) made me finally tow the line and become comfortable with a non-joystick.

The thumbtick based analog controller is now the standard. Even the unconventional wiimote has a thumbstick on its nunchuck accessory.

Except there are still certain types of games that absolutely suck balls on a regular controller. The games that still adhere to oldest (some would say *shudder* 'most retro') game mechanics.... namely 2D fighting games and 2D shooters. I'd argue that 2D platforming games and beat 'em up/beltscroll fighters are also WAY better with a stick, but you can at least play them competently on a pad. I understand there are gamers who can play shooters and fighters very well on a standard controller but I don't know how they do it, especially the ever-present-in-fighting-game shoryuken/dragon punch motion.

So, uh, guess what kind of games I played to death in the arcades AND on home consoles. Yep. 2D fighters, shooters, and platforming games.

My kids are totally unfamiliar with joysticks. By the time my oldest could even muster interest in video games, the PS2 was the dominant machine. So all they've ever really known is dual shock controllers and their antecedents. I have the pads to all my old consoles, so if they feel like jumping in the wayback machine and play some games on the Genesis, the d-pad (screw now removed) is pretty similar to the cross-pad on their Nintendo portables. But when I'm playing... or when I drag a joystick out for a specific game on a newer system, you'd think I was bringing a musket to a drug war. Much eye-rolling and snorting is sure to ensue. It isn't enough that I like those stone-age style games... and that includes RECENT shooters or fighters like Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu or Super Street Fighter IV... I have to drag out the stone axes and flint arrows with which to play them.

The derision reached something of a crescendo recently when I decided to upgrade my PS2 and Xbox 360 joysticks. I don't mean upgrade as in purchase better ones... I mean upgrade as in replacing parts. This is a level of fanatic nerd-ery the likes of which my daughter thought she'd never see me display in my home. I think she'd have been less affected if I'd cosplayed Evangelion pilot Ayanami Rei at an anime convention. My son, however, was intrigued. He has always been something of a 'fiddler'. He loves buidling models, taking stuff apart, or messing with Legos. In racing games he spends more time playing with color schemes and decals for his cars then he does on the actual driving. These joysticks are big too, Hori Real Arcade Pro models, so the idea of cracking them open and working on the guts was like asking him to help me work on real-life automobiles. I asked him to second 'the surgery' on one stick and my daughter to help me with the other. I wasn't trying to foment love for the joysticks amongst my children, I just thought this would be a cool and very different activity for us to bond over. And despite the utter nerd-ity of the project, my daughter also wanted to get in on it. Just to 'help me do this correctly' of course.

The Japanese company Hori makes a line of controllers for all makes of video game consoles, but they have a particular rep (and cult following) for their higher-end line of joysticks. These frequently use the same parts as the candy cabinet style arcade machines still found in Japan. In the case of the two sticks under discussion, both have Sanwa JLF sticks, the most frequent model found on fighters, and Hori's knock-offs of Sanwa buttons.

The 'need' to do this upgrade has been borne out of my frustration playing Super Street Fighter IV. It has been quite a while since I've put any emphasis on getting good at a 2D fighting game, but the new SSFIV is pretty awesome. However it is the first game of its genre that I've tried playing on the Xbox 360. I haven't done BlazBlue or any of the HD Capcom remakes on the Xbox Live service. I might be a little rusty, sure.

I've never really had problems executing any of the command motions in any previous fighting games, from any company on any system. But wow, I am having the devil's own time executing commands on this game, particularly the double fireball motion needed for most supers and ultras. My understanding is that the timing window to execute these commands is very forgiving. I've had no issues managing the same mechanics in various Street Fighter III iterations on other platforms, which is supposedly much more strict. I *think* my problem is the size of the 'throw' on the HRAP (Hori Real Arcade Pro) stick that I use on the 360. I think the time it takes to do the full range of motions goes outside even the timing window because the stick has to move very far in order to register each direction/point. I think the actual proper points the stick needs to hit are not quite all the way to the outside of the stick's range of motion... so in effect the map to get out the command is kind of smaller than the area the joystick moves... and I'm too old and impatient to sit there and fuck with this and learn it when all other fighting games I have DON'T have this 'placement' problem.

Because I play a lot of Cave shooters, small precise movements of the joystick are a must. Online the consensus seems to be that the short throw of the standard Seimitsu brand arcade joysticks are the best for these sorts of games. Short throw equals quick changes in direction... EXACTLY what seems to be required to overcome my problem with SSFIV. It appears the distance the Seimitsu sticks need to travel to engage each direction is smaller than the Sanwa sticks that my HRAP comes with. My play with Cave shooters could stand improvement but was never so bad that I felt like spending the money to upgrade to Seimitsu parts. But being unable to access a primary mechanic in SSFIV pushed me over the edge. My abilty to tap buttons quickly has never been a problem (my kids ALWAYS hand controllers to me for button mashing sections of games), but I figured I'd replace the Hori buttons with less-mushy Seimitsu versions as well.

The kids helped me with the modifications... small hands equals useful... and I'm really pleased with how they've turned out so far. I say so far because I actually got the wrong replacement stick for the Xbox 360 HRAP. From the outside the two models (HRAP 2.0 for the PS2, HRAP EX for the Xbox 360) look really similar apart from the colors, but actually the PS2 stick uses an easy slip-on molex connector for the wiring, where the Xbox 360 version is soldered. Which I didn't know. Seimitsu makes replacements in both slip-on (LS-32-01) and soldered (LS-32), but the soldered one ain't here yet.

The finished PS2 HRAP is pictured above. The original had all bright red buttons and a bright red ball top to the stick itself. I changed the button colors to match the color coding of buttons on stock Sony controllers. It makes the stick gaudier (though not brighter actually), but I then put black buttons corresponding to the controller triggers and a black ball top all to compensate for the color riot. Having the correct colors on there was done in the first place because onscreen prompts or quick time events can get confusing when your buttons are all red AND not placed the same way they are on the pad. I've also got a Dreamcast and an Xbox 360 with their own button color schemes. I'm not even going to try to memorise them all.

I'm not having fighting game troubles with the PS2, but I thought I'd give the new Seimitsu stick a whirl with one just the same. There is a noticeable difference in the ease with which the moves come out for me. The stick is a bit stiffer, and it has a smaller dead zone (the amount of travel the stick can move from center before engaging a direction). So subtler motions net the same effect as the unmodified stick. If my impression holds true, this should fix my problem playing SSFIV when I can get THAT stick changed out... hopefully next week. We've already done the 360's buttons.

Perversely, and probably temporarily, this little project has gotten my son all interested in joystick-necessary games. Up to this point, he hated almost all 2D fighters (doesn't like command motion inputs) and was indifferent to shooters and platformers. Now all of a sudden Gradius V and Thunder Force VI on the PS2 are hot commodities. And of course he wants his own joystick. If this interest holds up and we wind up having to get him one or two, the irony will be that I would probably give him the ones we've modified ourselves and I'd just get myself new HRAPs... but this time I'd get some specials that already come with Seimitsu parts (like the HRAP EX-SE). Modding these was fun, but I did it mostly because it was less expensive than buying new joysticks. If we're going to get new ones anyway, might as well get 'em already done. Unlike the kid, I'd rather spend the time playing than fiddling.

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