Why I love building arcade sticks

My social media accounts are a hot mess. I post graphics, illustrations, composite images, but then I post pics from my woodworking process, documenting the building of arcade sticks. A friend of ours asked Mrs Webscream “why is Chris posting images of pieces of wood with holes in them?”, which was a) hilarious, and b) totally understandable. Perhaps this blog post can shed some light on why I love building boxes with holes.

Growing up with(out) arcade games

Through my childhood, my relationship with arcade video games was minimal. As I recounted in the NBA Jam article, my parents were always quite overprotective, and the fact that the only arcade game venue in our neighborhood looked shady as hell didn’t help either.

Still, whenever I passed outside that place, I would try to see through the tinted glass and make out any game titles I may recognize. In fact, I would absolutely obsess over any arcade cabinet I came across, anywhere. Those encounters were so few and far between, that I can still remember many of them. For example, I vividly recall the day I found out that a cabinet could carry more than one game. Me and my family were having a short vacation in Kastoria, northern Greece. The small hotel where we were staying had a cabinet running Rambo 3, which I tried out as soon as we checked in. Arriving late one night, I caught a glimpse of the screen; the cabinet was running on “attract mode”, but there was no shooting, no soldiers, no tanks; instead, there were a number of partially revealed nude ladies, in what was basically a NSFW puzzle game. The next day, I asked the manager how many games were in there. He replied “two, but the other one is for grown-ups”, an answer I still find hilarious, considering the main game was all-out war.

Such experiences were extremely fleeting, but the moments when I would really get to sink my teeth into arcades were the ferry rides between the port of Kyllini, in Peloponnese, and the island of Zakynthos, where my family is from. We have always lived in the capital, Athens, but we have always visited Zakynthos to spend most vacations. The trip took from fifty minutes to one hour and a quarter, depending on the ferry. More than enough time to check out the different cabinets positioned in a much more children-friendly area, right outside the restaurant. I can remember playing classics such as Pac-Man, 1942, and Golden Axe, as well as more modern 3D games such as Virtua Cop, and other, more obscure titles, like Soccer Brawl. As far as I remember, those ferries never brought my real favorites, though: Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat.

I already knew those titles, as this was a time well after the golden age of arcade video games; we were in the middle of the early console wars: the Super Nintendo / Super Famicom was fighting against the Sega Mega Drive / Sega Genesis. Along a parallel path, the then called “beat-em-up” games were also waging their own battle for wallet dominion. As it happened with most games back then, I was first introduced to them through magazines, like the Greek GamePro, and through my childhood friend, Billy. I remember the day he showed me Street Fighter II: Champion Edition on his Mega Drive; I was so excited to witness it up close, but, even though the game looked amazing, the experience was terrible. The Mega Drive’s controller had three buttons on it: A, B, and C, as well as a Start button. Notoriously, Street Fighter II – and all its sequels since then – required six. How did that work out? Well, the default setting was that you were supposed to press the Start button to switch between punches and kicks.

From the Sega Mega Drive manual of Street Fighter II: Special Champion Edition.

I remember that moment clearly, and it haunts me to this day. However, I am not entirely surprised that someone managed to actually become good at it, even if that has happened decades later:

Still, I lacked both the discipline and the will to go through all that training in elementary school, and I bet that this terrible first impression of SF2 on the Mega Drive was one of the reasons that made me go with a Super Nintendo. Of course, I wasn’t big on combos or anything; I have always been a total scrub. But the basic SNES gamepad already gave you six buttons, four on the face and two bumpers, so you had all kicks and punches readily available; Street Fighter II, which at the time came bundled with the SNES, was perfectly playable right out of the box. The same was also true of Mortal Kombat: the four face buttons perfectly accommodated the two punches and two kicks, while both bumpers were assigned to block. In time, in order to further improve my Street Fighter experience, I bought one of those gamepads with all six buttons on their face, the Logic 3 SpeedPad.

To be fair to Sega, they later made their own official six-button controller for the Mega Drive, which is still hailed by many as the best gamepad of the d-pad-only era. It is also quite telling that its name in Japan was “Fighting Pad 6B”.

I played a lot of Street Fighter II and Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 on the SNES, later adding Killer Instinct – I still love that black cartridge – to my very limited collection of one-on-one fighting games. But it actually wasn’t until the days of the Sony Playstation that I bought my first ever arcade stick for a console. It was the Asciiware Playstation Arcade Stick, and I absolutely loved how it looked; I still do.

Asciiware Playstation Arcade Stick

Asciiware Playstation Arcade Stick

The lever of the Asciiware felt pretty good, but the buttons felt quite mushy, clunky and sticky; they were also super loud, so playing intensively wasn’t a great experience. Years later, I opened it up to find that the lever had actual microswitches, while the buttons were of the membrane variety, precisely explaining my early impression. The Asciiware didn’t really make an “arcade stick believer” out of me. On the contrary, since I was already used to playing fighting games with a gamepad, I barely ever used the stick. Looking at the bright side, it is still in excellent shape. During the years of the PSX and the Playstation 2, a very small fraction of my interest stuck with fighting games anyway, mainly with Street Fighter Alpha 3 and Tekken, so the dualshock controller became my daily driver for a long time.

Street Fighter IV, Mad Catz, and scalpers

It all changed in late 2008 / early 2009, when Street Fighter IV was released and Mad Catz, in agreement with Capcom, released a couple of Street Fighter IV themed arcade sticks and a few six-button gamepads. Even though I had mostly played with gamepads till that point, I completely fell in love with the fightsticks offering from Mad Catz. There was the SFIV Fightstick, a smaller, cheaper version, and the SFIV Tournament Edition Fightstick, a bigger, pricier stick with superior parts. I immediately started reading up on their characteristics, learned what Sanwa was for the first time in my life, and started discovering the magnificent world of arcade parts. I admit that the Street Fighter IV branding played a big role in me wanting to explore these products.

It turned out that Mad Catz and Capcom severely underestimated the public’s interest in those products and therefore made a very limited initial run. I scoured the Italian internet to find an online shop that was selling those sticks – we didn’t have Amazon Italy back then – and only found a single store that didn’t have the words “sold out” next to the fightstick. I contacted them for information before ordering one and they told me that availability wasn’t guaranteed, so it wasn’t much of an order, as much as it was entering a waiting list. The fightstick’s price was $150, but the price appearing in Europe was already 200€, roughly $260, according to January 2009 rates. That was may more that what I had ever paid for a peripheral, but I was feeling the fever at that point.

That fever came down fast when the store called to tell me that the price had changed to 300€ – $394, in what was probably a scalping move. I politely declined and removed myself from the waiting list. I wasn’t going to get my hands on a Mad Catz fightstick anytime soon.

And then I thought “fuck it, I will make one myself”.

Between the two Mad Catz fightsticks, I actually liked the smaller one more; I thought it featured the better looking illustration of the two and its size felt more desk-friendly. The cheaper stick didn’t have those arcade-grade Sanwa parts, though, and reviewers said in unison that you can actually tell the difference in quality. So I knew that, had I gone with the cheaper stick, I would then have to swap its parts with Sanwa components. So, I had already read up a ton on stick modding and arcade parts in general, and I had already come across a number of custom DIY sticks online, some of them hilariously “ghetto”. I had learnt the concept of “padhacking” from the Shoryuken forums, browsed all the different panel layouts on Slagcoin, and already knew that I could get my hands on the exact same Sanwa parts from European online sellers such as Starcab.

So, I set out to build my first ever, completely ghetto arcade stick, in April 2009. My shopping list was as follows:

2 x Sanwa OBSF-24 – White
2 x Sanwa OBSF-30 – Dark Grey
6 x Sanwa OBSF-30 – Red
1 x Sanwa Joystick JLF-TP-8YT – Red

The total was 55.76€ – $73.6. I then found a used PSX controller on eBay for around 15€ / $19.8, and we were off to the races…

I first disassembled the PSX joypad and soldered all the necessary cables on its printed circuit board, I had never done that before, so I was absolutely terrified of overheating the soldering iron and destroying the PCB. Of course, I almost did.

Forgive the horrible resοlution; that was normal back then.

Hacked PSX gamepad PCB.

I then used my laptop’s cardboard box as a case, cut out holes, installed all the components and wired them according to the plans I had found online.

Cardboard arcade stick - May 2009

Cardboard arcade stick – May 2009

And just like that, I had a completely functioning arcade stick, at a fraction of the price! Sure, it didn’t have the well studied form and the official Street Fighter decorations, but it worked natively with both my PSX and my Playstation 2, as well as my PC, by using a simple Playstation to USB adapter. This solution was a perfect starting point, but its flimsiness was evident, so I sought an alternative, made of wood. The first one was simple plywood, precut at my local hardware store. I’m not entirely sure where I screwed up the measurements, as this was clearly not a perfect box:

Plywood arcade stick - May 2009

Plywood arcade stick – May 2009

I merrily used this stick for more than four years, till December 2013, when I moved all the parts to a new, all plastic housing I bought from a hardware store; I think that box was supposed to house an electric junction or something. This plastic case made it look almost like one of the many arcade sticks that were now readily available by all major retailers. 

Plastic arcade stick - May 2013

Plastic arcade stick – May 2013

In June 2016, I bought a full set of Sanwa parts from ArcadeWorldUK, with the plan of making a small bartop arcade cabinet out of PC parts cannibalized from dead machines. I didn’t get around making it, and those parts simply stayed hidden away in a box for three whole years (!) till January 2019, when I pulled them out and built another ghetto stick, as a joke: the iStick. I didn’t hack any PSX pads this time; instead, I bought a Xinmotek single player interface, which is compatible with the PS3 and the PC. At that moment. I had become a 99.99% PC gamer, anyway.

The greatest device to have ever featured an apple logo on it.

Playing with wood

While the iStick started as a joke, it definitely got my creative juices flowing again. Not even a month later I decided to take my limited woodworking skills to a new level and build my own first fully wooden arcade stick. In fact, I got into such a groove that I ended up making two back to back full Sanwa sticks, a few days apart. For the first one, I used the blue and orange parts from the iStick.  I housed everything in a wooden box I made from fir.

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And a few days later, I made a second one, this time from beech, featuring the same original red and grey Sanwa components. I ditched the hacked PSX PCB – which is still in perfect shape – for the much neater solution of the Xinmotek single player interface. At that point, I had officially made four different iterations of the same stick, all while remaining significantly below the original price point of that scalper Mad Catz SFIV TE Fightstick.

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During these past ten years, the commercial arcade stick business has flourished. Different companies, both mainstream and boutique, have entered the market, selling some extremely beautiful, quality, yet often affordable arcade sticks.

I doubt that I will ever buy one, though. As many, far more experienced, makers have said before: merely looking at something, knowing that you built it yourself, is a very special feeling.

That feeling is even stronger when your creation allows you to actually play a video game.

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