What’s Under The Hood?
As Arcade/Fight sticks are becoming more and more popular, it is important to understand that even if the cheapest options cannot be modded, there is a growing number of affordable options that can easily be personalized by removing the bottom plate.
You will usually see a a joystick with a flat head shaft that can be used to swap ball tops, a restrictor gate screwed on its bottom, a bunch of colored cables, in pairs, hooked up to the buttons, all of them connected to a printed circuit board (PCB).
Just to be clear, this is an introduction and I will only cover what can be replaced without soldering; so I will not cover PCBs.
Should You Mod It?
Before asking if you should, you might want to check if you can: some of the most affordable sticks out there cannot be modded without a certain level of expertise and might require special tools and parts. For the should question, sometimes modding might devalue your stick if it’s from an original console accessories that isn’t manufactured anymore or if it’s a stick coming from a game limited edition.
Injustice Fight Stick
This is a modern fight stick and I got it as a reasonable price but it’s very difficult to mod as the buttons’ cables aren’t colored and swapping them without damaging the LED PCBs and keeping the lighting functions intact is extremely difficult; this is the reason why, I would not recommend modding it.
Neo Geo X Arcade Stick
If the Rolls-Royce of 90s consoles came with a pad in its later years, the arcade stick is the one that is the most iconic. Unfortunately, it’s quasi-impossible to mod and it doesn’t have the colored button seen on screen its pad counterpart has.
This is one of the simplest and cheapest arcade controller I have; unfortunately, this one cannot be modified but for the thrill of playing NES games with a stick; this is a good solution.
Sanwa, Semitsu, Hayabusa, Etc…
When you start looking at parts to mod your arcade sticks, you can easily get overwhelmed with the type of parts, the brands, and the aftermarket knock offs, here are my thoughts about some key elements.
From what I’m gathering, Semitsu joysticks seem to be the most appreciated ones out there but it doesn’t mean that others are bad: the Hori Hayabusa stick is actually my personal favorite.
This piece of plastic is the one that will make it easier or harder to hit certain directions on the stick: the square one only accept left, right, up down, whereas the octagonal one also registers the diagonals… and then there’s the circle one…
The best arcade sticks will come with Sanwa buttons; they are the ones used in Japanese arcades; Semitsu buttons a bit quieter but like the Kuro ones, they are not as sensitive as the Sanwa ones.
Balltop or Battop
Battops are what used to be found on American arcade machines whereas balltops are more traditionally associated with Japanese arcades. It’s a personal preference that does have an impact on performance.
Which Arcade Sticks Do I Use?
I have a few arcade sticks all have a different purpose: some are specific to consoles, and one is really the one I use to play MAME games. You won’t see any MadCatz product on this list as being a little brother, I grew with their cheap and awful third-party controllers and I’ll never be able to see them as premium brand even if I can acknowledge that their fight sticks are some of the best ones out there; unfortunately, in my humble opinion, and for personal use; they are way too overpriced.
This is an affordable “big boy/girl” stick, it’s affordable and easy to mod when it comes to the buttons, the restrictor gate, and the ball top; however changing the joystick might require soldering as the cable required to connect the stick to the PCB is hard to find and isn’t cheap either.
Hori Real Arcade Pro V
This is my main one, it’s the most expensive one I have but it’s nowhere near the market’s highest-priced options. It comes with an Hayabusa joystick which I personally like and Kuro buttons which are better than many but not as great as Sanwa or Semitsu ones.
This is a weird one: it is very good at what it does but to appreciate it, understanding what it is made for is imperative. It’s Bluetooth and connects to a bunch of systems; this one isn’t about performance, but for retro gaming, it’s a very compelling option.
Choosing A Button Layout
A button layout can be based on a lot of things: what is the primary use for the arcade stick? is it to play on a particular console, or retro gaming? or do you just want to mod to express your own creativity and go for style?
If you have a PlayStation this is what you’d like to emulate. It’s the only one of the main console manufacturers using a pink button.
The Xbox button layout is the most versatile one as the Xbox 360 controller is also the most used controller on PC too.
Great for MAME! Compared to the pad, the MVS stick has the same buttons but the B,C,D are higher than the A button; these show on Neo Geo games’ intro screens.
This one is probably the most known one by retro gamers but also the less useful one as there’s no reason to play a console port when you can play the arcade original version.
Create Your Own!
The beauty of modding is that you are not bound to anything and can create your own layouts.
My Personal Mods
Like I mentioned the joystick is difficult to change so I added a circular restrictor gate in order to approximate an octagonal experience with a joystick that isn’t a premier solution. The buttons have been changed to Sanwa ones using a PlayStation layout while trying to keep the yellow and black honeycomb look.
Hori Real Arcade Pro V
I like the Hayabusa stick to begin with so I just changed the default square gate to an octagonal one and have used an xbox button layout using Sanwa parts. The balltop has been changed to a silver metallic one. Please not that if most of the buttons are 30mm, there’s one small 24mm.
The joystick has been replaced with a Semitsu one; because this is built to play older arcade games, a square gate is used and Sanwa buttons are used to emulate the Neo Geo layout in MVS form which implies that the B,C,D, and L1 buttons have been rewired.