Fighting games are one of the few game genres that aren't perfectly suited for play on the default Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 controllers. Street Fighter's one-joystick, six-button legacy control scheme comes from its arcade cabinet roots, but the home consoles have evolved with the gamepad. The first-party gamepads have enough inputs to map to the game's controls, but the physical interface and button layouts don't translate perfectly. Analog sticks have too much play to pull off moves effectively, and the directional pads on the Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers have their own issues that make them less than ideal for the quarter-, half-, and full-circle moves in the complete street fighter's repertoire. The Sixaxis/Dual Shock 3 has a recessed D pad that doesn't offer enough surface area for the thumb, and the Xbox 360 controller's D pad performance is so poor that the Internet explodes whenever rumors about an improved D pad surface.
The good news for fighting game fans is that peripheral manufacturers have prepared new premium console arcade sticks to coincide with the launch of Street Fighter IV on the consoles. Japanese manufacturer Hori has brought its popular Real Arcade Pro joystick line to the PS3 and Xbox 360, and longtime peripheral manufacturer Mad Catz has entered the market with two Street Fighter IV FightSticks that have the potential to upgrade how gamers view the Mad Catz brand.
We got our hands on the Hori Real Arcade Pro EX and the two Mad Catz FightSticks for some Street Fighter IV testing. We also pulled out our Hori Fighting Stick EX2 to see how the now-classic controller compares to the new sticks.
Mad Catz Street Fighter IV FightStick Tournament Edition
- PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
This official Street Fighter IV joystick is the closest you can get to the arcade experience without importing a Japanese cabinet and setting it up in your living room. Mad Catz has not only utilized the exact same Sanwa joystick and button hardware used in Street Fighter IV arcade machines, but it has also recognized that you may want to modify the stick even further. The stick internals are easy to access, but Mad Catz warns that the product warranty goes poof as soon as you take an Allen wrench to the case, so make sure that you know what you're doing before you start modding. Inside you'll find a universal mounting plate in case you want to swap out the joystick, and you'll find labeled, color-coded pin-outs for all of the buttons for easy replacement.
In addition to the authentic Sanwa button and joystick hardware, Mad Catz threw in a lot of other really nice features that help to make the controller even more special. The stick can be toggled to function as the left or right thumbsticks or as the controller D pad. The start, select, and PS/Xbox guide buttons sit out of the way in the top left corner, and the control panel also has a lock switch that disables the administrative buttons during combat. The control panel lets you enable two turbo speeds for individual face buttons. The stick also has a small compartment built into the back of the case to store the cable when you need to take the stick on the road. You can even remove the rubber pads underneath the controller and bolt it down using the predrilled holes if you want to build a serious stand for the stick.
When put to a field test, the FightStick TE worked as advertised. The Sanwa hardware responded exactly as you would expect it to, and we were uppercutting tigers and pulling off spinning pile-drivers with no problem. None of the game's special moves were particularly difficult to pull off with the Sanwa joystick, and the extra-sensitive buttons made it easy to start up Chun-Li's hyakuretsukyaku lightning kicks and E. Honda's hundred hand slap. The two extra buttons at the end gave us some problems--they're set to mirror the functionality of all three punch or kick buttons by default in case you're unable (or too lazy) to hit the three buttons the old-fashioned way, but our testers accidentally hit the bonus buttons more than a few times in-game. Disabling the buttons through the game menu proved to be a quick fix, but we're sure players can adjust to the extra buttons given enough practice time. The Street Fighter IV FightStick Tournament Edition is a faithful companion that will ward off hadoukens throughout the Third World Warrior Tournament and beyond.
Hori Real Arcade Pro EX
- Xbox 360
The Hori Real Arcade Pro EX is roughly the same size as the FightStick Tournament Edition and shares many other similarities. The Hori stick comes equipped with an authentic Sanwa joystick for exceptionally precise handling and arcade-style buttons with an eight-button layout—albeit slightly more splayed than the FightStick TE. One big difference is that the button hardware comes straight from Hori.
The case features a raised headset plug and an Xbox guide button near the joystick, and back and start buttons above the eight-button layout—though the headset plug placement is a bit odd, Hori thoughtfully included ties to make sure your cable doesn't get in the way. The button assignments lead off with the left and right triggers, which makes navigating around the menus difficult to get used to—but they shouldn't affect your ability to fight, because you can reassign buttons from within the game menu.
These quirks aside, the Hori Real Arcade Pro EX is an excellent competitive-level arcade stick. While you don't get bonuses like turbo settings or the ability to assign the functionality of the stick between the thumbsticks and the D pad, the stick positively shines in combat. The buttons didn't feel as sensitive as the Sanwa buttons used in the FightStick TE, but they didn't give us any problems and they emulated the arcade experience fairly well. The less-sensitive buttons meant that we had to press down a little bit further to get the taps to register, but we didn't have any problems after we got used to them. We were able to perform many complicated moves, like Vega's bloody high claw ultra, instantaneously without a hitch. Bottom line: If you're looking for a high-quality joystick, look no further. At $129.99, it's a bit of a hit to the wallet, but it's still more affordable (and perhaps more available) than Mad Catz's comparable stick. And if you've got a PlayStation 3, don't feel left out--Hori makes a comparable controller called the Real Arcade Pro 3.
Hori Fighting Stick EX2
- Xbox 360
The Hori Fighting Stick EX2 is the oldest and least expensive stick to be tested as part of this feature, but we wanted to include it because it's still a major powerhouse that continues the Hori tradition of quality hardware. The EX2 features a six-button layout designed to match Japanese arcades in terms of spacing and button size. We don't know if the Hori-manufactured 30mm buttons are the same type used in the more expensive Real Arcade Pro EX, but they feel and perform just as well. The joystick, also made by Hori, feels responsive and accurate.
The Fighting Stick EX has a slightly unconventional button layout like its RAP cousin. Though the A button is where you would expect it to be, the B, X, and Y buttons are arranged along the top row. This layout is not quite as difficult to get used to as the Real Arcade Pro EX's layout, but it can still make navigating through menus a bit tricky at times. We did, however, enjoy having just six buttons in the business area, which eliminated sloppy 8-button mistakes and provided a more accurate arcade experience. The stick still has the bumper buttons, but they've been moved next to the back, start, and Xbox Guide control panel buttons, where they are accessible but not too easy to accidentally hit.
The Fighting Stick EX is more portable than the other sticks in our comparison thanks to a smaller, more compact case, but it may take a bit of time to get used to, because there isn't an abundance of real estate to rest your hands on. The controls are still excellent, and the joystick turned out to be one of our favorites after we got used to the smaller case. Special moves that require frequent button presses like Blanka's electric thunder don't require you to smash down too hard, preserving controller longevity and giving you a higher degree of control, and we executed complex attacks like the spinning pile-driver and shoryuken without any trouble.
Overall, the Hori Fighting Stick EX is an excellent joystick with accurate controls and an affordable price. If you're looking for a great stick to start off your tournament career, you can't go wrong with this one. PS3 owners can look to the Hori Fighting Stick 3 for a similar controller built for their platform.
Mad Catz Street Fighter IV FightStick
- $69.99 (PS3), $79.99 (X360)
- PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
The Mad Catz FightStick crams many of the extra features of its rarer and more expensive brother into a smaller case, but the designers had to make a few sacrifices to reach the more affordable price point. The stick uses the same square-gate ball joystick and eight-button layout design as the more expensive Tournament Edition FightStick. What the standard edition stick doesn't include, however, are the authentic Sanwa hardware pieces, opting instead to go for Mad Catz joystick and buttons.
The standard stick comes with many of the bells and whistles featured on the Tournament Edition including individual-button turbo settings, stick assignment toggling, and the handy out-of-the-way placement of the start, select, and PS/Xbox guide buttons to keep you from accidentally mashing one of them during a critical fight. Perhaps the best news about the controller is that it's just as easy to mod as the FightStick TE. If you want to swap out the buttons or the joystick, you'll be happy to know that it features the same button labels, quick-connect cables and universal mounting plate for the joystick.
The controls work quite well, but they were the least responsive components we encountered when compared to the other sticks we tested. That's not to say this isn't a good controller; it just requires more practice to get used to its quirks, which are compounded by the smaller size of the case--which offers less room to rest your hands on, like the case for the Hori Fighting Stick EX--and the extra two buttons off in no-man's-land on the far right. During testing, even simple moves like the hadoken and tatsumaki senpukyaku were hit or miss until we became accustomed to the stick, but we never became totally confident while attempting supers and ultras.
The Mad Catz FightStick is probably the best arcade-style joystick that you're going to find in an average retail store, and it's a good investment if you're looking for a full-featured controller. Serious players should look at the stick because of its enormous modding potential. If exceptional hardware precision is what you're after though, you may want to consider upgrading to the Tournament Edition.