How to build your own custom console arcade stick
By: Jeff Rivera
In the past couple of years, the fighting genre has really come on strong. It hasn't been since the 1990s that we've had such great support from one of gaming's most hardcore and competitive genres. Custom arcade sticks have also exploded in popularity as the more competitive gamers are looking for arcade authenticity as they play, but they're not exactly satisfied with the peripheral makers' offerings. There's several ways to go about building a custom arcade stick, and I'll go over the different ways, what tools you'll need, and talk about the advantages of creating your own custom arcade stick.
Modifying an Arcade Stick with Custom Components
- Arcade Stick for your console of choosing
- Access to professional print services
- Replacement joystick, pushbuttons, custom art
- Scissors, hobby knife, adhesive
- Image editing program for art creation (Photoshop, GIMP, Paint.NET, etc.)
- Easy to do
- Can be a 1-day project
- No electronic skills needed
- More expensive than scratch build
- Art options are limited to templates for your model of arcade stick
One of the easiest ways to create a custom arcade stick is to take an existing arcade stick and modify it. Some of the ways you can modify an arcade stick is to simply change the art, swap out the buttons and/or joystick, change the restrictor plate, or do all three. Some popular models of arcade sticks to modify are the Hori Fighting Stick EX 2, the Hori Real Arcade Pro, the Hori Fighting Stick VX, the Mad Catz FightStick Standard Edition, and the Mad Catz FightStick Tournament Edition. Plenty of other styles of arcade sticks can be easily modified, but these are the ones you'll find most commonly in use by other modders.
Once you've chosen your stick, you'll need to decide what parts you want to replace, and what parts you'll want to keep. If you're doing a full modification, the only parts you'll be keeping will be the case, any plexiglass cover that might be on the stick, and the internal PCB (circutry) and cables. Other modifications will have you only swapping out buttons, the joystick, or the restrictor plate. As a full modification will cover all steps, we'll focus on that method.
After getting the stick you want to modify, you'll need to order the custom parts. If you prefer a Japanese style stick, you'll want to order either Sanwa or Seimitsu parts, which are available from many online retailers. Choosing between Sanwa or Seimitsu is a matter of preference, so if you're unsure which direction to go, you may want to order parts from each to see which style you think feels better. If you're looking to recapture that feeling you had playing Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat in the arcades, Happ is the company that made the vast majority of those controls and you can still buy their joysticks and buttons online.
You'll also need to choose a restrictor plate. The restrictor plate is a piece of plastic or metal that sits below the joystick and makes it either a 2-way, 4-way, 8-way, or all-directional movement joystick. In my opinion, 4-way sticks are too restrictive for fighting games, especially for 3D fighters. You'll want to use either an 8-way or a circular restrictor plate. Below is an image of a restrictor plate. This is an 8-way restrictor plate, made to fit a Sanwa stick.
Once you've ordered your joystick, pushbuttons, and restrictor plate, it's time to decide on what art you want to use. There are templates to work with for just about every style of stick out there if you look around, and sites like Shoryuken.com have forum threads dedicated to specific arcade stick models. You should look for the highest resolution art possible, as printing your art goes much smoother if you're dealing with high-res art. Here's where you can get creative and create themes, collages, abstract, or minimalist designs. When you've created your art and positioned it on your template, it's time to print the file. You can either print it yourself or have it professionally printed, and I suggest the latter.
Take your art file to a print shop, or send it off to an online printing service. If you're dealing with a stick that didn't have a plexiglass cover, keep in mind that you'll need to laminate your art to protect it and allow you to be able to clean it off when your grubby hands muddy it up after some intense gaming sessions. If you're working with a stick that has a plexiglass cover, just print it out at the highest quality possible and you can skip the lamination step.
With pushbuttons, joysticks, restrictor plate, and art in hand, you're ready to modify your stick. Find the screws holding the stick together, which may be easy to find, while others might be hidden under the sticks' rubber feet or possibly the artwork. Be careful when you unscrew the arcade stick that you don't break any wires or damage the internal circutry. Carefully unhook the wires that lead to each button and the joystick, but label each wire your remove so you'll know where it goes when you put your own components in. I usually label a piece of tape and put it on each wire. For example, if you remove a wire that goes on the top left button, label it as so. Doing this eliminates many headaches that come in later.
After the wiring has been disconnected, it's time to remove the old art. Usually it comes off easy enough, but if you have troubles, you can scrape it with a razor blade or use a product like Goo Gone if it's particularly stubborn. Make sure your surface is extremely clean before you apply your new art and glue it down. If you're using laminated art, you can also have your art made into a giant sticker at many print shops. Carefully trim the art to open up the button and joystick holes. Use a hobby knife, as you'll get a clean cut. Rather than one deep cut, make several passes until you can punch the holes out easily.
After applying the art, you'll install the new joystick and pushbuttons. They'll go in the exact same way as you removed the old components. Match the labeled wires to the new buttons and joystick, and swap out the joystick's restrictor plate at this time if needed. If your pushbuttons are the type that use a plastic nut on the backside, careful not to overtighten them or they can wrinkle your artwork. Just make them snug and you'll be fine.
Screw together your stick, carefully ensuring that you don't pinch any wiring. Take a step back, admire your work, and toss a fighting game into your console to give it a test run.
Building a Custom Arcade Stick From Scratch
- Wood, plastic, or metal for fabricating case
- Tools for cutting/drilling/routing your chosen material
- Controller for your console of choice
- Joystick, pushbuttons, custom art
- Image editing program
- Soldering gun, solder
- Solid core wire
- Female wire disconnects (two per button, eight for joystick)
- Screws, wire cutter/stripper, adhesive, scissors
- Fully custom from top to bottom
- Can make them multiconsole
- End up with a unique product
- Takes some soldering skill
- Much bigger time investment
- Need access to material cutting tools
- No art templates available, you're on your own
If you're really ambitious, you can build your own arcade stick from scratch. This is a much more difficult project, but you end up with an arcade stick that is built exactly how you want it, and you'll have an unmatched sense of pride in the finished product. Most of what I'm offering here is a detailing of the steps. If you want extremely in depth guides, check out the Shoryuken or BYOAC forums for plenty of step by step guides and tips on how to manage each step.
The first step in creating your own custom arcade stick is to build a box to house your controls. You can make this out of wood, plastic, or metal, but obviously to work with either, you're going ot need access to some tools. Wood is most likely the easiest medium to work with, and it's undeniably classy. Also, you can buy wood in the perfect thickness desired for the face of your stick to make it easy to install buttons.
Before you rush out and buy any materials and begin cutting, it's a good idea to mock up your stick's design on some cardboard or posterboard. Get a feel for how your stick's size would work, and make sure that pressing the buttons would be comfortable. Once you have a design you like, go ahead and pick up your chosen material.
Assuming you've chosen wood (the steps are similar for plastic and wood, your tool selection will change slightly for either, however) to work with, you'll need to cut out your box. Make sure that you leave enough room around your buttons and joystick to allow for the larger footprint they take up on the underside as well as for the wiring and circuit board. Before cutting, measure multiple times that you'll have the space necessary. Once you're confident of your measurements, cut out your box and assemble it.
After you've cut your box out, go ahead and paint it or stain it (if using wood) before you go onto any more steps. While this is drying or between applications of paint or stain, it's a perfect time to create your art. You can either print your art as a giant laminated sticker, or you can place it under plexiglass. The latter is better, but it takes extra skill and effort as you'll need to cut plexiglass to fit your design. Work up your art in Photoshop or a similar image editing program, but be mindful that your art will have holes introduced into it where the joystick and buttons appear. And remember, art is optional. A nice wood stick doesn't necessarily need characters and colors splashed all over the top.
Once your case is assembled and painted, and you have your art ready, it's time to assemble the stick. Apply your art before installing any buttons or your joystick. Use high quality adhesive, and apply it evenly and thinly so that you don't have any lumps in your art from the adhesive. If you have plexiglass to go on top, you don't need to use adhesive, and I'd advise against it.
The next thing you'll need to do is to take a controller from the console you want to use this stick on, and rip out its guts. You'll need to wire up your arcade stick buttons to the internal PCB in the same way that corresponded to the buttons on the controller's face. For example, if you're using an Xbox 360 controller, you'll need to solder the A button solder point on the PCB board to wires that will connect to the pushbutton on your stick that you want to correspond to the A button. Images are available online for which solder points correspond to each button. Below is an image of an Xbox 360 wired controller, and it has been mapped out by a forum member on the BYOAC forums (click to enlarge).
Each button has a ground solder point too, and you'll also need to solder a wire to each one of these. Each of these wires should be long enough to reach the connector on the pushbutton it corresponds to on your stick. Once you've soldered a wire to each button and each ground point, you'll want to attach a female disconnect to each wire. This makes it easy to connect them to the pushbutton's microswitch. Below is a female disconnect, and you'll crimp it to the wire, making sure tha the wire has been stripped at the end to ensure a contact with the disconnect.
You'll connect the wires to the corresponding pushbutton's microswitch (if using Happ buttons). The ground will attach to the ground tab (it should be labled as GRND) and the the wire will attach to the NO (normally open) tab. If you're using Japanese style pushbuttons, there won't be any microswitch to contend with as they are built into the button. Below are images of the Happ style button with a microswitch and below that a Japanese style Sanwa pushbutton.
You'll connect your joystick in the same manner as your pushbuttons, making sure that ground wires always go to ground, and that the correct direction corresponds to the correct switch on the joystick.
After you've wired your joystick and pushbuttons, you'll need to simply fasten up your box. Rather than using wood glue to attach the top to the box, I'd use screws or even a heavy velcro to make the top removable in case you need to service the stick or replace components down the line. At this point you'll have a completed stick, and you'll be the envy of all your friends.
There are few things to consider when building these sticks. You don't want to make them too big. If they're large, you'll find them uncomfortable to use and carry around. On the other hand, not enough surface area makes them hard to use as your hands won't rest well. Remember to mock your stick up on cardboard or paper to test out your design. Also, you can include PCBs for more than one console, you'll simply need to splice your wires together as they originate from each PCB and attach to each pushbutton. It's more effort, but it makes for a doubly useful stick.
I've gathered up some images from some of my favorite custom built sticks. Take a look below for the great work done by people around the Internet.