How to build an arcade control panel for your computer or console.

Posted: 2013/08/09 in Arcade room, Games, Retrogaming
Tags: , , , , , ,

It cannot be stressed enough, but modern-age game controllers aren’t a good substitute for retro-style arcades. There’s something specific to the feel you get from a full fledged joystick and properly spaced buttons that any other peripherals won’t ever emulate.

Of course, the mighty joystick isn’t suitable for every games. Modern games aren’t made for joysticks and are best played with modern gamepads. Even some retro games like Mega Man plays better with something in-hand that doesn’t include a stick.

For more information about how the joystick came to be, see our view on the evolution of the joystick posted a while back.

 

Broken xbox used for arcade controller - taken from Hackaday.com

Broken xbox used for arcade controller – taken from Hackaday.com

To the point: how to build a PC or console compatible arcade joystick?

Scope
In this article is discussed how to build a control panel, what mechanical and electrical parts to choose and how to interface with the PC or modern-day console. The goal of this article isn’t to describe a complete project, but to explore the possibilities and ideas that exists, to give ideas of what could be done, and to direct to potential resources. At the end of this article, the reader will have a better understanding of what is being done in the world of DIY arcade controllers, and know of some online resources that can help should he chose to begin such projects. There are multiple references displayed at the end of this article, this isn’t an exhaustive list of what’s out there but mere suggestions. None of these sites are affiliated with We’re All Geeks.

The main idea here isn’t to show the actual construction of an arcade controller, but to help deciding how to build one, with information that could come in handy. So let’s go.

1- How to build a control panel.

1.1: Panel Layout

The first stage of control panel planing is the layout – or – what will go onto the panel. This can vary greatly depending on the usage. If the CP (control panel) is meant to only play one game or multiple games, the type of games to be played, their requirements and personal preferences. For instance, if the controller is meant to play exclusively Mortal Kombat, it won’t have the same layout as if it is to be used exclusively for Ms Pacman… or why not: Fix-It Felix Jr.

There are many types of games, and generally for console playing with arcade boxes we’re talking about fighting games. The most usual layout is 1 joystick/6 buttons per players. Although, for using on a video games console & covering all and every buttons, it might make more sense to have 8 buttons – the 4 buttons + 2 right & 2 left triggers.

For the sake of simplicity, only one player will be considered trough this article. Of course, adding a second player would raise more positioning questions, but the bare idea is that dual player is twice the decisions made for single players.

Arcade controllers evolved quite a bit. From single-buttons to multiple ones, and the button placement evolved to help with ergonomics. The fact is, human hands aren’t 100% symmetrical. Finger length vary so comfortable positioning is an art. It is possible to improvise something great, or to experiment and find something suitable… but trials and errors reflects the idea that there might be several missed tries… There are standards from which to pull from. There is an awesome online reference at Slagcoin.com that helps determining proper joystick placement – it even comes with size-correct printable layout documents to help selecting what and where.
Slagcoin demonstrate 6 & 8 buttons, but one could easily base a panel from more standard layouts and only use the required buttons. Single-row VS multiple rows, less buttons, or whatever pleases the builder-player.

Control Panel - image courtesy of Slagcoin

Control Panel – image courtesy of Slagcoin

Here’s what’s to be decided, besides number of buttons, and what basic position layout we’re after. For instance, if the panel will complement fighting games with 6 buttons, and it is decided to have 2 rows of 3 buttons (3 punches, 3 kicks) – then what? How do we place them buttons?
Angle, position and distance will influence not only gameplay, but comfort.

Older arcades used to have straight buttons one beside the other. Distance did vary quite a lot. Problem is: the player needs to be able to locate buttons instinctively. As a rule of thumbs, buttons are 1.5 inches apart – this seems to be naturaly recognizable. Being straight can be somewhat uncomfortable, so a rounded pattern can help quite a lot when going for more than 2 buttons wide.

Something else to consider is where to put utility buttons. May it be “coin/start” for arcades, or “select/start” for computer/console gaming.

In planing the panel, one needs to keep in mind the room required for joystick and hardware, but also the room required for the human hand of the player to be comfortable. Enough room above and below joystick and buttons permits good palm placement and reduces fatigue. Plus, the hand need to have room to move with the joystick or place itself around the buttons. This generally means large, emptyish panel.

Joystick distance from the buttons can be influence not only by the physical dimension of the hardware, but by how the player is to hold said stick. Some gamers puts their hands above the shaft, some prefer below. Some play with the handle, others use the stick itself. Preference will lead to different design decision. Sadly, no amount of documentation will lead to a proper way of determining this, but as a rule of thumb, the joystick will be placed a bit farther than two buttons placement, at around 3.75 inch from the closest button. Angling the stick and/or the button section to will is something to consider. Left-/right-handers might as well have influence on position.

Play style should be at the core of panel design.

1.2: Joystick
Again, depending on what’s to be played, there’s quite a lot of options on the joystick.
Of course, we’re assuming the games are to be joystick-based, and are leaving trackballs and spinners out of the equation. But even there, different games call for different joysticks, and preferences is always at stake.

Before everything, let’s talk about joystick construction. Several different mechanical joystick construction exist, but to the core it generally resemble the same thing.
A joystick, as implied at Wikipedia, is (quote) “an input device consisting of a stick that pivots on a base and reports its angle or direction to the device it is controlling”.
All and every joysticks have a “stick” or a “shaft”. On this shaft lies the “handle” or “ball”. The shaft enters the apparatus trough some hole, the pivot point, and this is generally somewhat protected by some dust washer.

Where it will vary even more is under the hood. The shaft is generally held in place or re-centered by spring action, and the actuator is generally under that. Historically, actuators had been made by leaf switches, but these have been replaced in modern age by micro-switches. Sometimes, the actuator isn’t switches at all but an analog version of it, might it be potentiometers or other sensors.

At the actuator can be a restrictor – depending on what type of gaming is involved.

Joystick Controller Components. Image courtesy of Slagcoin

Joystick Controller Components. Image courtesy of Slagcoin

1.2.1 shaft length
Shaft length has varied quite a lot – early arcades had relatively short joysticks, while more modern ones are longer. This will influence gameplay in two manners: comfort, and the required angular rotation for the actuator to pick up a signal.

1.2.2 Handle type
Bat top or ball top?
This is really, really up to personal preferences. Modern Japanese arcades are a little more pushing towards ball-tops, while modern American arcades, particularly fighting games, are more bat-tops. Classic arcade joysticks often had ball-tops, but those ball-tops used to be smaller, shorter. Bats became popular in arcade controllers in the 1990s and are strong since. They are extremely popular in fighting games.

batball

1.2.3 Mechanical centering
The main types of centering are spring-loaded and magnetic. The motion and feel won’t be the same. Adepts of retro arcades generally dislike magnetic joysticks as it won’t feel anything close to the vintage joysticks the old arcades had. Even modern Japanese arcades are armed with springs.
Specialized arcade shops such as Paradise Arcade Shop have “custom” springs to offer…

1.2.4 Restrictor & actuator
4-way? 8-way? 360 degrees? Physical restrictor or software restrictor? Switchable from the top???
Answering those questions will certainly eliminate several joysticks options from your list.

4-Way mechanical restriction is generally favored only for classic arcade games, but even the games that accepts diagonals (known as 8-way) can have (generally octagonal) restrictors.
Even when playing “4-way games”, a hardware restrictor might not be required; software will generally permits to bypass this fact. It then becomes a question of feelings and preferences.
There are analog actuators that permits very precise 360 degrees positioning similar to modern controller’s analog sticks. This can be useful, but only for games supporting it, or via specific drivers. Those actuators generally won’t use restrictors.

Sometimes, the restrictor is adaptive. Ultimarc‘s Mag-Stick has a switchable restrictor. The plus version can even be changed from the top – meaning the control panel doesn’t need to be open for changing restriction. Moreover, the switching could be made via software, using servomotors.
This is quite versatile for those looking for various restrictors in a single control panel, but might be useless when only playing one type of games.

Depending on the joystick & restrictor, it might be possible to change the physical actuator for a different interaction with the stick. People who plan upgradeability might want to keep that in mind when selecting their joystick.

1.2.5 Switches
When the joystick isn’t analog, then there’s some kind of switch that makes contact and detect/report direction or movement. Early joysticks used “leaf switches” which are essentially metal blades that are pushed together to make contact. That gave a very smooth feeling and non-fatigueness that some likes. The nay-Sayers will mention that there’s no tactile feedback to this method. Modern joysticks use tactile switch. On most joysticks, those switches can be changed (with the same switches as in the buttons – we’ll see that later) and there are quite a lot of different (but similar) switches. Those switches are the same as used on some industrial controls, but arcade players might not be looking exactly for the same feeling.

The main reasons one would select one switch over another are “required pressure” and “durability/reliability”. A favorite is made by Cherry at around 50-60 grams actuation (the pressure required to activate the switch – about 2 ounces)
Some people prefer “lighter” switches, that actuates at 30 or even 20 grams. For a joystick with restrictor, that might not be required, but for a free-rotation-feeling it could be useful. Paradise Arcade Shop (from Hawaii but taking online orders) carry Zippy switches guaranteed at 20grams – the closest to vintage leaf switch feeling possible with micro-switches.

Diagram of industrial switch, courtesy of Cherry Corp.

Diagram of industrial switch, courtesy of Cherry Corp.

The most vastly used joystick on American arcade machines is made by Suzo-Happ (Happs control – the joystick known as Happs Joystick)
Gamers however often prefer Japanese high quality joysticks – generally Sanwa or Seimitsu. Their joysticks are well balanced and high quality. But others prefer “lower grade” for many reasons, might it be lower price, availability or look and feel. Of course, the better joysticks have more upgradeability, and using known brands should lead to more options than using copycats or no-name brands.

Note here: it is possible to add bling to joysticks, there are lighted ball tops available with LED wires passing through hollow shafts.

lightedCP

1.3 Push-buttons.

1.3.1 Push-button styles
There are several styles of push-buttons. Classic American arcades used concave 1 1/8″ push-buttons, while modern Japanese ones generally use 30mm convex ones. There are also “mini” push-buttons but generally those are used for utility and not gameplay.

concaveconvex

1.3.2 Micro-switch
Push-buttons are generally attached trough the control panel, are spring loaded and actuate some electronic switches – the same ones as in the joysticks in the case of Happs American-style concave push-buttons. Modern Japanese Sanwa/Seimitsu use different switches (with similar specifications). Early arcades used leaf switches and it might be essential for some specific games such as arcade classic Joust where the micro-switch would require more movement to “reset and repress” – leading to lower flying capability… but modern fighting games don’t need that, and higher pressure with more tactile feedback can become interesting. Most people prefer a pressure on buttons (20-50 grams) lower that that of joysticks (up to 200 grams depending on people, type of joysticks and all)

1.3.3 utility buttons.
No matter the purpose of the controller being built, utility buttons might come in handy. Might it be “1-up” or “select”, “start”… Those buttons can be identical to the gameplay ones, or can be different. Atari used to have “volcano” buttons for player selection; Japanese arcade use smaller buttons with the same shape. Those buttons don’t require the same look and feel, so often they are more personalized.

utilityButton

Note, again: it is possible to add bling to push-buttons. The buttons don’t have to be opaque, and therefore can be lighted – no matter the type. It is possible to have either the moving part translucent, or the base, or both. Lots of customization possibility here.

1.4 Control panel overlay
Nobody wants a control panel to look bad. Your Control panel may be made of metal, plastic or wood, but on top of whatever you built it with is a needed finishing touch. One could very well simply paint the panel and call it quit, but something that has been done in arcades for years, and that has been replicated in commercial joystick controller, is an overlay. Simply said: an image on top of the control panel.
This overlay generally explains what each buttons are – more specifically the utility buttons otherwise people all wonder. But mainly the overlay display arts to go with the game. It is the good looking part of the controller.
The simplest form would be text here and there, perhaps vinyl stickers. The more complex form would be full artwork.

There are several ways to add arts overlay to a control panel, all needing different skills.

1.4.1: Paint-it
Artists can paint their panels. This could range from simple color to full art, passing trough templates and airbrush.

1.4.2: Posters or prints
Sometimes, even in commercial arcades, the overlay lays between the actual panel and a supplemental acrylic or polycarbonate translucent protective layer. When this is the case, or if someone would rather just laminate the overlay to the panel, the art could either be stolen from a commercial poster – perhaps from suitable video games – or maybe simply home-printed.

Recognize this Super Mario Bros. poster?

Recognize this Super Mario Bros. poster?

While domestic printers are generally large enough for 1-player panels, their inkjet nature isn’t the best. One can generally have a better prints done commercially in laser.
There are also online business specializing in that matter, such as GameOnGraphix, who sells not only pre-made CPO (control panels overlay) but also custom work.

1.5 Interface
A good control panel isn’t just a box with joysticks and buttons, but also the electronics required to interface with your hardware of choice. May it be a computer, an arcade machine or a gaming console, there are solutions available.

1.5.1 Game console
The easiest way to interface with a game console is by hacking into a controller. The wiring process does involve voiding the warranty on a controller, but the result is 100% compatible with the console. Here’s a great example from youtube (and originally from X2Jiggy’s blog) on how to do that for an XB360:

(from X2Jiggy)

1.5.2 Arcades
The most common arcade interface is JAMMA. Interfacing to JAMMA arcades is as easy as connecting the proper buttons to the proper pins of the JAMMA connector. In addition to the controller’s joystick and buttons, the JAMMA connector will require power, but the end result will be a fully functional arcade controller for all things JAMMA.

Here is an example from Engadget on using JAMMA to consolize arcade PCBs.

1.5.3 Computers.
Connecting arcade controllers trough computers, for playing with emulated versions of PCBs or for PC games, is somewhat of a hack too. Of course, one could interface trough a controller – perhaps the same XB360 controller seen earlier, but the best option remains to emulate a keyboard. Most if not all PC games accept keyboard as an entry device, so emulating a keyboard is generally the easiest to setup.

1.5.3.1 DIY: hack a keyboard controller
One way to interface with a keyboard is to hack an old one. Here’s a post on scramtronic.tumblr.com about just that, how to get an old PS2 keyboard and interface it with arcade buttons.  Using an USB keyboard would be very similar.

Classic Arcade controls PS/2 keyboard hack  (click me)

Classic Arcade controls PS/2 keyboard hack (click me)

1.5.3.2 Commercial encoders
There are also a wide variety of keyboard encoders available out there – PCBs made expressly to interface buttons to the computer and act as an entry device mimicking a keyboard. They generally have the added ability to prevent “ghosting” that can appear in everyday-use keyboards, where one key press would hide another one, or take over the other one.
Build-your-own-arcade-control’s wiki have an extensive description of a variety of keyboard encoders (click here)

Conclusion
Those are possibilities to help building a full-fledged arcade controller. Alternatives to making one are either getting an off-the-shelf product or hack one. Some are more hackable than others:

Penny Arcade Reports a very hackable commercial stick, or there are also arcade-oriented products such as X-Arcade

but when “doing it yourself” there are no limits. DIY arcade controllers projects are available everywhere online, such as this one on  HackNMod and that one on Engadget. That’s without mentionning Build Your Own Arcade Controls (arcadecontrols.com) and its Forums.

Comments
  1. […] they hack’em, they adapt’em, make bigger, better sticks. Or plain different sticks or control panel adapted to the needs of their favorite […]

  2. Serious says:

    I’m planning to build some custom arcade controllers for use with my Atari 2600 and 7800 consoles, and would like to add lighting. Any recommendations on a power source for the lighting?

    • wereallgeeks says:

      For the Atari consoles? The controller connector already supply 5V and ground, if you don’t overdo with LEDs there might be enough power. Look at http://2600connection.atari.org/faq/vcs_system/faq_controller_pinout.jpg Pins 7-8 are +5V & Gnd. – although there can’t be too much power trough this, as the console generally ran under 10W total.

      You might want to have an external power brick. The beauty of DIY is that you could pretty much use about anything in the 5-12V range and make it work for you, depending on planing and wiring. You might already have a wall wart available for reuse..?

      if you have only a few LEDs planned, I’d try using the joystick port’s power first. Those consoles could take quite a beating, you should be OK to experiment without any danger of causing problems.

      • Serious says:

        Cool. I had no idea there was power available via the controller wiring.

        Thanks for the tips!

        • wereallgeeks says:

          Well, yeah, that’s how they power the controller, and receive the controller button press. But there’s not much power out there, so don’t overdo with the LEDs!