Arcade Stick or D-pad for Shoot 'em Ups?

If you have poked around on this blog at all, you may notice that many of my posts are based on shoot 'em ups. Systems like the Saturn, Genesis, PC-Engine, and Dreamcast most notably come to mind when tallying the vast riches of shoot'em ups. This post is not about is not what system reigns, or which games are the best; I wanted to discuss the type of controller that I use for shoot 'em ups.

It should be noted that the genre of shoot 'em ups has sub-generes, including but not limited to: traditional side-scrolling, traditional vertical scrolling, bullet hell, Euro shmup, on-rails, run'n gun, cute'em ups, isometric, and others. Depending on the type of gameplay, the preferred control scheme may change.

Older shooters had more environmental hazards

Older (traditional) shoot'em ups are generally slower-paced. Emphasis is placed on navigating environmental hazards as well as enemy fire and flying enemies themselves. Respawning after death occurs at checkpoints, often woefully underpowered. Memorization and reflexes are requisite skills here. Examples include Gradius, R-Type, Aleste, Darius, Star Soldier, Thunder Force, and others.

Modern shoot'em ups tend to be of the bullet-hell variety, where hundreds of bullets are spewed across the screen, and you have to navigate the slim pockets of empty space between them to survive. The hitboxes of your avatar are generously small, as you will need all the help you can get. With so many bullets on screen at once, the key to survival is small movements, taps at a time. It is with games like this where arcade sticks are beneficial to use over d-pads, as the small size of the d-pads can lead to unintentional input mistakes. Also, it is hard to enjoy the backrgound scenery (which is usually gorgeous) as you cannot take your eyes off of your craft.

Small movements are key to surviving bullet hell

I have played all types of shooters with both a standard d-pad and an arcade stick. The arcade stick presents better aesthetically. Larger buttons, a firm grip on the joystick, and solid base all recall (or simulate) the nostalgic arcade experience. Initially, I found that my performance lacked when using one; I would never seem to get as far in the game with the arcade stick. I learned later one that not all joysticks are created equally, and there are three subtle variables that affect how a joystick performs. 

The first is the the dead zone. The dead zone is the physical range in which the stick moves but does not register a movement. Large dead zones lead to wasted motion, delayed/inaccurate movement, and general suckiness. This is easy to notice on a stick that has microswitches, as you would hear the click as you move the stick. A good stick will have as small of a dead zone as possible. There is a lot of truth in the old adage: "you get what you pay for". 

The second is the throw distance. This is how far the joystick lever will actually move before it his a physical restriction, or gate. The shorter the gate, the less distance the stick has to travel to return to center, and thus the faster the next movement can be initiated. How short of a throw you want to have is a personal preference, and it may also depend on the type of game your are playing. For shooters, a short throw is helpful for tap-dodging in-between waves of bullets. Usually joysticks with smaller throw distances tend to have smaller dead zones.

I modded my DC stick with Sanwa parts.

The third variable is spring tension. inside the joystick shaft is a spring that pushes against the actuator, and the higher the tension the more resistance there is to movement, and also the faster the return to neutral. Again, some people like a stiffer joystick, some don't. There is a trade off between quick return to center, and the additional effort required to move the stick. Depending on how long your play sessions are, fatigue can set in. 

Newer arcade sticks can be easily upgraded/modded. It is common to swap the joystick and/or the buttons, since the variety of parts available make for nuanced preferences. I started with the consensus well-rounded performer, the Sanwa JLF joystick. I replaced the stick in my Dreamcast stick and was immediately surprised at how much better it felt to me. Movements were more precise and input was more responsive. The Sanwa buttons feel great as well, being sensitive enough to not need a lot of pressure to register. 

Later, I bought a second-hand Hori Real Arcade Pro 3 SA, which had Sanwa parts as stock. The controller was intended for PS3, but is useable on nearly every retro and modern console with the help of Brooke controller adapters. I have always thought that the arcade stick selection for the Genesis were meh. This was a game changer. After talking with people on various forums, it was suggested that I try the Seimitsu brand of joystick, so I bought one and installed it. It provided an even tighter movement, and is now my preference. 

Just like joysticks, not all d-pads are created equally. This is very much a "feel", and everyone will have their own preferences. My favorite d-pads are "floating" types: Saturn (model 2) and Genesis (6-buton). 
The Saturn pad has the perfect amount of range and cushiony resistance, and due to its circular base, all directions are equally and easily pressed. The Genesis 6-button has a very similar d-pad, so similar that it might be the same. The SNES pad has a cross base, much like the NES, yet is easier on the thumb than the NES d-pad. I don't like it quite as much as the diagonals are not as easy to press on a cross pad when compared to a circular based pad. I wish the PC-Engine controller had a better d-pad. It's ok, but its a tad smaller than the average d-pad and not as comfortable as the others mentioned.

The gold standard, in my opinion
Since we're on the topic of shoot'em up controls, I feel I must mention my disappointment in the Dreamcast controller, both the d-pad and the analog stick. The d-pad is raised fairly high above the controller base, and has sharper angles in its mold, making for painful use. The analog stick is plastic as well, and a bit slippery. There are texture bumps on the top, but they generally wear down quickly, so any controller used for an average amount of play has been worn down to a shine. For a system with a wealth of shoot'em ups, this is a major letdown. Luckily, the Total Control 3 adapter lets you use Saturn controllers for the Dreamcast. 

Top entries in the d-pad hall of shame
Saturn controls for the Dreamcast, anyone?

Another letdown is the Playstation (1,2,3) d-pad. Instead of a circular or cross base, there are 4 directional "bumps" that attempt to simulate a d-pad. This design is perhaps worse than that of Dreamcast. The amount of pressure needed to navigate diagonals is uncomfortably high, and blisters set in rather quickly. The Playstation 1 and 2 have a decent amount of quality shoot'em ups, so this is potentially a problem. There are a few arcade sticks available, and some third-party controllers to choose from. I was lucky enough to stumble upon what I consider the holy grail of PS1/2 shooter controllers: the official Sega Logistical Services Saturn pad for Playstation. It is a genuine Sega Saturn controller, made specifically for Playstation. These are kinda rare, yet so worth it.

Its not a myth

In conclusion, I feel that using a stick is better experience on shoot'em ups, but d-pads are more convenient and cost-effective. If I was to truly attempt to beat a game, I'd have to go with a stick. Everyone is different, this is just where I am at. I'm curious to see what others think on the matter.

I should mention that I use a lot of these sticks for 2D fighting games. I find I need the sticks for those types of games far more than I need them for shooters...but that's another story for another time.

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