Arcade Sticks for the PC Engine

During the third and fourth generations, arcade sticks were available, but high quality arcade sticks were uncommon. Most people remember the NES Advantage for the NES, or the Power Stick for the Genesis. Aside from being joysticks, those both had features that made them appealing, such as adjustable turbo fire. The Turbo Grafx-16 had the Turbo Stick, a rough equivalent of the aforementioned sticks. There were plenty of subpar offerings here, but virtually no options existed that would be considered high-end. The Japanese received several excellent options. I will highlight four arcade sticks released for the PC Engine that are excellent options for use, even today.

The Ascii Stick

This was manufactured by Ascii, which was a ubiquitous peripheral company back then. It's design is uncannily similar to that of the NES Advantage, having the same features, same dimensions, same weight, same joystick, and so on. The base of the stick is rather small, so playing directly on your lap in uncomfortable unless you have a lap desk, something to set the stick on. The joystick and buttons have membrane contacts, just like inside a standard controller.  It is a solid stick, but it only scratches the potential that arcade sticks can become.

The Hori Fighting Stick Multi

This stick has six action buttons, and as the name implies, its design is intended for fighting games, (probably Street Fighter II'). The joystick has microswitches, which was common in Japanese arcades, but completely absent in American arcades. The buttons are a tad mushy but serviceable. Turbo function is available for each button individually, but not adjustable. There is considerable weight to the stick, so it feels secure and stable in the lap. The stick has detachable cables specific for the PC Engine, Mega Drive (Genesis), and Super Famicom (SNES). The value proposition is high, considering the quality and versatility. 

The Hori Fighting Stick PC Engine

This stick is the very definition of heavy duty. Encased in steel, it is as solid as they come. It is the heaviest stick for the PC Engine that I have come across. The stick has micro switches, and the throw distance is very short. The stick tension is rather light, as was common in those days. The buttons are snappier, an upgrade over those in the multi stick. Individual turbo switches are present. Playing on this stick gives gameplay an entirely different feel, especially vertical shooters. This model was also released for the Super Famicom and is identical except for the button colors and labels.

The Denpa XE-1 Pro HE

If the the Hori Fighting Stick was a tank, this is a Ferrari. It is fairly small in construction, has a very tight, micro switched joystick with adjustable four or eight way gate. This is joystick is the most precise of all the sticks reviewed. There is absolutely no slipping, no dead zone, and no physical lag. The button panel angle can be rotated, which I never though I needed until now. The buttons are micro switched, with adjustable turbo rates. There is even an led that lights up at the same rate that the buttons are pressed. An unexpected feature is that the stick doubles as a turbotap! You can connect four additional controllers to it for some multiplayer action! 

Although I don't like small arcade sticks, due to needed some kind of support underneath, this stick stands out as premium. Similar models were produced for the Famicom (playable on an NES with a controller adapter cable), Mega Drive/Genesis, Super Famicom/SNES, MSX computer, and others. Due to their rarity, they command a higher price than most arcade sticks of the era. 

Since these are all Japanese imports, they all have cables that are fairly short. They would be fine for play on a table top if have a CRT or screen close by, but if you are playing on a couch you are most likely going to need a controller extension. As mentioned, the sticks of smaller stature would be more comfortable to use on a lap desk or similar hard support.  

I wonder how products like these would have fared if they were released here back during their original run. Would American consumers be willing to pay premium prices for these arcade sticks? My thought is probably not. Nintendo would have done their homework when test marketing the NES Advantage, and they targeted that level of quality here.  Perhaps these would have been a success and we are underestimating the dedication of the hardcore gamer, or the number of people willing to pay that premium. Either way, these can be found now through online international sales, auctions sites, proxies, etc., and that is a good thing.

Bringing 2D Shoot'em Ups (shmups) to Modern Consoles

The shoot'em up, or "shmup" genre has a history as old as video games, dating back to the 1970's with Space Invaders, Galaxian, etc. In the 1980's and 1990's, games like Gradius, R-Type, Thunder Force, Soldier Blade and others were headlining home console offerings. It was a genre that had great prominence,  and tapered off once the 3D era of gaming matured during the 6th generation of consoles.  

 The retro gaming scene has ballooned in popularity of late. Possibly due to kids growing up and yearning for the games that played in their youth, the rise of YouTube retro gaming content, and other factors, the resurgence has been palpable. This has led to increased numbers of rereleases and retro-inspired games on current generation consoles. 

A recent poll (n=95) I conducted on the Shmups Facebook page indicates that the Playstation 4 and Nintendo Switch are tied as the favorite current consoles to play shmups on. This is surprising to me as there is some debate about the Switch's extra input lag when compared to consoles with more powerful hardware.  For example, the Psikyo Collection Alpha has some of my favorite shmups, like Strikers 1945. I have this on PS4 and Switch. There is a noticeable difference between the two versions, with the Switch exhibiting more input latency than the PS4 version. I know this game like the back of my hand, having owned the original on Saturn for a long time. Perhaps the only people noticing this are people who have a long history with the game. 

Fortunately, this is not always the case. In games like Ikaruga, which I have on Switch and PS4, I cannot notice the difference in latency between the two consoles. You would think that Ikaruga is a more demanding game (originally of the 6th generation of consoles, whereas Strikers 1945 is from the 4th/5th generation) so this is puzzling. The difference must come down to programming the ports. Maybe the team who programmed Ikaruga have better chops than the team that did Strikers. It seems that games programmed by M2 Shottriggers have the fewest latency issues on any of its ports, whether on Switch or PS4.  

Many people participants cited the portability of the Switch as a deciding factor. People like to play in at work, during a commute, between classes, etc. While the idea of a portable console sounds good in theory, my eyes are not what they used to be, so squinting at small screens is not really enjoyable to me. If you don't mind small screens, more power to you. 

Some have mentioned processing power favors the PS4, but this seems kinda silly when you consider that for the vast majority of shooters, 2 dimensions is the norm. We're not talking about system pushing specs and ray tracing for graphical fidelity here, nearly everything is sprite based. Even if there are polygons, the movement plane is still 2 dimensional, so any current generation system should be more than capable.

As far as game availability, it seems that amount of games released for both consoles are roughly equal. Besides a few exceptions, like Battle Garegga (2016) and Ketsui Deathtiny, games are now being developed for both. Many of these games are not physically released in North America, so importing games from sites like Playasia is a common solution. With shooters there is not much of a language barrier, and modern consoles are region free. Games are also released through small limited vendors like Limited Run Games, Strictly Limited, etc. 

Being retro, there are people who prefer to keep it retro and play on as much original hardware/equipment as possible. CRT TVs and legacy consoles will always win the input lag test, so if that is what you're all about then you are not the primary audience here. Most people do not have the space (or family members willing to tolerate) for the extra bulk of CRTs. Consider also that old CRTs and consoles will start failing, and there are fewer and fewer people that can fix them. Parts are not being produced anymore, making maintenance even more of a hassle. 

What do you think about the resurgence of shoot 'em ups on modern consoles? Are you fine with playing them on modern screens? Does the requisite amount of input lag inherent to modern consoles bother you? Do you mind buying these games again if you already own the originals?