Which fighting game controller is right for you?
So you’ve decided to enter the world of professional fighting games, but your tournament organizer says you have to buy a new controller. You look at what other players are using, but everyone has a different monstrosity with custom buttons and sticks coming out of every corner. You’ve never played on anything other than the controller that came with your console. What are you to do?
The world of fighting game controllers is a vast and complicated one, but you don’t have to jump into the deep end and start making custom layouts for your first controller purchase. You just need a controller that fits the way you play, gives you the advantages you want, and is tournament legal. In this article we will break down the five most commonly used controllers to help you with your decision.
Everyone has played with one of these at some point and, if you are a causal gamer, chances are you still do. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad choice. It’s a common misconception that you can’t be pro using a default pad, but many professionals stay on these controllers for their entire fighting game career.
If you do decide to remain a pad warrior, keep these limitations in mind.
First, default pads are largely tournament illegal. Most tournaments only allow wired controllers these days, and most default pads are wireless. An errant wireless button press could interrupt a match you aren’t even in, which isn’t a risk that high-profile tournaments can take.
Also, default controllers do not clean SOCDs. "SOCD" stands for simultaneous opposite cardinal directions, i.e. pressing left and right at the same time. You can do this on a default pad by pressing one direction on the d-pad and another on the control stick. SOCD exploits allow you to perfect block or break charge moves in some modern fighting games. So any tournament legal controller will “clean” SOCDs by processing them as a neutral input.
This is why tournament organizers will tell amateur fighting gamers to buy new controllers before competing. Even if the default pad is your weapon of choice, you’ll still have to buy a wired tournament-legal replacement.
Default pads are rarely built for fighting games. They introduce “travel time”, limiting your inputs to how fast your thumb can travel from button to button. Furthermore, many fighters have six buttons but pads only have four. Street Fighter players need to use triggers for heavy punch or heavy kick, which is awkward. However, it’s worth noting that many modern day fighters have decided to better fit modern-day pads by reducing their button count to four.
Default pads are rarely built for the one frame accuracy that is needed in fighting games. When default pads and arcade sticks are compared side by side, characters always respond quicker to inputs on a stick. This is partially because any wireless controller protocol will introduce latency, and partially because the parts were not designed for arcade performance. This also means they quickly fall victim to wear and tear so you may find yourself replacing them frequently.
Still, it’s hard to beat the pragmatic advantage of the default pad. They are easy to find, cheap to purchase, and require no training to use. While they confer very little mechanical advantage, the sheer familiarity of the default button layout can be considered an advantage in and of itself. It takes weeks or even months to become proficient on a new type of controller, and many pros would rather deal with their controller’s limitations and focus on the skills they already have.
Fight pads are the middle ground between a traditional arcade stick and a default pad. They change up their button layout, removing two triggers and adding two more face buttons. This allows players to access all six traditional fighting game buttons with their thumb. Fight pads are also designed to be held in different ways. While they fit perfectly in your hands like a normal controller, their handles are sturdier and wider, making them comfortable for anyone who uses a crab or claw grip.
Fight pad parts are also built of tougher stuff than default pads. They can stand up to wear and tear and travel easily. Unlike a basic controller, their buttons are designed for frame perfect inputs. Fight pads are wired by default and some of them include SOCD cleaners or switches that prevent you from using the d-pad and analog stick at the same time. This makes them much more likely to be tournament legal.
There are some downsides, however. Fight pads do not do anything to reduce travel time. In fact, the amount of travel time is increased along the wider spread of face buttons (unless you use one of the aforementioned alternative grips.) Some pros have also complained that the “disc” style d-pad that fight pads use is less accurate than a traditional d-pad, not more.
Still, if you really want to stay in the controller camp, fight pads are not a bad choice. They are no more expensive than a standard controller, making them a great choice for gamers on a budget.
Traditional Arcade Stick
The traditional arcade stick is the most popular controller choice in the pro fighting game community, and for good reason: most fighting games are designed for it.
Arcade sticks are built out of the exact same parts that classic arcade cabinets are made from, so they are tough, resilient and built to last. (On a personal note, I’ve been using the same arcade stick without needing to replace any parts for more than 8 years now.) Even if your arcade stick breaks, you can replace parts individually for a fraction of the cost of buying a new pad.
These high quality parts are also as responsive as you can get. As I said before, most fighting games were designed with arcade sticks in mind so playing with one is as close to playing the way the developers intended. You are literally recreating the arcade experience with exact mechanical fidelity.
You’ll also find that nearly every arcade stick is tournament legal. All are wired and only have one, non-analog method of directional input. No errant wireless connections or SOCD problems here.
But if you are going to join the legions of stick players out there, be prepared to spend some money. An arcade stick of any viable quality costs between one hundred and two hundred dollars. You can keep the price down by building your own, but that takes an immense amount of time, effort, and a decent investment in power tools.
If you want to compete on the tournament circuit you’ll either need two sticks, one for each console, or you’ll need a stick that works on both consoles, but that increases the price further. You can alternatively pay to have a stick dual-modded or pay for a converter, but this is yet more money coming out of your wallet and a converter may introduce input lag. Many arcade sticks aren’t forward compatible, so you’ll need to buy a new one or mod it yet again any time a new console generation comes about, as opposed to a pad which you are literally given when you buy your console.
At high-levels of play, stick feel becomes important. How soon do you want your stick to register an input? How sensitive do you want your buttons? How much tension do you want on your stick? How do you want to restrict your joystick’s movement? You can tune each of these parameters specifically to your liking, but doing so requires spending yet more money on parts like restrictor gates and joystick tops.
Frankly, arcade sticks are not just a controller–they are a huge financial commitment and easily the most expensive option on this list.
Outside of the financial factor, arcade stick disadvantages are less severe. They’re cumbersome, and while this is a minor inconvenience for local tournaments, it’s a major inconvenience on the international stage. They don’t fit easily in bags and their tangled internal mess of wires and switches make them a red flag at airport security.
Don’t expect to become a pro stick player overnight. There is a huge adjustment period as you train your muscle memory. Skills don’t readily transfer from pad to stick. Moving your thumbs and moving your fingers/wrist are two completely different things. You are going to have to re-learn everything you know about fighting games, which is what keeps many players on pad for their entire career.
Even if you put in the work, arcade sticks are not a perfect input device. Finger travel time is reduced or eliminated for face buttons, but it actually increases for directional inputs since a joystick has to move much further than an analog stick or d-pad. This makes certain wide inputs, like 360 motions, much harder on a joystick than they are on a pad.
But the numbers don’t lie. More stick players finish in top 8 tournament standing than pad players. It cannot be understated how valuable it is to play games the way designers intended. If you think a stick might be the controller for you, we recommend borrowing a buddy’s stick first. Nothing’s more depressing than dropping 200 bucks on an arcade stick only to find that you were a natural pad player all along.
Keyboard and Mouse
KBAM is a relatively new control scheme in the fighting game universe, rising to prominence with the slow migration of fighting games to the PC platform. Some pros have come to prefer the keyboard as their controller of choice because it completely eliminates travel time on all inputs. In fact, so much travel time is eliminated that many players who freshly switch over to a keyboard control scheme find that they cannot perform basic quarter circles because they are doing them too fast!
Keyboards are the most flexible control scheme on this list because they are mappable. Don’t like where your main buttons are located? Choose new buttons! Hands cramp while playing? Fiddle with the layout! If you aren’t comfortable using your keyboard, you only have yourself to blame.
For the past few years, keyboard players have revolutionized fighting game play through the use of techniques that stick players can’t use. Techniques like plink dashing, directional negative edging, and disordered 360s greatly simplify otherwise complex fighting game maneuvers.
But all this power comes at a cost. Keyboards are rarely tournament legal. None of them clean SOCDs. There are pieces of software that will act as a cleaner for you and some tournaments will install them on their tournament PCs, but even then there is a chance that your keyboard and the software won’t play nice.
Most consoles can’t even process USB keyboard input, which means you’ll have to purchase a converter for console tournaments. This introduces input lag, which will vastly impair your inputs regardless of your lack of travel time. Most keyboards were never designed with frame perfect inputs in-mind, so you’ll likely have to battle with a frame or two of input lag to begin with.
Keyboards were never built for the speed and precision of fighting games, either, and it shows in tournament performance. Even the most expensive and reliable keyboards have been known to break mid-tournament. Some keyboards drop or misrepresent inputs when certain key combos are pressed. The wealth of extra keys greatly increases the chance of an accidental input. Accidentally press the Windows key during a PC tournament and you’ll be instantly disqualified.
While I personally believe any control scheme can be used on the professional level, I’d recommend against a keyboard. There are just too many ways the keyboard control scheme can go wrong. It’s also about the furthest thing from what fighting games were actually designed for.
Examples: The Original Hit-Box
The Hit-Box is a relative newcomer in the controller wars. They are designed to combine the flexibility and low travel time of the keyboard interface with the accuracy and high quality parts of a traditional arcade stick.
You may look at a hit box and ask yourself “how the heck does this thing work?” Well, here’s a short primer. The eight buttons to the right each correspond to a standard controller’s face buttons and triggers. The four small buttons to the right correspond to left, down, and right directions while the large button on the bottom corresponds to up. You use this button kind of like you would use the space-bar on a keyboard. Think of it as a “jump” button.
Hit-Boxes are effectively as remappable as any other arcade stick. Their parts are sturdy, just like standard arcade stick, and designed for split second input accuracy. They cost as much as an arcade stick but have fewer hidden fees in customization (no joystick parts to tinker around with). They are also compact, making them easy to travel with. Hit-Boxes were also the first controller to specifically clean SOCD inputs, making them 100% tournament legal.
The Hit-Box is known for vastly decreasing input complexity. Quarter circle motions are now reduced to pressing the down button, followed by the forward button, followed by your attack button. Three buttons in sequence. Anyone can do that! Half circles are just four buttons in a sequence and 360s are five. Dashing is simpler. Super jumping is simpler. The most complex motions in fighting game history become child’s play on a Hit-Box.
No travel time, split-second simple inputs, durable parts, no hidden costs, and tournament legality? What’s the downside to the Hit-Box?
In a word: training. The Hit-Box is the hardest controller to learn to use. Retraining your brain to think of the lowest button as up is brain bending torture. Understanding how to duck or block is not intuitive. While the Hit-Box makes special move inputs, dashes, and combos easier to perform, being able to pull them off in the middle of combat is no simple task. Many pros have attempted to convert to a Hit-Box controller only to fail. Expect to end up training for many months to even get slight proficiency with this control scheme.
What’s Right for You?
Let’s narrow down the choices shall we?
Keyboards and default pads are great to start learning, but their lack of tournament legality really makes them a non-option when getting into the pro scene. You can purchase tournament legal replacements, but if you are spending money on a new controller anyway you might as well get something that was designed for fighting games.
That leaves us with the Arcade Stick, the Fight Pad, and the Hit-Box, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.
The fight pad is the cheapest option as well as the easiest to learn. However, it’s also the option that conveys the least mechanical advantage. If you don’t feel as if you need a mechanical advantage, then this is probably the simplest and most pragmatic option.
The Hit-Box conveys the most mechanical advantage but is excessively difficult to learn. That being said, it’s much easier to learn if you got your start playing fighting games on the PC, since it has so much in common with a keyboard. Consider going this route if you are already used to keyboard play. Otherwise, choose the Hit-Box if you are willing to commit yourself to months of training and losing before seeing a drastic increase in the speed and accuracy of your inputs.
The arcade stick is the most popular and most expensive option. It doesn’t involve as much training as a Hit-Box, but conveys more mechanical advantage than a pad. It’s the format that most fighting games were designed for and for that reason alone, most pros go the way of the stick. Despite its cost, I’d call the arcade stick the “safe” choice, since just about anyone can learn how to use it.
But none of these input methods are “the best.” No fancy input device can replace skill. Your goal is not to find a controller that wins games for you. Rather, you are looking for a controller that lets you best utilize the skills you have. Go to a local fighting game tournament and ask to try out all the controller options to start. If you find your thumbs aren’t moving fast enough to do the combos you want to do, consider reducing travel time with an arcade stick or Hit-Box. If you find you can’t quarter circle on a huge joystick consider switching to a fight pad. In the end, choose the control scheme that makes the most sense and feels the most natural to you. That’s the way you maximize your performance.