Why fighting games cannot be played with analog sticks

Ultra Street Fighter II for the Nintendo Switch is pretty good, but it’s also very hard to play. Why? Because no one has made a reliable arcade stick for the Nintendo Switch yet.

Plenty of Street Fighter fans have passed this off as the whining of competitive and pro-gamers who refuse to use anything but their one special controller of choice. And, sure, they are correct–but there are facts that justify this whining! In fact, the forces at play here are the same forces that make people play Injustice 2 with an arcade stick, even though it is explicitly designed for a controller.

I’ll prove that us "serious fighting game bros" aren’t just full of hot air.

Losing Your Edge

Pick up a controller. Really. Go do it. I’ll wait.

Now rotate the analog stick. If you own any first party controller for a current-gen system, the stick should rotate in a smooth, clean circle.

Now go pick up your arcade stick. What’s that? You don’t have an arcade stick? Well alright, you’ll have to trust me on this. Rotate an arcade stick around its edges and you’ll find that it doesn’t rotate in a smooth circle. If you are using an unmodified stick it will likely trace a square. If you are using a heavily customized stick, you might feel it trace an octagon. Either way, you will find harsh edges and corners when compared to the smooth circle of an analog stick.

Joysticks move this way because of their “gate” – a small piece of plastic that restricts where the stick can move. Without a gate, you could move your stick so far that it would break off the switches from its PCB. Controller analog sticks have a gate, too, but it’s built into the shell of the controller. It’s that circle of plastic that the stick rests on when you rotate it around.

Controller gates are circular because this is the gate that works best for most game genres. When aiming in an FPS, moving in an action game, or even firing in a twin stick shooter, you want to be able to adjust the position of your stick by tiny amounts. This was a big selling point for analog stick technology when it was first being developed. It gave you 360 degrees of free motion, which was perfect for moving around in a 3D space.

However, circular gates are not the best option for fighting games. Fighting games require very precise and discrete directional inputs. Fighting game systems only care about the difference between any diagonal and non-diagonal input (for example down to down-forward.) They aren’t coded to make use of any of the space in between.

Traditional fighting game joysticks aren’t analog at all. They are simply made of four switches attached to a PCB, which I mentioned earlier. The switch can either be on or off and as the joystick moves, it depresses these switches and registers an input. When both a horizontal and vertical switch are pressed at the same time, the game registers a diagonal. That is why fighting games aren’t coded with analog movement in mind. Fighting sticks literally cannot produce analog input.

The D-Pad Dilema

But there is something on a controller that can produce inputs similar to a stick: the d-pad. D-pads are made out of four on-off buttons placed underneath a cross shape piece of plastic. Once again, the d-pad registers a diagonal input whenever a horizontal and vertical direction are pressed at the same time (for more information on the history of the d-pad and how it operates, check out our Gaming Literacy article on the subject).

This is why fighting games are so often played with the d-pad instead of the analog stick; because they can register the same distinct directional inputs that an arcade stick can. But the Nintendo Switch also doesn’t have a d-pad (unless you buy a Pro Controller). Most Switch players will have no choice but to use the analog stick when playing Ultra Street Fighter II. This makes it very hard to tell when you are executing neutral directional or diagonal directional inputs, and makes certain moves, like dragon punches or charge moves, very hard to do.

That is why people complain that they can’t buy an arcade stick for the Nintendo Switch.

The odd thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, Nintendo has solved this problem once before, with the very first modern analog stick. The N64’s gate was circular at the bottom, but octagonal at the top. If you wanted full 360 degrees of motion, you could get it simply by avoiding the edges all together. However, if you wanted distinct diagonal inputs, you could get them as well simply by pushing the stick as far as it could go. This made it easy to play games such as Mortal Kombat Trilogy with either the analog stick or the d-pad.

But of course this setup would make genres other than fighting games more difficult to play, which is something nobody wants. So maybe the real way to fix this is to invest in professional controllers that actually let you change your analog stick gates. Perhaps we are already handling it as best we can, with dedicated fighting gamers going out of their way to buy joysticks. Either way, Ultra Street Fighter II simply won’t catch on until we can easily play it with a controller that process inputs the way fighting games do. A model from Hori is on the horizon, but feels a long way off when trying to play Street Fighter right now. 

For now, I guess us hardcore fighting game bros will just have to keep whining.