The fighting game community is fickle. We demand customization. Give us a new game or controller to tinker with and before we even begin to take it seriously we want to see if we can’t take it apart and rebuild it to suit our needs. We muck with input layouts the way every competitive gamer does, but unlike other kinds of games, our scene isn’t bound by a particular controller or keyboard. Players of every caliber want a weapon that defines them, and there are more than enough people who are willing to meet the needs of those who want to go overboard on the design of their favorite weapon.
Optimizing your stick
Part of that comes from the community’s fairly lax rules when it comes defining what constitutes a legal controller. “Any controller that has no hardware modifications, and does not have rapid fire is a tournament legal controller.” That comes from Evolution Championship Series organizer Joey “Mr. Wizard” Cuellar himself, and it’s a pretty workable rule. Rapid fire is an obvious taboo, since you’re pressing a button faster than a human could feasibly do so and still performing other actions, depriving your opponent a fair fight. Mapping multiple actions to a single button (outside of what’s allowed in the in-game menus) is not allowed. Finally, no wireless controllers, since the wireless interference can cause all sorts of problems at an event venue.
Most of us don’t even think about these rules. For the average fighting game player, the standard six buttons works just fine, since most fighting games are designed around the sticks’ six-button layout. Still, tournament rules still give those who love to tinker room to work with. That’s how we end up with something like select-plinking, where a player rewires the select button of their stick to one of the eight face buttons in order to plink certain moves more easily by allowing an extra grace period for plinkable moves (this is legal as long as the select button doesn’t have another button wired to it).
Of course, there are other ways to modify a stick to your playstyle. Map those buttons wherever you want, make the stick a bat- or roundtop, swap out the square gate on it for an octogate (which lets the stick lock into place in eight directions instead of the traditional four), make the buttons larger, smaller, silent, concave instead of convex, make sure it works on every PC and console imaginable. The stick bends to the player nowadays, a far cry from the peripheral’s original role as a mostly inflexible standard hooked up to the machine everyone had to play on (and if your side of the machine had a broken button stick, well, tough). The arcade stick, with its lunky form and tactile feel, is as much a symbol for player individuality as it is a way to fight.
Return of the Pad Warrior
But that doesn’t make it the only option available to those who want to compete. Unlike many tournament veterans, Joshua “Wolfkrone” Philpot started out playing fighting games on the PlayStation One controller, and is currently known as one of the top players in the country who just happens to play on a controller. Philpot actually did play on a stick when he frequented Detroit’s Wizzards Arcade, but after it closed down on 2004, he had to go back to pad. “I was around fourteen and did not know people sold arcade sticks,” says Philpot, “so I believed that pad was my only option if I wanted to continue playing my favorite fighting games.”
Having to relearn fighting games on a pad does end up having its perks, however. Though Philpot admits that controllers don’t have an innate executional advantage over sticks, he does mention one advantage that controllers tend to have in a tournament setting. “Playing on a controller does give you a slight advantage because people who listen or look and react to others’ inputs on an arcade stick cannot do the same to pad players.” Though it may seem like a minor difference between the two, players take it seriously. So seriously, in fact, that South Korea’s Cafeid brought in their own partition setups to compete in King of Fighters XIII and other games at Evo 2012 to cut down on the amount of input-reading their opponent could do. With a controller, you don’t have to worry about your opponent listening in to what you’re doing.
Philpot did try to transition back to using a stick last year in order to improve his execution on his signature character, C. Viper, but found that it hurt more than it helped. “In tournaments I had to deal with people mashing buttons during my punishes and it caused me to drop my combo. I also had to deal with people doing fake dragon punches/specials because I reacted to something false.”
Wolfkrone also had to deal with the problem of opponents monitoring his motions. “I was at [NorCal Regionals] and Hsien Chang was beating me very badly in practice sets. He told me that I had to start moving less because he could see my body movement and react.” After realizing that people were more liable to predict his movements when playing on a stick, Philpot decided to switch back to a controller. While neither input method may be innately superior, some players are just more suited to a particular input method.
Enter the Hitbox
The fighting game community could be content with these two versatile options, provided by game companies and console manufacturers for our use and modification, but our need to tinker with our play goes much deeper. Throughout the years we’ve experimented with different ways to play, and some have caught on more than others. One example, the Hitbox controller, replaces the stick with four direction buttons and has gained some favor among the fighting game crowd over the last couple of years. And unlike the controller, the Hitbox could actually have executional benefits.
Though David “UltraDavid” Graham has stopped competing in tournaments in favor of commentating due to a nerve issue in his hands, he contends that Hitbox might actually be the best method for playing fighting games. “The hitbox is the only input mechanism for fighting games that was designed after and for fighting games,” he says. “The others were just the mechanisms that happened to be in use when fighting games came up.” As such, the directional inputs allow for things that are much harder on other kinds of control methods.
“On a stick, it’s really hard to press up and then immediately straight back and immediately straight towards to get an instant air gas blast with Kabal in [Mortal Kombat 9]. The stick requires travel time and it doesn’t like going back to neutral; in fact, not easily going back to neutral is specifically a part of why moves like the Mishima electric wind god fist is tough on some sticks.” And if certain moves are easier to do, then your execution should then improve. ” If I were competing seriously without any physical impediments,” says David, “I would definitely pick up a Hitbox.”
The Hitbox accommodates a particular kind of player, and I can personally attest to how well the controller feels. I began my fighting game career (if you can call it that) on a controller, and readily assumed that switching to stick would improve my game. Though the layout of the buttons felt completely natural, I couldn’t get my head around how to properly hold the stick — no position really felt comfortable. As someone who’s intimately familiar with the hand positions one uses in PC gaming, the Hitbox’s directional buttons felt right at home; pressing the bottom button to jump, though it may seem counterintuitive, feels like second nature to someone used to pressing spacebar to jump. Additionally, because you have to do each input individually (as opposed to performing all directional inputs in one motion), I can mentally confirm my inputs and be more confident in my execution.
But whether or not the Hitbox may be more efficient in some respects, player preference will almost always win out when choosing your weapon in a competitive environment. Whether or not stick provided him benefits, Wolfkrone chose to go back to controllers because he always played better on them, and preferred the mindgame advantages of the controller to the executional benefits of the arcade stick.
And for most pros, having to relearn a new input method does not seem to work out most of the time, even if the controller should theoretically make them a better player. Playing comfortably means you’re playing more consistently, and every player has their own comfort zone, whether it’s a particular piece of art adorning your stick, a specific control method, or a backwards hand position (I’m looking at you, Seth Killian). When it comes to fighting games, it’s more about what you like than what works best.