If you own an original or replica arcade machine (like this one from Arcade1Up), you might think the joysticks and buttons could be better, and they can! You have to know which style you want and how to connect them, but don’t worry—we’ve got you covered!
How to Choose the Right Joysticks and Buttons
All joysticks and buttons are not created equal. Beyond just general quality, how a joystick moves, the style of its topper, and the shapes of buttons vary based on different schools of thought and types of games.
Due to these differences, you have to know why manufacturers designed joysticks and buttons to behave the way they do. Once you do, you can achieve both the goals of the original machine and your own performance improvements.
With all this in mind, let’s break down the differences.
Joystick Style: American vs. Japanese
Two companies manufacture the most popular joystick and buttons styles: Happ and Sanwa. They also perfectly exemplify the differences between American (Happ) and Japanese (Sanwa) styles. If you look at a Mortal Kombat machine, it almost certainly will have Happ controls, while a Street Fighter machine will have Sanwa.
The differences are noticeable in both look and feel. Happ’s American-style controllers typically featured bat-shaped tops and tight-action joysticks. Its buttons are typically concave and require a strong push to reach the click phase.
Sanwa, though, tends to use ball-shaped tops and looser action for its joysticks. Unlike Happ, its buttons are typically flat and don’t require much pressure to activate.
Additionally, Sanwa adds restrictor gates to the bottom of its joysticks to make certain types of movements easier (like hitting the diagonals), which can be helpful for fighting games or platformers.
Other companies mimic the look and feel of both Happ and Sanwa controllers. They usually indicate which route they went by mentioning Happ or Sanwa specifically or including “American” or “Japanese” in the description.
The tops of American joysticks tend to be shaped more like a baseball bat, while Japanese sticks are typically more ball-shaped.
However, if you prefer the loose movement of a Japanese stick but want a bat-shaped top, you can make it happen. The tops of joysticks are typically screwed connections—you just twist to remove and swap them.
Occasionally, manufacturers do switch up the tops. Just because a joystick has a bat-shaped head doesn’t mean it’s an American one—these are generalizations.
LEDs for Your Buttons
If you spend a little extra, you can have LEDs embedded in your buttons. These look great—especially in a dark room—but you’ll have to do some extra wiring to power them. Depending on your setup, you might have to turn on the LEDs separately from the arcade.
Of course, you can skip the lights (and save a few bucks) if this all sounds like too much work. We think the look is worth the effort, so we’ll focus mainly on LED-lit options.
Once you know which kind of joysticks and buttons you want, it’s just a matter of picking the right set. If you’re going with a Japanese-style, though, you might also need some restrictor gates.
Keep in mind Arcade1Up machines usually require a little extra wiring as it doesn’t design its machines with modding in mind (but we have a suggestion to help with that, too).
If you purchase a Sanwa-style controller, you might also want to consider a restrictor gate. They change the feel of a joystick’s movement to better accommodate different types of games. You can choose an octagonal, a 4/8 way, or a round.
If you only play fighter games, you’ll want octagonal. If you might switch between fighting and platformers, go with the 4/8 way. The round is the “jack of all trades, master of none” option, and it can be useful for some plane or space sims.
Best American-Style Set: EasyGet Classic Arcade Game
These “Happ-like” controls include everything you need for a two-player setup: two joysticks, four black and white buttons, and two each in red, yellow, green, blue, and two player buttons, as well as wiring, and USB encoders.
The black joysticks feature large, bat-shaped tops, and a switch that allows them to support either four directional (like a platformer) or eight directional (like fighting) games. Just keep in mind the topper isn’t replaceable. The joystick design will accommodate both metal and wood control panels.
EG STARTS Classic Arcade Game DIY Part for Mame USB Cabinet 2X Zero Delay USB Encoder to PC Games + 2X 8 Way Joystick + 18x Arcade Push Button (Including 1p / 2p Start Buttons) Multiple Colour Kits
If you want an American-style set that supports either four- or eight-way directional control, this one by EG Starts is perfect! You get four black and white buttons, along with two each in red, yellow, green, blue, and two player buttons.
Best Japanese-Style Set: Hikig 2 Player LED Arcade Buttons
If you prefer the Japanese style and feel, this set by Hikig is for you. You get two Sanwa-like joysticks with replaceable ball tops, and a 4/8 way restrictor gate. If you prefer, you can also change out restrictor gates to support different types of games.
Additionally, you get 20 blue and red LED buttons, along with the necessary wiring and USB encoders to install everything. The LEDs will make your machine stand out—especially in the dark!
You insert the connections from the joysticks and buttons into the USB encoder. It translates the signals into something your computer (which you connect via USB cord) can understand.
Hikig 2-Player LED Arcade DIY Kit for USB MAME PC Game DIY & Raspberry Pi Retro Controller DIY Including 2X Arcade Joystick, 20x LED Arcade Buttons, 2X Zero Delay USB Encoder Color: Red + Blue
Hikig's Japanese-style sets are very similar to Sanwa's but more affordable. You get 20 LED buttons in blue and red, and two (removable) ball-top joysticks.
Best Authentic Kit: Arcade Sanwa Control Panel LED Illuminated
If you want nothing less than the best, only authentic Sanwa controllers will do. The extra money will get you what you want, how you want it, though. This set includes two ball-top joysticks (you choose the colors), 20 LED buttons (again, in your choice of colors), all wiring, a custom LED harness, and a USB encoder.
Best for Arcade1Up Machines: DIY Retro Arcade Sanwa Joysticks
While the joysticks above all work with Arcade1Up machines, you’ll have to redrill holes, adjust cable connections, and go to some extra effort to get the wiring to work with Arcade1Up’s hardware.
If all that sounds like a pain, this DIY Retro Arcade has you covered. You get a modified authentic Sanwa joystick that’s ready to go on Arcade1Up machines. You’ll pay a premium for the convenience of spending less time futzing with the connections.
Just specify which Arcade1Up machine you have, and DIY Retro Arcade sends you to the right hardware. You have to buy the tops and buttons separately, but DIY Retro Arcade offers both bat- and ball-top styles, along with regular and LED buttons.