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The Madcatz Turnaround?
When I first heard about a high quality arcade stick by Madcatz I was not very convinced. I had purchased Madcatz accessories in the past, and they usually left a very bad impression on me every single time (except for the Rock Band 2 Cymbal Expansions, but that's not the item being reviewed here), so I was hesitant about a joystick with a $150 price tag and the Madcatz name attached to it. However, after countless hours of Street Fighter IV, BlazBlue, King of Fighters XII, Garou: Mark of the Wolves, and many other titles (including some that aren't fighters, such as Raiden Fighter Aces), I must say that I am glad I didn't let my initial impression stop me from trying it out.
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Madcatz certainly splurged on this joystick. Everything from the quality of the packaging to the weight and look of the device is top notch. Even when unboxing it you get treated to an attractive package that's composed of two laminated cardboard doors that open to reveal another cardboard door, this one with a see-through window in the middle so you can look at the joystick within it. The dual doors that you open ar first have a certificate of authenticity printed on the left side, and the whole thing uses magnets to close when set to storage.
The stick itself has a plastic body that's shaped very similarly to Taito Viewlix arcade cabinets (in fact, I wonder if Madcatz paid some royalties to use the design as it's just so similar, if not identical), with a subdued flame over black art with a IV made out of flames and the Street Fighter IV logo at the lower right. The joystick is a classic Japanese ball-top stick with a white ball and six out of its eight buttons are white. The other two are dark grey with black frames. The top left of the stick has the Xbox Guide button and a few other buttons meant to activate the rapid fire functionality. There are also two switches there, one to lock the Guide and Rapid Fire buttons, the other to determine if the joystick should work as a digital pad, the left analog stick, or the right analog stick in a standard Xbox 360 controller. You will also notice some bolts that require an Allen screwdriver to open up if you want to get into the guts of the controller to change some parts.
Carrying the joystick shows that it has some good weight to it, so it doesn't feel like a cheap plastic item. It also has some rubber feet, which is pretty common on these controllers so that you can rest it on a table to use it. From my experience, you should also get good results resting it on your lap. Looking around the base reveals the headphone jack, which is a standard 1.8 mm jack rather than the kind found on Xbox 360 controllers (which is a 1.8 mm jack surrounded by two small grooves). I suppose this was done to keep everything neat and flushed, but the solution to plug in a standard 360 headset is far from elegant, however that's something I'll touch on later.
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The Sanwa Components Are the Star of the Show
So this thing looks good. What about the quality of the components? I'm glad to say that Madcatz opted for the highest quality possible arcade parts at this stage, delivering a joystick that's well worth its asking price.
To begin with, the joystick is a Sanwa JLF series joystick. This component was not chosen randomly or by chance; it's the very same joystick used in competitive arcade cabinets all over Japan, and it shows why. This Sanwa stick is well known for its accuracy and crisp feel, and once you have adapted to it (if you are not used to a joystick; if you've always been a joystick player then you should be able to handle it immediately) you'll be able to hit directions and thus, complex moves with ease. This Sanwa joystick in particular is equipped with a square shaped gate (that's a restrictor plate mounted under the joystick housing that restricts its movement) that makes it really easy to hit the diagonals. If you've never used a Japanese joystick, this gate can take a little time to get used to it, but you can always open it up with an Allen wrench and remove the gate. Or, you can also opt to purchase an octagonal gate (so it has a restrictive point in every direction for eight-way movement) and replace the square gate with it. Also of note is the "clicky" aspect of the stick. If you're not used to Japanese sticks, then the click that it makes when the bottom of the shaft hits every microswitch may be annoying at first, but once you're used to it you should appreciate how it announces every time a microswitch is activated.
The buttons are also classic Sanwa parts, once again the same ones used in competitive arcade cabinets all over Japan. These buttons are historically known to resist an incredible amount of use while remaining extremely sensitive. This means that moves that require repeated button presses, such as Chun Li's Lightning Kick or E. Honda's Hundred Hand Slaps are very easy to activate. This also means that you may inadvertently press them when you didn't want to because you simply rested your finger on them and are still not used to how sensitive they are.
Unfortunately, the way the 360 headset connects to the stick is a bit of a disappointment. Probably because they didn't want to compromise the design, so they decided to ship the joystick with an unusual extension cord. You plug this cord into the headset jack on the joystick, and you plug the 360 headset into the adapter in the female end of the cord. It's an unsightly end result, and the voice quality over the stick isn't all that good to begin with. It's as if somehow someone suddenly realized that they had finalized the design on the stick and had no time left to alter it, but they forgot to add the headset jack.
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Great Button Layout
As if the quality of the joystick and the buttons were not enough, the layout of the whole thing is very well thought out. The amount of space between the Sanwa stick and the buttons is very comfortable. There's enough space to avoid it feeling cramped, but there's not so much that it presents a problem. It simply feels just right.
As for the buttons, the joystick presents them in two rows of four buttons each, or a 4 x 2 layout. I must admit that I am not a big fan of this layout, preferring the classic six button three on three layout of the Street Fighter series, but a few hours of used had me getting used to this layout without problems. As a bonus, the designers of the stick seem to have spent a good deal of time evaluating how to properly do this layout, and as such the end result actually emulates multiple layouts that have been made famous by multiple arcade titles. You can use the top four buttons alone to reproduce the classic SNK Neo Geo layout. You can use the first three buttons in each row to reproduce the Japanese Street Fighter layout. Or, you can skip the first button in each row, using the second button column through the fourth and reproduce the American Street Fighter layout.
There's also a convenient hatch on the front (or top, depending on how you look at it) panel of the unit that houses the cord for when you're not playing. Yup, that means this premium joystick is wired. That's a bit of a disappointment, but this also means there is absolutely no input lag, a very important consideration for competitive players. The Start and Back buttons are also located in this panel, out of reach of accidental pressing during heated gameplay.
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As said before, the top left of the device includes an interesting panel that lets you set Rapid Fire for each individual button. The Xbox Guide button is also located here, and there are also two switches. One lets you set the joystick to control either a digital pad, or either the left or the right analog stick on a standard Xbox controller. Frankly, I use that mostly when I'm navigating the menus in the Xbox UI, so I can scroll the text descriptions (which are scrolled with the right stick).
The buttons in the device are connected via quick disconnects, so if you'd rather use other buttons perhaps because you don't like the white and black / grey motif on the joystick, you can change them. Swapping the Sanwa JLF joystick for another joystick is also fairly easy, as it is getting to it so you can switch the Japanese ball top for an American bat top. Other modifications, such as removing the gate if it bothers you or adding an octagonal gate instead of the default square gate are also possible. Just be aware that all of those will void the warranty. Basically, this is a very friendly stick to those who like to mod them.
Also, because the Xbox 360 uses a standard USB interface, this joystick will work on PC's. Once plugged in your computer should recognize it as an Xbox 360 compatible joystick (you may need an additional driver, depending on your configuration) and you should be set to go.
Finally, Madcatz has been releasing slightly modified versions of this stick with different cover artwork. The functionality and the parts are the same; it's only the printed artwork, and in some cases the paintjob, that differ at all. So, if you see an alternate version with artwork that you prefer over the standard one, by all means go for it if you want it. Should be the same stick. Just don't confuse it with the standard edition; that one uses Madcatz instead of Sanwa parts. However, it is very easy to mod with Sanwa or Seimitsu parts, so if you're short on cash but want a joystick now and believe you'll be able to mod it with better parts in the future, by all means grab the Standard Edition.
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Final Score and Evaluation
When it comes down to it, the Madcatz Street Fighter IV Tournament Edition Fightstick is an amazing piece of hardware. The $150 price may scare some away, but let's look at the facts here. The joystick alone, the Sanwa JLF, retails for about $25. The Sanwa OBSF buttons retail for about $3 each. There are eight of them on the face of the device, and two smaller ones on the front panel. There's an Xbox 360 PCB in there, which let me tell you is not an easy thing to deal with. To top it all off, even if you want to modify something, it's designed so you can easily do any changes you want in there. Do you prefer the Seimitsu LS-32 stick (I do, oddly enough)? Then put it in there! It's quite easy to swap. There are also bonus features such as the Rapid Fire function. I really think that this is an excellent purchase for those looking for the best possible way to control their fighting games. As for the somewhat disappointing headset solution, well, the rest of the stick is of such a high quality that I'm willing to let that slide. At the end of the day, I personally don't value headset use on a joystick as much as everything else that Madcatz did right with this package.