Yo Dawg I Herd You Liek Arcade Controllers…

…so I built an arcade controller inside yo arcade controller box so you can game while you game…

Well. This one sure took awhile. If you just want to see the goods, feel free to skip the text all the way to the bottom. This story is going to take awhile.

It all started back in July. Street Fighter IV just came out (or was it about to come out?), and since all the arcade style controllers that we own did’t seem to work on the PC, I’ve been hunkering to get myself a new controller from somewhere. MadCatz is promoting their tournament edition stick at the time, and it looks promising… except that it’s made with Sanwa (read: Japanese style) arcade parts.

Now, don’t get me wrong… the Sanwa parts were built to last and they’re probably more sensitive and expensive than their American counterparts… but I took a stab at the one that they put out at Fry’s, and it was really a no-go for me. I really did’t like the short joystick with the sphere top, and the stick felt too sensitive, I was going all over the place. So I searched furiously on the net for a perfect solution, and I came upon this:


Just look at that picture from the post! It looked pretty much like what I was looking for: solid, custom made stick using whatever arcade parts I wanted. The process sounded fun, and there’s none of that soldering mess involved. I was all excited and ready to start ordering up the components… and then the first wave of complications started to crop up.

I’s the casing. The site that’s recommended by the blog post (http://www.norrisarcadesticks.com/) only build cases that fit Sanwa/Seimitsu parts, and on top of that, they only churn out about one case a month and it went to the highest bidder in a “silent auction”. Price posts from previous winners seemed to go in the range of $170 or more, so the nice looking wooden case was definitely out.

At that point, I was determined, I was ready to go and nothing was going to stop me. My dad was an expert craftsman and so I watched him churns out pretty looking woodwork time after time. How hard could it possibly be to nail down 6 pieces of wood together and call it a day? (As it turns out: too hard for me to handle)

Next came the parts. The control board that handled the signals could be bought pre-assembled, an option that I went with (no soldering fuss, remember?)… it jacked up the total cost quite a bit, but I’ve started this and by George I was going to run with it. For the joystick and the buttons, it’s Happ all the way, which was the whole reason I started this homemade business in the first place. Fortunately they’re all made in China so they’re a bit cheaper than their Japanese counterparts. All things accounted for though… it still came to a whoppin $72.75. That’s $40 for the cthulhu control board, $10 for one joystick, and $16 for 8 buttons at $2 each. I could have gotten three more buttons for L2/R2/Home (the cthulhu mainly maps to the PS3), but at the time I was still thinking that I could come out in the black (compared to just buying the aforementioned $150 MadCatz stick).

The parts had a bit of delay before coming through, but they all arrived safe and sound sometime in August. However, as soon as I started playing with the stuff that I had, I ran into more problems:

1) The joystick and the buttons all required holes with precise dimensions in order for them to settle properly. Additionally, further research into the woodwork had shown me that it’s going to require a lot of elaborate effort, something that’s definitely not for someone who hadn’t touched a 2×4 in ages. That shoebox controller I saw on Kotaku a couple of months earlier was starting to look awfully appealing at that point.

2) I had no idea what the joystick and button layouts were suppose to be. Sure, I could fudge it, but I had a feeling that I would really regret it if the layout was unfriendly and terribad, which would probably override the benefit of using custom parts.

3) The wiring. Oh god the wiring. Despite extensive searches, I couldn’t find conclusive evidence on how to wire all the parts together, or even what wire to use. All I knew as that there’s wires involved, there’s some sort of clamp like thing in all the pictures I saw, and I had no idea what those things were. I just assumed that those would be the clamps that’s used for testing electronics, but when I checked the price at Fry’s those things were way too expensive, plus they didn’t have flexible length – not good if you’re wiring stuff all over the place.

So I did what any reasonable man would do when they came upon a difficult problem… I sat on everything that I’ve gotten so far and wait until something came along that would magically solve it for me. Usually that solution meant the attic is getting another box of crap, but luckily this story had a happy ending – rare, but so glad it turned out that way.

Fast forward to a week ago. I purchased Street Fighter IV on Steam (while it was on sale of course) in the mean time, and played around with various packing boxes and the shoe box for the new pair of shoes that I bought (which I briefly mentioned). It’s fine for the buttons, but the joystick needed something more stable in order to work, plus the wiring problem was still getting nowhere… I would search for a solution every now and then, got frustrated, and stopped looking.

It was thanksgiving weekend and like all the other crazy shoppers, I was in a spending mood. I wasn’t going to do the crazy Black Friday thing so I looked up deals online, and lo and behold the MadCatz arcade stick was 33% off on Amazon. I was a little bitter about the whole affair at this point, but what the hell, I still need an arcade stick one way or the other, so it was credit card whippin time and down goes more money to the drain (well, for a very decent arcade stick, and a “bargain” compared to the rest of the cost involved on the custom stick…).

The MadCatz stick came in on a Tuesday. More so than the stick itself though, I was more impressed by the box that it came with. The top layer of the box opened to the left and right, and the second layer of clear plastic (showcasing the stick itself) opened up and out. Styrofoam pads the inside of the box… With three layers of padding at right angles to each other, this was about as secure as a cardboard box could get. On top of that, the cardboard was super sturdy. I’m talking about at least twice as thick (and dense) as any of the packaging I’ve seen before. The cherry that takes the cake, though – there’s just enough room for me to slip the joystick between the top and middle layer, hiding a rather ugly top section of the joystick that would have to go on top in any other “cardboard box” configurations. Actually, there’s one more thing – the pictures on the top of the box were appropriately themed (it is a SF4 stick after all) and gorgeous to boot! There’s no more excuse. I got to get my stick done now!

So it’s with more luck on my part that I realized I should start searching for help on the microswitches that connected the mechanical parts (the joysticks and the buttons) to the control board, instead of trying to find help on either “custom sticks” or the cthulhu board. Doing that search immediately yielded helpful results. First of all, the clamp like things that I was looking at were called “quick disconnects”. Specifically, I found one site that mentioned using 0.110 sized quick disconnects for Sanwa microswitches. Whatever, I was sure that the ones used by Happ parts were similarly sized. On top of that, I found the exact thickness and type of wires that I was suppose to use: anywhere between 22 and 28 gauge, stranded for easy handling. Things were starting to come together!

So, back to Fry’s for a bit of shopping. I’ve actually done some half arsed effort to get the project rolling again so I bought myself two rolls of 25ft wires, but they’re both solid and one was 20 gauge – no good. So the wires had to be repurchased, and from what I’ve read I needed a crimping tool and a wire stripper also. There’s a two-in-one crimping tool/wire stripper right next to the wires, score. For the quick disconnects, there’s only one reasonable looking size – it’s .187″, but from the looks of it should fit the microswitches perfectly. So that shopping spree cost me $25 ($13 for the crimping tool, one roll of 24 gauge wire and one roll of 26 gauge at $3 per roll, and 2 boxes of quick disconnects with 19 (must be baker’s minus dozen or something) pieces in each box, for $2 per box.

I came home after work (this is Thursday night now) and soon discovered that the crimping tool was a POS. The quick disconnects were too small to fit into the slots for the tool, but the wire stripper only ran sizes from 10-20 (and I tried… you really had to get the right size). I reluctantly dug through my father’s tools collection and found a crimping tool that worked, but no wire stripper in sight. So back to Fry’s I went. There’s actually more wire strippers, but the geniuses at Fry’s placed those 5-6 aisles away… and I had to either get one wire stripper that only went up to 24 gauge, or two to get a range all the way up to 38ish. Since the wires were cheaper, I went with the one wire stripper solution – so now the 26 gauge wires that I bought were too thin to use. The new wire stripper cost $15 (jesus) and that’s $3 for another roll of wires.

From this point on, it’s mostly smooth sailing. One not so minor hitch – the joystick had to be assembled from top to bottom all in one go, and because the topmost part opened to the left and the middle part opened up and out, it’s geometrically impossible for me to put the entire stick together the right way and still had access to the wiring at the bottom. I could cut off the left side of the top cover that hinges it to the box, but that would completely undermine the integrity of the setup, so in the end I had to put the entire joystick together in the middle flap and put the stick itself through a hole on the top cover. At least the ugly part were still being covered up. The left side of the stick now bulges a bit compared to the right side though.

The wiring was a breeze and it’s the one part of the project that I truly enjoyed. It’s like a giant connect-the-dot puzzle for adults, except that when you connect the dots properly a button on the controller started working. The basic idea was to first set up the common/ground wires, the ones that would complete the circuit with the wire that’s hooked to the “switch” on the microswitch. FYI, the ground wire connects to the “Normally Open” (or NO) connection, not the “Normally Closed” (NC) connection. It’s labeled on the microswitch, but it was easier for me to just remember that the NO connection was the one closest to the signal connection, which juts out on the long side of the microswitch. For the cthulhu board the ground wires could be daisy chained and I could use any of the 4 ground connection points on the board. I used one for the start/select group of buttons (I also used that group to test my wiring skills, which was good since I was able to get my wire lengths straightened out and discovered that my diagram had the switches on the board flipped upside down), one for the 6 top side buttons, and one for the joystick switches (up/down/left/right). To use the quick disconnects, strip about 1/2 inch off the end of the wire and use the crimping tool to crimp a quick disconnect to the wire, and by daisy chaining there would be parts where you make a connection from one microswitch to another, and for those you strip two wires and tie the end together and crimp it into one quick disconnect. It’s those times that I discovered why the relatively thin wires were necessary – the wire thickness doubled when I tied the two strands together (duh)! Once all the ground connections on a section of microswitches were all connected, there’s one more wire at the end of the chain that would connect to the control board, on one of the designated ground points. The connections on the control board side clamped down on the wires with a screwdriver, and I found it easiest to do the same 1/2 inch stripping and fold the wire strands once to make a wider connection point.

The signal wires were even easier to do. they were just one to one wires from switch to board – quick disconnects on the microswitch side, none on the control board side. Just had to go back to the board diagram and figure out which wire went where. Besides tossing out a lot of quick disconnects due to some terrible crimping jobs, I wasted very little wires and everything worked once I had the diagram oriented properly and wired everything up. It was magic.

So yeah, this post doubled as a guide for me to document how to build this damn thing from zero electronics/wiring knowledge to completed product. Now to tally the cost for the first time:

Components: $72
1st Fry’s Trip: $16 (for the solid wires, and I almost forgot… the board needed a A->B USB cable to connect to the PC so I bought it earlier)
2nd Fry’s Trip: $25
3rd Fry’s Trip: $20
SF4 Fight Stick Tournament Edition box: Approximately $10

Total: $143, which is barely cheaper than the MadCatz controller at retail price ($150), but more expensive than the price point when I picked it up ($100). Obviously, if I get to do this again I can toss out the unused crimper from the equation, and I can reuse the wire stripper and a whole lot of wires (I used up almost all of the quick disconnects though). The most expensive piece that can’t be easily circumvented is the $40 cthulhu board, but for something that’s so easy to wired up and works like magic the moment I hook it up, it’s totally worth the money. Best of all, I walk away with some basic knowledge about buttons, joysticks, microswitches, and solderfree wiring that would allow me to maintain my new controller with confidence (save for the control board failing, unfortunately).

I would definitely want to do this again at some point. Anyone else want to pony up the cash for the components?

This is what the box look like when the top flaps are opened. The huge plastic rectangle on the joystick is the part I wanted to hide. Also note the giant hole where the buttons are – unlike the joystick the buttons are stuck to the top flap so to get it to drop smoothly from the side with all the wires intact, I had to forgo the plan to get two layers of neat circular holes for the buttons. I am a bit worried about the giant hole posing some integrity problem for the joystick (which wobbles the most), but so far so good. We’ll see how long that lasts.

And here, the guts and the wiring. The control board is screwed down at the upper right hand corner of the box, with a hole cut out to connect to the USB cable. The absolutely humongous size of the box helps the wiring quite a bit, I have plenty of room to run the wires all over the place without risk of tangling myself. I’m also able to split the wires cleanly into sections – the start/select button clumped in one group, the 6 top side buttons in another, and the joystick far away in yet another group.

P*S* In the process of taking these pictures I discovered that my camera battery is dying. And this being a crappy Sony camera that I bought years ago for under $100, I’m more than happy to just let the thing die. So on top of everything else, I’ll be taking recommendations for a new camera…

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