Arcade parts website FocusAttack.com sells 11 varieties of 30mm Japanese arcade buttons, and without some research, it's hard to spot the minute differences that separate one from another. Some are push-buttons, which install into an arcade panel with a simple snap. Others are screw-buttons, which anchor into a wooden surface. There are also smaller 24mm buttons, and buttons with clear tops or clear rims that can be paired with fancy LED lighting. But most importantly, there is the choice between Sanwa and Seimitsu manufactured buttons, Japan's two juggernauts of arcade hardware.
When you're building your own arcade cabinet, you want the best buttons for your games. But wading into the minutia of arcade parts unprepared feels like going up against a world-class Street Fighter player--while you're clumsily figuring out how to throw a fireball, they're stringing together moves you didn't even know existed. There are just as many varieties of joysticks as there are buttons, each with their own nuanced feel.
Knowing the differences between these components enables building an arcade machine for exactly the kinds of games you want to play--or, by mixing and matching hardware, you can create a machine with inputs that are great for a wide swath of arcade genres. For the Tested MAME machine, that's exactly what we wanted--something perfect for fighting games like Street Fighter, primed for SHMUPs like Ikaruga, and still able to handle classic 80s games like Pac-Man.
Here's what we learned while researching our arcade controls.
The General Overview: Japan vs. America
There's an easy high-level way to categorize arcade parts: Japanese and American.
Before we get into the nuances of different models of buttons and joysticks, there's an easy high-level way to categorize arcade parts: Japanese and American. If you grew up going to arcades in the US or Europe, you're likely familiar with American arcade parts made by the company Happ. They're easy to recognize: Happ buttons are concave and have to be pushed in relatively far before they offer that classic arcade click. Happs joysticks typically have elongated cylindrical bat tops, as opposed to the spherical tops of Japanese sticks.
Japanese parts primarily come from two companies: Sanwa and Seimitsu. Each company produces multiple joysticks and buttons, but in general their buttons are flat or slightly convex, require far less pressure to activate, and have slightly larger faces. Their joysticks are also generally looser than Happ sticks, meaning they have more play to them. The round ball tops of Sanwa and Seimitsu sticks can be replaced with bat tops to make their grips more like Happ sticks.
A big factor in choosing the parts for your arcade machine comes from personal preference. If you grew up going to American arcades and using American parts, they're going to feel more natural at first, but you might be missing out on something better. The website Slagcoin, which contains a wealth of knowledge about joystick parts, outlines some of the differences between Japanese and American designs and offers up a heavily, heavily researched opinion: Japanese parts are better.
"Sanwa and Seimitsu make high-quality parts which will not likely disappoint. Happ/IL is a company that seems centered more on simple, public vending parts with high durability at the sacrifice of precision," he writes. "I am not exactly a fanboy for Japanese parts, just quality parts. In fact, it is my opinion that many more Americans would compete internationally much stronger in many more games if our country’s standard/common joysticks were of better quality. I would very much like to see Happ/IL or some other company do better."
The evidence to support that claim is in the nuances of various button and joystick models. Let's start with joystick technology, the Sanwa, Seimitsu, and Happ options, and which joysticks are best for which games.