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GOPODULAR! Article: Arcade Joystick Theory 101

Select the right encoder cartridgeUnderstanding Happ, Sanwa, and Seimitsu Joysticks


Each of the major arcade joystick manufacturers has their own way of accomplishing the same thing.  In order to better understand the differences between them, you should know the basic fundamentals of how a joystick works and the purpose of each part.   This article will explain the differences in joystick construction theory by pretending we are designing our own line of joystick.  Then we'll compare the behaivior of the most common joysticks around: Happ Competition, Sanwa JLF, and Seimitsu LS-32.  After reading this, you should know the proper terminology for the various parts and be able to help other people decide which joystick best suits their playstyle.

WARNING: None of these graphics are 100% accurate or to scale.  They are used to explain the theories behind joystick design and should be referred to only for discussing theory.

Basic parts:

The best place to start is with a basic diagram of how a joystick is assembled. 

basic_assembly.gif (10331 bytes) This diagram shows the basic design differences between American and Japanese style joysticks.  Note the location of the microswitches and where the restrictor gate is placed.

Since we're going to start with joystick theory, we can use these theoretical diagrams.  They are actually a hybrid of several different joysticks, but these parts are common to most joysticks.   The basic parts affecting how the joystick feels are the: handle, shaft sleeve, base, spring, restrictor (or "gate"), the actuator, the position of the C-clip, and the microswitches used.

Number of "Ways":

Now we know what a joystick looks like, so let's get into some common terms.  The "number of ways" of a joystick is what people mean when they say: "I have an 8-way joystick".  It's the number of distinct possible directions the joystick can report.  Common joysticks are: 2-way, 4-way, 8-way, and 49-way.  If we think about the possible positions of a joystick, we can create a map.

ways_8-way.gif (4172 bytes) This shows eight distinct directions plus a neutral area called the "dead-zone".  The dead zone is where no input is detected because no direction is chosen.  You could also map of any of the other joysticks.  A 2-way map is divided into only three columns: left, dead-zone, and right.  A 4-way map looks like a bix "X" plus the dead-zone, and a 49-way map is divided into seven columns, seven 7 rows, plus a dead-zone square in the center.  Let's concentrate on designing an 8-way joystick and see what options turn up.

Restrictor Plates aka "Gates":

We need to physically contain the movements of the joystick shaft.  To do this, we create a restrictor plate.  A lot of people will refer to these as a "gate".  The shape of the gate is what we'll feel as we rotate the shaft in a circle.  If we temporarily mount four microswitches, we'll be able to see how the effect of the gate shape will influence the overall feel of the joystick.

gates_square.gif (4199 bytes) A square gate is really common.  If we superimpose the restrictor on the 8-way direction map, it doesn't look like it really does much to influence the map.  It doesn't, that's why this design is so popular.  Compare the area of the map that reports "up" to the area of the map that reports "up-right".   They are about the same area, so as you're thrashing the stick around you have an equal chance of reporting a diagonal as reporting a cardinal direction (up, down, left or right).  If you run the shaft around the limit of the gate though, it will move in a square shape.  Not everyone likes that.
gates_octagon.gif (3866 bytes) Enter the octagon gate.  Sanwa joysticks are known for offering this gate.  The advantage comes when you are moving the shaft around the mechanical limit of the gate.  Instead of forming a square, it's an octagon and makes circular movements easier.  The problem that pops up when you're thrashing the stick around is trying to hit the diagonals.  If you compare the area of the map that reports diagonals to the area that reports the cardinal directions, you'll notice it's harder to hit the corners.  You'll need to be more precise with your movements.
gates_circular.gif (3565 bytes) What about a circular gate?  Well, circular movements will obviously be easier to do, because you can run around the limit of the gate and never hit a corner.   However, you'll never feel a corner either.  So which one should we choose?   That depends 100% on personal preference.  Do you want easy corners, or a smooth flow when doing circular moves?  Let's say we want smooth movements and choose the circular gate.


We need an actuator to move around and make contact with the microswitches.  Here's another choice for our design.  What shape should the actuator be?  There are two basic choices: square or round.  The size of the actuator will determine how large our dead-zone is and the location of our "engagement area".  The shape will influence the engagement area and determine the  "throw area" available.  The engagement area is the point where the microswitch is activated and suddenly reports a direction.  The throw area is the sloppy area where the joystick can be moved but continues to report a direction.  Joystick movement is only detected if you're in the engagement area or the throw area.  What direction the joystick actually reports depends on where you are in the direction map.

actuator_square.gif (3473 bytes) A square actuator combined with a square gate keeps a neutral design in the joystick.  Like the square gate, it isn't affecting anything because it maintains an equal throw area for all the directions.  In theory, this is the simplest design.  The dead-zone and engagement area are both square and the actuator is making contact with the switched at a 90 angle.  To pull off a circular movement you'll need to move the shaft in a boxy pattern or you'll move out of the engagement/throw areas.
actuator_round.gif (3559 bytes) Interesting things start to happen when you use a round actuator.  Instead of a circle for the dead zone and a circular ring for the engagement area, the shape becomes slightly deformed.  The actuator starts to slip between the microswitches and stretches those areas towards the corners.  The smaller the actuator, the larger this effect becomes.  If you move the shaft in a circle along the gate you'll feel a square, BUT... if you keep the shaft away from the limit of the gate, you can take advantage of the near-circular engagement area.
actuator_square_gate_round.gif (3301 bytes) Square actuator and a round gate.  Predictable dead zone,
actuator_round_gate_round.gif (3376 bytes) Round actuator and a round gate.
actuator_round_gate_octagon.gif (3776 bytes) ddddddddddd
actuator_square_gate_octagon.gif (3696 bytes) dddddddd

So far it all seems fairly straight-forward.  There's a curve ball we should address here though.  We've basically been using Happ design parameters.  We've used the gate to restrict the shaft and mounted the microswitches below the gate.  If we look at a Sanwa or Seimitsu joystick, we'd notice they both use the gate to restrict the actuator and mount the microswitches above the gate.  What does this do to our charts?  Not much.  The overall theory is the same.   It does eliminate some of the combinations though.  You can't bounce a square actuator around inside a round gate very well because the actuator would twist around and hit the switches at all kind of angles.  The other thing to note is running a plastic actuator around inside a plastic gate can lead to some wear issues.  If you scour the net, you'll find a few people mentioning they have found a plastic dust inside their joystick.  They are wearing down the plastic from their gates and actuators.   The advantages to gating the actuator are a shallower mounting depth and gates that can be swapped easier.  Since the theory is the same, we'll continue to use the Happ design.


Microswitches are often overlooked in joystick design.  They shouldn't be.   There are several types and manufacturers of switches.  We'll discuss a couple different types.

If you looked at an original PacMan joystick, you'd see they don't even use a microswitch.  They use what's called a leaf switch.  It's a pair of long metal blades that get pushed together when you move the joystick.  They are 100% silent, and can be adjusted for sensitivity by bending the blades closer together or further apart.  Over a period of time, you will need to readjust these switches because constant abuse will slowly bend the leafs and affect the gameplay.  Arcade route operators used to spend a LOT of time messing around with these.  Imagine having 50 arcade machines, each with four leaf switches on each joystick and a leaf switch on every button.  That's a lot of adjusting.

Microswitches are the answer to that.  They are a reliable solution that don't require adjustments.  The drawback is the clicking sound they have.  So how exactly does a microswitch work?  Let's take a look at a Cherry brand microswitch.

microswitch_inside.gif (17150 bytes) The idea is simple.  Press the red button and the circuit changes from one state to another state.  The switch acts just like a train track switch.   It can take the electric current from one path and change it to another path.   "N.C." means normally closed.  That's the path electricity will take when the switch is in the "normal" position (up).  "N.O." means normally open.  Since it's "open", electricity can't flow there.  It's like a dead end.  "COM" is the common/shared/ground path.
microswitch_circuitry.gif (16111 bytes) Color coded circuitry.  The blue represents the flow of current when the button is up, the red is the flow when it's down.  When we push the button, we take the circuit out of it's normal state.  Basically, we have opened the blue curcuit and closed the red circuit.
microswitch_snappiness.gif (15060 bytes) What about the mechanics?  The microswitch needs a way to stay in its normal state but also react quickly when we want it to switch.  If you've ever played with a wood saw, you'll know exactly how this works.  Metal likes to keep it's shape.  If you bend it, it will spring back.  That's the same principle used here.  When you push the button, the metal tab seen here gets bent.  Take your finger off the switch and it will extend.
microswitch_clicking.gif (38974 bytes) Look closely and you can see the difference in the curvature of the metal tab.  You should be able to figure out which slide represents the normal state and which slide represents the button being pressed.  The spring-like properties snap the contact piece from one side to the other.  That's what controls which path the current can take.





Real Life Results:





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Golf Minions $TBA "Dream" $55
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