I was very excited when I found out I was going
to be reviewing this product. The ideal joystick is something every
arcade enthusiast is always looking for, and the UltraStik 360 looks
very good on paper (or in this case the website!). The most important
feature of this joystick is that can be software configured to act
like many different types of joysticks. As I found out in this review,
a lesser known but equally great feature of this joystick is that
you can customize its physical configuration vastly as well.
Why the need to act like so many different
types of joysticks?
To understand why the UltraStik was developed
and what it can do, we first have to understand the differences
between joystick types. A few of these would include 2-way, 4-way,
8-way, 49-way, and analog. It has been difficult until just recently
to find a single joystick that could play all of these joystick
A perfect example is the classic 4-way vs. 8-way
debate. A 4-way joystick can only go up, left, down, or right. It
can't hit any diagonals and for this reason is a very poor joystick
to use for an 8-way game that expects the player to be able to use
diagonals. You might think that an 8-way joystick would work fine
for 4-way games, but many 4-way games do unpredictable things when
a diagonal is hit. For example, I've seen some games where if you
go from right to up and you hit the up-right diagonal by mistake;
it sends the character to the left! So, you really can't use a 4-way
stick to play an 8-way game well, and you really can't use an 8-way
stick to play a 4-way game well. You can also guess that an 8-way
can't play a 49-way game well, and so on.
There have been many ways people have addressed
this issue. One way is to have multiple joystick types on their
panel. This solution involves installing a 4-way joystick and an
8-way joystick for the same player. I've even seen control panels
where people have mounted a 4-way joystick at 45 degrees clockwise
for a dedicated Q*Bert joystick. The upside to this method is that
you have the right joystick to play the game, but the downside is
that you have to buy more joysticks, do more wiring, and it creates
control panels that look quite busy.
Another way people have addressed this issue is
to use a switchable stick. This would be a joystick that can be
switched from 4-way to 8-way and vice versa. Example of these joysticks
would include Ultimarc's T-Stik Plus and Mag-Stik Plus which allow
you to switch modes from the top of the panel. The upside to a switchable
stick is that it can play most games well, but the downside is that
you need to make sure it is in the right mode each time you start
a game. In addition, a 4-way/8-way switchable stick still doesn't
give you a 49-way or analog joystick capability.
This brings us to the UltraStik 360. It has the
ability to act like many different joystick types without the need
for manual switching. It can act like a 2-way horizontal, 2-way
vertical, 4-way, 4-way diagonal, 8-way, and analog joystick depending
on the loaded map. You can create custom maps and make it act anyway
you like. If you want to be able to hit the diagonals easier just
create a custom map to make that happen. While it doesn't have a
map specifically for a 49-way joystick, just set the analog map
and it will play 49-way games as well if the emulator you are using
will map analog to 49-way (MAME does). The only joystick type the
UltraStik 360 doesn't address is a rotary joystick, where the shaft
itself can be rotated.
Is this a joystick or a computer?
Most joysticks are as basic as possible usually
containing just the required electrical components (usually just
4 switches) to make them function. These types of joysticks rely
on an encoder interface to hookup to your PC.
On the left are 4 typical microswitches, on the
right is the the UltraStik 360 is quite a different - it has an
onboard 24 MHz microprocessor. It starts up and boots its updatable
firmware. It automatically calibrates itself. Instead of just shorted
wires indicating the direction, it has a USB 2.0 interface that
presents itself to the operating system as a standard HID game pad.
This means that you will not need an encoder for this joystick because
it is built-in.
It has no wearable switches or contacts. One of
the first things you will notice when you look at it is the circular
magnet at the end of the shaft hovering over some component on the
PCB. It uses the circular magnet's position in relation to this
component to determine the position of the stick. I read over at
BYOAC that it uses hall-effect technology. The upside to this is
no adjustment needed and no physical switches to wear out.
It is a true analog joystick. While most joysticks
can detect a direction such as left, they can't determine how far
to the left the stick is positioned. An analog joystick like the
UltraStik can. To understand this, think about a basic 4-way joystick.
There is only one position to push the stick to the left; you can
be at center, or left. In a 49-way-joystick there are actually 3
levels of left depending on how far you push the stick to the left.
The UltraStik has 127 levels of left because it is analog. A couple
of games that used forms of an analog stick are Terminator 2 (analog
gun) and Star Wars (analog yoke). You will certainly want an analog
joystick to play these games.
There is an auxiliary connector on the UltraStik
that can be used in input mode or output mode.
Input mode allows you to connect up to 8 buttons
and these buttons will be reported as game pad buttons to the PC.
This feature can save you from requiring a keyboard encoder, or
allow you to use one with fewer inputs on it. Ultimarc offers an
optional prewired harness for this purpose.
Output mode allows you to connect the UltraStik
to a keyboard encoder or actual arcade hardware. This allows the
UltraStik to be used on hardware where a USB port isn't present
or perhaps on software that does not support a game pad. If the
emulator you are using handles a game pad poorly, it allows you
to report keystroke directions like a traditional switch based joystick
if you have an encoder. The same harness for input mode can be used
for output mode too. Note that you can't send maps or configure
the joystick when it is hooked up via output mode only (no USB).
You would need to configure it first using USB, and then put it
in place on a system without USB.
How does it act like so many types of joysticks?
The custom mapping mode is the coolest thing about
this joystick. It works by dividing the joysticks range of motion
into a 9x9 grid. Each of the cells in this 9x9 grid can be assigned
to one of the 8-way directions, center, sticky, or analog. The 8
directions and center are self-explanatory and are the same as found
on a standard 8-way joystick. The sticky indicates that when the
joystick is in that position, you want it to use the previous direction
it was pointing to. This is useful for joining two areas that each
point to a different direction. If the joystick moves to the sticky
square between the two areas it will still point to the area it
came from. Analog means just sent the analog value, so the analog
map has every cell set to analog so it reports an analog position
for every cell.
Let's look at the two basic maps:
On the left is a 4-way map. This map will only
result in one of 5 directions, center, up, left, down, or right
no matter where the joystick is positioned. Note the sticky symbols
where the arrow meet indicating that they are sort of a gray area
that should report the previous direction. The 8-way map is even
simpler and as you can see it points the 8 directions where they
need to be pointed.
On the left is a 2-way map. It can only send left,
center or right. Perfect for Space Invaders you never need worry
that up will be sent even if it will be ignored. The 4-way diagonal
map shows a configuration that only allows diagonals.
On the left is a map I added myself. The reason
I did this is because games like Q*Bert and Congo Bongo actually
expect only the up key to be sent for up-right. The reason for this
is that they used a 4-way joystick that was rotated 45 degrees clockwise.
When you pressed the joystick into the up-right diagonal it was
just up on the joystick. With this map, the default keys in MAME
do not have to be altered and it plays just as the original hardware
did, thinking it has a rotated 4-way joystick! On the right is an
easy diagonals 8-way map. If you compare this to the 8-way map above,
you can see that it has been modified to allow hitting the diagonals
easier. In a game that benefits from hitting the diagonals more
frequently, this map would help! These are examples of the flexibility
you can put into a map.
This is the best secret feature of this joystick-its
feel can be greatly customized to your needs. You can change the
spring pressure by using one of the 3 currently available springs.
You can change the throw distance by installing or removing restrictor
plates. You can have a longer or shorter shaft. You can choose a
regular ball top, a smaller ball top for cocktail cabinets, or an
oval top. Usually when you decide on a joystick, that decision locks
you into a specific throw, pressure, and type. This is not true
with the UltraStik.
It comes from Ultimarc without a restrictor. This
results in the largest available throw. I measure and calculate
it to be 16.5 degrees before running into some resistance. You can
push it a little more after it hits the resistance, maybe a 2 or
3 more degrees. One important note is that without a restrictor
installed the range of motion is circular. I don't see this as a
problem, but usually analog joysticks have a square range of motion.
An optional restrictor kit comes with the necessary
hardware and two restrictor plates. The first restrictor plate is
a circular restrictor and it restricts joystick movement to a smaller
circle than the unrestricted circle. I don't really think of it
as a circular restrictor, but more as a throw restrictor. I measure
and calculate it to allow 10 degrees before hitting the restrictor.
Unlike the unrestricted mode, once you hit the restrictor you can't
add more pressure to go a little further. I personally like the
way this firmer stop feels better than unrestricted.
There is also a 4-way/8-way restrictor plate.
8-way mode has 7.5 degrees in the directions up, left, down, or
right and 10 degrees to the diagonal corners.
Forward to Part 2 >>