Wico Leaf-Switch Joystick
Review by Kevin Steele
This roundup review is of the Wico 8-way leaf joystick, a true classic joystick which was used in many arcade games, but is no longer being manufactured. The original review of this joystick was of a "well-used" version, and there were some questions about how the joystick would test with a NOS (New Old Stock) version. Thanks to a generous loan by Robbie Fusinato, I have had just such an opportunity for testing.
Robbie provided a veritable cornucopia of Wico parts, everything from different shafts to alternate balltops. There was even the (now discontinued) Perfect 360 optical add-on for the joystick, designed to replace the leaf-switches. The sheer volume of accessories speaks to the popularity of this joystick design.
Overview of the Wico 8-Way Leaf Switch
The Wico Leaf Switch joystick is a unique joystick, built using "leaf switches" instead of the microswitches found in most contemporary joysticks.
The leaf switches consist of two long metal "fingers" that come into contact with each other when pushed by the joystick shaft. It's a simple design, but one that yields a very quiet switch action.
While leaf switches are quieter, they are also somewhat higher-maintenance. You may need to occasionally open your control panel and carefully bend the metal fingers so that they properly contact each other, and they have been know to bend out of alignment with heavy use. You may also have to occasionally clean the contact points.
Like many joysticks, the Wico joystick uses an "e-clip" system to hold the shaft in place: you remove the small e-clip off the bottom of the joystick shaft, remove the shaft, screw the base into the control panel from underneath (or from above, but that leads to unsightly mounting bolts!), then slide the joystick back into place and snap the "e-clip" back into place.
It's a bit challenging to get it back together, as the spring is not held in place and can fall out, and there are smaller rings inside the body that you may have to shake back into place during the re-assembly. Overall, however, it's not that bad.
The Wico joystick uses a firm rubber grommet to center the stick, and as a consequence the joystick has a firmer, tighter feel than some of the other joysticks in the roundup. It does require a lot more force to move the joystick to its fullest extension.
Ironically, though, the adjustability of the leaf switches makes this extra stiffness irrelevant, since you can actually fine-tune the positioning of the switches so that the slightest touch of the joystick causes a contact.
One thing about leaf switches is that you don't get the same "click" feel and sound when the joystick engages in any direction. I'm not a big fan of the "clickety" microswitch joysticks, but the relatively subtle feedback when you've pushed the joystick far enough on the Wico took a little getting used to.
The rubber grommet definitely gives this stick a bit of a "mushy" feel when moving. Try to imagine a stick stuck in rubbery tar, and that's the feel. With the leaf switches tuned to a close contact you don't notice it at all, but with a looser leaf alignment you definitely get the "tar" feeling.
Sound and Size
Like I mentioned above, the Wico joystick is much quieter than most microswitch joysticks, although not perfectly silent like the Happs Perfect 360. Size-wise, the joystick handle was about the same height as a Happs Competition joystick, although the extra-large 1.5" inch diameter ball made the Wico larger in diameter overall.
There are two shafts available, one that gives you 3.5" mounted height, and a second shaft that provides a 2.75" mounted height, which is more suitable for metal control panels.
I'd heard good things about Wico joysticks, and it can be an excellent performer: you just need to take the time to adjust it to your liking. Fine-tuning the leaf switches takes time and patience, but the reward is a joystick that feels just the way you want it to, with just as much "give" or slack as you want. About the only thing you can't fine tune is the stiff rubber grommet, but I've heard that it does loosen up a bit with extended use.
Once I got it right, the joystick was great, although to get it to the sensitivity I wanted I had to reduce the available "throw" to almost nothing, leading to very delicate control. If you're into meaty, ham-handed aggressive joystick play this may not be the joystick for you.
The following chart lists the joystick test results, current as of this review. The chart will continue to fill in with data as the "Joystick Roundup" continues.
NOTE: Some of the results for the Wico Leaf Switch joystick, such as the range of diagonals and the degrees of push required to engage the joystick, are not included due to the fact that the leaf switches can be bent for greater or lesser response. Your results may vary, in other words.
The Wico leaf switch joystick is definitely an acquired taste. I remember having one with my old Atari 130XE computer, and I remember having to open it up periodically to tweak the leaf switches. When it worked, it worked wonderfully well, but it does require a little more "TLC" than most joysticks. Think of it as a "high-maintenance" girlfriend.
The Wico leaf switch joystick definitely has a one-of-kind feel, and if you hate microswitch joysticks, it's a viable alternative. The Wico has a very loyal following, and you may find it's unique adjustability perfect for your gaming needs.
Special thanks to Doug Hansen for loaning me the original Wico used for this review, and Robbie Fusinato for the second Wico (with all the extra goodies!)