by Kevin Steele
If you've discovered MAME, you've also discovered the serious shortcomings of trying to play arcade games on your home computer. No matter what PC gaming controller you try and use, nothing feels quite "right." If you're like me, you quickly decided that the only way to play arcade games was with arcade-original controllers. It's the only way to get that "arcade-genuine" feel.
Constructed using genuine arcade parts (and some unique custom-designed parts as well), the SlikStik Classic is one solution to the dilemma of getting that arcade-perfect gaming experience. The SlikStik Classic is a large two player control unit that adeptly manages to cram in nearly every gaming controller imaginable, while still keeping each of the controls playable.
The SlikStik Classic unit has two 8-way player joysticks (each with 7 buttons), a 4-way joystick, a Tornado spinner, a 5-button "Asteroids" layout, and a trackball (with a 3-button "Missile Command" configuration.) It's a lot of controllers to put on one panel, but the layout is elegant and well thought out. Everything is within easy reach and comfortable to use.
If you read the review of my first SlikStik, you may remember that while overall I was very happy with the SlikStik unit I received, I did encounter a small number of problems that required some repair work.
This year, the SlikStik arrived at my house in a custom-fit box, including custom-designed styrofoam padding inserts. The fit was tight - a bit snug, actually, and I ended up ripping the box apart in an attempt to get the SlikStik out. It was an extremely professional packing job, and nothing at all was damaged in transit. What a difference a year makes. Bravo, SlikStik!
The SlikStik unit itself was heavy, solid, and large - nothing about this unit seems second-class. Measuring over 35" wide, it's not something you're going to want to plop in your lap for some quick retrogaming action. Constructed of ¾ inch high density particle board, the unit feels like a rock. The outer surfaces are covered in black formica, and the edge of the control panel is trimmed with plastic T-molding.
The bottom panel of the SlikStik can be unscrewed for access to the interior, which features very clean wiring layout.
There are many subtle, but nice changes from my first SlikStik unit, including different internal wiring, a "boltless" trackball mounting plate, the new Tornado spinner and aluminum spinner top, and a high density particle board top (the SlikStik unit had a plywood top). None of these changes is earth-shattering, but taken together they show SlikStik's ongoing commitment to the three cornerstones of quality: Form, Fit, and Finish.
The SlikStik I ordered was a slightly modified Classic design - I had them move the spinner into the center (where the 4-way joystick normally goes), add an additional top-fire joystick, and replace the standard two Happs Competition joysticks with Happs Perfect 360 optical joysticks. In addition, I ordered the optional dual side pinball buttons. I also had them use the IPAC-4 controller so that I would have future expansion options. To top everything off, I also installed the SlikStik ball-top stainless steel joystick handles.
Connecting the SlikStik to your computer is plug and play simplicity. There are three cables that come out of the back of the unit: one for the IPAC unit that controls the buttons and joysticks, one for the trackball, and one for the spinner. All of the cables are USB/PS-2 switchable, although you'll also need to change a jumper on the IPAC board inside the unit if you wish to change the buttons and joysticks over to USB operation. No drivers are required - the trackball and spinner are recognized as mice, and the IPAC controller functions and appears to Windows as a standard keyboard.
The SlikStik controller comes with a very Slik (pun intended) installation CD.
Pop it into your computer, and you're presented with an installation screen that allows you to install an IPAC programming utility, read the 50-page SlikStik manual, and install the proper MAME configuration files for your SlikStik controller.
It really makes setting up the SlikStik controller painless, and you should be up and blasting away at aliens in minutes.
I find it hard to objectively review the SlikStik user manual, as I'm the author. I wrote it for SlikStik after they contacted me after my first review mentioned the lack of any documentation. If you'd like to check it out, please feel free to take a look at the PDF version of the manual from the Files Section. I tried to make it easy to understand and use, and I hope I've succeeded.
As you would expect from a controller that uses arcade-original parts, the SlikStik feels and plays just like an original arcade game, at least for the most part. Obviously, to play over 4,000 different games some compromises have to be made in a controller layout. If you're into racing games, there's obviously no steering wheel on the SlikStik, and even the ultra-smooth Tornado spinner is no substitute for a full-size wheel. Likewise, games that used 49-way joysticks are not going to feel the same on an 8-way joystick.
Luckily, however, the vast majority of games play exactly the way they did in the arcades. SlikStik does have some optional controllers available, such as rotary joysticks, for those whose favorite game just isn't the same with a standard arcade joystick setup.
One of the compromises that I'm not too fond of is the wide spacing of the Asteroids buttons, as the center "hyperspace" button is a bit too far away from my hands.
Unfortunately, there's just no way around this problem if you want to keep the spinner and 4-way joystick at the top of the unit (and I did ;-) It's not bad, but obviously the spacing is different than on a real Asteroids machine.
The joysticks are great, exactly what you would expect from an arcade machine. The buttons, as well, feel quick and responsive, with a decisive sounding click when you press them.
The 4-way joystick at the top is ideal for games such as Pac-Man. I initially didn't think a 4-way joystick was necessary (after all, an 8-way can do the same moves, right?), but you very quickly learn how hard it is to accurately control a 4-way game using an 8-way joystick.
I'm especially fond of the Tornado spinner (see review here) and the Happs trackball, which is exceptionally smooth and responsive in games, even when it is being used as a mouse in Windows. It's a blue translucent ball, which glows an eerie blue when lit from underneath.
When I reviewed the first SlikStik unit I ordered a year ago, I debated whether building a controller myself would have been more cost effective. This time, there was no debate, at least for me. The unit is extremely well constructed, and there is no way I personally could have equaled the quality in building one myself. With all the improvements in the SlikStik unit since last year, the price of $430 (unchanged from last year) is even more reasonable. It's not cheap, but it is a very good price for all that you're getting with the unit.
Update: I received a very interesting email from Aaron Marshall, who investigated the cost differences between building a SlikStik-equivalent unit himself or buying a SlikStik classic. The results are very interesting (thanks, Aaron!):
Considering the fact that you can easily customize almost everything about your own SlikStik unit, from the button colors to the type of joysticks used, I'd be hard-pressed to find a more "personal" arcade controller solution on the market.
There are cheaper controllers available, but none have as many different arcade controllers onboard, or offer as many customization options. I'm extremely happy with my SlikStik unit, and I honestly don't think you can go wrong with any of their controllers. Highly recommended!