Building a Custom XBox 360 Arcade Controller

I’m loving Soul Calibur IV.  It’s probably the best XBox 360 game I’ve bought this year.  However, I’m finding that the standard gamepad controller isn’t quite cutting it for me.  I did a quick search around the local game stores and on the web for a good arcade joystick and found that apart from a few rebranded items, the XBox 360 is sorely lacking such a device.  The best I was able to find was this Soul Calibur IV Limited Edition stick that is “jointly released” by Microsoft and Namco/Bandai.  However, it looks curiously similar to the Dead or Alive 4 stick that was also “jointly released” by Microsoft and the manufacturer of that game.  From what I’ve heard the Hori stick (which is the base device that has been rebranded with a decal or two) is pretty loose and feels a little sloppy.  I’ve had that experience with more than one arcade controller in the past and for $60 I’m very hesitant.

During my research however, I did come across the reason for the lack of arcade controllers.  Microsoft, in their infinite wisdom, decided to put a verification chip in all of their licensed controllers.  What this means is that a controller built without a verification chip present won’t be able to communicate with the XBox 360.  They then required that all hardware vendors wishing to construct custom controllers pay a licensing fee to them in order to get said verification chip.  Way to stifle the marketplace and make it prohibitive for independent vendors to practically market a profitable device there Microsoft.  Thanks for that one!

However, in thinking about the problem a little further I realized that I probably wouldn’t have been satisfied with a commercial arcade controller anyway.  They “look” like the ones at the arcades, but the similarity ends there.  When you get it home, excitedly plug it into the console, and then play for a few minutes, you suddenly realize that this is actually a cheap plastic controller that’s unresponsive and sloppy.  I’ve broken more than one “Mad Catz” after-market controller and I’m not keen to return to the experience.  Enter the custom solution.

The problem is that commercial vendors are thinking of this:

08012008_madcatzstick_small

Ugh!! What’s wrong with this picture?  Well, for a start there are only 4 buttons showing on the face.  The triggers and bumpers are actually on the back of the controller (the part of the picture out of view), which kind of defeats the purpose of a joystick.  You’d have to hold this like a gamepad and move the joystick with your thumb.  The “joystick” part is actually replacing one of the analog pads, which is dumb because the main reason I’d want a joystick is for up, down, left, right, and diagonal movement, not for 360 degree analog movement.  The lower analog stick is right in the way of the teeny little red, green, blue, yellow main buttons of the controller and the whole thing looks like it might just break in shipping let alone after two or three days.  Ewwwww!  Not at all what I’m looking for.

Whereas I’m thinking more like this:

08012008_custom360controller_small

Yeah baby!!  That looks rock solid.  The buttons are large enough to hit and are unobstructed.  The joystick looks robust and the controller itself looks like it could stand up to heavy use.  Unfortunately, its only got 9 buttons showing.  The standard XBox 360 controller has 11 and some of the games I play use ALL 11.  Hmm, I’m just going to have to build my own.

Components, components, components!

A little research taught me that for the feel and durability of a real arcade machine, one must use high-quality coinop-grade components.  The most respected of these components are manufactured by two Japanese companies: Sanwa and Seimitsu.  Further research taught me more about buttons and joysticks than I ever realized I’d need to know; however, this is starting to get fun.

I spent a good portion of last night browsing catalogs put together in Japanese and trying to learn as much as possible about what makes the difference in a solid arcade controller.  I learned that what I’m looking for is a balltop 8–way octagon-gate microswitch joystick.  Both Sanwa and Seimitsu manufacture such joysticks and after much debate I decided that I needed to go with the Sanwa JLW-TM-8 joystick.

08012008_sanwajlwtm8_small 08012008_sanwajlwtm8_customtop_small

This joystick is both a 4 and 8–way octagon-gate stick.  The 4–way means it recognizes up, down, left, and right movement.  The 8–way means it knows the diagonal corners in between those directions.  The octagon-gate means that at the base there is an octagon shape to restrict the joystick movement.  You can replace the ball top with a custom one for about $2.  I prefer the red.

Next we move onto buttons.  I went with Seimitsu for these because they offered some extremely responsive and durable transparent buttons with screw-thread attachment and a flat surface instead of a bevel.  These are exactly the buttons I love to press at the arcades and look like they’d take a hell of a beating.  In my research I learned that some of the buttons from this manufacturer and this line have survived over a decade in the field without having to be replaced.  That’s a lot of wear and tear to take: ten years of being mashed, smacked, spilled on, and generally abused without ceasing to function.  They also come in eight colors (blue, green, orange, pink, red, purple, clear/white, yellow.  That’s sufficient for all of the eleven buttons I’ll need to map for my custom controller.

08012008_seimitsups14kn_small The green translucent PS-14–KN.

That’s the stick and buttons taken care of.  Now we need a chassis and a means of connecting to the XBox 360.  This is where the fun starts!

Connecting to the XBox 360

Remember the verification chip?  That’s going to be a problem with our custom controller because the XBox won’t recognize anything that doesn’t have the verification chip installed.  Well, we’re going to get clever and instead of wiring our custom controller to the XBox directly, we’re going to wire it to a dismantled XBox 360 gamepad first.

Think of it this way.  When a button is pressed on a standard XBox 360 gamepad, the button touches a copper contact beneath it.  That copper contact signals to the controller that the button has been pressed.  If we solder the microswitches on our custom Seimitsu buttons to the exposed contact of a gamepad circuit board then the gamepad will think that it’s button has been pressed when really it is the button on our custom arcade joystick.  The signal is then passed by the controller down to the console.  Sweet!

So I’ll need to caniballize a controller as part of the project.  Meh!  I have one that is getting pretty worn out anyway and would need to be replaced soon as it is.  I might also just buy a cheap wired controller as the circuit board inside is the same no matter what.  Now all I need is a cabinet to house the buttons, some copper wire, solder, a project box, the joystick and buttons themselves, some quick disconnects, a wood bore, brackets, wire clips, an acrylic panel, dowels, glue, and a plan and I should be in business.  Sweet!  This is going to be a fun weekend.

I’m going to try to keep the whole project under $100, which would put it at less than half the price of one on eBay (given shipping costs too), as well as being something completely customized to my wants and needs.

The final advantage of building this myself is that when it breaks, I can fix it.  No more prying apart a cheap plastic shell only to find a proprietary black box inside.  This will be structured and serviceable.  If I crack a button or damage the joystick, I’ll just mail order another one for $4 and fix it.  Plus, this is going to be a heck of a lot of fun and it should hopefully be a really nice item that I can enjoy when it’s done.  I’ll post pictures and a full walkthrough of the process here so you can watch it come along.

Wish me luck!

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2 Responses to Building a Custom XBox 360 Arcade Controller

  1. scopedog says:

    This looks tasty! I could not find an update post on your site. Did you finish a working controller?

  2. Unfortunately not. I’ve had to put the project on hold for a while.

    I got the wired XBox controller taken apart and all but two of the wires hooked up so that I could attach external controls. However, when I tried to hook up the start and back buttons I stripped the circuitry from the board (lack of recent soldering skill on my part).

    I then repeated and managed to wreck a second controller.

    At $40 a pop my wife and I decided I should wait a little while before trying this again. It got shelved, but really is something I need to get going again on soon.

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