The Great Stick of Everything

The Great Stick of Everything
Saturday, 25 June 2005 00:00

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Ikaruga, a hard game by anyone’s standard, and one that requires an accurate input device, which unfortunately the Dreamcast (DC) pad isn’t. I spent about nine months playing Ikky and in that time learned the characteristics of the DC pad and got used to it. I was getting near a one credit clear completion of Ikky so I decided to branch out a little and play a few games to see which would be my next major conquest.

I decided it would be a horizontal shoot ’em up, possibly Gradius III or Pulstar, both of which were Supergun games and meant that I had to use a DC joystick because they were the only kinds of joystick I had that worked with the Supergun. Then along came Gradius V for PS2 and I started to play that, which required a joypad again. Every time I went back to Ikaruga I lost a little bit of control over the gamepad because my hands had got the feel for the DC sticks or the PS2 pad. I decided that I needed just one controller for all my games machines and thus began my quest for the elusive “Stick of Everything”.

Joystick or Pad?
The first decision was possibly the most important; do I go for a joystick or a joypad. The simple fact is that I love using a joystick because it feels more like the arcades, but unfortunately playing games with a pad for the last twenty years has made me almost useless with them. After a bit of thought I eventually plumped for a joystick, I will just have to learn how to use one again!

Which stick to use?
I have three DC joysticks: one native DC stick and two converted for use with my Supergun. All three of them stick in the up/left direction on occasion when I am playing games. So the DC stick is out. I wanted a high quality accurate stick no matter what the cost. I asked for some advice on the shmups.com discussion boards and quickly found out that there wasn’t an ultimate “Stick of Everything” available. So I worked out what features my stick must have:

– It should be compatible with all my systems if possible, but at least the GC, DC, Saturn, XBox, SNES, PS2, PS1 and anything coming up in the future.

– Analogue controls wouldn’t matter because I would only be using the stick for shoot ’em ups, beat ’em ups and platformers.

– I wouldn’t mind doing a bit of modding to get what I want, but I wouldn’t want to build a whole new stick.

– It must be heavy duty. I have children that will be hammering this thing to death, for one. I wanted a sturdy joystick that would rest on a desk, I wouldn’t be resting it on my lap.

So I looked around and I eventually came across a joystick called an X-Arcade (www.x-arcade.com). The marketing for this thing is quite extensive and is solely aimed at playing emulated games through MAME. Essentially the stick looked quite solid and the parts looked like they were built to a reasonably high standard. More importantly though I could buy adapters for it that would make it work with my PS1, PS2, DC, GC, XBox and PC; that would save me the trouble of having to build adapters for them. The problem was that the joystick was a bit expensive, over £100, from the UK distributor, but a quick look on eBay and I found a brand new two-player stick for £45 which came without the PC adapter. I actually only wanted a single player stick but this was so cheap I didn’t see the point in not buying it!

So I had a stick that was compatible with my GC, DC, XBox and PC, but not my Supergun or other systems. Then came a bit of a shock. The instructions state that the joystick is not actually a joystick (I couldn’t find this anywhere on the X-Arcade web site, funny that isn’t it; they go on about how wonderful this arcade stick is, then the instructions say it isn’t a stick at all!) it is a PC keyboard. Basically when you press left, for instance, the signal from the joystick goes into a microchip thing that converts it to the same signal as a letter on your PC keyboard. When you plug the X-Arcade into your PC, the PC just thinks that the X-Arcade is a keyboard and the left arrow has been pressed. The adapters you buy simply convert the keyboard signal (i.e. the left arrow) into the appropriate input signal for the left direction for the console being used. This might sound fine, but what it meant was that I couldn’t convert the signal that is output by the X-Arcade to work with my Supergun because the supergun needs a simple, raw electrical signal from the stick, not a PC keyboard signal!

So I hatched a plan to go into the X-Arcade and solder all the joystick points and buttons to a 25 pin d-type socket (the same kind as my Supergun) and then build a cable to connect my new output to the Supergun. Would it work? Who knows! I know absolutely nothing about soldering, about electronics, about joysticks or Superguns!

Here’s what I did!

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This is a picture of the inside of the X-Arcade (click on it to make it bigger), I just guessed that connecting the various connectors to the relevant pins on the Supergun joystick interface would work. I had the pin-out details of the joystick port for my Supergun (pin 2 is stick left, etc) so I connected loosely the left connector in the X-Arcade to pin 2 on my 25 pin connector. I then used a PC joypad extension cable to connect my 25 pin connector to the Supergun…. Nothing happened!!
I noticed that there was a wire that was connected to all the micro-switches on the X-Arcade joystick, so I reckoned that must be the “ground” thing that I’d read about. To me the ground is something you walk on, what the hell it’s doing in a joystick I have no idea. Anyway, I noticed that pin 1 on my Supergun was also labeled ground, so I loosely wired one of the ground connectors to pin 1 on my 25 pin connector, gave it another test with Metal Slug and wahoo! it worked!! Pushing left on the X-Arcade joystick made the character in Metal Slug move left. I was quite pleased!

I thought at that point that I only needed one ground connection because all the ground points in the Supergun were connected to each other, so conneting one ground point connects them all.

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So now I knew that the principle of what I was doing was OK (or so I thought!). The next step was to make a hole in the X-Arcade so that I could permanently install the 25 pin connector. I had to do this first so that I could pass the wires through it before soldering. It’s not very neat but that’s what happens when you get a drill and “wiggle it around a bit”.

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Once the hole was installed I started to solder each micro-switch on the X-Arcade to the 25 pin connector in the same order as was written in the Supergun pin-out details I had, making sure the wires were through the hole I made first. Well, I say simply, what I really mean is “difficultly” because my soldering skills are non existent. If there’s one thing I learned though it’s that you can’t grab the end of the soldering iron to swap out the head of it immediately after turning off the iron. If you try this you will burn your fingers, trust me on this one.

I also learned that putting a little bit of solder onto the wire before soldering it to the piece of metal made the soldering work easier, it’s as if the little bit of solder attracts the main solder onto it.

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After I had soldered up the first fire button I decided to test it before carrying on with the others because I had only tested a stick movement (directional left) up to that point. What I found was that if I held the fire button down (like in Pulstar or R-Ttype to charge the laser) and then move the stick at the same time it didn’t work; the fire button released itself. A single press was ok, but not a hold down press.

I sussed out that it was because when I moved the joystick the signal from it over-rode the fire button signal. I thought it was game over at this point but I sat and mused on it for a while, then noticed that the fire button had a different coloured ground wire, so I thought I’d try to solder up the ground wire for the fire button to the ground on pin 1 of my 25 pin adapter, as well as the stick’s ground. That worked fine! Then I realised that the X-Arcade had 4 different ground wires, and therefore I would have to connect all those wires individually to the ground pin in my 25 pin connector. No problem! You can see in this picture the big blob of solder where they are all joined up.

Instead of soldering the individual grounds to the 25 pin connector, I simply connected one wire to the ground pin in the 25 pin connector and then connected all the other ground wires to that single wire by twisting the metal ends of the wires together. I then put a blob of solder over it all when I had finished.

It was at this point that I realised that that I hadn’t tested that the X-Arcade still worked with my consoles through the normal X-Arcade 9 pin adapter. So I connected up the DC adapter I had bought and fired up my DC. Nothing… Nada… Nowt. A little bit of testing told me that if I connected any two of the ground points inside the X-Arcade together, then it would not work with the DC adapter (and therefore, I assumed, with any other adapter or my PC). However I HAD to connect all the grounds together in order for the Supergun to work with my adapter. So when using the X-Arcade natively I needed the grounds to be not connected… when using teh X-Arcade with my Supergun I needed them to be connected… not connected… then connected.. aha! I needed a switch that can take all the ground wires and connect them all together when it was pressed. Wonderful I thought and trotted off to Maplin (a British electronic component retailer).

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Ladies and Gentlemen let me introduce to the mother of all switches… The bloke in the shop didn’t know how this bad-boy worked and had to get something called a multi-meter to fathom it out! I reckoned it was by magic, although he assured me it wasn’t.x-arcade8

Basically when the switch is pressed in, everything is not connected. When it is not pressed, pin 1 connects to pin 2, pin 3 does nothing; pin 4 connects to pin 5, pin 6 does nothing, etc. One more hole later, and one soldered up switch and the whole thing worked; except I couldn’t work out how to mount the switch into the X-Arcade. I went for Super Glue, which has the advantage that once used the switch would never move ever again and I could press it to my heart’s content. Super Glue also has the disadvantage that once used, the switch would never move ever again, which meant that if I needed to solder more things up to it in future it would be more difficult because I wouldn’t be able to mifligate the switch around.

So that’s it, now it works with my DC, GC, XBOX, PS1, PS2, PC and Supergun! The next part of my plan was to get it to work with my other machines. A quick search on the net and I found some adapters that convert a PS1 joypad for use on a Saturn, PC Engine, SNES and Mega Drive at lik-sang.com. A quick credit card transaction and a couple of weeks later the adapters arrived and work fine.

There’s a picture of of the PS2 adapter on the below. The grey cable is just a straight through 9 pin extension cable that I plug into rather than wearing out the connector on the X-Arcade by constantly plugging in and removing adaptors.

What I have to do (if you hadn’t guessed) is press in the newly installed switch to turn off all the connections I had soldered up so the X-Arcade will work as it originally did before I started pratting about with it. Then connect the “X-Arcade/PS2 adapter” to the X-Arcade and the adapter I bought from Lik Sang, then plug that adapter into whatever console I want to use. A picture paints a thousand words so there’s a picture of what I mean on the right.

So there it is, my x-arcade is now compatible with my Supergun, Game Cube, PS1, PS2, XBox, Dreamcast, Saturn, Mega Drive, SNES, PC Engine AND my PC. Everything’s going swimmingly! But it isn’t quite the end of the story because I have some old 8-bit computers.
Fortunately the 8-bit computers all use the same one button joystick, all with the same Atari standard plug. So I got myself a Kempston style joystick, opened it up and wired up all the points inside it to another little 25 pin adapter, being very careful to use exactly the same pin-out as the one I installed into my X-Arcade.

Once it was all soldered up I gave it a test and voila! it worked. To paint the picture below in words:

The X-Arcade connects, via the 25 pin connector I installed and straight through cable, to the adapter on the Kempston joystick. I then connect the Kempston joystick to whatever machine I want to use. In effect the X-Arcade is simply controlling the Kempston as if someone was pushing the stick on the Kempston itself.

So at this moment I am well chuffed with myself. My X-Arcade joystick is now compatible with my Supergun, Game Cube, PS1, PS2, XBox, Dreamcast, Saturn, Mega Drive, SNES, PC Engine, PC, ZX Spectrum, Atari 2600, C64, Atari 8-bit, and Atari ST. The only consoles I have still to sort out are my NES, Master System, N64 and Atari Jaguar. I am not bothered about using the stick with the Jaguar or N64 because I have no joystick-suitable games for them, so really I only have the NES and Master system left, I’ll complete this article just as soon as I get them to work.

Update: 24th March 2009: Well it’s been aabout 3 years since I wrote this article and I have not had any need at all to use a joystick on my NES or Master System, so it looks like I never will.
I have managed to get it to work with my PS3 by using the Playstation adapter for the X-Arcade and connecting it to a PS2 to PS3 converter, which cost a couple of quid on eBay. It works a treat for Street Fighter 4, which, when you butter your bread, is the only reason I bought the PS3 in the first place!.
Xbox 360 is proving a problem because M$ won’t give X-Gaming a licence to make an adapter for the X-Arcade joysticks. So I started on the trail of hacking a 360 pad, but doing so without destroying the pad, which everyone else on the tinternet seems to do . X-Gaming have recently announced though that they will be providing a solution of some kind this year, so I’m hanging on to see what they pull out of the hat.

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