February 16, 2007 - When most modern gamers imagine a joystick, the image that comes to mind is that of the arcade stick—a flat slab with an array of large buttons and a short, springy joystick. The older set, however, will recall the old days of the Atari 2600 and its controller, a small, palm sized base with a tall stick protruding from the middle. It wasn't very comfortable or accurate, but it didn't really need to be. This style of controller design, however, went extinct relatively early in console history due to the arrival of the gamepad, generally a far more comfortable and accurate design for faster paced gameplay.
Recently, Xbox Live Arcade on the Xbox 360 has opened the doors to a wealth of easily accessible classic games on a modern system. For some the experience of tooling around with Dig Dug, Pac Man, Paper Boy, Frogger, Time Pilot, and others with a modern game pad is good enough. For purists, however, the experience is not the same without the controller these games were originally played with, the old school palm-top gamestick of 2600 vintage. Addressing such demand, MadCatz has developed and released the Arcade GameStick 360, essentially modernizing the console controller of the '70s with the accoutrement of our modern age.
The result is a relatively compact game stick that merges all of a standard 360 controller's buttons into a square base designed to be held in hand like the classic gamesticks of yore. MadCatz molded the gamestick in 360-styled off-white plastic with grey hard rubber accents around the edges. The main joystick takes the place of the left analog stick, and all the other face buttons on a standard 360 pad are faithfully included. The key additions are switches for turbo fire and a trackball-replacement spinner that surrounds the right analog stick.
The general mechanics of the MadCatz gamestick are capable. The various face buttons make good connections and the digital cross-hairs D-pad is far superior to the circular D-pad on the official 360 controller. The spinner that surrounds the right analog stick turns rather stiffly, however. The biggest problem, however, isn't any aspect of the gamestick's construction and mechanics, it is rather the fact that gamesticks simply aren't terribly comfortable to hold or accurate in control. The MadCatz GameStick's base is contoured so as to allow for some grip, and has rubber feet at each corner so as to rest on a tabletop.
In our testing we were much happier using the gamestick on a desk than in hand on the couch. Maybe we've gone soft since the days of the 2600, but awkwardly gripping a square base while still trying to press face buttons, all the while manipulating a direction stick long enough to apply a lot of leverage to the base got uncomfortable relatively quickly. We played a variety of games with the gamestick, including Frogger, Time Pilot, Astro Pop, Paper Boy, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, and SF2: Hyper Fighting. The MadCatz GameStick was successful in lending a retro edge to the classic games, but after a brief moment of gaming retrospection, we quickly realized that we were much better at the games when using a gamepad. A long stick is inaccurate, and after dying in Frogger because we pushed left and ended up jumping forward one too many times, started missing our modern accuracy.
We've been wishing for a true arcade fighting stick for the 360 for quite a while, and figured we'd see what the GameStick could do for the 2-D fighters the official 360 controller is really not very good for. Unfortunately, the long stick on the MadCatz controller is much too loose and requires too much travel to make it usable with MK3 and SF2. The digital d-pad, however, is definitely better than the official 360 controller's, so we played with that for a bit. The benefit of the better digital input lost its edge after we got tired of holding the awkward controller.
To add to the retro flavor of the controller, MadCatz includes redemption coupons for three games on Xbox Live Arcade: Frogger, Time Pilot, and Astro Pop Deluxe, as well as a 48-hour trial of Xbox Live Gold. The $20 value of the free games does a fair job ameliorating a degree of sticker shock associated with the $59.99 MSRP of the stick, but for a special application peripheral such as this we feel the $40 hardware price is still somewhat high. Retro gamers may enjoy the MadCatz GameStick for its old school play characteristics, and more casual gamers like parents might find the stick more approachable. The GameStick is far more successful as a nod to throwback gaming than it is at providing an advantage in control, but that's actually exactly the way it should be.