This is the most important aspect. You buy an arcade stick because you want to better your game. This means that it does not matter how a stick looks as long as it gives you the results that you desire. When it comes to hardware, sticks that perform well usually have good hardware, resulting in a win-win situation.
Generally speaking, you should be looking for an arcade stick with an average size and weight that make it comfortable on both your lap and also a table. If you had to pick between lap and table, it is best to go with the stick that is more comfortable on your lap as your lap is what you will consistently have to place your stick on when you scour the globe competing in tournaments or simply going to your friend’s house for some games. However, you might have a specific requirement such as small size and low weight. Reasons can range from wanting a side stick that you can take to your friend’s house with ease to not wanting to exceed baggage limitations at the airport. Finally, although most sticks have long cables, you might have a specific requirement if you like to sit a certain distance away from the monitor. Although rare, some sticks are actually wireless, but input lag and reliability are a concern for most serious fighting gamers.
Apart from the buttons, the highlight of an arcade stick’s performance is the joystick. Whether it is the Japanese style or the Korean style, and whether the gate is square or octagonal, it should be flexible but not loose. It should also not be stiff. It should not rush to go back to neutral once you let go of the joystick after inputting a direction. In addition, it should not expect you to hit up or down perfectly in order to register an up or down input. That is because you will often find yourself jumping back and forth unintentionally when all you wanted to do was jump up, for example.
What separates good buttons from bad buttons is how much bounce they have. You want the buttons to be pressed only when you mean to press them, not when you simply rest your fingers on them. In addition, you do not want to have to smash them to register an input. There should be adequate travel distance to avoid the two aforementioned instances, and you should be given enough feedback that you actually pressed a button even if you have headphones on. Speaking of which, partially silent buttons are the way to go as they do not instantly reveal your inputs to your opponent next to you, but they are still minimally loud to the point of you receiving an audio cue per press.
There should be ample space for you to rest your wrists on. In fact, whether or not your wrists are receiving support can make or break your arcade stick experience. In addition, the overall layout of the components of the stick should be optimized to your comfort. That includes the distance from the buttons to the joystick and their distance to the edges of the stick and so on. Two common layouts are the Vewlix layout and the Noir layout.
Most if not all arcade sticks come with a compartment in which you can store your cable and sometimes even more. Cables are either detachable or simply go inside the compartment while staying connected to the stick. The reason you will see a lot of players wrapping their cables around their stick is because of how inconveniently the compartment is set up. The best type seems to be when there is a button that allows the stick to fully open, revealing a big storage space inside. Otherwise, there can be a compartment with a magnetic door. If not, a standard door can be present, but it is usually at risk of breakage after overuse. Some sticks have handles that allow the carriage of them like a bag.
Modding is quite popular among arcade stick owners. However, some sticks are harder to mod than others. That usually stems from the developers’ effort or lack thereof to make a stick mod friendly, repairs included. Optimally, a stick can be opened with no screwdrivers, buttons are not soldered directly onto the PCB, the printed circuit board, and the artwork comes in the form of easily removable plexiglass. In addition, it is nice to be able to mod a stick without voiding the warranty provided by the original manufacturer or the third party reseller.
Besides the color of the joystick, buttons, and frame, a large factor that determines the aesthetic caliber of an arcade stick is the actual artwork on the top panel. Besides having a nice glow due to high quality paint, the artwork should be nuanced enough but not to the point of distraction. In addition, the overall stick should not scratch easily.
You might have special requirements such as all parts of an arcade stick being free of animal products or products that have been tested on animals. There is at least one arcade stick in this current generation that uses leather.
The better arcade stick should always be chosen despite the potential difference in price with an inferior counterpart. That is because better equipment can simply lead to more W’s on the scoreboard given the same effort. However, to be realistic, not everyone has an unlimited budget, and so one should buy the best arcade stick that is still within affordable limits. If anything, one should avoid sticks that are a limited edition due to their exclusive artwork when there usually exists an identical unit that is much cheaper due to its stock artwork. Artwork is almost always changeable, although some sticks make it difficult to do so.