Tuesday, August 22, 2017

8bitdo NES30 Arcade Stick Review and Modding Info

I like to play retro games from my couch and I prefer using an arcade stick, but I don't want to have a giant cord stretching across my living room as a tripping hazard. The obvious solution is to get a Bluetooth arcade stick. The only problem: nobody makes them. It seems the people driving the arcade stick market are distrustful of wireless communication due to latency concerns, despite data from a very reputable source suggesting otherwise.

8bitdo had put out a couple of arcade sticks in the past, the FC30 and FC30 Sanwa Edition, but those sticks never got much traction, AFAICT, and they're long-since discontinued now (and I've never seen one come up on eBay). They've revisited the concept recently, though (presumably because their devices are compatible with the Nintendo Switch*, which got a Street Fighter 2 port, and no other company has released an arcade stick for that market), and released their NES30 Arcade stick, which I preordered as soon as I heard about it.

First impressions - Build Quality and Information

The plastic used for the main body of the box feels a little flimsy. It has some flex to it, which isn't encouraging, and there's a lot of empty space inside the stick, though this is actually a good thing when it comes time to start poking around in there. It has a nice, thick, solid metal base with recessed screws and built-in rubber feet, which is a big advantage in my opinion when compared with the flimsy, easily lost rubber feet from the Mad Catz TE and SE sticks (and once the feet were lost, the non-recessed screws would scrape up wooden surfaces and get caught on fabric -_-).

The buttons are knockoff Japanese-style and feel predictably crummy, but passable if you're just going to use it casually. The stick feels pretty decent, really, with none of the gravelly, scraping feelings characteristic of the Mad Catz SE sticks as they slowly ate themselves.

There are 8 full-size (i.e. 30 mm) buttons for A, B, X, Y, R1, L1, R2 and L2 in modern, staggered arcade stick layout, and a smaller button (presumably 24 mm) for Start. There are also smaller non-arcade-style buttons on the control panel for Select, Pair and Turbo. While Select is bindable in gaming software, the Turbo and Pair buttons are not exposed, leaving users with 10 buttons and a 4-way joystick. That is, there is no dedicated "home" button for assigning to "menu_toggle" in RetroArch/MAME.

Wireless connectivity over Bluetooth is quick and painless, and there's no obvious perceptible latency. If you want to play wired and/or charge the stick, 8bitdo has supplied a full-size USB-A-to-A cable, which is, frankly, bizarre. 

Modding

The metal base is held onto the box by 6 small phillips-head screws. Once those are removed, you can pop the base off safely. That is, there is nothing attached to the base that can get yanked out, etc. Once inside, you can see that the wiring is clean and organized, with color-coded wires leading to plastic pin-headers on the board. You can also see the support structure (the hollow tubes surrounding the buttons), which provides a strong backbone where the stick will be seeing the most abuse.
A shot of the insides before I got started on it.
The good news: swapping out the buttons on this stick is a breeze. The stock buttons snap right out and the .110 quick-disconnects transfer over to Sanwa buttons, which are a perfect fit (I swapped in Sanwa 30 mm OBSFS buttons), with no trouble. The stick also has mounting screws that line up perfectly with a Sanwa JLF stick.

The bad news: THIS IS NOT A COMMON-GROUND PCB. That's not a big deal with the buttons (unless you just really like to daisy-chain grounds for tidiness), but it's a very big problem for the stick, since Sanwa and Seimitsu sticks use a common-ground PCB for their switches. In short, this stick is INCOMPATIBLE with Japanese-style sticks without doing some significant modification.

Speaking of the stick, it has a clip-in square restrictor plate/gate and has the control wires soldered directly to Lema microswitches, from Chinese company Zhejiang Lema Electrics Co. Ltd:
Since they were directly soldered, I needed to cut the wires, making this the first destructive modification so far.

The Lema switches are pretty close in size and shape to the tough-as-nails Cherry microswitches you would find in Happ/IL sticks and buttons, and I decided to swap them out for some I had in an old Happ Competition joystick.
The result is satisfyingly clicky and extremely light (that is, there's barely enough resistance to bring the stick back to center; some people will despise this). I was able to pull off 360/720-degree motions easily and reliably, but I'm not 100% convinced that I want to stick with this setup permanently, so I used insulated alligator clips rather than soldering .187 quick-disconnects to the wires in case I decide to swap it out with other switches in the future.
The extra-roomy case came in handy here for holding my insulated alligator clips
The restrictor plate/gate is held in by 4 little screws and 4 clips. Once the screws are out, the clips are nice and easy to manipulate, unlike the ones on JLF sticks, which are notoriously difficult to work with. I didn't check to see whether Sanwa plates would snap in, but it looks pretty likely. I might swap in an octo-gate at some point and will update this post if I run into any issues. Here you can see the Cherry microswitches fit in nice and snug under the stock plate:
I didn't get around to testing it, but I suspect the longer, screw-down Happ/IL American-style buttons would fit just fine in the case, since it seems to be a little taller than the Mad Catz SE boxes, which were only about a quarter of an inch too short to fit them comfortably.

*Note, the wired vs wireless issue seems to actually be in favor of wireless on the Switch, oddly enough: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avvmck40cIw

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