I can save you a lot of time wasted reading this review with this one line:
Go buy a CustomArcade!
CustomArcade's entire operation, from instructions to product to support, is top-notch. Not only is Ray a great guy, but his attitude and professionalism are reflected in the presentation of the company and products. If this company went IPO, I would buy, I'm that impressed. OK - enough of that, what about the joysticks?
If you haven't yet, take a look
at the general breakdown of the CustomArcade
product line. In a nutshell,
they offer multiple products based on swappable control panel tops with
different controls, that connect to the same interface/box. The system
I review here is panel #2.
|Panel #2 - click for a larger view|
I have commented before on the size these various stand-alone consoles get to be... This one is a sheer monster! Measuring slightly over 30" by 11" and 6" high, it's constructed out of solid 3/4" wood, top quality Happ Controls joysticks and buttons, and a Wico red ball-top joystick (see note on this below) as well. The top is removable via velcro strips used to mount the panel to the box. At first, when I heard they were using velcro, I was dubious. Then I attempted to remove the panel top... and tried ... and tried... and it absolutely would not budge until I put some force into it. Not so much force that it's not openable, but enough force required that it won't budge during even vigorous gameplay. The insides show a very neat and well done wiring job, making order out of what could easily have been a mass of spaghetti due to the number of inputs on this console.
This console has gotten quite a workout over the past few days, surviving not only my attempts to push it physically to it's limits but also two player gameplay with my exuberant brother, and slightly less co-ordinated but no less physical playing of my three year old daughter. It took all the pounding we could give it and passed with flying colors. High praise for the construction.
CustomArcade is outsourcing the production of their various components, ensuring that there will not be any problems getting shipments out to folks due to backlogs at CustomArcade.
(Click for a larger view!)
(Click for a larger view!)
Outside view of the CustomArcade. The consoles are getting bigger, my desk is getting messier! For perspective, that's a 17" monitor it's dwarfing. Inside the CustomArcade. Notice how neat it is despite all the wires involved.
(Click for a larger view!)
A shot of the velcro strips. Quoteth Ray, "If it's good enough for NASA, it's good enough for me!" -- It certainly did the trick here! Absolutely no problems with the way the console held together even during gameplay.
Setting up the CustomArcade was a snap. Using the KE72T encoder from Hagstrom, there were just two cables to attach - a cable from the back of the console to my PC's keyboard port, and the keyboard's cable into the console. I did not plug a serial cable into the encoder, choosing instead to program the encoder when needed via the keyboard port (See considerations below). I also did not plug a cable from the back of the console to the PS/2 mouse port, which will be necessary should I obtain the trackball or spinner panel (again see considerations below).
(Click for a larger view!)
The back of the console with the two cables plugged in.
After the two minutes required to plug in the cables, I loaded up MAME and was off and running!
The CustomArcade comes pre-programmed with MAME compatible keystroke assignments, and required no fuss to start playing. This configuration will work with the vast majority of emulators and games available today. However, one of the shining points of the CustomArcade is the ability to reprogram it as needed. Unfortunately, the programming of the KE72T encoder is slightly less than intuitive. Presently, it requires editing a text file to tell the encoder what each input does (looks something like this: IN41:[(+)LCTRL]), and then booting into DOS mode, running a loader program to load the configuration, and then restarting Windows. If you choose to use the serial port for programming, configuring via DOS is not necessary as it can be done in Windows, although still via the text file. This should probably be considered moderately challenging, but no obstacle at all. Both Hagstrom & CustomArcade have proven their willingness to help folks with these kinds of issues, and no doubt pre-written config files for a variety of popular emulators will soon appear. Also, CustomArcade has under development a Windows GUI based programming app that will greatly ease and enhance this process. You'll essentially press the control you want to reprogram, hit the keystroke you want, and voila! For more about the capabilities of the KE72T encoder, see this writeup -- it's incredibly versatile.
Layout of the CustomArcade is well thought out. Controls are spaced such that they are comfortable to reach, but not so crowded that one control interferes with another.
Two thumbs up for the usability of the CustomArcade.
Play testing was simply a blast! Due to the programmability, the CustomArcade will work with any emulator/game you choose. Accordingly, I confined my testing to MAME -- results should apply equally well with other emulators. In the interest of a level playing field, I tested the CustomArcade on the same games I tested the HotRod and Stick-It.
The first game up for the CustomArcade was Robotron. Playing Robotron was great! I played it both with the two 8-way bat handled joysticks, and then again with the left-hand bat handled joystick and the 8-way top fire joystick. Both sets of controls worked like a champ. I actually got further playing Robotron than I have previously with MAME. Movement and firing in all directions worked flawlessly. Next?
I gave Donkey Kong a whirl next. Donkey Kong is often a problem with 8 way joysticks due to hitting diagonals when you mean to hit up, and missing ladders and getting barreled over :) I chose both the left-most bat handled 8-way joystick, and the ball topped 4 way. Unfortunately, the 4 way joystick was fairly stiff and unresponsive, and I quickly gave up on using it. Read more about this in considerations below, but to reassure you, this won't be a problem for CustomArcade customers -- they are doing away with the ball-topped joystick installed in my console and replacing them with a better joystick. I was very pleasantly surprised at how well the 8 way joystick performed! I played for several levels, and had absolutely no problems with the diagonals messing up gameplay. Absolutely not what I had expected, and I was very happy with the way it performed. When I play Donkey Kong, I often will hide next to a ladder waiting for a barrel to go by above, then do a quick left/up to run up the ladder. On my real DK with an 8 way joystick, it doesn't work worth beans. On the CustomArcade, nary a problem. I was also pleased at how responsive the buttons were - nothing worse than running up a ladder with a split second to spare, hitting the button in what you *know* is enough time to jump that oncoming barrel, and dying because it doesn't jump fast enough. Not a problem with the CustomArcade. Top praise for the 8 way joystick in a 4 way game.
Gyruss next. The original Gyruss uses an 8 way joystick that you rotate around in a circle, sending your ship around firing into the center. No surprise, the 8 way CustomArcade joystick performed identically to the original game. Really nothing to elaborate on, it played perfectly. It was one of the games my brother and I played in our competition, and he stomped me :) One of the nice things about the CustomArcade -- with it's default programming, a simple flip of one of the connectors makes the right hand side mirror the left hand side. This enabled us to play two player Gyruss without having to switch places between turns. Gyruss only has one joystick, so you have to use the same joystick (or send the same keystrokes as in the mirrored position of the CustomArcade) for both players. Very nice touch.
Once again it was time for my favorite game when younger, JumpBug. As a recap, JumpBug requires the most subtle up and down motion on the joystick to bounce your buggy atop buildings and clouds and such. Mistime your bounce and instead of soaring high you kind of limp along. The CustomArcade provided absolutely perfect control. I was able to pretty much put the buggy anywhere I wanted. Two thumbs up for fine control.
Spinner game next. Bear in mind that CustomArcade has a spinner control panel that I do not presently have to test with. However, I gave Tempest a whirl with this panel. Results were the same as with the HotRod and Stick-It. It worked as well as could be expected with a joystick, and was indeed playable, but is no substitute for a spinner.
Similar results for Qbert -- standard joysticks are no substitute for a diagonally mounted joystick when playing Qbert. The CustomArcade played no better or worse than any of the other tested systems with Qbert.
Joust worked equally as well as the HotRod and StickIt -- I was able to position my bird with enough precision to whack them appropriately. I actually found the top fire joystick easier to control the mount with than the bat handled stick. Of course, I pretty much stink at Joust, so... :)
JungleKing next. The hard part about JungleKing is the second level, where you have to position yourself just right to knife the alligators in the snout. Position yourself wrong, and your gator-bait. I was able to get through all 4 levels on one life, happily whacking gators all through the second level.
I tested one additional game with the CustomArcade. I have dismissed Tron as unplayable on an emulator as it requires one hand for the movement, one hand to aim the firing arm, and one hand to press the fire button... Too many hands. The arcade game solves this by use of a trigger-grip joystick. Because the CustomArcade has a top fire joystick, I gave it a try -- the left bat handled joystick for aiming of the fire arm, the top fire joystick to move and fire. Then I used the left hand top fire stick to aim and fire, and the right hand bat handled joystick as movement. Verdict? Still no substitute for a trigger grip joystick with spinner to aim, but definitely playable finally! I think panel 3, with the top fire stick and the spinner, will put this back on my play list :)
Probably the biggest consideration and only one of any concern is the ball-topped joystick. It's made by Wico, and Ray let me know that they've had a few problems with some of the sticks, including the one I got. It required a heavy hand on the stick and was not terribly responsive. CustomArcade is very aware of this situation, and has already put into action the following: All new CustomArcade consoles going out will have a 4 way ultimate in place of the ball top joystick. Also, any present customers who have the ball-top joystick that's giving them difficulties can have it replaced free of charge. This is a fine example of post-sale customer support. The CustomArcade definitely gets high praise for the quality of all of the rest of the joysticks and buttons, and I have confidence that the replacement stick (from Happs) will be up to that standard.
Not a problem with the CustomArcade, but a consideration nonetheless, is the alt-space problem. When using the MAME standard keystrokes, it is possible to hit ALT and SPACE at the same time, bringing up the Windows interface. The cure is to disable this keystroke combination for MAME. This applies to all of the arcade control consoles reviewed so far, as could be expected since it's software not hardware related.
Another thing to bear in mind -- When I got my CustomArcade, I opened it up and tinkered with the insides. When it came time to re-attach the cables, I wasn't sure what went where. An email to CustomArcade supplied me cheerfully with the answer. Also, the right hand top-fire joystick was not producing any keystrokes, until another email from CustomArcade pointed out to me that this was just how the system came pre-programmed, and when I set it up for the "mirrored" position it worked fine ... None of this a problem, just what happens when you have so many programming possibilities from a flexible system like this. HOWEVER - it wasn't until I began to poke around in the other materials that came with the CustomArcade that I found the HTML documentation, complete with excellent pictures and descriptions of all of the above. Had I read them, I would not have had to email CustomArcade. Excellent documentation, and with a system with as many options as the CustomArcade, you really should RTFM (F=full)!
Another very minor thing to know -- they shipped a "MAME.CFG" file that contains the default layout of the CustomArcade to be read into the KE72T encoder. At first I was a bit confused, thinking that it was the MAME.CFG that went with MAME. It's not, they're two separate entities, so bear that in mind.
The only other thing that sprang to mind was the need for some planning with regards to mouse/trackball/spinner support. If you use the trackball panel, you're in good shape as the trackball will work as a fully functional mouse. However, if you use the spinner panel, you only get the X axis, so you'll need to have a mouse available as well if you want to control your computer that way. This is a problem if you only have a PS/2 mouse, as the PS/2 port is occupied by the CustomArcade. You'll need a serial mouse with this panel. Not a serious obstacle by any means, but again something to bear in mind.
Trivia: In Panel 2 there are 35 feet of ground wire, over 125 feet of wire total...
I have nothing but praise for the CustomArcade. Absolutely solid construction, attention to detail, and workmanship. Testing the CustomArcade panel #2 for this review was a lot of fun. When there was a problem (the ball-top stick), or just plain old dumb user questions, the answers and support from CustomArcade were quick and satisfactory. I'd also like to point out that not once in the many many email exchanges that I had with CustomArcade did they bonk me on the head for asking what was plainly written in their manual. The price of the CustomArcade may seem a bit high to some, but I'm telling you that you get what you pay for, with the customizability, expandability, and excellent customer support. This system is on my "must have" list, and I cannot recommend enough getting one.
There are good things in the future for this company. Past and present purchasers of the CustomArcade will be receiving a Windows GUI interface for programming the system, and a copy of the RetroRadio CD from MonroeWorld. They are in the final phase of work on their 5th panel, the TwistyGrip StarWars yoke(!), and have other products in the pipeline as well.
Go buy one - you won't regret it :)