Over the last few years retro gaming has enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity, with collections of arcade classics now readily available across multiple platforms. In their original incarnations these games boasted wonderfully robust control systems with joysticks you could bash, wrench and hang your school bag on, while the buttons could withstand a terrific amount of punishment and would still pop up for more.
Sadly, today’s gamers live in a world of moulded plastic controllers, force feedback and tiny buttons and triggers that are more about fashion than functionality. Most controllers currently on the market simply aren’t up to scratch when it comes to performance or durability. Many of us have a cupboard full of broken joysticks and controllers that were technical marvels at the time of purchase, but did not survive a serious session of Streetfighter. Let’s face it, they don’t make ‘em like they used to…
Enter XGaming's family of X-Arcade controllers. While we haven’t heard a lot about them in these parts, X-Arcade products have actually been around since 2002, collecting accolades and converts across the globe. Fortunately an enterprising Kiwi company, At Home Downunder, secured distribution rights for Australia and New Zealand, and the units are readily available here. The ever-expanding product range includes a solo joystick, a two-player joystick, a trackball unit and combined unit, plus individual arcade components for DIY gamers wanting to custom build their own rig from the ground up. At Home Down Under is also making full tabletop or stand-up arcade cabinets using the parts they supply to the DIY market.
We've been tasked with putting the X-Arcade two-player joystick and trackball units through their paces, and straight out of the box we knew we were in for a treat. At first glance both units appeared to have been surgically removed from an arcade cabinet, however it soon became apparent that we were dealing with a superior hybrid of modern day innovation and the durability of industrial strength components from an earlier era. As far as construction is concerned, XGaming have put their money where their mouth is. So confident are they of their products' pedigree that they back them up with a lifetime repair (remember those spare parts?) or replace guarantee.
Both of the sturdily constructed units we tried are rather bulky, which could pose some storage problems when not in use. However, the large footprint provides unparalleled stability – an essential quality for extended sessions of full-on retro gaming.
The dual joystick is At Home Downunder’s best-selling model. It features two full-sized joysticks and 20 large buttons (the kind you can pound in triumph -or defeat, without getting shards of cheap plastic embedded in your hand), all of which is housed within a solid box of commercial grade composite wood, and covered with a sexy, black laminated surface.
Two side buttons double as pinball flipper buttons, and while we appreciated the inclusion of these, we felt their placement was not ideal. The natural hand position for pinball players is to rest their palms on the pintable's corners, tapping the flipper buttons with their fingertips. This is pretty much impossible on the X-Arcade unit due to overhang of the upper surface. A more suitable location for these buttons would have been further towards the back of the unit.
With that minor gripe out of the way, we can move on to setup and performance. One of the X-Arcade’s major selling points is the fact that it is not dedicated to any one platform. The unit ships with standard connectors for PC but simply by switching adapters (sold separately), you can happily play your arcade favourites on the Apple Mac as well as PlayStation or PS2, Xbox, GameCube and Dreamcast consoles. Programmable buttons for use with PC/Mac mean you can set it up to suit your style of play. There is no installation software required, although reading the manual is an absolute must. We messed up a couple of times when it came to button programming, but after referring to the manual it was a simple enough matter to retrace our steps and start afresh.
When it came to performance, the X-Arcade joystick proved unparalleled in responsiveness, accuracy and reliability, taking all punishment we were able to deal out… and believe us, we weren’t gentle! Even though the unit does have two joysticks – one per player, the downside is that these are not ideal for games requiring two analogue controls, such as modern day shooters. However, the unit does have two sensitivity modes, designed to replicate digital or analogue control on console games, between which you can alternate with the press of a couple of buttons. The X-Arcade units are naturally best well suited to platform, retro and fighting games. Certainly, MAME (arcade machine emulator) titles should only be played using a controller of the X-Arcade’s calibre. In our opinion it compliments such genres far better than any controller on the market today.
The trackball performed equally well, particularly with the 12 bonus retro games that shipped with it (PC only). Interestingly, the trackball has found favour in New Zealand with disabled non-gamers, since it behaves exactly like a mouse without using the fine motor skills required to operate one.
What’s on the horizon for the X-Arcade family? XGamings’s newest member is the Tankstick, an impressive behemoth comprising a dual joystick and trackball… everything a retro gamer needs in the one king-sized unit. With any luck we’ll be seeing the Tankstick here in the not too distant future, but in the meantime we can wholeheartedly endorse both the joysticks and trackball as excellent choices for the discerning gamer. With prices ranging from $150 for the trackball to $280 for the dual joystick, they don’t come cheap, but they also don't feel cheap and At Home Downunder are so confident you will love these controllers that they offer a 30 day money-back guarantee.
The cost may seem prohibitive, but take into account the fact that you will never need to buy a replacement - ever; plus the units’ stellar performance in play, consider it money well invested. Our recommendation: why not treat yourself or that special retro gamer in your life to the ultimate accessory?