What is Control?
In this context and for our purposes, the ideal of “control” means the following:
Control is the bridge between the mental intention — whether conscious or unconscious — and the result on the videogame screen.
The stock definitions for control aren’t all that useful to our discussion today:
to determine the behavior or supervise the running of; a switch or other device by which a machine is regulated; the ability to manage a machine, vehicle, or other moving object
This will pair to another article: Where the Meat Meets the Mental. In it, I will cover the particular mental faculties engaged in the control of that cute shmup ship.
Here, I want to reflect on the matter of physical control of the game and the interfaces we use to pilot that cute shmup ship.
Jogging the ol’ Memory
I returned to Daioujou practice after a hiatus in the second half of October. I’m dying to things I shouldn’t. I’m not stringing my chains together as well as I once could. However, with each death-rattle, more rust shakes loose and I can feel the edge of my skill returning.
This rust-shaking only takes a few days. I am now putting up higher top scores. I am making progress again.
High-level shmup play requires memorization. It is inescapable. Yes, it’s a frightening byword that chases players off in droves — eek! Memorization? I don’t have time for that. And there aren’t waypoints showing you the path through the bullet curtain? Savages! — but memorization has its benefits.
Memorization brings familiarity. Familiarity allows you to pull off complex maneuvers without panicking or resorting to reflex. A few taps, a few flicks of the wrist, some careful switching between focus shot and spread shot… we commit these physical maneuvers to memory, hardly paying them any mind. We often chalk memorization up to the specific movements on the screen and the configuration of bullets burned into our brain-meat. But what about gripping a familiar, trustworthy controller as you play? Does that not aid in memorization, too?
Sitting down to play Daioujou following a lengthy break, the arcade stick helps me return to the necessary flow — or wu wei or trance state or whatever you’d call it — familiar to all serious shmup players. The arcade stick is my controller of choice. Every characteristic is familiar to me. The strike of each button, the click of the lever, the exact contour of the octogate, and even the hard edge of the metal bottom-panel is familiar to me.
Grabbing an unfamiliar controller does not erase my knowledge of routes and score-chains. Memorization is a mental activity. Even “muscle memory” is mental. Using a different controller should not matter yet my abilities suffer if I do. Why?
Little thought is given to the physicality of shmups. High-level players are intimate with the mental challenge of the genre. However, I’d like to investigate the physical dimension of playing shmups.
Holding on for dear life
It begins with your choice of controller, unless you plan on using a hands-free Kinect camera, of course.
The controller itself is not important. Rather, there are four important characteristics common to all controllers:
- Responsiveness – Input lag acts a buffer between your intention and what appears on the screen. A certain amount is tolerable — even unnoticeable — but a controller should never introduce an amount of input lag that interferes with your ability to play the game competently.
- Comfort – Cramping your hands or causing a welt on your thumb is not my idea of a good controller. It was for this very reason that I switched from a standard PS2 controller over to an arcade stick when I was cutting my teeth (and the edge of my poor thumb) on Guilty Gear XX.
- Ubiquity – A common reason for learning arcade stick is the ability to play that same game in your home and in the arcade. Or you may want to have a controller that can be played across platforms? These are important considerations.
- Reliability – Will the controller hold up to my abuse? Will it react to my inputs faithfully, day after day?
If your controller of choice addresses these four issues — whether you’re using a keyboard, a controller, a stick, or some other strange abomination — then you’re set.
Don’t tolerate a bad controller, but don’t chase after “premium” controllers that promise to improve your runs.
They don’t. They won’t.
You’ll merely develop an inferiority complex from spending too much money on a controller than didn’t replace the rigor of practice and patience.
I grew up playing most video games with a controller, such as a NES or Genesis pad, so that remains my preferred control method. That said, I like to pick controllers with good directional pads as much as possible, and for older games, I like turbo options, when applicable. I would like to get into arcade sticks, but as many different consoles and platforms I play on, it gets expensive trying to buy quality sticks for everything.
Lag is a byword among shmup players.
Unfortunately, the obscurity of shmups often forces us to tolerate it. Arcade cabinets are not commonplace in most areas of the world, and the PCBs are often prohibitively expensive to acquire for the average player. Emulating shmups on PC hardware or hacked console hardware is viable for many people, but unless you have a finely-tuned system this may introduce lag as well. Ports of shmups are a mixed bag. Some are exceptional and others are so poorly done they aren’t worth your money even if you enjoy the shmup itself.
Converting a controller from one platform to another can introduce lag as well. There are some options like the undamned decoder that you can wire into a padhack. I use one on my Saturn. Companies like Brooks and Mayflash sell various flavors of converters, yet the amount of lag will vary between models.
Playing shmups at high-level play isn’t about fast reactions, you might say. In a certain sense, you are right, bright Reader! Will a few frames of lag kill you? Nope, you’ll be fine. However, memorization and practice have their limits when it comes to compensating for excessive lag. You may as well be aware that it’s an issue.
The buttons themselves — assuming they are of reasonable quality and aren’t malfunctioning — won’t introduce lag. Arcade hardware is purpose-built and reliable. For the most part, specific buttons and sticks may appeal to your tactile preferences, but I don’t think the mechanical responsiveness is too different between the brands.
A larger actuator on a stick reduces travel time — or throw — ever so slightly. A heavier spring will improve your return to center. Buttons also offer the choice between longer or shorter throws, and some buttons have pads at the bottom to reduce the noise of the button-click.
Clicking itself might be important to you. Is the noise a distraction? In my case, I love a clicky thumbstick or lever. The click helps confirm that my input has registered. Mechanical keyboard keys would be suitably clicky, I’d imagine, though I’ve never really played much with a keyboard. I find the clicking useful. Others find it annoying.
Yet, a larger actuator and more sensitive buttons may cause accidental inputs. A heavier spring may cause you to miss inputs entirely. Clicking might drive you insane.
This nitty-gritty nuance exists, but please don’t prioritize it. If you insist your controller isn’t responsive enough, buttons are way down the list of things to consider.
Due to the variety of controller options, a comprehensive comparison is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that lag caused by your equipment may hinder your ability to play a shmup at a higher skill level. Don’t obsess over responsiveness. Be aware it exists and tighten up the screws of your setup, in a manner of speaking, if you feel like the lag is holding you back.
I can’t say I’ve ever been slowed down by physical issues, except for maybe cold hands, which you just have to warm up under warm water. I’d say to make sure to play in moderation and use a comfortable setup. There’s nothing gained from injuring yourself over a videogame.
Jaimers | YouTube Channel
I use an arcade stick for Shmup play. I tend to play better using that, than a controller. Dpads and joysticks on controllers seem to restrict my movement and reaction a bit. Maybe due to my figures being long, so I tend to arch my thumb. Sometimes sweaty thumbs will mess up my runs completely, trying to go for a high score or 1CC.
Noir | YouTube Channel
A decade ago, I switched to arcade stick after nursing too many blisters on my thumbs. Guilty Gear XX Accent Core on PS2 was my obsession, but my hands could not keep up. My friends and I would go in rotations to give our thumbs some rest. It was painful to play on the Dualshock, but there were no arcades in the area with the game. Our shared PS2 copy was the only way.
After a few months of this, I had the bright idea of switching to arcade controls. I knew they were expensive but I loved Guilty Gear so much that I sold off a boxed PS One system to fund a Hori arcade stick.
I’m not here to preach the virtues of arcade stick, but I suspect plenty of gamers have faced similar issues.
Often, our loyalty to our controller is because it is comfortable. Yeah yeah! I read the part above about lag and buttons and whatever, but I don’t care. This ol’ stick just feels right.
And fair enough! Grabbing your controller should feel like slipping your hand into a glove. I’ll discuss muscle memory elsewhere, but it plays a role in response time and physical skill. Your controller should never cause your hand to cramp, your thumbs to blister, or your wrists to get sore.
Improving your skill inevitably requires long play sessions. Practicing on equipment that wears on your body is nonsensical. Spend the extra money to buy something more comfortable, if that’s what it boils down to.
Some features — like an octogate or a particular brand of button — may have a very particular feel that you enjoy. This feel is an important part of the controller’s function. I like convex buttons with rounded edges. Others prefer concave buttons with sharper edges.
These silly details do combine to form significant differences between controllers. Sometimes people like using a certain controller because the buttons are spaced better for the player’s longer thumbs.
Comfort is subjective. Therefore, you may need to try different setups. Assuming you are paying attention to your body signals, you should be able to navigate your way to a comfortable setup. Do not tolerate sharp discomfort or pain. Your attention is better focused on the shmup. Sit up straight. Drink some water. Take some deep breaths.
I prefer to use arcade control panels for shmups. Arcade controls are just fun! And they are easier on my wrists and hands so I can go for longer sessions without strain. Furthermore I prefer Sanwa parts: the JLF stick and OBSF-30 buttons. The reason I like Sanwa is because they are the arcade standard and they feel good. They’re built to last and both of my Sanwa outfitted control panels feel the same as they did 5+ years ago. There’s something endearing about using the same control setup that hundreds of thousands of players have used among you. This goes for arcade panel controls in general, not just Sanwa parts. I like to feel like I could be in the Arcade using these controls. And a time may come when I sit down at a candy cabinet with arcade controls–I’ll be ready.
For new players, use what works for you and is comfortable. If you haven’t used arcade controls before, you have to try it! It can take a while to get used to but just try to have fun learning. It’s very possible you won’t be as good with arcade controls as with your other preferred controller for a long time. But eventually that gap will be so minor it won’t matter anymore. When it comes to arcade style controls: they’re for arcade games in general and not just shmups. It wouldn’t hurt to try all sorts of arcade games while you’re at it.
Depending on your setup, you may not have the ability to play a certain shmup. Of course, that can be easily solved with the swipe of a credit card! Accessing new shmups through a freshly-bought computer or console is a thrill, but you may not be able to use your favorite controller, your favorite TV, or your favorite chair. Goodbye, comfort. Goodbye, familiarity.
Converters are an option, but then we’re dealing with lag again.
Picking a control scheme that you can use across a variety of platforms is especially important for shmups. If you can avoid it, don’t switch between a wide range of different controllers. Here is where the good ol’ arcade stick really shines. 99% of shmups are designed to use a stick and the few that aren’t are at least compatible.
We are blessed to have so many controller options in our modern era. Using the same control scheme — or even the same controller — across platforms will help you remain consistent.
Another facet of ubiquity to consider: if my game has the option to customize controls, I take advantage of it. Top-left-to-right, I set the first three buttons (or Square, Triangle, and R1 on my Playstation sticks) to Fire, Bomb, and Auto-Fire . This seems to cover most shmups. Once in a while I’ll have to use a slightly-different layout. ESPgaluda needs an extra button for switching in and out of kakusei. I used to customize my controls for First Person Shooters (adjusting mouse sensitivity, for example) when I played them in the 90s. It makes sense to do the same for shmups.
Maybe standardizing all your controls is too obsessive.
One must not forget the arcades, those ancient pantheons of exceptional challenge. Ya gotta be somewhat familiar with a lever and buttons to enjoy the arcade experience, though. Some shmup players find immense satisfaction in playing these games on a genuine cabinet with genuine hardware. I won’t begrudge anyone that desire. It’s a visceral experience, even if emulation and console-ports have come a long way over the years.
If you’d like to play on genuine hardware, it makes sense that your controller would be the same (or at least similar) as what you’d use on the cabinet.
Outside of that concern, a keyboard is probably the best option for shmup players not interested in an expensive arcade stick. PC is compatible with the widest variety of shmups, without question. So, why not use what the Good Lord gave the PC and stick with keyboard? Not a bad idea.
My preferred choice in control method has been influenced by my past in fighting games, and has actually been a long journey. For a number of years, when I played different fighting games, I found that I had a bunch of different control preferences that changed from game to game. For example: I played Street Fighter 3 on a Sanwa JLF, I played Virtua Fighter 5 on a PS3 pad, I played Tekken 6 on a Sega Saturn pad with a converter, and I could never decide on what I liked the best for Guilty Gear and King of Fighters. The reason why I kept jumping from controller to controller was because I was trying my best to match up the strengths of the input method with the requirements of the game. This was actually pretty exhausting and inefficient. So one day I decided I had enough and would begin my quest of very deeply analyzing all the different input methods and deciding, once and for all, which is the strongest in general. I wanted to use the same input method across all the games.
In my heart of hearts, I feel that Japanese stick, Korean stick, and keyboard are the best options in terms of overall performance. They are S tier. However, the Dualshock 4 and Sega Saturn controllers are still strong options and I would rank them A tier. Personally, I am a player who thinks that input matters (which is probably uncommon among shmup players) and I would highly recommend you use one of these 5 input methods if you can. Of course, it is certainly possible to achieve amazing scores on all kinds of different input methods. But, try not to think about the question in that manner. Try and think about it in a scenario where you are placed in a head-to-head competition to compete for score with someone else with equal skill as yourself. You are handed a crusty Game Boy as a controller and they are given a clean Dualshock 4. The game involves many extremely precise reaction dodges (think final form Hibachi). Who has the competitive edge?
I prefer quality sticks, almost all of the Qanba sticks are good. Currently for Shmups on Ps4, I use the Qanba Obsidian and on anything else it will be the Qanba Q1 or Madkatz tournament stick.
For a new player getting in, I say start with a controller just to break yourself into the genre. Although if you feel the need for a close to authentic arcade feel. The Qanba crystal is a stylish affordable arcade stick, Hori Rap 4 is also good, but a little higher in price
Noir | YouTube Channel
‘Reliability’ may refer to being able to reliably pull off a complicated move, but that was already covered earlier under the ‘Responsiveness’ heading.
Instead, we’re talking about the lifespan and trustworthiness of your equipment. Finding a comfortable, responsive, ubiquitous controller is fine and dandy until it breaks. Reliability goes hand-in-hand with consistency unless you wish to buy replacements for easily-broken hardware on a regular basis. For this reason, arcade sticks are ideal. Or a well-built keyboard. Or anything, really. Just make sure it’s reliable.
My body is ready
This seems to cover it for physical control, but I want to close with a discussion about physical wellness.
Taking care of your body will have a positive impact on your shmup performance. Sleep well. Rest your eyes. Stretch your hands and arms. Don’t sit in an uncomfortable position. Find ways to eliminate stress. I would imagine that an unhealthy diet may contribute to poor performance, since food can impact your ability to focus and manage your emotions. I will talk about sleep and food a bit more in the next article.
Until we can control shmups with the power of thought, a physical connection to the game will remain a facet of the experience. Take care of your body, please. Take care of your controller. Have fun.