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The Ultimarc UltraStik 360 Joystick
Part 1



I was very excited when I found out I was going to be reviewing this product. The ideal joystick is something every arcade enthusiast is always looking for, and the UltraStik 360 looks very good on paper (or in this case the website!). The most important feature of this joystick is that can be software configured to act like many different types of joysticks. As I found out in this review, a lesser known but equally great feature of this joystick is that you can customize its physical configuration vastly as well.


Why the need to act like so many different types of joysticks?

To understand why the UltraStik was developed and what it can do, we first have to understand the differences between joystick types. A few of these would include 2-way, 4-way, 8-way, 49-way, and analog. It has been difficult until just recently to find a single joystick that could play all of these joystick games well.

A perfect example is the classic 4-way vs. 8-way debate. A 4-way joystick can only go up, left, down, or right. It can't hit any diagonals and for this reason is a very poor joystick to use for an 8-way game that expects the player to be able to use diagonals. You might think that an 8-way joystick would work fine for 4-way games, but many 4-way games do unpredictable things when a diagonal is hit. For example, I've seen some games where if you go from right to up and you hit the up-right diagonal by mistake; it sends the character to the left! So, you really can't use a 4-way stick to play an 8-way game well, and you really can't use an 8-way stick to play a 4-way game well. You can also guess that an 8-way can't play a 49-way game well, and so on.

There have been many ways people have addressed this issue. One way is to have multiple joystick types on their panel. This solution involves installing a 4-way joystick and an 8-way joystick for the same player. I've even seen control panels where people have mounted a 4-way joystick at 45 degrees clockwise for a dedicated Q*Bert joystick. The upside to this method is that you have the right joystick to play the game, but the downside is that you have to buy more joysticks, do more wiring, and it creates control panels that look quite busy.

Another way people have addressed this issue is to use a switchable stick. This would be a joystick that can be switched from 4-way to 8-way and vice versa. Example of these joysticks would include Ultimarc's T-Stik Plus and Mag-Stik Plus which allow you to switch modes from the top of the panel. The upside to a switchable stick is that it can play most games well, but the downside is that you need to make sure it is in the right mode each time you start a game. In addition, a 4-way/8-way switchable stick still doesn't give you a 49-way or analog joystick capability.

This brings us to the UltraStik 360. It has the ability to act like many different joystick types without the need for manual switching. It can act like a 2-way horizontal, 2-way vertical, 4-way, 4-way diagonal, 8-way, and analog joystick depending on the loaded map. You can create custom maps and make it act anyway you like. If you want to be able to hit the diagonals easier just create a custom map to make that happen. While it doesn't have a map specifically for a 49-way joystick, just set the analog map and it will play 49-way games as well if the emulator you are using will map analog to 49-way (MAME does). The only joystick type the UltraStik 360 doesn't address is a rotary joystick, where the shaft itself can be rotated.


Is this a joystick or a computer?

Most joysticks are as basic as possible usually containing just the required electrical components (usually just 4 switches) to make them function. These types of joysticks rely on an encoder interface to hookup to your PC.


On the left are 4 typical microswitches, on the right is the the UltraStik 360 is quite a different - it has an onboard 24 MHz microprocessor. It starts up and boots its updatable firmware. It automatically calibrates itself. Instead of just shorted wires indicating the direction, it has a USB 2.0 interface that presents itself to the operating system as a standard HID game pad. This means that you will not need an encoder for this joystick because it is built-in.

It has no wearable switches or contacts. One of the first things you will notice when you look at it is the circular magnet at the end of the shaft hovering over some component on the PCB. It uses the circular magnet's position in relation to this component to determine the position of the stick. I read over at BYOAC that it uses hall-effect technology. The upside to this is no adjustment needed and no physical switches to wear out.

It is a true analog joystick. While most joysticks can detect a direction such as left, they can't determine how far to the left the stick is positioned. An analog joystick like the UltraStik can. To understand this, think about a basic 4-way joystick. There is only one position to push the stick to the left; you can be at center, or left. In a 49-way-joystick there are actually 3 levels of left depending on how far you push the stick to the left. The UltraStik has 127 levels of left because it is analog. A couple of games that used forms of an analog stick are Terminator 2 (analog gun) and Star Wars (analog yoke). You will certainly want an analog joystick to play these games.

There is an auxiliary connector on the UltraStik that can be used in input mode or output mode.

Input mode allows you to connect up to 8 buttons and these buttons will be reported as game pad buttons to the PC. This feature can save you from requiring a keyboard encoder, or allow you to use one with fewer inputs on it. Ultimarc offers an optional prewired harness for this purpose.

Output mode allows you to connect the UltraStik to a keyboard encoder or actual arcade hardware. This allows the UltraStik to be used on hardware where a USB port isn't present or perhaps on software that does not support a game pad. If the emulator you are using handles a game pad poorly, it allows you to report keystroke directions like a traditional switch based joystick if you have an encoder. The same harness for input mode can be used for output mode too. Note that you can't send maps or configure the joystick when it is hooked up via output mode only (no USB). You would need to configure it first using USB, and then put it in place on a system without USB.


How does it act like so many types of joysticks?

The custom mapping mode is the coolest thing about this joystick. It works by dividing the joysticks range of motion into a 9x9 grid. Each of the cells in this 9x9 grid can be assigned to one of the 8-way directions, center, sticky, or analog. The 8 directions and center are self-explanatory and are the same as found on a standard 8-way joystick. The sticky indicates that when the joystick is in that position, you want it to use the previous direction it was pointing to. This is useful for joining two areas that each point to a different direction. If the joystick moves to the sticky square between the two areas it will still point to the area it came from. Analog means just sent the analog value, so the analog map has every cell set to analog so it reports an analog position for every cell.


Let's look at the two basic maps:


On the left is a 4-way map. This map will only result in one of 5 directions, center, up, left, down, or right no matter where the joystick is positioned. Note the sticky symbols where the arrow meet indicating that they are sort of a gray area that should report the previous direction. The 8-way map is even simpler and as you can see it points the 8 directions where they need to be pointed.


On the left is a 2-way map. It can only send left, center or right. Perfect for Space Invaders you never need worry that up will be sent even if it will be ignored. The 4-way diagonal map shows a configuration that only allows diagonals.


On the left is a map I added myself. The reason I did this is because games like Q*Bert and Congo Bongo actually expect only the up key to be sent for up-right. The reason for this is that they used a 4-way joystick that was rotated 45 degrees clockwise. When you pressed the joystick into the up-right diagonal it was just up on the joystick. With this map, the default keys in MAME do not have to be altered and it plays just as the original hardware did, thinking it has a rotated 4-way joystick! On the right is an easy diagonals 8-way map. If you compare this to the 8-way map above, you can see that it has been modified to allow hitting the diagonals easier. In a game that benefits from hitting the diagonals more frequently, this map would help! These are examples of the flexibility you can put into a map.

This is the best secret feature of this joystick-its feel can be greatly customized to your needs. You can change the spring pressure by using one of the 3 currently available springs. You can change the throw distance by installing or removing restrictor plates. You can have a longer or shorter shaft. You can choose a regular ball top, a smaller ball top for cocktail cabinets, or an oval top. Usually when you decide on a joystick, that decision locks you into a specific throw, pressure, and type. This is not true with the UltraStik.

It comes from Ultimarc without a restrictor. This results in the largest available throw. I measure and calculate it to be 16.5 degrees before running into some resistance. You can push it a little more after it hits the resistance, maybe a 2 or 3 more degrees. One important note is that without a restrictor installed the range of motion is circular. I don't see this as a problem, but usually analog joysticks have a square range of motion.

An optional restrictor kit comes with the necessary hardware and two restrictor plates. The first restrictor plate is a circular restrictor and it restricts joystick movement to a smaller circle than the unrestricted circle. I don't really think of it as a circular restrictor, but more as a throw restrictor. I measure and calculate it to allow 10 degrees before hitting the restrictor. Unlike the unrestricted mode, once you hit the restrictor you can't add more pressure to go a little further. I personally like the way this firmer stop feels better than unrestricted.

There is also a 4-way/8-way restrictor plate. 8-way mode has 7.5 degrees in the directions up, left, down, or right and 10 degrees to the diagonal corners.

Go Forward to Part 2 >>