Hitbox Precision on Arcade Stick: Applying Form to Controller Type

By on September 21, 2022

Recently we’ve seen FGC twitter discourse about whether or not HitBox is the optimal controller for fighting games. One of the advantages people seem to list for HitBox is an increase in precision over Arcade Stick. I think this is a common misconception. I think the actual lack of precision in Arcade Stick is caused by how people learn it, and not a problem inherent to the design of the device. However, I did not believe this until after learning how to play on HitBox.

Playing on HitBox gave me a new perspective on how to build muscle memory for movement and motion inputs. In this article I’m going to break down what I learned and how you can apply it to your own Arcade Stick play. I’ll show you how I played Stick when I first learned it, what I learned by playing HitBox, and then finally how I play Stick now.

Imprecision on Stick vs. Hitbox

When I learned how to play Stick, the first thing I did was go onto YouTube and look up a guide. All the guides at that time had a similar message: play what’s comfortable and practice, practice, practice. In other words, I learned Stick by brute force. With absolutely zero plan or design, I just grabbed the joystick and went straight to practicing motion inputs.

I’d go do a quarter circle, and I’d think “okay, I just need to get this from down to forward in one sweeping motion.”

Iconography oof a quater-circle forward + punch input from street fighter.

But that was imprecise. Sometimes I would start from down back, or I’d end up at up-foward. There was even a time when I was doing down-back to down-forward on an octagonal gate, and I was having a super hard time telling where my stick was.

Every time I went to practice a motion input, it was all at once, all in one movement. I was imprecise on Stick because I didn’t have a strong grasp of how to deliberately start and stop movements at specific positions of the joystick. I also couldn’t guarantee that I hit all the points I needed between the start and stop of a motion.

With enough practice, you can get consistent, but this method is flawed. You have to start the learning process over again for each new motion input. For example, half-circles feel like a completely different beast compared to quarter-circles, even though a quarter-circle is nested inside the half-circle! It’s difficult to build on what you’ve already learned if you do not have a solid foundation.

Inputs on Hitbox

Learning HitBox is very different from Stick. The unique thing about it is that it forces you, as a player, to be deliberate and precise when doing any kind of movement. This is because the movement is mapped to buttons, and there’s a distinct combination of buttons to press for each of the nine directions.

Diagram of directional inputs on hitbox-style controllers.

This means that as a player, you build a one-to-one map of each direction to specific muscle memory. Every motion input is now a sequence of these button presses. You leverage the muscle memory from your one-to-one map when learning any new motion input. In other words, HitBox forces you to learn building blocks and build sequences of those building blocks in order to get anything done.

A diagram of a quarter-circle forward input on hitbox-style controllers.

I would argue that the reason players gain increased execution by switching to HitBox is that they are forced to learn it this way. There’s no room for ambiguity, so there’s no room to add or miss a direction.

HitBox also has cool SOCD tricks and fancy things in games that feature input shortcuts, especially SFV, but I’m not going to get into any of that here. The important takeaway is the method of learning the motion inputs.

The Precise Stick Hypothesis

Now, why was I so imprecise on Stick? It has distinct joystick positions that map to each direction, much like HitBox’s buttons.

Diagram of directional inputs on an arcade stick.

When I played Stick before I could not accurately gauge the position of my joystick. But what if there was a way to build a one-to-one map of directional inputs to muscle memory and use that muscle memory as building blocks just like HitBox? Then we could look at the motion inputs as a sequence of the building blocks on Stick, too.

Diagram of a quarter-circle forward input on arcade stick.

If we could gain muscle memory on stick to the extent that there’s no room for ambiguity, then we would be just as precise as HitBox players. Well, good news! We totally can. No, wait! Don’t leave yet; I’m not just telling you to git gud. I’m going to show you how!

Introducing the Open Hand Style

When I swapped back to Stick, the first thing I did was go on YouTube and look up Arcade Stick grips. I found a video made by The Electric Underground that explained a form called the Open Hand Style.

The philosophy behind this form works the same way as HitBox, but instead of a distinct combination of buttons for each direction, we’re going to learn a specific hand pose. We’ll have nine hand poses total, and we’re going to use these to create our one-to-one map of direction to muscle memory; here’s a diagram of the poses.

Diagram of hand poses for Open Hand Style arcade stick grip.

Each pose feels unique to your hand so that when you form the pose, you know it is hitting the direction you expect.

The part of your hand that you push or pull the stick with is also unique to each pose. This helps prevent common execution mistakes, such as jumping when moving from down-back to back. Instead of pushing the stick upwards to get to the back direction, you simply let go of the part of your hand that is pushing down. The other part of your hand is pushing back, so you will move the joystick to the back direction perfectly.

Motion Inputs with Open Hand Style

Our goal is to think of motion inputs as a sequence of building blocks. We’ll use these hand poses as our building blocks and make sequences of them, just like HitBox does with its buttons. The poses are designed to link together in two ways; the first way is by moving in a circle. So, to do a quarter-circle-forward for instance, we’re going to do it by doing the pose for down, then down-forward, then forward.

Diagram of a quater-circle forward motion using Open Hand arcade stick grip.

The second way to link poses together is by returning to the neutral pose before doing the next pose. So, to do a shoryuken motion, you make the pose for forward, then neutral, then down, then down-forward.

Diagram of a dragon punch motion using Open Hand aracde stick grip.

Use these hand poses for absolutely everything. If you pick and choose when to use the Open Hand Style, then you defeat its entire purpose. Recall that HitBox players are forced to play this way, and that’s why they are consistent. Being a Stick player means you have to choose to be strict and deliberate with your inputs because the controller will not make that choice for you.

Form is a Framework

The major benefit to adopting the concept of form when it comes to execution is that our execution mistakes become form mistakes. Form is a framework that gives us the ability to correct our physical mistakes in a concrete and actionable way.

I’ll use myself as an example. I tried playing Guilty Gear Strive shortly after learning the Open Hand Style. I kept dropping the input for a super on the player-two side. I looked at my inputs in the input history and saw that I was missing the back direction. I realized this must mean I’m not following through on the pose for neutral-right. I slowed down and made sure I hit that pose all the way through before snapping through the neutral pose to the pose for neutral-left to finish the super. I haven’t missed a super input in Guilty Gear since!

Approaching my execution mistake as a form mistake gave me something actionable that I could fix right away, as opposed to just banging my head against the wall trying to teach myself to roll my hand in the correct motion. A “proper form” would make the process of learning much faster for players picking up Arcade Stick and would also allow us to help each other realize what our mistakes or bad habits are.

If you really want to achieve precision, then you need some sort of structure that allows you to deliberately move the stick to precise positions. So, even if you choose not to use the Open Hand Style specifically, consider learning another form or creating your own.

Content creators that excel at execution usually have a form for their inputs, even if they don’t call it that. Look at Y. Xiao’s motion input tutorial videos, and you can see that he is precisely moving the stick with deliberate, targeted motions. He uses different fingers to move the stick to different positions.

Reducing Complexity by Raising the Skill Floor

You’ll probably hear people say that HitBox has a higher skill floor than Arcade Stick. If you apply the concept of form to using an Arcade Stick, then you’ll increase the skill floor for yourself in the same way that HitBox does; however, the trade-off is that the really complex motions become a simple list of steps. Sometimes, the list of steps can be long and hard to finish in a small time window, but if you practice while using form you’ll keep your precision as you gain speed.

For an example, let’s look at two motion inputs that have a reputation in the FGC for being difficult:

First up is the Korean Backdash from Tekken. The challenging thing about Korean Backdash is that to do it properly you cannot input quarter-circle-back. Doing so results in a sway. So, to properly KBD you need to be precise to input it correctly.

Diagram of Korean Backdash input on hitbox-style controllers

This doesn’t look so bad when you look at it as Hitbox inputs. Let’s look at what it takes to do on Stick with the Open Hand Style.

Diagram of Korean Backdash input using Open Hand arcade stick grip.

In both cases, you already know how to precisely input each step without any ambiguity. So all you need to do is string them together. You’re just learning a pattern and increasing the speed at which you can perform it.

Second, the traditional pretzel motion for Geese Howard’s Raging Storm. Let’s look at it on HitBox.

Diagram of pretzel input on Hitbox-style controllers.

And on Stick with the Open Hand Style.

Diagram of a pretzel input using Open Hand arcade stick grip.

Admittedly, the long sequence is intimidating, however, we gain another advantage to this series of steps. The middle series of steps is exactly the same as a half-circle-back. So if we perfect that, all we need to do is get used to adding the down-back and down-forward inputs. We also add the neutral pose as a way to link from down-back to the half-circle, then again to link from the half-circle to down-forward.

So why is the pretzel motion considered one of the hardest in fighting game history? Because it is not the norm in the FGC to play Arcade Stick using form. A player who does not use form may miss the beginning or ending of the half-circle-back when switching to or from the two new steps. It all comes down to the precision of the player’s inputs.

Is This Worth It?

You’re probably wondering right now if this is really worth doing. This is asking you to put in more effort than just doing what’s comfortable. Well, let me answer this with an anecdote.

When I was in high school, I took Golf as my physical activity class. I don’t know if you’ve ever swung a golf club before, but let me tell you, the first time you do it with proper form it is the most unnatural, alien thing you’ll ever force your body to do. It’s not enough to just walk up to the ball and swing. If you do that, you probably won’t even hit the ball! There are a hundred little things to think about when mastering a golf swing, and you need a mastery of it in order to hit the ball with the club face, but guess what, after a couple weeks of golf practice, everything I learned felt completely comfortable.

My point is that you shouldn’t value comfort over technique in the long-term, because technique becomes comfort with persistence. If you’re playing fighting games you’re going to be practicing anyways, so you might as well start with a strong foundation and build on top of that.

Consistent execution alone won’t win you games. This isn’t some magic grip that will let you get top 8s in tournaments. This is a tool in your utility belt, and it’s still up to you to be Batman.

My last point for why you should consider adopting a “form” for Arcade Stick is this question: Do you believe HitBox is more precise than Arcade Stick?

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