Previous: A Certain Magical Virtual-On
A thing that made Virtual-On in the arcades eye-catching was its setup of two sticks. This setup, named Twin Stick, is what defined Virtual-On‘s uniqueness even among arcade games. On the home front, you’ve most often had the option of using whatever standard control pad you had, or buying a Twin Stick controller. The difference between the two can not be overstated. A gamepad, even with the two thumbsticks, is not comparable to the intuitive and direct control the Twin Stick gives you. It’s extremely intuitive and easy on the surface how you control your Virtuaroid, as using Twin Stick resembles your standard tank controls. However, the moment the controls’ depth clicks and how much direct control you have, the tank-ness of things vanishes and you find yourself with one of the fastest and most furious of games in your hands. The skill ceiling is staggeringly high, as Virtual-On games have tons of techniques a beginner can only grasp. From how to approach your opponent to all the weapons firing differently depending on how you are moving and what position the sticks are in, the games offer nearly endless depth. Oratorio Tangram, the second game in the series, is still the most played and most popular, as it also happens to be the fastest game in the series.
The controls require some explanation, despite the basics being easy to grasp after a minute or two. Talking about the Twin Sticks themselves makes little sense if you don’t know why they are so integral.
The basic controls are as follows;
- Pushing either lever in a direction while the other lever is at neutral, your Virtuaroid will walk in that direction
- Pushing both levers in a direction, your Virtuaroid will run in that direction
- Pushing the levers in opposite forwards/backward, your Virtuaroid will turn clockwise or counter-clockwise
- Pushing the levers at opposite left/right outwards, your Virtuaroid will jump
- Pushing the levers towards each other will make your Virtuaroid Guard
Attacking and Dashing are done by the buttons on the sticks;
- Right Weapon is fired with the Right lever’s trigger. By standard, it is a kind of projectile
- Left Weapon is by the Right lever’s trigger. By standard, it is some kind of explosive or a bomb
- The Center weapon is fired when the triggers are pressed together. It is usually a strong, but a slow weapon.
- When at a close range, Long-range weapons are changed to close-combat weapons
- The Thumb button with a Lever direction will make your Virtuaroid dash in that direction.
- In the original game, both Thumb buttons are required to be pressed down for the dash. Oratorio Tangram requires only one. FORCE requires the other thumb stick to be used in changing targets, as the game is 2 versus 2
Here’s an edited version of Oratorio Tangram‘s attract mode, with only the How To Play segments present
As mentioned, each of the three weapons has multiple modes of fire depending on what action you are in and in what direction. This changes the weapons’ properties and strengths. For example, one direction makes your Virtuaroid shoot out five smaller shots, while the opposite shoots three larger, more powerful shots. Furthermore, some Virtuaroids have secret attacks they can enact and require special input. Numerous attacks can be canceled or half-canceled into other actions, while Dashing attacks can’t. Movement options are also far more abundant than they first appear. For example, you can increase your Virtuaroid’s falling speed by making them Guard. Quickstep is another useful move, which includes releasing the Dash the very moment you input a direction. The Dash is canceled and your Virtuaroid has taken a fast step instead.
There are numerous systems that aren’t clear at first and most players won’t notice. These include things like how movement speed is relative to the distance between the Virtuaroids, and speed decreases the closer they are together. This can be tracked as the game has a distance counter in the lock-on reticle. Certain attacks gain more power as they travel across the stage, while others effectively lose all of their hitting power. The damage dealt over time also increases and carries over to subsequent rounds. The damage maxes out at +10% at one minute mark.
There is no traditional lock-in in Virtual-On, which throws numerous people off. Virtual-On has an unorthodox automatic lock-on when Jumping or Dashing, which rotates the screen and the Virtuaroid towards the opponent as well. Advanced players tend to use Air Dash Cancel and Quickstep instead, as both of these require Jump and Dashing respectively, but are much faster. This system is cumbersome at first, but at the same time, it promotes the discovery and learning of tons of techniques and methods when and how to cancel movements and options. Being aware of your surroundings becomes important as well for the sake of your own positioning in the stage geometry. Mizuumi Wiki has a page with a rather complete breakdown of the controls for Oratorio Tangram, and I would recommend giving it a look if you find yourself interested. It’s not completely applicable to the other games in the series, but the core basics are the same. There is an exhaustive Japanese wiki for Oratorio Tangram, Cyber Troopers Virtual-On Unofficial Anniversary Site, if that scratches your interest.
That is a long and infodump way to say that Virtual-On‘s Twin Sticks are very much the heart and soul of how the game plays out. The series is often counted as a Fighting game due to similarities in generic strategies of pressuring the opponent with neutral and low commitment attacks while closing in and punishing mistakes the opponent may make. The only games that are similar in direct comparison are Senko no Ronde and Acceleration of Suguri, which are best described as Virtual-On in 2D plane. Nevertheless, because the controls require much skill and dedication to be fully taken advantage of, the standard control pads don’t cut it. There is certain immediacy that Twin Stick offers and there are no extra buttons or even shapes to deal with. The game has been purpose-built with these two levers, and anything else comes short. When A Certain Magical Virtual-On changes its controls to fully accommodate the gamepad, large amounts of intricacies and techniques were lost. It is the best Virtual-On for a gamepad, but after spending some with a Twin Stick with other entries in the series, it becomes a much hollower game. You could always dish out money for a limited-run Twin Stick, but that option is out of reach for many.
Let’s take a look at what kind of Twin Sticks the series has been using throughout the years. While we will touch on some of the arcade controls, this is in no fashion and exhaustive look due to all the manufacturing and repair variations there are.
From left to right; Japanese cabinet, US P1 and US P2
There are a few types of cabinets the Twin Sticks first appeared in. The original Japanese cabinet from 1995 has more visual flavour to it and could be found as a twin unit. The European and American releases had the same, less flourished designed to them, but were often a set. A divider would be between the player’s views, with the American having a different design to the Japanese cabinet. There was also a Versus City cabinet, which was two Astro City units merged into back-to-back. Versus City cabinets were extensively used by Capcom as well and were used in fighting game tournaments. Each cabinet could be revised with a new game and hardware, and some titles would support game-specific messages at the top digital display too. Marvel VS Capcom was one of the games that used a Versus City cabinet, and from personal experience, I can attest Street Fighter IV did too. The two cabinet styles had different sticks, probably because a lot of used Virtual-On control panels that are found in the wild are sold as broken. Sega would revise these sticks. While images for the Virtual-On Versus City cabinets are rare, we do have images of the control panels for the first game and Oratorio Tangram. Sega made sure the cabinets were universal by designing a modular control panel, where operators could quickly switch the top out if a new game needed different controls.
There are some control panels sold on eBay, from which we can see that these are either European or American controls. The left one, Master Site, was often colored blue and was effectively Player One. Player Two was pink and got the name Slave Site. They are, however, more or less the same. There are only a few visual key differences, like the panel to the right, but otherwise even the control explanations are the same. The Operation decal is extremely to the point and showcases how deceptively easy the controls seem a first. These sticks were also very robustly built, partially why the Versus City cabinets probably used Sanwa parts rather than what we see below.
On the left, we have what was found in the Japanese Virtual-On cabinet, and on the right, we have what’s in a European cabinet. The difference is that the Japanese use Sanwa parts and have a square gate, while the European sticks have much more heft to them and have a round gate. There’s really no reason to assume the American market didn’t share the same build as the European stick.
These robust sticks were made to withstand thousands of clicks, though the switches themselves are more or less the same stock as you’d find in any contemporary arcade stick. The arcade cabinet is using a square gate form here, meaning you’d feel a round shape when twirling the levers around. These sticks would have stickers on the black steel housing, with some being labeled as Model 2B. This is a reference to the hardware revision used, as Virtual-On ran on Sega 2B CRX. These sticks would get tons of abuse, from people hitting them in anger, and food and drink being spilled on top of them. Looking at used sticks sold at auction sites, you often find them rusty.
The joystick itself is probably the least interesting in the whole build, as it is a two-halve plastic housing with a standard trigger and a thumb push button. The parts of the course are of “arcade quality,” meaning the components used are standard for the industry and should withstand tens of thousands of activations. In principle, making your very own Twin Stick is stupidly easy nowadays, as long as you don’t cinch on the components. It might look a bit like an old Quickshot joystick, but far sturdier and it has a better feel to it. Note that while all the Thumb buttons shown in this post are round, the original Virtual-On cabinet in the US used square buttons, often seen in Happ-styled flight sticks. Also note that before Sega unified the sticks themselves, the original sticks were far thicker. If these hardware differences interest you, you might want to check out what Oratorio Tangram‘s arcade Twin Sticks look like when disassembled.
The original Virtual-On could be converted to function like an Oratorio Tangram cabinet, and there have been Oratorio Tangram cabinets that were converted to play FORCE. The levers have changed slightly throughout the years, with Sega at some point apparently abandoning this original hefty built in favor of the lighter models used in Versus City cabinets. Arcade.Tokyo has a short post about his experience with one of these slimmer candy cabinets, where the aesthetics are very much on the lighter side.
All this means that after Sega decided to use these shorter build sticks for Versus City, the Twin Sticks would be built based on Sanwa arcade stick parts over the original unbranded ones. As Oratorio Tangram could be converted into FORCE cabinets, there weren’t any changes to the sticks themselves. As per Sega’s standardization, these control panels could be switched in and out from their generic cabinets. This would also mean that outside the original Virtual-On cabinet, the controls would make a square shape when moved around, not a circle, as that’s the standard restrictor plate found in generic arcade machines. It is the most commonly used restrictor plate to this day.
All in all, the hardware for the Twin Stick is not exactly groundbreaking. It’s very much in line with existing parts and products that were put to good use. Much like how arcade games always had to be downsized for the home market, so were numerous control methods and even controllers themselves. It took some time for common accessories like steering wheels and pedals to step up their game and match the quality of their arcade counterparts. That is not to say that all these are uniform. For whatever reason, there are tons of variations in how the arcade Twin Stick controls were built. Very few of these appear on the surface, but things like some controls have fewer structural support parts, and some sticks inside are squared off instead of being round rods. Without a doubt, some of these variations are results of operators fixing the controls, while some probably are just manufacturing changes for numerous reasons, like easier assembly with fewer components or finding cost-friendlier parts. This is why it would be effectively impossible to do an exhaustive and complete view on all the variations on Twin Stick controls in the arcades, hence this overall glance at them and their insides has to suffice.
The first home release of Cyber Trooper Virtual-On also delivered us the first Twin Stick controller for the Sega Saturn. This was slated to be released in the US at some point but never did. In the end, no Twin Stick controller would ever be released in the US or Europe, leaving arcades the only place where you could play the game with Twin Stick, or import one from Japan.
The HSS-0154 SEGA SATURN TWIN-STICK controller promises to recreate the excitement of the arcade experience, but in reality, it really doesn’t. The Saturn Twin Stick uses the same overall housing as the Saturn HSS-0136 Virtua Stick, an Astro City arcade cabinet-themed arcade stick. The only difference is the top plate, which houses the graphics and the levers themselves, and the lack of multiple switches at the top front. While the Virtua Stick has two versions, one with ASCII switches and one with Seimitsu’s parts. The difference between these two is that Seimitsu is of higher quality and should last longer. With the Twin Stick being a later controller model, all variants seem to use the same ASCII parts as the levers’ actuators. However, the weak spot of the Saturn Twin Stick comes with its use of ASCII’s parts. While ASCII did manufacture decent controllers and parts in the mid-1990s, they are very much of lower quality compared to Sanwa or Seimitsu’s parts. Its sticks also have a tendency to rotate slightly, something that’s up to opinion whether or not that’s a good thing. Some find the twisting more comfortable, as the hands then to find a more natural position and angle, while others want stiff sticks like in the arcades.
While ASCII parts may not be arcade-quality per se, they are nevertheless acceptable for home use and do rank well into the medium-consumer grade. Arcade-quality is a more or less commonly used marketing tactic, something loads of enthusiasts like to mimic. While you will find some of these sticks in a bad overall shape, even mediocre condition sticks work remarkably well. A stock purchase from eBay can yield a controller that plays almost as well when it was new. ASCII parts may be maligned when it comes to the Saturn Virtua Stick, which has a healthy modding community behind it due to its aesthetics, the Saturn Twin Stick doesn’t suffer the same bad rep. In fact, between this and the more desired Dreamcast Twin Stick, the Saturn version has been reported to withstand more abuse and longer sessions than the Dreamcast version. Oratan.com offers a view on a modified Dreamcast Twin Stick, but sadly it does not list who manufactured what. Sega has recycled the sticks themselves from the Saturn version of the controller, so the overall feeling might be similar, and the orange/greys aesthetics might fit some better, but longevity is not the Dreamcast’s side.
The issue with Dreamcast Twin Stick lies in the initial run use of a worse quality spring, which returns a lever to its neutral position. This yellow-colored spring would apparently simply break. The later production run of the controller would change this to a sturdier green spring. While there are no true indicators of what parts were used to make the sticks, they are very close to Seimitsu’s LS-56-01 stick, though the stock spring from Seimitsu is a few millimeters shorter than what Sega put inside the Dreamcast Twin Stick. It’s a crapshoot what parts you get in the secondhand market if the seller is not willing to open their controller.
However, modifying these two controllers is rather easy, as all you really need to do is change actuators and use the longer shaft. You might not want to lose the decal that’s on the Saturn stick, as the screws holding the sticks in place are under it, but using denatured alcohol to loosen the adhesive’s bond is an easy to way to remove it. Alternatively, simply remove the decal and buy a new one from the Internet by using some printing service.
Certainly, the Saturn Twin Stick is a budget release in many ways. Objectively speaking, it has the lowest cost parts out of all the Twin Sticks and was designed for children’s hands. For example, the distance between the sticks is shorter in the Saturn Twin Stick than in any other. That’s probably partially because of budget and partially because it is using the same plastic housing as the Virtua Stick. Realistically speaking, the Saturn would be the last console children would play Virtual-On on.
With the slow death of the arcades, Virtual-On moved to the PlayStation 2 with MARS. For this fourth game, Sega did not manufacture a Twin Stick for the game. Instead, the player could choose between a standard controller-specific setup, or using the two thumb sticks to emulate Twin Stick controls. Using the thumb sticks takes time to learn, as you’re expected to use the shoulder buttons for the rest of the controls. The Trigger and thumb buttons are relegated to the Dualshock’s shoulder buttons, which get rather awkward, but will ultimately offer superior controls.
With the Xbox 360 getting Virtual-On MARS and Oratorio Tangram, and PlayStation 3 seeing a direct port of the first game to the PlayStation 3, HORI would step up and manufacture extremely limited amounts of Twin Sticks for the consoles for 2010. The two controllers are exactly the same, just with console-specific bells and whistles attached. There was even a version specifically made for FORCE, which amounts to having an extra decal on the controller.
The issue with either of these controllers for the customers has been their price. HORI fetched a premium sum for these controllers, about 30 000 yen, and aftermarket sellers often ask for even higher prices. Aesthetically they are the most mature, but the least fitting for the franchise. These replicate the original arcade setup with the Start button in the middle, but for the first time, all the face action buttons on the standard controller have been added at the top front. Previously console Twin Sticks have managed to achieve the controls by using combinations of buttons to initiate an action, but with these HORI controllers, the levers are effectively the thumb sticks with shoulder buttons on them. These Twin Sticks had a small surge in demand after it was confirmed they’d work with the Masterpiece collection on the PlayStation 4. These controllers have been reported to be solid, and if HORI’s track record with their controllers since the 1980s is anything to go by, they probably are worth the money. It’s probable they were built on HORI’s expertise from their arcade stick side of the business and decided to use the more high-end consumer range parts.
A Twitter user, apply named VOTwinstick, posted a fully disassembled view of the lever assembly, which should be more or less the same as what the games have been using ever since Versus City cabinets adopted the Sanwa parts. The photo may be lacking the main PCB itself with the switches, but the parts that make up the rest of the stick are easily visible. Japanese blog Haphazard Blog (the author uses a temporary name of Alan Smithee) also contains a post about modifying HORI’s EX Twin Stick with Semitsu LSX-57 lever. The photos are tiny, but the overall setup hasn’t changed since the first consumer Twin Stick for the Saturn.
The Masterpiece collection hitting the PlayStation 4 was a piece of massive news for the fans. A Certain Magical Virtual-On had resorted to completely redesigning the controls for the DualShock, and with that tons of intricacies and tactics were lost. This is due to the revised controls themselves being a modern interpretation of the Twin Stick controls and everything that comes with assisted controlling. Tons of tactics and methods were simply locked out. Hori didn’t produce Twin Sticks for this round, but a lesser-known gaming peripheral company named Tanita did. They’ve promoted themselves as a company for healthier gaming, and their first big project was the Tanita Twin Stick.
The VDC-18-c 18 Type Control Device “Twin Stick” was first revealed at CES 2019 in Las Vegas. The prototype controller wasn’t all that attractive and its levers were of lower stock quality. However, the finalized limited production controller rolled out in 2020 (that you could order through Sanwadenshi official shop for 60 500 yen) ditches the previous iterations’ aesthetics and conventions. Now much wider and wholly made out of metal, the Tanita Twin Stick has made waves among the fans on how good the controller has been. It’s a Sanwa product at heart, using Sanwa sticks and buttons. Tanita could afford to manufacture two editions of this stick. The first was a crowdfunded version, which was sent to initial backers first. The second edition was a limited mass-production version, in which Tanita had managed to streamline some of the processes. However, it still ended up costing more than the crowdfunded version, hence the 60k yen price tag. This stick is currently the only way to play A Certain Magical Virtual-On under a Twin Stick setup, unless you want to use the thumb sticks as the Twin Sticks. This 440€ controller is currently the most expensive Twin Stick, and most likely one of the last iterations Twin Stick will see commercially.
The Twin Stick makes and breaks Virtual-On. However, due to all the variations in how Twin Sticks have been built throughout the years, be it in the arcades or at home, there is no one true setup. Some of these have been built light and moving the levers happens quickly and responds well to twitchy movements. At the opposite end, you have the European/American arcade controls, which are built like tank controls. To many whatever the arcades provide is the best, the only option. For others, they can make do with whatever they find more preferable for a variety of reasons, and we can always build better than what has been in the arcades. There still is a healthy albeit small scene of people enthusiastically building their own Twin Stick controllers by using whatever applicable flight yokes they might find to their liking and hacking the controller together from various cheap gamepads and whatnot. Nowadays, it’s become ever easier to make yourself one with little to no knowledge of things like soldering or electronics in general, and thus having yourself a relatively cheap but equally functional Twin Stick, with some caveats, is well within your grasp.
Next; A guide to making a PS4 and PC compatible Twin Stick