The humble video game controller is one of the most important elements of interactive entertainment; it is your interface to an immersive virtual world and any shortcomings it may have (Kinect, we're looking at you) impact massively on your overall enjoyment. It's equally true, however, that not all controllers are created equal, and as gaming as matured we've seen a proliferation of different interface options to cater for the growing number of genres on offer.
Despite this evolution, one controller type has remained constant almost since the inception of the industry: the arcade stick. Long before D-Pads and fancy analogue wands became commonplace, gamers grew up with this iconic coin-op control system, comprising of a ball-topped stick and big, friendly buttons – both elements built to withstand the incredible amounts of punishment they would receive at the hands of rabid arcade patrons. While the industry has adopted analogue control as standard today – the Switch doesn't even come with a traditional digital pad – old-school arcade sticks still exist, with demand partly fuelled by the resurgence of the one-on-one fighting game. It's not uncommon to see truly committed players spend well over £100 on the very best arcade stick option from companies like Hori, but even that level of dedication pales in comparison to the courage (and deep pockets) required to invest in the first product from UK-based start-up Shika Arcades.
Shika founder Ed Taylor gave himself one mission: to create the best arcade stick controller for the Super Nintendo. The result is the SOZU.S1, named after a bamboo "scaredeer" device used in Japan. It has taken him 18 months to realise this vision, and we've been lucky enough to get access to one of these incredible controllers for review.
Right from the moment you open the packaging, the SOZU.S1 is unique. Shika Arcades ship each one in its own wooden box with a slide-off lid, so it can be stored away and protected when it's not in use. Included with each unit is a certificate of authenticity, a set of card instructions and a rather fetching limited edition T-Shirt showcasing an exploded engineering drawing of the SOZU.S1 itself. There's also a brass token which matches the exact size of a 100 Yen coin – the currency of choice for old-school Japanese arcade-goers. Our unit also shipped with a drinks coaster made of slate, emblazoned with the Shika Arcades logo – the company clearly likes giving you cool free items when you buy one of its products.
Once you've extracted the controller from its gorgeous packaging and screwed the ball onto the top of the stick (it's detached when in transit) you get some time to appreciate just how incredibly well-build this thing is. The model you see here is the Duotone edition, but a 'Natural' finish version is planned for the next production batch. Precision machined and hand-finished from architectural-grade bamboo, the SOZU.S1 boasts an oiled hard-wax coating which is resistant to moisture (and who doesn't get a little sweaty when playing Street Fighter II, right?). Perhaps more importantly, it feels robust and solid without being too heavy or awkward to use, even when it's resting on your knees. The internals are all Sanwa-made parts – a name which will be familiar to anyone who is a keen follower of arcade gaming. The Sanwa JLF-TP-8YT ball-top stick is present alongside Sanwa OBS-30B/24B buttons, selected for their reliable OMRON pin plunger microswitches. Practically every single input on the SOZU.S1 emits a reassuring click when used, something which will make veteran arcade players feel particularly nostalgic.
In terms of interesting extras, the SOZU.S1 has an adjustable turbo dial – perfect for shooters which lack an auto-fire option – and three switches above the buttons. These high-quality switches allow you to instantly re-map the configuration for that column of buttons; the included instructions do a good job of explaining this process. Elsewhere, there's an inlaid token (like the one which comes in the box) and the lead is covered in thick, wear-resistant red braiding to ensure longevity. Even the plug which connects to the SNES itself is protected by a '1st Edition' end support to prevent wear and tear on the joint.
In action, the SOZU.S1 is a dream to use. Clicky controls may be an acquired taste for some, but there's something joyfully tactile about using microswitched sticks and buttons when compared to the comparatively dull and lifeless contact-based inputs on other pads. On a modern system an arcade stick like this would be limited in scope as it lacks analogue control, but on the SNES – which is from the days of digital control – it's not an issue; we tested every possible genre – from shooters to platformers to fighting games – and the SOZU.S1 performed admirably. Our only complaint is that the plug feels a little bit tight when inserted into the SNES' controller port; it sometimes feels like you're going to break it if you force it too much. It's also a shame that the SOZU.S1 is only compatible with the SNES – it would have been welcome to have multiple controller plugs included so it could be used on systems like the Neo Geo, Mega Drive and PC Engine; this would have obviously increased the overall cost, however.
The other sticking point is the price. At £395 / $550 (the original price was £450 / $630, but Shika Arcades was able to secure more favourable terms with its suppliers and reduced the cost, refunding anyone who had purchased a stick up to that point the difference) the SOZU.S1 isn't an impulse purchase, and there are much cheaper alternatives available on the secondary market should you only be after the 'arcade' experience on your SNES. However, if money is no object and you want the best possible control option for your beloved 16-bit console, then the SOZU.S1 is essential. It's so much more than just a controller; it's a work of art into which Shika Arcades has poured 18 months of love, care and attention. It won't be within every SNES owner's price range, but if you can afford it, it's well worth considering.