While it lacks the unique motion control of the Wii and the tilt sensitivity of the PlayStation 3, there's a lot to like about the Xbox 360 controller. It took the already solid Xbox Controller-S gamepad design and further refined it, adding a pair of shoulder buttons, wireless connectivity, and improved ergonomics. But that's not to say it's perfect. The dual thumbstick plus D-pad controls can leave something to be desired, especially when you're playing an Xbox Live Arcade title. To fill that void, Mad Catz has released the Arcade GameStick.
As the name suggests, the Arcade GameStick has a more traditional joystick look and feel than the default Xbox 360 gamepad. Except for the two shoulder/trigger buttons on each of the front corners, all of the controls are crammed into the 5-inch square top face of the base. The key feature is a 3.5-inch joystick, situated on the upper-left quadrant. On the bottom right is a more standard thumbstick, but it's ringed by a circular spinner control (more on that later). A four-way directional pad and the standard A, B, X, and Y buttons occupy the other two quadrants of the front face, with some other required 360 keys (back, start, the "dashboard guide" button) squeezed in as well. The bottom side of the GameStick's base has a connector for attaching Xbox Live headsets.
In addition to the joystick and the spinner, the Arcade GameStick also offers a "turbo" button. When activated, it automatically multiplies the A, B, X, Y, and right and left shoulder buttons two, three, or six times--depending on which of the three modes you've selected--if you keep the button depressed. While some people might classify that as cheating (especially for online multiplayer games), others will appreciate the extra help during intensive button-mashing gameplay. Each button can be programmed for the turbo function individually, so you can customize it to your gameplay--or keep it deactivated if you'd prefer.
The GameStick includes the codes to unlock three free Xbox Live Arcade titles--Frogger, Time Pilot, and AstroPop. Not surprisingly, each one plays to the GameStick's strengths. Like Pac-Man, Frogger's gameplay requires just a joystick--no buttons--so being able to grasp the ArcadeStick provides a more visceral connection to the game than the D-pad or thumbsticks on the standard 360 controller. Likewise, Time Pilot--where your fighter jet centered on the screen takes on a swarm of incoming hostile bogeys--plays great as well. The joystick is topped off with a button (essentially, a second "A" button), so--when playing vintage games that require only a single button--you can simply work the stick while your left hand stabilizes the controller's base. AstroPop, meanwhile, was a great demo of the spinner control. Because the game is a cousin of Breakout and Arkanoid, the paddlelike spinner is perfect for maneuvering the onscreen cursor from left to right.
While the joystick, spinner, and turbo controls all worked as advertised, the Arcade GameStick didn't quite win us over. For one thing, Mad Catz's decision to orient the joystick on the upper-left side of the controller made it awkward to use for right-handers. Interestingly, early descriptions of the product mentioned that the joystick could be swapped between one of two thumbsticks--but it appears that Mad Catz couldn't make that option work. That's too bad; while lefties will likely relish the reversal, the GameStick's final configuration almost feels like a mirror image of what would be comfortable for everyone else.
Likewise, the GameStick's appeal was considerably diminished when we strayed from Xbox Live Arcade titles. The joystick and spinner were more of a liability than an asset when playing traditional 360 fare such as Gears of War or Lost Planet. And while it delivers the same rumble features as traditional Xbox controllers, the GameStick isn't wireless. While that's not the fault of Mad Catz--to date, Microsoft refuses to allow third-party manufacturers to offer wireless Xbox 360 peripherals--you're the one stuck with a cord running to your fancy "wireless" game console. On the bright side, the cable is an ample 10 feet long. Furthermore, the GameStick is compatible with Windows PCs--just plug it into a free USB port, and the OS should be able to pull a generic driver off the Web.
The other problem with the Arcade GameStick is the price. It's one thing to pay $20 for a semidisposable Mad Catz controller, but paying three times that is another thing altogether. Yes, the three free games help ease the sting, but that's little consolation if you already own them. While the GameStick is sturdy enough, it has something of a cheap look and feel to it. With no wireless support, it looks like it should be a $35 or $40 device at most.
In the final analysis, whether or not the Mad Catz Arcade GameStick is a worthwhile purchase is a pretty subjective decision. If you play a lot of Xbox Live Arcade titles and the standard 360 gamepad isn't working out for you, the GameStick is a viable option. And until we see something like a 360 version of the X-Arcade Joystick, it's pretty much the only option.