Builder Interview 001
Some of the most interesting and useful products in the retro gaming community are homegrown efforts of enthusiasts that are scratching their own itch and then sharing their technical experience and work ethic with the community.
Benj Edwards is an established writer and tech historian, but has started designing and building a wide array of custom joysticks to complement the many vintage computers and game consoles that have a sweet spot in our lives. The result is set of products that has brought new life to a lot of old games for casual and hardcore retro gamers alike (his thought stream on Twitter a while back illustrates this well).
With many of us splurging on improved video outputs and/or flash cards for our consoles, it is a logical next step to make sure our controls are the best they can be for the games we love or even the games we thought were a beast. This paragraph on the BX Foundry About page captures it so well:
“You’ll be surprised and delighted at how your favorite classic systems play with such precise sticks. When you use a BX Foundry joystick, it’s like lifting a ‘controller fog’ you didn’t even know you’d been living through. After trying accurate arcade parts that register every movement and press, you might wonder why you stuck with other control methods for so long. It’s an eye-opening experience that I compare to playing your favorite games again for the first time.”
Of course, well-built joysticks have been around quite a while in the fighting game community, but that market often focuses on very specific designs and platforms while also increasingly dwelling on cosmetic flash with flashy price tags to match.
Instead, Benj’s BX Foundry aims to keep costs reasonable while also creating a clean design that will give a gamer the best experience for their favorite platforms. Benj makes each joystick by hand so you can be assured that you’re getting what you pay for.
Do you want to give a basic rundown of your primary joystick models? Which models/systems seem to be the most popular at this point?
Right now I am regularly making the BX-80 for Atari/Commodore, the BX-90 for the NES, and the BX-95 for the Sega Genesis. I’m also building two models of Virtual Boy controllers in small quantities. I am working on a reliable way to produce 6-button Genesis sticks in the future, but I find that 99% of Genesis games are great with the 3-button controller.
What was the initial thought or problem that put you on the journey to create, not only a stick for yourself, but for others.
The very first joystick I ever built came about in late 2016 because I wanted to beat my high score at Nibbler on the Atari 800 (I was also playing a lot of Wizard of Wor at the time). Nibbler is a four-way maze game somewhat in the spirit of Pac-Man combined with Snake, and in the later levels you have to have split-second reflexes to make the turns needed to survive. None of the Atari joysticks I had (I probably have about 20 different models) were cutting it. So I thought it would be fun to make a real arcade 4-way joystick for the Atari. It had to have a 4-way restrictor plate so I couldn’t accidentally hit a diagonal and make a wrong move. I also wanted to make my brother a Christmas present that year, so I planned on making two of them.
My father was an electronics engineer, and he passed away in 2013. But his home workshop with all his parts and tools is still at my mom’s house. So one day I went over to my mom’s house with a Sanwa joystick assembly and some Sanwa buttons in hand and thought, “Ok, what did he have that I could use to make a joystick?” I dug through his workshop and found some vintage plastic project boxes, screws, rubber feet, and steel weights. Then I got a cable from one of my old Atari joysticks still sitting in my moms’ garage at the time. From there it was just a matter of seeing how I could fit it all in the box, cutting holes with his old drill press, and wiring it up.
The result ended up being the prototype of the BX-80. Aside from some minor part/wiring tweaks on the inside and how I mount the stick, the BX-80 I sell now is basically the same device I made that day, within a couple hours, at my mom’s house. It has a button on each side so you can either hand-hold it like an Atari CX40 or set it down on a table and use your other hand to pound away at the buttons for a shooter game. And it’s weighted inside and rubber-footed on the outside so it stays put.
I ended up making only one joystick, playing with it for a while, and giving it to my brother for Christmas that year. It was amazing. I thought I would build another one for myself, but never got around to it.
Fast forward to late summer 2018 when I was broke after a tough house move and a canceled computer exhibit that I had spent a lot of time and money on. I was trying to figure out what I could do as a service to make money. I looked around my garage and found the unbuilt parts for my second joystick, then took to Twitter to ask, on August 1st, 2018, if anyone would like me to build them a joystick. The response was enthusiastic. 150+ joysticks (37 of which were BX-80s) and three months later, I am still making joysticks.
People on Twitter kept challenging me to make sticks for different systems, so within two months I had also built joysticks for NES, Genesis, 6-button Genesis, Atari 7800, Super NES, Nintendo Switch, PC Engine, and Virtual Boy.
After all your experimenting, which systems do you think would benefit most for a joystick?
Of the ones I tested so far, I feel that the Sega Genesis benefits the most. There is a huge amazing library of games on that platform that I had not fully appreciated despite playing most of the American library once or twice.
Until I built my first Genesis joystick, I never realized that I shied away from many Genesis games because of the console’s official directional pad design. Due to patent issues, Sega had to make their D-pad a monolithic round piece of plastic instead of Nintendo’s (exposed) cross-shape, and it can be frustratingly inaccurate to use at times. So with my BX-95 stick, playing almost any Genesis game is insanely fun. It just works, every time. There are no missed presses due to worn out or slipping conductive rubber pads.
That being said, maybe people out there absolutely love the Genesis pad, and that’s fine. But I don’t, so the BX-95 is like a revelation. Once you try it, it blows you away with how accurate it is. People who have bought it on Twitter have compared it to a direct mind link with the game console. That’s obviously overblown, but for anyone to even say that is amazing.
That’s awesome — can’t wait to try one out with the Genesis Shmups library. (I’m trying to decide on the color scheme for my order with Benj)
Which classic systems actually have one of the better stock controllers?
I think Nintendo made very good controllers in the 8-bit and 16-bit years. The original NES pad design is timeless classic, inside and out. If you take apart 50 Genesis pads, you’ll find at least 5-6 circuit board design variations over the lifespan of the console. There are mechanical variations too: Some of the D-pad conductive rubber assemblies have a ball bearing in the middle, some have a weird rocker mechanism. You can tell that Sega was still struggling with its controller design all the way up until the end of the Genesis lifespan. But if you take apart an official NES control pad (the rectangular one), all of them look pretty much the same as the first wide-release American units from 1986. The design worked well, and they stuck with it.
That being said, using one of my sticks (such as the BX-90) on the NES still blows my mind. It doesn’t improve my skill at games, but it still makes me better at playing them by taking away the inaccuracies from unregistered and inaccurate presses due to worn out control pads. It has an immediate, raw quality to it. It removes a mechanical barrier between you and the game.
I have been thoroughly surprised at how playable (and even enjoyable) platformers can be with my joysticks. Most people on Twitter say they hate platformers with joysticks, but those same people have usually only ever played them with a stick like the NES Advantage, which is just a bunch of mushy conductive rubber pads with a stick on top. American-style Happ arcade sticks and buttons (the big clicky concave kind) don’t cut it either. With the super-sensitive Sanwa stick and buttons, you can make very quick and nimble movements that are necessary for platformers.
Little Samson on the NES is amazing on the BX-90 because it is a platformer/shooter. You shoot and move a lot. Mega Man also works well with the BX-90, and I regularly play Castlevania: Bloodlines with a BX-95 on the Genesis. I showed people that on Twitter, and several people said the game was terrible, which surprised me. Maybe they think that because they are using a poorly-designed or worn out controller.
At this point, the only game genres I’d probably rather play with a control pad are turn-based RPGs and maybe some puzzle games. I’m even starting to prefer Super Mario Bros. 1 with a joystick, which is completely bizarre, as that is the hallmark control pad game.
Any other random inspirations you’ve considered but haven’t pulled the trigger on yet?
I would like to be able to build PC Engine and Turbografx-16 sticks in the future without using pad hacks — still working on a board design. Also, I am hoping to introduce Sega Saturn and Neo Geo sticks soon.
What have been the biggest refinements and evolutions in your productions since you started?
At first, with the BX-80, I was just using parts from my dad’s cabinet (aside from the Sanwa parts I ordered). I had no idea what they were called or where he got them. When I ran out of parts, I went, “Uh oh.” I had to give myself a crash course in electronics and mechanical engineering within a few days just to figure out how even describe the parts to be able to find them, then buy the parts in quantity. (My knowledge of those subjects has mostly been practical up to this point, from tinkering.) I was also buying dozens of worn-out Atari sticks and using their cords until I started hitting some that were too old and worn out. That’s when I found a new source of Atari cables.
I started with literally nothing in my bank account, so every sale allowed me to slowly upgrade my tools. I’ve tried about 10 different 30mm drill bits (for cutting the button holes) to find the best one, got better wire cutters, strippers, crimpers, etc. At some point I brought in one of my dad’s old drill presses, so now I have two presses side-by-side and don’t have to switch bits as often.
For the NES pads, I started by using real NES controller guts, then a friend of mine designed a custom board for me so I don’t have to do that anymore. I got tired of soldering, so now I ordered a run of specially manufactured surface mount NES boards with snap-in connectors, and special cables to go with them. I’ve done the same for the BX-110 Super NES stick. The next step is to get the cases custom milled and molded in gray plastic so I never have to spray paint another gray case again — while the result was durable, painting has been quite a mess. Drilling holes in plastic non-stop also makes a huge mess, and I think my body is about 20% plastic shavings now after cutting so many 30mm holes.
I’ve also done all this so far without a shopping cart or website, so I am setting those up too (Note: Benj recently launched the new site at bxfoundry.com). I’m always looking ahead, still growing and learning quickly, trying to make a better product for less money so even more people can afford to enjoy these amazing joysticks I stumbled into.
Do you have any thoughts on having a stick that can be a bit more universal for a certain set of system with interchangeable connectors? There’s always that dilemma of wanting quality controls for all your consoles but not wanting to have a ton of boxes/controllers sitting around (not to mention eating up cash).
Lots of people ask for a universal stick, but I think it is more elegant to make a stick tailored to each system’s needs, or built to the play style of a particular game. Most one-sized-fits-all approaches in joysticks feel frustrating and unsatisfying to me.
Engineering a true multi-system controller would result in a complex and expensive circuit board and a bunch of different modular cables. It would be more expensive to produce (because it will be a low-quantity product), and I think the cable hassle would make it a mess. (That being said, I can’t rule out making a combo stick some day in the future if I can figure out an elegant way to do it.)
Right now, it’s technically easy to adapt a SNES stick to NES, so I might produce a simple adapter that does that some day. And the Genesis stick already also works with Sega Master System, Atari 2600/800, and Commodore 64.
Have you thought much about doing a Bluetooth version of your sticks to go along with the adapters that are making their rounds? Do you think there’s much lag/connectivity issues to worry about to eat away at the joystick’s benefits?
I have done a couple custom Bluetooth sticks using hacked off-the-shelf bluetooth gamepad parts (see 8bitdo’s selection to get ideas). I do feel that some of the latency introduced with Bluetooth defeats the purpose of the extremely accurate arcade controls. But there is definitely demand for them, so I will be addressing that in the future once things get rolling more. I would love to engineer my own Bluetooth solution.
I saw you showing off the Virtual Boy Joystick — could you maybe share some background of that project and the collaboration with the Virtual Boy with video output?
The Virtual Boy joystick thing is really fun. I got into it because Retronauts’ Jeremy Parish recently bought two video-out modded VBs, and he let me borrow one. I told him I was thinking about making a joystick for one as well, just for laughs, and he said he’d be interested.
So I tinkered around with layouts a bit, and now I am down to the two best designs, both dual joystick. They have ‘shoulder’ buttons on the back for Teleroboxer and also support platformer play well (like Wario Land). They also have power switches and AC adapter passthrough to power the VB system.
After I showed my prototype VB controller on twitter, I quickly got a handful of orders for them. A friend of mine designed a custom circuit board that will make wiring them up easier for me, and I am playing with red/black/gray color schemes for the cases. I should be able to unveil the final VB joystick design soon.
I also am going to build a couple VB joysticks for Hyper Fighting, the unofficial SFII port for the system. That game uses the right D-pad as if they were buttons, and my stick will reflect that as well. It will basically be a 6+2 fighting stick similar to the BX-110 layout. Plenty of fun times ahead!
That’s great to hear! I’m always fascinated by all the new projects you keep coming up with. That’s the beauty of doing this custom, small-batch method instead of outsourcing production in large numbers. Thanks Benj for taking to the time share your thoughts on your projects!
If you enjoyed this interview, please check out some of our past discussion topics:
- How to Build Your Dream Retro Collection Without Killing Your Budget
- Re-Building a Custom Game Room With Display as a Focus
- Combining Home Videos & Classic Games to Strengthen Family Relationships & History