Enter the ASCII line of sticks featuring near-silent optical stick mechs.
The family of sticks using this mech include the ASCII Stick Justice (matching Capcom's Rival Schools / Project Justice game), and the ASCII Stick Zero (matching Capcom's Street Fighter Zero 3), several Dreamcast sticks, and the one shown below, the ASCII Stick 3 Ultimate.
The Ultimate featured here is heavily modified, so is nearly the same as the other two sticks. The original Ultimate was programmable, with a large LCD screen and memory card slot. This review will focus on the primary features: the stick, the buttons, and the base.
These sticks featured a delicious octagonal gate, and all eight playstation buttons. The Ultimate has two additional buttons, used for activating special moves. The Zero 3 has a vibration feature, the other two do not.
All three of these sticks feel good when you first lay hands on 'em. They're very well constructed, with a thick metal top and bottom plate. The curved front can dig into your legs if you play with 'em on your lap, but you quickly learn to accomodate. The slot in the top is for instruction cards: the Justice and Zero 3 shipped with move cards for Street Fighter and Rival Schools which could be slotted in for quick reference.
And that's it for the good news.
In use, the cheap ASCII buttons do not offer much response, and feel a bit mushy. Sadly, they tend to bind, sticking all too easily in the heat of play.
The optical sensor is unique: instead of a spring-loaded microswitch on each compass point, the mechanism features four infra-red LEDs and receivers. When the stick is moved, it interrupts the light between each LED/receiver pair, and this activates the direction pressed. The upshot is that this mechanism is nearly silent: except for a quiet thud as the stick hits the gate, it makes no noise at all.
The joystick though is a letdown. The sticks themselves use a very thick shaft, which makes the knob feel larger than usual (it's 40mm, the same size as most sticks). They seem to also have a larger amount of throw. The feel of a stick is of ultimate importance, and despite having a super-smooth feel, the lack of microswitch seems to diminish the power of the return spring, and the stick feels heavy and slow.
For some games this is not a problem: Fighter and shooters rarely ask the player to release the stick, but in a tap-tap game like Magical Drop, the tap/release motion takes a split second longer to return to center, and it's very aggravating.
Bottom Line: Unless you're after the optical mech, there's nothing here that's done any better than most other joysticks. The buttons are the worst offenders, the rest of the stick is reliable and will probably last longer than you.
If it's cheap or if you need an optical mech, go ahead and pick one up. The worst you're likely to face is the buttons: the older they are, the more they stick, and no amount of lube or cleaning seems to help. The sticks basically never wear out, though you might have to clean 'em. There's a plastic cover on the stick shaft which can be easily removed, but the metal shaft can rust beneath this sleeve, making it look a bit ugly. It won't affect operation.
For a short time (c. 2003) in Japan programmable sticks were very much the rage, and prices for this unit (And a comparable Hori stick) went from about $30 to well over $400. Two months later, it was back to normal pricing, and today this stick can be found for $20-50 in Japan.
I have used several of these mechs for other projects. Two of them are in a modified Virtual On base, and they are fantastic for Robotron: the 8-way gate is just brilliant. Sanwa, who manufactured the mechs for ASCII, no longer sells them, so these sticks are your only source.
The buttons are mounted to a PCB internally, which will need to be removed before you can replace the buttons with ones that actually work.
This particular stick has been modified heavily. The green lump is a USB chip.
The mechanisms are drop-in compatible with other Sanwa JLF-TP-8Y mechs, but any other mechanism will require a lot of work. They're top-mounted, which means the top panel needs to come out to replace them, and that means removing the entire button PCB as well. A stick replacement would require a button replacement as well, or a lot of rewiring instead.
If you want to re-use one of these optical mechs in a standard 5-Volt joystick, simply throw a 100-Ohm resistor between Vcc and each LED, and it'll work fine. I used a 75-Ohm part with no trouble.
This is how the stick looked before I abused it.
The inside of my Robotron stick. I taped notes about wirecolours to the inside, for future reference. It comes in handy a lot.