The button, as with any input device, is a deceptively complex mechanism. All it’s supposed to do, is to be pressed and released, right? Well, kind of. Ever consider the timing? Whether or not pressing at nearly the same time (but not quite) counts as simultaneous? Does it matter whether or not a button is let go at a particular time? (answer: sometimes, very much so). What does the game think if I press certain combinations that neither the manual nor any strategy guide talks about? (answer: hopefully, nothing highly unexpected). Can I mash as much as I like? (probably not, most of the time). How about hitting the same button... a lot? (you better have a reason for doing it).
If you were not aware of the complexities of the button before, you probably know why I don’t feel too comfortable writing this article without referring to anything else if you’ve read this far. This article is actually mostly my own work. It definitely has omissions. Sorry.
The physical aspects of what makes a good button (or a button you prefer, let’s say) are far beyond the scope of this article. All you will probably need to understand is that it is an electronic switch.
When the button is depressed, the switch will be in one state. When it is released, it will be in another. Fighting games rarely register more than two states on a button; the original Street Fighter did this, and not only did this make the bizarre-feeling control of the game even stranger, but it often led to broken equipment, as players hit the pressure-sensitive buttons too hard.
In general, it is ideal for fighting games if a button is up at the exact moment you want it to be, and if it is down at the exact moment you want it to be. Therefore, while there is a pretty wide selection of buttons used by fighting game players (of all sorts of shapes, colors, sizes, tactile response, etc.), they tend to be highly responsive controls, so that any flubs are due to the player’s incompetent fingerwork and not due to the equipment failing to perform.
Arcade-style buttons, because many of them have good construction developed over decades of gaming history (not to mention centuries of push-button research!), can take a lot of abuse. If you have a good set of arcade buttons, and you do not abuse them at all, they will do their job for you for a very long time.
Controller buttons like you would find on a gamepad, on the other hand, have to be small in order to be responsive and manageable. A reasonably intense use of these, after even a few months, can wear out a controller, unfortunately. Fast-paced fighting games are by no means delicate on their buttons, even in the hands of a calm master. This expected deterioration can be combatted with a little hardware savvy (such as augmenting weaker parts on the inside), a general respect for your equipment, and genuine attempts to be sufficiently gentle when exercising control. Not everyone is out to keep their controllers in optimal condition, but I for one do not enjoy having to purchase new ones unless I absolutely have to.
There are several kinds of “buttons” or switches that have to do with an arcade machine. Let us conveniently ignore the operation of the coin slots, operator switches, and so forth. Those are great if you are concerned with running an arcade, and they are mostly self-explanatory. But we are attempting to investigate actual gameplay, and these options and such do little in that regard; run-of-the-mill players are not meant to futz with them!
The buttons that come with a generic fighting game are to be found in two clusters. One is the “start” button (usually on its own; sometimes close to the start button of the other player, but rarely ever close to the rest of the buttons), and all the others perform various actions. Within these, there are going to be “attack” buttons, and perhaps there will be buttons that perform non-attack actions (these defy classification, to tell the truth).
The start button is practically universal in most arcade games. Sometimes it performs double duty for games that require only one button, but for fighting games, this rarely, if ever, is the case. Now all the start button is supposed to do is allow you to “start” a game after you insert a coin. However, it does miscellaneous things in some games (e.g., letting you select an extra set of colors at the character selection screen), mostly outside of gameplay (e.g. skipping intros and replays so you can get to the fighting), but even during gameplay at times (it is often assigned to perform taunts).
Attack buttons are found in practically all fighting games, and usually form a majority of buttons in any fighting game button layout. During gameplay, pressing an attack button on its own indicates intent to unleash a normal move to the game system; with various manipulations, especially with the stick, one can perform command moves, special moves, and super special moves. Usually, these attack buttons are partitioned into kicks and punches, or weapon and weaponless. They are also usually ranked from weak to strong, the weakest attacks usually being placed on the left.
The other buttons, if there are any, generally perform non-attack options. This varies highly from game to game, and they are usually only found if their functions are important enough to have their own buttons (otherwise, non-attack functions tend to be command moves, usually performed with simultaneous presses).
Button layouts usually conform to a 6-button grid or a 4-button row (either of which may actually be curved for the purpose of ergonomics). The 6-button grid basically stems from Capcom games (originating with Street Fighter), though a lot of non-Capcom-style games will not have buttons in certain positions on this grid (e.g., a lot of combo games only use four or five buttons, and out of these, often only three will actually attack). The 4-button row stems from SNK-style games, where replacing a button layout on the NEO·GEO would have been highly inconvenient. In recent years, because the NEO·GEO is no longer the ubiquitous hardware it once was, this row layout has ceded to the grid layout (partly because it is convenient, partly because 4-button rows can be re-done in 6-button grids quite easily).
Games with special layouts (like Guilty Gear or Mortal Kombat) tend to either have their own cabinet, or have the buttons reconfigured to fit whatever cabinet the operator has.
Specifics of button layouts abound, otherwise, so they are best left in materials covering their specific games.
There are many techniques surrounding the use of buttons, and many of them merit their own articles. In no particular order: