The classic fighting game layout is based on the arcade-style eight-way joysticks. These joysticks, along with buttons, operate the characters in fighting games via commands you give. The basic directions for nearly all 2D fighting games derive from Street Fighter II (I shall explain the directions as if it is of this generic type; plenty of games let you do other neat tricks, and 3D games generally treat the directions in differing ways, so all these other kinds of games are best left explained when discussing them specifically).
A visual representation of the joystick is as follows:
The ‘N’ in the middle of the diagram stands for ‘neutral’. If you keep the input in this direction, you will stand around with nothing else to do. During generic conduct, you may try a direction:
The upward directions (,, and ) are for jumping in the direction specified.
The forward and backward directions ( and ) cause the character to walk in the respective direction.
The downward directions (, , and ) cause the character to crouch.
The backward and down-and-backward directions ( and ) cause the character to block if appropriate and done in time.
However, because fighting games have inevitably made their way out of the arcades via ports for home use or (perhaps slightly less legally) through emulation, there are methods of directional input that do not use the stick (or perhaps “lever”, as it is called in some places, particularly Japan).
Console ports are intended to be used with the hand-held gamepads that come with the system, though some people use their own “sticks” for a more authentic arcade-like experience (and presumably, because they are more comfortable playing the game with them).
Emulators can be used with anything that can be plugged into the computer they run on, but most folks only have a keyboard and a mouse as standard input devices to their personal computer, and most forms of the mouse are nearly useless for the eight-way directional input of fighting games (though it is not impossible. I’m sure someone out there uses it, and well. Hi there, someone! Impressive mousing there!). For these people, the keys (buttons) on the keyboard can handle both the directional input and the game buttons, and generally satisfactorily (though there are issues, for instance, with the number of keys that can be registered at once... the maximum number allowed by USB is 6 keys at once, for example, which is barely acceptable in my humble opinion, and not all keyboards even let you get close to that, either. Issues with the underlying input technology are pretty much beyond the scope of this site, however.).
The eight-way digital arcade joystick is very straightforward in concept. Whichever direction the stick should lean, that is the direction of input. I do not have the expertise to pontificate on specific models of joysticks, etc., so I entreat you to peruse other sources.
There are two kinds of joystick appearances usually found at the modern arcade. One looks like it has a ball attached to the top; the other looks kind of like the striking end of a baseball bat, or an eggplant. The “ball” is more typical of Japanese manufacture (and hence it is more prevalent in Asia), whereas the “bat” is more typical of North America (but of course, is found everywhere if you look enough). Furthermore, Europe has its own styles, though I have no idea what is common there. Whichever handle shape is better for you is a matter of preference, though you probably won’t get a choice when you go to an arcade....
There are also two kinds of mechanical “switches” that operate sticks. The “leaf switch” is practically silent, but is not quite as reliable as the “micro switch”, which clicks but allows for very exacting control. Whichever is better is (again) a matter of preference. Lately, joystick manufacturers have gotten a little more creative, resulting in “switches” that are not entirely mechanical, detecting directions by such means as electromagnetic induction and optical switches. These can lend a very smooth feel, and many players like this (NB: I have never tried one; I like them Japanese-style myself, because that’s what I grew up with).
The idea of a “restrictor plate” is to limit a stick’s motion, which essentially designates how the outer bounds feel. Japanese sticks tend towards a square gate, such that directions are intended to be indicated by feeling the clicks of the underlying microswitches. This puts less stress on the hand and the hardware alike, but requires the player to be pretty accurate in his directional placement. American sticks tend towards an octagonal or circular gate, which makes the corners feel less distant, and makes command motions feel different. You have to try the difference for yourself, obviously.
One of the bewildering aspects for beginners is the right way to hold a ball-style joystick. The truth is, there is no right way here; only your way. Here is a list of oft-used ways to hold it:
With the palm of your hand, cover as much of it as you like over the top or side.
This is a pretty easy way to hold the stick and is basically okay no matter what kind of fighting game you’re playing. It is used by many aggressive-type players.
With the shaft between the ring and middle fingers, hold the ball from underneath.
To be annoyingly correct, this is actually more like how you hold a snifter, but I suppose you get the idea.
Command input is quite easy to make accurate this way, so it is suitable for quick cancels and combos, particularly in 2D games. Demerits include difficulty in quick actions, which makes it less suited to 3D. It can also be very rough on the fingers if you don’t take advantage of the aforementioned accuracy. The ring finger is pretty weak.
This is like wrapping your hand around the ball like mentioned above, except you let the pinky hook around the shaft. This way feels more natural to some people.
Zechs is a well-known Tekken player.
Like a hybrid between covering the ball and the wine glass hold, you cradle the shaft between the ring finger and the pinky, and grab the ball with the rest of the fingers.
Daigo is one of those players you have to witness to (dis)believe.
You can try all the above variations in the right hand instead of the left, if you cross one arm over the other.
Crossfire players like this are rare (especially considering the right-hander-biased arched button layout common in Japan), but layouts with the stick on the right side are rarer still. But they do exist, and I’ve seen ’em.
The important thing to keep in mind is that your buttons and directions should not overlap. Where one hand operates the directions, the other cannot. Moreover, when deciding which keys correspond to what, you must keep in mind what buttons your keyboard can register at the same time. A great layout does you no good if you cannot register directions and attacks well, no matter how good your fingerwork is. A good way to test this is to open up an input test of some sort. This is beyond the scope of this article.
My personal preference is to forgo the possibility of the five simultaneous keypresses my MacBook’s keyboard allows, and just put the buttons where I like them: arrow keys for directions, and ASDZXC or ASDF for the buttons. Arrow keys often suffer on many keyboard designs because boneheaded manufacturers make the assumption that you will not need to press opposite directions at once and stuff like that. Fortunately for me, the MacBook keyboard is not one of these designs.... The same assumptions can apply to the A and Z rows (for example), so you may just have a keyboard that doesn’t really cut it. The best way to assure that you can press the maximum number of buttons is to assign buttons to the Shift, Ctrl, and Alt keys, as these tend to register independently from the other keys, though the obvious drawback is that the layout may not make much finger-sense.
Another popular place to put the arrow keys is on the WASD positions, particularly for those who would prefer to operate the directions with the left hand and the buttons with the right. There is a hardware-based disadvantage to this, unfortunately, which is the number of keys your keyboard will let you press simultaneously. However, if you feel more comfortable operating this way, it’s probably for the better.
The pad is a handheld device; modern versions are equipped with both a digital directional pad (d-pad) and an analog stick (or two, but only zero/one you can use for directional input because developers like to pigeonhole you like that).
The d-pad is considered preferable by most fighting game players because it registers the eight directions unequivocally (and the actual mechanism is very similar to the joystick beneath the pad, using four touch sensors in a way; it is the way it is used on top that makes the difference), but some games allow you to use the analog stick, and some people use it (I find this easier on occasion, to tell the truth). In some games, like the Smash Bros. series, the analog stick is preferred because the game essentially gives more advantages to those who take advantage of the analog properties (of course, Smash Bros. is unorthodox in other ways, too).
There are other, more unorthodox controls (such as the Wii Remote), but as of yet, they have not proven to be great controllers for fighting games (keep your eyes and ears open?).
I can’t use the gamepad. This is not to say nobody can; a lot of great players do. But there is nothing I can teach you that you cannot figure out on your own. On the flip side, there are plenty of players, good and bad, that can’t use the pad; there is no shame in switching input devices as long as you know how to do your best. Remember: it is the bad workman who blames his tools.