The Hitbox is a beautiful and high-quality device that allows for extraordinary precision while playing fighting games, in particular for characters that rely heavily on clean directional inputs for effective play. However, the design of the device and its incompatibility with many non-fighting console games make it a niche controller aimed at folks with full use of 9+ fingers, and potentially painful to use for many folks with hand or finger-related disabilities.
Before diving into the review proper, it’s necessary to provide the context in the form of the device itself and how a Hitbox differs from historically used control methods in fighting games. Fighting game inputs were originally designed for an arcade setting; two players at a cabinet, with inputs performed with a joystick-like lever for movement and buttons assigned to specific non-movement actions. As control schemes became more complex, it wasn’t unusual for multiple button presses to be needed simultaneously for certain moves to come out, a scheme that has continued through to the present day.
As fighting games made their way to consoles and, later, PCs, control methods initially split to include both a home version of what would be used on an arcade cabinet called a fight stick, as well as pad-based controls using the default controller for consoles. The move to include PCs did provide for keyboard-based controls in some instances, which paved the way for keyboard-based support on consoles (as well as the use of far less common control devices, including a steering wheel and a modified guitar hero controller).
The Hitbox is functionally an upgraded extension of keyboard-based controls, with directional movement provided by discrete button presses rather than directional movement on an analog stick. The device itself is sleek, with the same crisp, easily pushed Sanwa button switches that are used on high quality fight sticks, a cushion on the bottom to help both with comfort and grip on the lap, and a clean minimalistic design that emphasizes default button functionality using a contrasting red for movement and white for other actions.
The buttons are positioned such that, with a relaxed hand, the thumb, forefinger, middle finger, and ring finger of the left hand could be used for movement, while all four non-thumb buttons on the right hand would be able to reach two rows of buttons comfortably and without any movement in either wrist or arm. Start, select, and other extraneous buttons are located on the far edge of the device, as is the detachable, high-quality USB cord.
Prior to writing this review, I spent over 40 hours trying the Hitbox out on a variety of different games and consoles. This included the following:
- Street Fighter V (PC and PS4)
- Mortal Kombat 11 (PC, PS4, and Switch)
- Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite (PC, PS4)
- Planetside 2 (PC)
- 12 Additional games across all three platforms
My disability includes general muscular weakness that is particularly pronounced in small muscle groups and gets worse over time as muscles are used. Overuse leads to involuntary movements of the cognate limbs and digits. I also experience considerable pain when trying to separate my fingers, use neighboring fingers for rapid inputs in quick succession, or hold buttons for extended periods of time, and experience immediate severe pain and fatigue when trying to rapidly mash buttons with any combination of digits.
The importance of smooth and precise directional inputs is difficult to overstate where fighting games are concerned and is specifically where the Hitbox shines. Special moves for each character frequently incorporate directional inputs prior to a button press in order to execute; for instance, Ryu’s fireball is a quarter circle forward, moving through down, down + forward, and forward directions prior to pressing a punch button.
Other characters, such as Chun-Li, rely on “charge” inputs, where one direction is held for a certain amount of time prior to pressing the opposite direction and a button in order to get a special move to come out. Similarly, precise and rapid dash inputs (usually tapping forward or back twice) are important both for general movement before a hit is landed, as well as being a part of many combo extensions.
Traditional arcade sticks and pads frequently cause difficulty for beginning players or folks who struggle with precision inputs, as it’s easy to over-rotate one of the necessary quarter-circle inputs and get a forward jump instead of a fireball, or to lack precision on a charge input, resulting in a forward jump or a crouched attack instead of the cognate special move.
Transitioning these inputs from an analog stick to discrete buttons eliminates many of these problems. For instance, accidentally pressing up at the same time as forward is far less likely to occur, as it requires you to hit an additional button rather than simply moving the stick slightly too far around the outside of its mechanical gate.
When discussing these inputs from an accessibility perspective, it’s useful to take note of how hand and arm based stress is shifted when swapping from a fight stick or pad-based system to the Hitbox. In general, movement on a fight stick relies on larger muscle groups in the forearm (and sometimes further up) than gamepad or Hitbox approaches to movement and may place considerable strain on the wrist. The large lever on a fight stick allows for multiple grip options, and cup-shaped stick tops are beneficial for a closed fist or similarly large appendage.
Pad-based play, on the other hand, uses a thumb stick or directional pad for movement; in either case, all the movement-based stress is generally applied to a single thumb, though some folks play with modified grips that use palm-based pressure on top of the stick for movement in a manner similar to a fight stick, or with their tongues as internationally competitive Street Fighter player Brolylegs does.
Where the Hitbox is concerned for abled players, the layout of buttons allows for a relaxed, non-mobile wrist, with each directional button assigned to a different digit – ring finger is left, middle finger down, pointer finger right, and thumb used for up/jump. The buttons provided for all but the thumb are notably smaller than the buttons normally found on a fight stick and are comfortable to press with a single finger.
The overall setup minimizes motion at the elbow and wrist and allows for a position comparable to comfortably placing one’s hands in one’s lap, palm down. However, this setup was inherently a problem for me, as I have particularly weakness in my ring finger and thumb; I found myself trying to use multiple fingers for each input in order to mitigate some of that strain, which further slowed my inputs relative to a stick or pad, even after 40+ hours of practice on the Hitbox.
The setup of the thumb button, in particular, was an issue; for any players with no functional thumb control (or nontrivial weakness, like me), a significant movement of one hand would be needed to press the button, potentially mitigating the benefits an abled person might gain from limiting wrist or arm-based movement.
Re-jump combos in games like Dragon Ball Fighterz and the Marvel vs. Capcom series were a particular problem for me; I frequently had to shift one hand and use multiple digits in order to get the jumps to come out reliably partway through my practice sessions, as my thumb would become too weak to consistently input a jump and would move involuntarily as a result of the previous stress, providing jumps where none were desired.
Along similar lines, I found myself wanting to use multiple digits for other movements to compensate for weakness, but the small size of the buttons made such attempts difficult – this was particularly prominent when I was trying to perform half-circle inputs, which require three different buttons pressed in quick succession, or when my character was on the right side of the screen with the opponent on the left. My ring finger is particularly weak, and pressing the left movement button rapidly became painful if attempted with that finger alone or a combination of my ring and pinky fingers.
That said, the movement of strain onto smaller muscle groups may be a boon for some players. My particular disability is characterized by weaknesses at the extremities; I initially picked up fighting games because using a larger lever for the movement was less stressful than rapid button presses and/or clicks. Similarly, the large buttons on most fight sticks allow for the comfortable use of multiple fingers for any given input.
For folks who have more weakness in larger muscle groups, but retain function in all digits, the ability to press all buttons on a Hitbox without moving an arm or wrist may be extremely beneficial. Please note, though, that the layout and the size of the buttons used suggests a design intent for fully functional digits on both hands, with the possible exception of a single thumb not being needed. If you don’t meet those requirements, you may experience the same thing I did: strain in your hands, wrists, or arms when trying to shift around rapidly to hit all the needed inputs mid-combo or mid-match.
While I did struggle with the inputs, there’s no doubt that many specific sequences requiring high precision became mechanically easier for me relative to using a fight stick at the start of a given practice session. Both charge specials and back to forward non-charge specials were extraordinarily consistent across all fighting games played.
I was also particularly pleased that I could execute Winter Soldier’s infamous gun loops in Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite with mediocre consistency after about an hour of practice. Previous attempts on a stick had not exactly been bullseyes, with my inputs straying somewhat wide of the mark.
Nevertheless, my overall practice time had to be more limited on Hitbox than on a stick, and at the end of the day, I imagine I will be playing primarily on stick with the possible exception of a few charge characters. The pain and fatigue I experienced trying to fit multiple fingers on small buttons and shifting my left hand around to avoid putting weak digits under greater strain prevented comfortable play over the vast majority of the testing period.
Fighting games aside, I frequently use my fight stick for movement in non-fighting games, primarily routed through my Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC) as the left stick. Historically, this has allowed me to play first-person shooters (in conjunction with mouse inputs and additional switches wired to the XAC) with less strain than using a keyboard. On the PS4, I use a fight stick for games like Final Fantasy VII: Remake, and use the same approach on the Switch when I play Pokémon Shield and Animal Crossing.
Using the Hitbox on a console for non-fighting game purposes finds the directional buttons being read as directional pad inputs, rather than an emulated analog stick. This is similar to the Hori Fighting Stick Mini for Switch, which works beautifully on fighting games but doesn’t allow for native movement in the Pokémon series, for instance.
This experience was mirrored with the Hitbox – while fighting games run perfectly, repurposing of the device (as is commonly done for accessibility reasons) did not allow for play without remapping the inputs at a system-level – generally not a good option.
I ran into a related issue when using this controller with my XAC; as it provides directional pad inputs, plugging it in to one of the side ports to serve as a left or right stick input did not result in any inputs being recognized. However, using it through Steam’s controller interface did work well, and allows for more precise movement than when I played using a fight stick at the cost of hand fatigue, though the experience was still less exhausting than playing on a keyboard.
Similarly, I was able to play Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night using the same approach taken by the game’s current world record holder (across multiple speedrun categories), Bobby “TheBlacktastic” Cruz, who performed on Hitbox at Summer Games Done Quick this year. Again, while the inputs were crisp and more consistent than attempts to play with a fight stick, hand fatigue and pain were significant barriers to extended play.
Overall, the Hitbox is a high-quality device that allows for precision inputs for any Playstation 4 or Switch game that is playable without left or right stick inputs or is compatible with Steam Controller on PC. While some folks who specifically retain good function in nine or more of their fingers but need to avoid wrist or elbow-based strain may see a great benefit from using a Hitbox, my personal experience was full of fatigue, frustration at button layout and sizes, and an inability to play a number of the applications outside of fighting games where I regularly use my fight stick.
Rather than making fighting games more accessible, the issues with button size, button spacing, and increased finger strain on the hand providing movement mean that this device is likely useful only for a select group of disabled end-users, and may cause significant hand fatigue and pain outside of that specific category.
A review copy of Hitbox Controller was provided by the developer / publisher.