Thursday, 20 March 2014

So You Wanna Be An Arcade Gamer?!

Emulation's What You Need 
By David Campbell

Emulation. Love it or loathe it, it is a means to an end for many a gamer.
Be it due to cost of collecting the real systems and associated paraphernalia, or be it due to restricted space, emulation is the gateway drug to a full on retro gaming habit.

Getting access to emulators for almost any retro system is a mere Google away, and once you find the rom images of your favourite game, the floodgates open.

"Oh, man, I remember that one.. and that- I used to love that one too!" is how it starts. 

Before you know it, there are external hard drives filled with every system imaginable and complete rom sets of every game, even the ones you've never heard of!

This has never been truer than in the case of MAME.

All of a sudden, these hulking machines that you loved as a kid, and never dreamed you could own - are now available to you, and are only a couple of mouse clicks away.

Getting MAME up and running is a pretty simple affair. and in no time at all, you are playing through some of your favourite games, and for a while it feels great.

But them you realise, it just doesn't feel right.

Arcade games were never played sitting in front of a keyboard. Hitting a key numerous times to fill the game with credits is not satisfying.

This unlocks something in you, and you start down one of three paths.

One - if you have the space (and the money), you might buy a couple of real arcade games. This will soon multiply and your house will soon be overrun with a multitude of cabs.

Two - you see about getting a MAME cabinet. You might save and buy a MAME cabinet from someone, maybe even buy a custom built one.

Three - and this is the most satisfying - you design and build your own MAME cabinet.

I went for the third option.

Framing Supports
Now, I realise not everyone has the skill, tools, or time to build their own cabinet. Let me start off by saying that I'm no carpenter - I can cut a pretty straight line and I'm good with wood filler :)

I spent about 6 months researching and designing my cabinet. Its not something you can do in a weekend. There are a few stages to it (if you want to do it properly), and I'd like to share my experience with y'all, in case it helps you in some way.

The first thing I did was decide on the type of cabinet I'd build. I grew up in the "golden age" of arcades, and as such I wanted my cabinet to have a traditional, old school feel to it. I wanted it to have a proper coin mechanism too, and I knew I wanted a classic style coin mech (more on that later).

Take a look at Jakobuds website ( for some inspiration. I settled on a customised Taito style cabinet, reminiscent of most of the games from the early 80’s. You may be slightly younger, and your memories will be of Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Virtua Fighter and the like. It really is up to you.

Once I knew the look of the cabinet I wanted, I started on the the part of the design that took the longest - the control panel.

Taking Shape
The only real trouble with a MAME cabinet is that it plays virtually all the arcade games you can think of. That might not sound like much of a burden, but arcade games had a plethora of unique controls to try and prise your pocket money from your sweaty palms. 

Here's just a  starter list of control types:
- Joysticks
- Trackballs
- Light Guns
- Spinners
- Rotary Sticks
- Steering Wheels
- Flight Yokes
- Twin Sticks
.. and there are a lot more besides this.

You can’t have all controls on your panel (and please don't try!), so I would recommend making a list of games you absolutely want to have in your cabinet.

List the control styles (you can check somewhere like the Arcade Museum if your memory is a little hazy - for each style of game, and decide what you can fit on your panel.

Control Panel Test
After much deliberation, I decided that I'd have a one player control panel, as it would only be me playing it 90% of the time. This comprises an 8 way joystick, and six buttons (more than enough to play Street Fighter etc). I knew I wanted a Trackball as I love Missile Command and Rampart. I added a second 8 way stick - not for a second player, but for games such as Smash TV, Karate Champ and Robotron.

For the icing on the cake, I also put two buttons on the side of the cabinet, which are flipper buttons for virtual pinball.

One other thing I decided on was that I wanted to be able to swap control panels, if I ever decided to make more specialist panels (driving or Ikari style, for example).

You also need to consider the monitor for your cabinet.

Purists will want a CRT, but these are hard to come by, large, and mey need repairing at some point. I put a 19" 4:3 (i.e. "square") monitor in mine, as most of the games were not widescreen back in the day.

At this point it may be worth mentioning that I use a PC to power my arcade cabinet.

However, throughout the design phase, and right up to the very end, I actualy designed the cab to run from an Xbox, Dreamcast and Playstation 2, using retail compilation discs. This allowed me to play 99% of the games I wanted to to, including light gun games (which generally need a CRT TV).

Paint it black
However, I opted for the PC in the end as it let me play 100% of the games I wanted, and then some!

There are pros and cons to the games console vs PC - its really a matter of personal choice for you.

Now, to interface real arcade controls with your computer (or console), I whole heartedly recommend what I consider to be the best interface on the market - the KADE ( I've bought four of these beauties for various projects. They are inexpensive, straightforward to wire, and are customisable - they are USB powered, so easy to install!

Once you have your design, and I really would urge you to spend a lot of time on the design - no point building a cabinet that you don’t like or wish you had done differently- its time to actually build it.

There are many options and opinions on the best materials to use to build a cabinet. I opted for 25mm MDF for mine. Some people may be horrified at this, but its easy to work with, durable, and can take a battering!

It took me a week from start to “finish” to create my cabinet. You’ll need at a bare minimum the following tools:
  • Circular Saw
  • Jig Saw
  • Drill
  • Screwdriver
  • Hole Saw

Beta Testing
Take your time cutting the panels. Its easier to take a bit longer with no mistakes than to rush and have to fix a mistake!

Once all your panels are cut, Take the time to ensure that the base and sides are square. If they’re off at all, your cabinet will wobble and the control panel won’t fit properly.

Like I’ve said before - take your time!

Once all the parts are assembled, you need to paint it. This will take the longest time because you need to allow the paint to dry (obviously!), but you also need to do many coats to get a good finish.

I sanded the whole cabinet then wiped down with white spirit prior to priming to ensure the best surface possible.

Prime the whole cabinet with MDF primer. Don’t skip this step or scrimp by using cheap primer - MDF is like a sponge and will absorb paint, so primer it with proper primer to seal the pores and give you a good foundation.

Once your first coat of primer is dry, lightly sand it back with a medium grade sandpaper. This will allow your second coat of primer to fill any minuscule bumps (which look huge once painted!) and give you a nice finish. Wipe down the whole thing with a damp cloth and allow to dry before applying the second coat.

For me, two coats of primer was a good base. I painted my cabinet gloss black - obviously you can paint yours in any way you like. The process of painting was the same as the primer - paint, sand, wipe, paint.

I used a mini foam roller to paint my cabinet. Some people prefer brushes, but the roller gave my cabinet a nice texture that I liked - some people might not like that and prefer a totally smooth finish.

These decisions are the benefits of building your own cabinet!

Here’s a quick overall list of materials I used in my cabinet:
  • Three 8’x6’ sheets of 25mm MDF
  • one 750ml pot MDF primer
  • one 750ml pot black one coat gloss
  • one 36x36” sheet MDF for monitor cover and marquee

Hopefully this gives you an overview of building your cabinet.

There are many great resources out there, and here are a few that helped me immensely:

Have fun, and if you’ve any questions, get in touch and I’ll try to help!

Guest BLOG by GYL Fan - David Campbell

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