13 Jan

There were other competitors in the mini-arcade race like Nintendo and Bandai, but Coleco made the coolest mini-arcades with Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Frogger.

Yes, it’s official. I’ve been bitten by the arcade bug. It’s a pretty serious case, too. My recent mini-excursion to the fan arcade at MAGFest has definitely planted the seed of evil. But now…. what to do about it?

Ever since I was a young geek, I’ve dreamed of owning my own arcade machine. Back in the land of 1985—when you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing a Wham! or Tears for Fears song—I could barely see the screens on most arcade cabinets. It wasn’t because of my age. It was mostly because of my size. I was consistently one of the shortest in my age range up until about my sophomore year in high school. But 1985 is probably when I was able to play my first upright cabinet arcade game. Until then, I could only play Pole Position if my older, 9-year-old sister would let me sit on her lap to reach the gas pedal and steering wheel at the same time. But back then arcades were hot. The quality of games in the arcades was double or even triple that of what you’d experience at home on your atari 2600 or if you were lucky enough to be an early adopter, your NES.

Throughout our entire childhood, whenever my brother and I heard we would be going to the mall, we’d get excited. Like any other kid, we dreaded at the possibility that my mother was about to take us back-to-school shopping and we’d be forced to try on pair after pair of pants. But we knew there was a slim chance that we might be granted freedom to sneak away into the dark corners of the Space Port—the name of the local arcade—and waste a few precious dollars playing some truly amazing video games like N.A.R.C., Aliens, Contra, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Street Fighter II, Zaxxon, Popeye, Altered Beast, Double Dragon, and Elevator Action. The pros definitely outweighed the cons. That’s actually a lesson my wife learned about me fairly quickly: the memory of shopping trips, no matter how dreadful, can almost always be washed away by some quality gaming time.

Bright yellow. Back-lit marquee. Sweet graphics on the side panels. How could you say no to this?!

As time went by, the graphical capabilities on home consoles caught up with what was available in the arcades. People found fewer and fewer reasons to visit arcades as developers were dumping more and more money into the home console line-up. And now, sadly arcades are almost extinct, with a few decent ones scattered around the U.S. in bowling alleys and movie theater waiting areas. And most of the games you find in them are either broken, or just plain suck.

But all this time my desire for my very own arcade machine has never been sated. It has been quieted for a while, but now it has reawakened inside the elder geek that I am. So what am I going to do?

I’m officially starting my quest to make my own MAME arcade machine.

I’ve already run the idea by The Bear (my wife) and she’s ok with the idea. Right now she is. I’ll see again when it comes time for me to start hauling lumber through our living room. We’re both in agreement that this isn’t going to happen overnight for a variety of reasons. First of all, it’s hellishly expensive. Secondly, I haven’t quite figured out where the hell I’d put it. And finally, when I do it, I’m going to do it as cheaply as I can, make it look the best I can, and customize it the best I can. As a friend said to me earlier today, “if you’re going to get weird with it, get weird with it.” So…. yea…. I’m gonna get weird with it. I already have an old laptop I’m willing to give to the cause, and I’m hoping to toss a 360 in there too. Maybe some LED back-lit buttons and joysticks. Who knows?

It’s a huge undertaking. I know. And that’s why I’m going to do my best to take my time with it so I don’t blow a fortune or make something I’ll regret. The stability of the project is tenuous at best.

And to be honest, I haven’t mapped out my plan of attack yet, either. Personally, I’m not a terrible carpenter, but I don’t have a workspace, so creating my own cabinet from scratch might be out of the question. Some pre-fabricated cabinets look pretty great, but they can get pricey. Or do I want to take an older cabinet from some crappy game no one has ever heard of, sand it down, and refinish it? Do I want it to look semi-classy so I don’t embarrass my wife (Lord knows I’ll never be embarrassed by it) or do I want to go gaudy, authentic and yellow like the old Pac-Man machines or that weird shade of blue of the old Donkey Kong machines?

Currently there are a lot of sources to find arcade parts and accessories. There are even shops like North Coast Custom (click their image to visit their site) that will go all out with custom finishes on just about anything you can think of.

I’m still weighing the pros and cons of using an LCD screen installing an older CRT screen. LCD screen will look fantastic on newer games. It’ll be cheaper and lighter, but a lot of the older games will look like crap in emulation. I could also probably sneak off with a less bulky upright arcade cabinet if I go the LCD route. CRT screens will have everything looking pretty, except the absolutely newest titles, but they’re heavy as all hell. They’re getting more and more expensive as times goes by. Plus, they can literally kill you with the voltage those suckers crank out.

Then it comes to wiring. Again, I’m not terrible with electricity, but I’ve never wired my own joystick before. How tough could this all get? I’m sure the answer is “surprisingly tough, Randy.”

So, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and a lot of watching other people build their own machines. I thought this would be a great place to share the resources I found with all of you in case you decide to start this same undertaking that I am about to go through. If I come across any other great finds, I’ll be sure to drop them in a future editor’s note.

MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator)

MAMEWAH (customizable multiple emulator made for cabinet set ups)

Maximum PC’s “How to Build a Kick-Ass MAME Arcade Cabinet from an Old PC”

Systm’s four-part video series “The Month of MAME.”

The Story of the Cabinet Built in 24 Hours

When MAME cabinets go bad (inspiration to not suck)

So there you have it. I’m officially going to try. Any of you Elder-Geeks pull this off before? Any tips anyone would like to share? If you or your uncle’s cousin’s cousin has some gear they’d like to donate to the cause, drop me an email and let me know. If the project starts to violently veer off path and my product starts looking like an abomination tossed aside by God, do you think you’ll hear from me about this again? Fuck no! I’ll pretend this posting never happened!

For now, I have to get back to being an editor. Later.


6 thoughts on “From The Editor: Arcade Bug”

  1. There are two places you should try to visit, Randy:
    Flipper McCoy’s in Virginia Beach, VA
    Challenge Arcade in Wyomissing, PA
    Both have a shitload of arcade cabinets new and old.

    And I’ve actually been scoping out the possibility of building a custom arcade cabinet. An investment, yes, but one that would be so supremely awesome.

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