Arcade cabinet, part one

I’ve wanted my own arcade cabinet for ages. Unfortunately they can be rather imposing in a home, and impractical if living space is tight.

They’re a great project for you the geek, because (thanks to easy availability of all the parts, designs and ideas from the Internet) you can really build something unique to you. Any shape you like, any size you like, decorated however you like, playing whatever games are special to you.

We’ve recently moved to a larger house, and the integral garage is about to be converted to a dining room (as soon as my tame builder turns up). This will give us plenty of space, so I’ve already staked a claim in one corner for an arcade cabinet before my wife decides to stick some expensive cupboard there instead. As any husband will tell you: it’s important to get in early. Otherwise you’ll come home from work one day to a hallway full of flatpack boxes and a list of instructions about where “we’ve” decided to put it all.

I should have waited until the building work was all completed before I started shopping around for a cabinet … but then I attended the Retro Replay event at Wolverhampton and came home stupidly excited about it all and full of ideas, and I started spending too much time looking at cabinets on eBay. One turned up at a price I was willing to pay, and …

Cabinet

My intention was always to build it myself, even if only partially. Besides, I couldn’t afford to buy a cabinet that was already in 100%-perfect condition. I was even considering buying a flatpack cabinet and build one with all new parts, but an existing and working machine which needed a bit of TLC would be preferable. Which is what I now have.

It’s nothing too special, but that’s fine with me. It’s a generic JAMMA cabinet (JAMMA is a wiring standard that lets you replace the game PCB in a cabinet by just moving a single connector) with joysticks and buttons for two players. The monitor is mounted for portrait games (it’s a standard 4:3 CRT, but mounted on its side) and it comes with a Pacman PCB.

But it all works! There’s enough wrong with it that I can tinker with it and feel like I’ve made improvements, but it fundamentally works as it is. It also means that as I replace/upgrade parts, I’ll be building up a good collection of spares to build another one, or a test rig, or whatever.

So I get it home and into the garage (the same garage I’m supposed to be emptying before the builder arrives), plug it in, watch the CRT warm up … all the time, grinning like a loon. With cabinet keys and screwdriver in hand, lets have a quick tour:

The Cabinet

Arcade cabinets had to be built to be sturdy – after all, they had to cope with years of spotty teenagers hammering them to death and spilling coke all over them. On the other hand, the manufacturers that made them knew that people weren’t going to be spending too much time looking at the cabinet itself, but rather the screen it housed.

So on the outside, any decoration or artwork tended to gloss over the fact that the cabinet itself was built sturdily, but hardly to the discerning standard of a quality furniture manufacturer.

On the inside, of course, they don’t even need to bother with gloss. The inside would only be seen by the engineer, called in after the cabinet had one too many cokes poured into it.

General condition may be described as “structurally sound, but a bit dusty”. The cabinet is 1.5 metres high, and just wide enough for two players to stand at it comfortably. It’s a great size for my needs – not as imposing as one of the tall cabinets that cater for four players, which would look silly in my living room. Just big enough to allow for a good single-player experience.

The Wiring

Innards

Loose wiring and screw-block terminals.

Power supply

Again: no-one sees it, so it can be ugly. As it stands, the wiring works OK, but … you can see on the photos the ridiculous blocks of screw terminals to extend the cabling, and it all rattling around loose inside. Though I don’t need to touch it, I suspect I’ll replace it. Just to make me feel more confident that there is no risk of intermittent connections. And it’ll be a good learning exercise, too.

The PCB

The PAC90 PCB.

The PCB is not an original Pacman board. It’s a World Cup 90 (“WC90”) board – which apparently is as common as muck – but the game ROMs have been replaced with a homebrew version of Pacman. It’s pretty good, too! For this reason the board is known as a PAC90, and is therefore unusual enough to be noteworthy.

Though I like the game, I’ll be replacing it with something that will play multiple titles. The notion of running a PCB dedicated to one iconic game is charming, but I don’t have a favourite game that I would play to the exclusion of all others. I have a list of about a dozen titles I want to play, but I don’t have space for a dozen cabinets. So it’ll be replaced with a multigame board, or a PC, or a Raspberry Pi.

The Display

RearIt’s a standard 4:3 CRT, mounted on its side (“portrait orientation”), measuring about fourteen inches across the diagonal. And it works very well! The picture size and position can be adjusted with presets at the back of the tube. The display is mounted to a thick piece of MDF (painted black) which slides into the cabinet from the rear, held by pieces of timber to make runners.

I had always intended to use an LCD/TFT panel for my cabinet, which will seem sacrilege for some. It is a hot topic of debate amongst the arcade-community; some like the idea of playing old games on a new display, whilst others prefer original CRT and insist that you’re getting an inferior experience if you get rid.

Getting a cabinet with a working CRT monitor was a pleasant bonus, and now I see it running I really like it. However: I think I’m still going to go through with my plan to fit a flat-panel. My hearing is sensitive and the “whine” of a CRT often bothers me, as does the thought of the CRT’s higher power consumption. My final goal is to have this cabinet in my living room, left running possibly all day – so I want a display that uses less power, generates less heat, and is attractive to look at. And I do like to see big, clear, perfectly-edged pixels rather than the soft ‘fuzz’ of CRT.

MetalSlug

I want to play this in perfect, pixelised perfection, thank you.

When I do replace it, I’ll hang on to the CRT as a spare (or for my test rig). If I ever get hold of a cheap cocktail table that needs a new monitor, then I’ll be sorted.

The Control Panel

PanelAndScreenThe cabinet is set up for two players; each player has an eight-way joystick and three fire buttons. There is no panel decoration – it’s plain black. It’s functional and it works.

I think I’m going to redo the layout for just a single player. Very few of the games (actually: I can’t think of any) I want to play have a “co-operative” two player mode. I’d rather spread the controls out. Thankfully, the control panel has easy-release hooks holding it to the rest of the cabinet, so if I wanted I could make it easy to swap-out the control panel, in case I ever need the old layout.

Building a control panel just for a single player will make for a comfier experience; but most importantly, it’ll give me the space to add a trackball.

I would never have considered it had I not visited the Retro event at Wolverhampton. There I had the chance to play Centipede and Missile Command on proper hardware – both games that I had only played as conversions on the BBC Micro. I had found both games underwhelming, and never understood what the fuss was about.

Playing those titles with a trackball was enlightening. They are fantastic when played on proper hardware! There really is no substitute for a well-built, heavy trackball control! Unfortunately the cost of a good trackball seems to be between 70 and 100 pounds (I have a feeling that if I bought cheap, I’d just end-up buying twice) so I won’t be doing it right away … but I can at least reserve a space for it.

The Coin Mechanism

I removed this almost as soon as I got the door open. I have no interest in one as my cabinet is going to be free-play. I know I’m tight, but I’m not sure I could justify charging my kids to play it.

The Speaker

There’s just the one speaker, mounted above the screen. Seems very new, and sounds fine. But I want to add a volume control: this will be in the living room, and I want to be able to play it while my wife is watching TV, or at night when I’m suffering from insomnia. I might even try and hide a headphone socket somewhere.

The space left by removing the coin box would take a subwoofer nicely. Just a thought.

The Marquee

A rather non-specific, lacklustre piece of art, printed on cheap paper. Its not backlit and there’s no provision for it, but the whole top of the cabinet is empty (aside from the speaker) so there’s loads of room to fit something. I quite like the idea of using white LEDs rather than a usual striplight.

The Bezel

A plain piece of perspex that covers the screen. The edges have been painted black (rather badly) to hide the chipboard and runners that support the monitor.

To-do List

So now I have it and have had a proper look around it, I can compose a todo list.

  • Clean the cabinet.
  • Replace the wiring.
  • New control panel.
  • Add a volume control.
  • Better marquee artwork.
  • Backlight the marquee with white LEDs.
  • Replace the PCB with either a multigame board, RasPi or PC.
  • Replace the CRT with an LCD.
  • Add bezel graphics.

This will require a lot of MONEY. So if anyone needs an after-dinner speaker, bespoke software engineer, occasional writer or contract killer and will pay well, then please let me know.

Pacman


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