Arcade cabinet, part two

I had been unsure about what sort of hardware should drive my new arcade.

It made sense to start by thinking about what sort of games I wanted to play. My taste in games tends to be the older, 8-bit titles (I’m an old duffer, really) with a touch of Neo-Geo on occasion. I definitely wanted to play:

  • Joust (possibly my all-time favourite)
  • Pacman
  • Frogger
  • Centipede
  • Missile Command
  • Zaxxon
  • Time Pilot
  • Ghosts and Goblins
  • Ghouls and Ghosts
  • Donkey Kong
  • Mr Do

With a “desirable” list of:

  • the Metal Slug series
  • Rolling Thunder
  • Puzzle Bobble (mostly for my wife)

It is common in the home-arcade scene to use a Windows PC with MAME. For the majority of people it is the most convenient way of getting access to a massive collection of games. However, I felt against doing that in this case, for a number of reasons.

  • It felt like cheating – a Windows box would just be too easy.
  • It felt wasteful – a complete Windows install, which you’d then never see? And the power requirements of a modern PC?
  • It felt like more maintenance – CPU fans, cooling fans, a hard-disc to remember to backup … nah
  • It made me feel dirty, and not in the good way – I know it’s trivial, but the thought of wanting a quick game of Frogger, turning on the cabinet and having to watch Windows boot just seems wrong.

I’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities: buying a multi-board, or building a MAME system on a Raspberry Pi.

A Rasberry Pi would give me lots of flexibility, give me the advantages of the latest version of MAME, scratch the “geek” itch and address my complaints about using a Windows PC. However, that feels more like a longer-term project, and I want something to play with now.

So after a lot of looking on eBay, I’ve bough a 60-in-1 board and a collection of buttons and joysticks, all for 70 quid.

Board, buttons, joysticks and a wiring loom

Board, buttons, joysticks and a wiring loom

I didn’t immediately need the buttons and joysticks (my cab is already working) but I felt it was nice to have them as spares, or for a test rig. My main interest was the board.

In theory, these boards are a great solution. A whole load of classic titles, plus a simple menu system to allow you to choose what you want to play. For someone like me – who wants a choice of games in a single cab – it seems ideal.

In practice, I have read mixed reviews: some people love them, but some people decry them as the work of satan. I figured I’d have to just buy one and find out for myself.

So … mini review. I’ll try and be objective.

The board is rather cute! It’s small, but has quite a lot crammed on to it. In addition to the standard JAMMA connector it also sports one of those 4-pin CD-drive power connectors (in case you want to drive it from a PC PSU), extra Molex connectors for trackballs, a VGA output for those of us using monitors, and line-out audio via a 3.5mm audio jack. Audio is also supplied amplified for a speaker, through the JAMMA connector. There’s a potentiometer on board if you want to adjust the volume.

I found comparing the size of this board to my old WorldCup90/PAC90 board to be laughable. Oh, how technology shrinks:

The two boards for WC-90 / PAC-90, compared with the 60-in-1.

It is a single-board computer, driven by an ARM chip and flash memory. The board is intended to be used with vertically-oriented monitors, whether you choose to use the RGB output on the JAMMA connector or the VGA connector. Something to keep in mind if you’re building a cab. It also supports image-flipping if you’re going to use it in a cocktail table.

I was concerned that the games wouldn’t feel “authentic” – are they just clones of the original titles, knocked-out by some Chinese sweatshop? If they are, then I’m not going to get the “authentic” gameplay experience: little niggles in the AI, or bugs that expert players turn to their advantage.

But it transpires (from conversations in forums) that the firmware on this board is actually an elderly version of MAME, running genuine ROM images downloaded from T’internet. These ROMs have almost certainly been patched to allow better flow between games and front-end.

So the games are authentic, but certainly not legal. (How much that bothers you is a very subjective question.) It means that my worry that the games wouldn’t “play” right was unfounded … but the experience might still be limited by any faults in MAME.

The most noticeable cockup is that of sound emulation – in some cases, it’s just wrong.
They play OK, but the audio is grossly distorted. Only you can answer whether this will bother you: if you’re deaf, or your cab is in a noisy environment then this probably won’t matter. But if audio is an essential part of the arcade experience then it will bother you a lot.

It bothers me, but fortunately the games I want to play (Pacman, Frogger, Mr EE) don’t suffer. But there are a few games I had never played before owning this board that seem good fun, but the sound fault has stopped me from investing any real time in them. Your mileage may vary.

What would have been proper DIP switches on the original boards are now a collection of configuration screens accessed when you put the board into service mode. So you can configure difficulty of each game, when extra lives are handed out, and so on.

You can also configure what games are enabled; that is, available for selection in the front-end menu. So if you’re only interested in a few titles then you can turn the others off. This also improves the bootup time: with all games enabled, it takes around 90 seconds. Kill the games you don’t want and this drops considerably.

A nice facility here is that if you disable all games but one, then you never see the (rather ghastly) frontend menu at all – it just remains in that one game. This will work well in our house: stick with one game for a month or so, and my son and I can get competitive over the high score. Then we change to another game and repeat.

High-score saving is flaky at best. The manual claims it works, the service screens include facilities for resetting high-score data. But in practice: it’s a bit hit-and-miss about whether it records your score on power-off. I suspect it may have something to do with how long you leave it switched off, but I’ve not yet had chance to properly investigate. If keeping high-scores is important to you (it is to me) then I’d suggest investing in a packet of Post-It notes.

Summing up …

It’s good, all in all. It’s not perfect, and there doesn’t seem to be any chance of getting the firmware upgraded – so those niggles are here to stay. But if the games you want to play are the ones it does right, then it’s great value for money. I hope to install a trackball soon, which will get me a better Missile Command and Centipede experience. Pacman and Frogger continue to be awesome.

And when I’m not playing this board in my arcade, I can be experimenting with a Raspberry Pi setup for my “ideal” solution. Watch this space.

List of games on the board, with a trivially simple summary of each

Note that these opinions are just my own personal view of each game. Unfortunately I don’t have good enough memories of these games in their original arcade form to provide a proper comparison! My general approach when checking each game has been “would I want to play this?”.

  • Ms. Pacman – OK.
  • Galaga – OK.
  • Frogger – OK.
  • Donkey Kong – Plays OK, but not 100% sure of audio quality.
  • Donkey Kong JR – ditto.
  • Donkey Kong 3 – ditto.
  • Galaxian – ditto.
  • Dig Dug – OK.
  • Crush Roller – audio seems iffy, gameplay is uninspiring.
  • Mr Do – OK.
  • Space Invaders – OK.
  • Pacman – OK.
  • Galaga 3 – OK.
  • Gyruss – sound is dreadful. A shame because the game looks good fun.
  • Tank Battalion – sound is dreadful, game is dreadful. Avoid.
  • 1942 – terrible sound ruins good game.
  • 1943 – same as 1942.
  • 1943 Kai – same as 1943.
  • Ladybug – OK.
  • Burger Time – meh.
  • Mappy – OK. Don’t understand it, though.
  • Centipede – OK.
  • Millipede – OK.
  • Jr Pacman – OK game. Not sure about the audio.
  • Pengo – OK.
  • Phoenix – meh. Galaxians rip off.
  • Time Pilot – Explosion sfx is wrong. Otherwise, a great game!
  • Super Cobra – Scramble rip off, with dreadful audio. Don’t waste your time.
  • Hustler – Pool game. OK, I s’pose.
  • Space Panic – Terrible sound. Hard, too.
  • Super Breakout – sound is poor. Play Arkanoid instead.
  • New Rally X – not sure about the sound. Ugly game, too.
  • Arkanoid – OK.
  • Qix – Top game. I like this a LOT.
  • Juno First – Nightmarish, but good.
  • Xevious – OK.
  • Mr Do’s Castle – OK, but I don’t understand it.
  • Moon Cresta – OK, but not sure about audio.
  • Pinball Action – ugly, garish, don’t like.
  • Scramble – crap sound ruins good game.
  • Super Pacman – OK.
  • Bomb Jack – sound is a bit poor, but still playable.
  • Shao Lin’s Road – OK. Simple but fun.
  • King + Balloon – terrible Space Invaders rip off. Avoid.
  • Van Van Car – OK, but odd.
  • Pacman Plus – OK. A fab improvement on original!
  • Dig Dug 2 – meh. OK.
  • Amidar – OK. Fun!
  • Zaxxon – sound is iffy, but game is fun.
  • Pooyan – OK.
  • Pleiads – another Space Invaders clone. Pretty though!
  • Gun.Smoke – terrible sound makes it unplayable. Shame.
  • The End – nightmarish Space Invaders clone. Good though.
  • Congo Bongo – OK.
  • Jumping Jack – OK.

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