Video Arcade: Build Log

The video arcade is complete! To be fair, it was complete when I posted the introduction article on the 28th… Anyway.

There it stands, in all its glory.

Read on for the whole build story.

Ooh… that was clever.

Materials

  • Video Arcade Cabinet
  • Plywood
  • Plexiglass
  • Black Spray Paint
  • Red Paint
  • 19″ LCD monitor (4:3 aspect ratio)
  • Computer (with PS/2 keyboard, mouse)
  • 2 Joysticks, 20 buttons, and keyboard encoder (acquired from X-Gaming [link])
  • Power bar
  • Computer speakers

Tools

  • Screwdrivers
  • Drill with bits
  • MIG Welder
  • Saw
  • Shrink tube
  • Soldering iron + solder
  • Wire

Let’s begin

Step 1 – Installing the monitor

I picked this as step 1 because it was the first thing we did. LCD monitors are great for this application because they have resolutions that are higher than the real arcade monitors, and have much sharper and brighter pictures. As well, they are very light, and almost all LCD monitors have mounting screws in the back.

Since our cabinet already had some sort of a frame for a monitor, the easiest way was to weld two bars (rails, if you will) in such a way that we could drill holes to mount the monitor. When we spaced the rails, we made sure to have a margin so that we could install another screen with differently spaced mounting screws if it was necessary.

Once the spacing is determined, get out the saw, cut the rails to length, and get out the MIG welder.

Then, get out the ruler, level, or eyeballs, and choose the best method to drill the holes for the mounting screws. We chose the “eyeball” method, and ended up having to move holes around and bend metal until it looked alright. It worked for us, but your best bet is to use a level, some kind of measuring tool, and use some good old angles to figure it out.

Once your holes are drilled, screw in the screen, and voilà! All that is left is the plexiglass frame, that just makes it look nicer. This was quite simple: cut the plexiglass to size (depends on cabinet), use tape to mask off a section the size of the monitor, and using some black spray paint, paint the one side of the plexiglass. When it’s dry, remove the masking, and turn it around: the side without the paint is the front, and it has a glossy, black appearance. Looks sharp!

Step 2 – The computer

The computer does not have to be anything overly powerful. These games were all designed to run on very old and relatively slow hardware. Here is a little guideline of what should work:

  • CPU: For usability’s sake, you are best off getting anything above 900MHz (P3, or AMD Athlon XP).
  • RAM: 256MB is probably enough, but go with 512MB to be sure.
  • Video card: Anything with 32MB+ of video RAM
  • HD: At least 2GB of free space for the MAME software and the ROMs
  • Operating system: It would work with Windows 98 I’m sure, but best to use XP.

Our machine had the following specs:

  • CPU: 1.9GHz AMD Athlon XP
  • RAM: 1.5GB (overkill, I will be removing some sticks someday)
  • Video card: 32MB ATI Rage
  • HD: 80GB (overkill, but it was all I had available)
  • Operating system: Windows XP

Now, the MAME software we used can be acquired from RomNation [link]. The ROMs themselves can also be acquired from this website. For simplicity, we located a torrent that contained about 1000 ROMs, just to make getting things up and running a lot smoother.

We just threw the machine in the bottom of the cabinet, and that was best for us.

Step 3 – Sound

This was really simple. Grab some generic computer speakers, and mount them in the case. Not really worth any pictures (and I don’t have any right now). Since the wires were not long enough for us, We simply mounted one speaker inside the case using some screws and double sided tape, and the other speaker we double sided taped it in place over one of the speaker holes.

Step 4 – Control Board

The control board is a very finicky thing to build. You want to make sure that you have everything placed right the first time, or else you will end up wasting time and material. For us, we made a list of all the features we wanted (ie, which buttons and how many, what wires on the encoder they would be connected to, how it was divided for the two players). After we knew how many buttons we needed, we decided that we would divide the board exactly down the middle, one side for each player.

Our control board was made out of plexiglass and plywood. The plywood was painted red and dried fully, and the plexiglass is placed right on top. To protect it during the drilling, we completely wrapped it in painters tape. Then, using some braining, we drew grid lines to help us place the buttons.

We tried to keep out button level horizontally and vertically. We place a dot in the center of where a button would be, and spaced them out evenly. For the joysticks, since they had a hole right down the center, we were able to align the box with a grid line, and stick a pencil down the center to place a dot.

We needed the following buttons:

  • 2 Joysticks
  • 6 action buttons for player 1
  • 6 action buttons for player 2
  • Exit button
  • Select button
  • Credit button
  • Pause button

Warning: Cutting plexiglass must be an incredibly slow process. Plexiglass will crack very, very easily. Use a drill press for making the holes, and be very, very slow. You want to make a small pilot hole before making the big hole. You also want to let the bit slowly, layer by layer, eat away at the plexiglass. Take as much time as you can, and perhaps even heat up the bit before to help it through. As you can see, we didn’t do a perfect job:

We had two major cracks, but we really wanted to get the project built so we could play it, so we decided we could live with it. It isn’t too noticeable, and it still looks nice.

We also printed out on some card paper the words EXIT, SELECT, CREDIT and PAUSE to place in between the plexiglass and the plywood, to label these function buttons. There was no point to label the action buttons because they are used through feeling, not by looking, and the functions differ slightly from game to game.

Step 5 – Keyboard Encoder Programming

In order for the buttons and the joysticks to be recognized the computer, a device called a keyboard encoder is used. It will map each button to a different keyboard button. For example, pushing up on the first joystick will make the computer think that the Up button is pressed on a keyboard.

The kit that we bought comes with a default programming, and a default configuration file for MAME, and if you follow their directions for assembly, it will work perfectly. But for us, we wanted it a bit more customized, so we used the programming mode to map the buttons to specific key presses. We also created our own configuration file for MAME. How to do this is beyond the scope of my blog post, but it is fairly well documented online.

Step 6 – Putting it together

We installed the control board, screwed in a block to support the keyboard and mouse, and installed the frame around the screen.

“Finishing Touches”

Our neighbour George gave us a hand as well, and went about designing the MAME sign for the top of the cabinet. We installed a light inside the top, but found that it was a bit too bright with his sign: the sign’s background is white, and since it is at eye level, the light shone right in your face. To fix this, my dad painted the light bulb red, and we end up with this:

Total cost (considering we already had most of the materials) was about $260. In actuality, to build this from scratch could cost anywhere from $500-$800, depending on your skill and how many materials you already have.

Any questions about the build? Ask away in the comments!

Important resources are all linked in the article: read up!

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Sunday, December 5th, 2010 arcade, computers, electronics, projects


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