How to build a DIY Arcade Machine.
See also: Arcade-a-Tron MKIII DIY guide. NEW!
...a rough guide. (written: 2002ish)
Firstly, I'd like to point out that this project is aimed at getting comfortable with the process of building a functional arcade machine. Think of it as a prototype, where you can familiarize yourself with the issues. Later, you can get stuck into a bigger project with the confidence of past experience. Having said that, at the end of this guide you should still have a pretty worthwhile unit capable of delivering an authentic arcade experience.
Lowboy or Cocktail?
The first thing to do is to think about the kind of cabinet you want. The two most common cabinet styles are Cocktail and Lowboy. Cocktail or "sit-down" cabinets are generally more compact, hence require less materials to build and can be used as a table when they're not in use. Lowboys or "stand-up" cabinets are a little more imposing but on the other hand you can really get into the action as they're heavier and can withstand more abuse, there's plenty of room inside to fit a PC in its case and can have larger screens, Lowboys can also look the business when used as jukeboxes.
There are a few options when it comes to building a cabinet. You can take the relatively easy way out and hunt down old arcade machine, these can be found at coin-op repairers or even at the tip if you're lucky. This is the best option if you don't want to spend a lot of time working with timber. A bonus is you often get joysticks, buttons, speakers and other arcade machine bits and pieces already fitted, you may even be able to use the existing monitor, more on this later.
Another option of course is to DIY, here you can either follow a set plan (freely available all over the net), or go it alone. For my first cabinet I opted for the latter because it means you can get stuck in with nothing more than a rough plan, a few sheets of MDF and a jigsaw. It can be a lot of fun designing the box to fit your specific desires. My Arcade-a-Tron is really a hybrid between lowboy and cocktail cabinet. I decided to build it low to keep it relatively compact yet I wanted both players on the same side for simultaneous two player action. I also stuck to a relatively basic, box like form to greatly simplify construction. I'll be using it as an example for this guide. When it comes to designing your own cabinet anything goes, feel free to do your own thing, take the opportunity to do something fun and unusual.
What you need:
First up, you definitely don't have to spend a lot of money. I've built a couple of machines now, both with a mind to keeping the cash investment low and hassle to a minimum, and at the same time putting some old hardware to good use. You can go the more expensive route, and buy purpose-built, professional gear, but that defeats the purpose of a good (time-consuming) hobby, in my opinion. There's no need to have the latest spec' hardware, most emulators run games from the seventies to the mid-nineties fine, even on my modestly spec'ed machines. If you want to run newer, 3D games though, you'd want to go for a little more horsepower under the hood.
As I mentioned, the Arcade-a-Tron is a cocktail styled unit, sure it's not pretty, but it proved the concept and it's a (little) more compact compared to a full-sized Lowboy. Keep in mind this machine was built over a period of three days from junk I had to hand, I just wanted to get stuck in to it without having to go out and buy a whole lot of new gear.
K6-II@350 based PC with 384Mb RAM & 1Gb HD, 2D Gfx card.
Clapped out NEC Multisinc 15" monitor
Old Generico AT Keyboard
2x "Star-Cursor" joy sticks made by: Multicoin Amusements, AUS.
Sundry PC bits
$50 worth of 9mm MDF
I spend a few hours drawing rough plans for the cab'. At first it was a good way to vent ideas and build motivation. My plans were pretty sketchy to start with, I knew I wanted the motherboard and other guts mounted on a panel for easy access and that I was intrigued by the idea of a rotating monitor (more later).
I measured the rough dimensions of all the parts and sketched those into a box to get an idea of just how big the thing would end up being. There are a few standard dimensions to keep in mind, if you want a two-player-simultaneous control panel, your looking at a width across the front similar to most Lowboys, something like 600-700mm. Of course the other thing to be aware of is your comfortable sitting height and viewing angle, I guessed 500mm. That leaves depth as a variable to be determined by the internal parts. For simplicity, I stuck with a roughly cubic form, making depth the same as width. In the end I had a roughly cubic form measuring: W600xD600xH500.
I decided to build my controls out from the cubic form for three reasons; one, I like the control overhanging, it breaks up the boxy shape and gives you a bit of space for your feet, two, easy removal and repair of the entire control deck, and three, I wanted to reserve all of the cube's internal space for other parts including the bulky CRT.
Being an impatient person, I've always used the build-as-you-go method of construction. The only thing you need to remember early on is to make all dimensions a little larger than you think to accommodate those unaccounted for components later down the track. Building a little bigger has given me the option to add new features like additional buttons and a subwoofer. The box is still a long way from cramped inside and could eventually contain a 51cm TV in place of the 15" monitor.
I built the main box from 9mm MDF with 20mm square timber corner bracing. All panels were first assembled dry, using 25mm countersinking selftappers for a neat finish. Later, I glued selected joints for additional strength. The greater majority of time was spent cutting and trimming the panels, I did this with my trusty $20 El'Cheapo jigsaw and a couple of riser blocks on the back lawn of my folk's place, we made some (probably toxic) MDF sawdust/mulch that day!
Wear a mask.
Build from the floor up and make each panel as square an accurate as you can, this way you can use earlier panels as references for subsequent panels. I suggest you just get the basic box form completed then move on to the next part before adding any cabinet features like feet, speaker holes, etc. The placement of these will become more evident as you go.
Mounting the PC gear on a flat surface is a trivial matter. As I mentioned earlier, I mounted all the PC parts on a hinged fold-out panel for easy access. There weren't any difficult issues here except maybe cable length and finding a good, secure way of locking the expansion cards down, as a side note, using an integrated mobo would be a plus here. I decided to use the mobo tray from the PC case as a good rigid mounting base. I fixed that to the MDF panel using short 7mm selftappers as they bite firmly into the 9mm panel without protruding through on the other side.
For the HDD and power supply it was just a case of putting them nearby on brackets fabricated from some right-angle aluminium. Later, I added a vent for the PSU to breathe fresh air from outside, this was sourced from an old "real" arcade cabinet, it looks nice and industrial.
For the Arcade-a-tron (AaT), I used a junk 15" VGA monitor. I did this because I had one sitting around and because it's easy to set up. It was my intention from the start to provide enough room in the cab' to later install a nice big TV/display.
I shelled the monitor (WARNING: Shock Hazard!) and built it into a 90 degree rotating bezel, so I could play vertically scrolling games full screen. With a larger screen, this might not be worth the effort, but if you're handy with your hands, having a go at adding this sort of feature, just adds to the overall enjoyment later. I was contemplating making it motor driven but I never got around to it, all I do is spin the bezel's edge to switch between landscape or portrait orientation.
My suggestion for understanding screen mounting is to have a look at how the screens are mounted in actual arcade machines. You don't have to strip the case of a monitor/TV at all, but you do need to build some form of rigid support structure to hold that heavy glass tube. My monitor is braced to the floor of the cabinet using a timber riser bracket with a central pivot point. Common sense and experimentation should see you right. Just remember a 51cm tube is quite heavy!
Mounting a TV would probably be easier. A cheap 51cm telly would almost rest with its back on the floor of the case and may only require a few bracings to lock it in place.
Construction wise, finding an existing cabinet and using its monitor is the easiest of all. The only issue are building an RGB adapter cable and getting the 31khz VGA output from the PC working with the 15khz RGB input of the monitor. Fortunately, there are a few semi/free app's that sort out this problem, providing your graphics card is up to the job, (see: Powerstrip and/or try Google for old versions of the now defunct TVtool).
So, now we have a case with the PC guts installed and a monitor in place. What next, not much really, its almost ready for a first test run.
I went the ultra-cheap-arse option here, mainly because at the time of building, I wasn't sure about other options and I just wanted to get it going.
I did do a little Google research and came up with the key mapping option, this is basically just wiring the keys from a keyboard to actual arcade stick switches. It's the crudest solution, but it's worked faultlessly for 2-3years now, so I'm not complaining.
Most modern keyboards don't have actual switches anymore; they just have two or three Mylar sheets with carbon contacts printed on. I got lucky and found a generic AT board at the Op-Shop for $2 that has a real PCB and little soldered on switches, so I just wired those to the sticks. For example, if "W" was player one "UP" then I wired the "W" switch contacts to the "UP" switch on player-one's stick. There are a few caveats with this method, such as the infamous key-ghosting problem, where two keys pressed at once can cancel each other out! I got around this by selecting keys carefully.
In hindsight, this was a pretty crappy way to do it. Now, I'd suggest you search around for a couple of cheap Sidewinders and wire those to the sticks, this way you get a stack of configurable buttons (10-odd) and you can add more sticks (for games like Gauntlet) later without much hassle. Most emulators will allow you to map the "COIN" and "START" buttons to joy pad buttons too!
Sticks: You can buy genuine arcade sticks and buttons from any place that still hires/repairs/supplies arcade machines to your local deli/pub/foodhall, ask around. [ Update: As the retro arcade scene grows, more and more online retailers are popping up in Australia, it's now pretty easy to buy new parts, I've found in2amusements are quick to deliver and have a good range. ] Sticks cost (AUD) <$20 and buttons <$5, so it's not expensive to buy new. I had a couple of "Star cursors" left over from my Amiga days so I just cut them down and used those, as a bonus they have a stick-top fire button too.
There are expensive, purpose-built MAME controls you can buy that slot in to a system, but I doubt they'd work any better than what I've described above, they're only digital joysticks after all.
I don't know a lot about Trackballs, Steering wheels etcetera, I imagine if you can find USB units they would work under MAME plug-n-play?
Trying it out:
At this stage you will get your first taste of how it plays. If you built you machine using a PC that already had emulators on it, its an easy step to trying it out in a new case with greatly improved controls and a more authentic arcade feel. If your starting from scratch, its time to hook up a CD drive and install an OS and download some software.
By far the most time consuming aspect of building the Arcade-a-Tron was the software tweaking. It takes a while to get that favorite game working just so. And all emulators need to be tweaked to cope with the underlying systems power (or lack of!). I can't offer too many tips here, it's a case of getting in there and tweaking, tweaking, tweaking!
At a minimum, I suggest the PC you use in your Arcade machine should be around the 1Ghz mark, more = better. I used a lowly K6-II@350Mhz in this project and it's ok for the simple stuff but struggles with things like Amiga emulation and games from the mid-90s on, the settings have to be tweaked down to get video & sound working without too much skipping.
Sidewinder controls are easy to get functional, just wire 'em up, plug them in and configure your emulator's input preferences. I used this method on my second system, predictably named; the Arcade-a-Tron Mk2, and it works a treat. Another nice aspect of this is I can use a brilliant (and free) little app called "Joymouse" to dispense altogether with mouse input and use the stick to control the pointer. If you set up your desktop right, you can change it into a simple graphical menu from which you can select emulators and apps with ease. There are a bunch of XP apps that take this to another level, but I haven't explored those in depth yet. My Gameboy-retreat has no mouse and no keyboard and it has a built in 5.4" LCD all in a clamshell/laptop profile portable case. With the benefit of experience from building the first machine, this one was more fun and a lot easier overall.
Tweaking the system is one of those things I can spend hours on, once you have it all up and running, it's ongoing fun just to get in there and get things just right.
Sound - 'Started with some horrible budget PC speakers just stuffed inside the cab', ended up ditching those and fitting a 4" to each side of the control deck and a little subwoofer in the floor for a bit more oomph! There's loads of room to improve when it comes to sound output.
Power Switch - For me, one of the most enjoyable parts was probably a more mundane element for many. I spent a few hours just working on the "perfect" power switch, believe it or not. I'm an Industrial Designer, so making a switch that looks snazzy is loads of timewasting fun for me. The one on this machine is made from part of a medical syringe, an old PC case button and the ubiquitous blue LED with a red HDD activity light.
USB Ports - Essential for flash drives, I made a niche to plug them in. It's not exactly placed in the best spot, but that's as far as the standard header adapters would reach. I use a USB extension cord to make it a little more convenient. Next time, use a hub!
Media, CD/DVD - I started out with a CD drive temporarily connected just to get an OS installed. Later, I decided it was worth it to have a permanent drive, so I retrofitted one below the control deck. I made a 600mm long ribbon cable, works fine with an 8x drive, even if it does stretch the PATA specifications a little.
Keyboard & Mouse - The Arcade-a-Tron has what I'd call a vestigial keyboard and mouse setup. I want to get rid of them but they're occasionally useful and don't get in the way that much. I did build a keyboard niche which has a crude slide out mechanism, but the mouse just sort of hangs around on the tabletop. On the Mk2, I've removed both of these in favour of a plug-in-when-needed wireless set.
Misc' Bling - Where's the paintjob? Personally, I'm not that offended by raw MDF and I doubt I could get a much better finish with paint so I decided not to bother, in hindsight I'd probably go for a nice clearcoat just to seal out the moisture and aid cleaning. I had thought about adding some xenon flashers to either the interior or near the screen to give those really loud shooters a bit more impact? Once you have it all working, there's no end to what you can do, just think PC case modding on a slightly larger scale!
Where the Fun is at:
Authentic arcade gaming fun, is what it's all about! Having a good thrash at a game of "dubs" with a mate on Double Dragon or Gauntlet or Captain Commando or insert-game-of-your-choice-here...
Finding ROMs; you can spend an age looking for that one game you remember form the 80's but don't know the name of. Try MAWS as a starting point.
Seeing other people enjoy it. I get a kick out of seeing my friends and especially my niece and nephew playing. They tend to go for highly playable cutesy games like Bubble Bobble.