Build your own arcade

top up Years ago I used to watch in awe as people played Defender, immersed in the sounds, trying to keep my eyes on the radar watching the aliens swarming for an attack but constantly distracted by the flash of energy as the aliens on screen where dispatched. I couldn't play the game myself, I new I'd be crap and the idea of chucking all that money away just to become moderate was beyond me but ...

Appologies for the fuzzy pictures the digi camera seems to have gone on the blink.

First thought : 4th Feb 2005
I came across a version of Defender for the PC and it looked very modern and well done but I wondered whether anyone had done a faithfull copy of the original. It was at this point I discovered MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) and realised I could still play the original game, in fact I could play all the games ! I loaded up Mame32 and a few roms onto my home computer (an XP system).

It worked well but it just didn't seem right playing on a computer keyboard or even my sons game joystick so I wondered about building a whole arcade cabinet to go round it. It seems lots of people have done this but it was obvious my wife would never allow such a thing in the house so I started looking a cocktail cabinet designs which, though better for me, still looked too arcade retro to pass the "spouse test".

Thoughts on design : 9 Feb 2005
initial idea I tried designing different styles of arcade cabinet - I wanted to play the old games but I didn't want the typical pub "furniture" from the 1970's. I eventually came up with a solid cube, 2 foot square and entirely black. All the computer stuff was going to be on the base of the case. This would be hinged to the main frame and allow me to get to everything easily. There would only be wires going up from the case to the monitor and a keyboard lead comming down from the control panel (I might add lights later). Speakers would sit in the base of the unit and I'm hoping the sound will just travel up through the unit and come out through the vent holes under the top screen. A very good book on doing this type of thing is "Project Arcade" by John St.Clair, sadly I bought it after I'd started but it was good to understand things a little more fully.

What O/S : 9 Feb 2005
I'd planned to use windows 98 but it didn't really matter what the computer ran - I'd liked to have tried building a Linux box but, in my experience, I find it difficult to set them up properlly - ie getting the sound to work took me 10 days of scanning the web. It might work out the box on your hardware though and the OS is available for free so why not give it a try ( knoppix or knoppixmame ). In the end I used windows XP and found MAME competing for the very limited RAM on the computer.

How much will it cost ?
I didn't want to spend much money on the idea, especially if it might fail dismally or Clare might demand that it's thrown. I found suitable bits of wood in the garage. I order the joysticks etc from Ultimart and then went to my local computer chap to get a second hand computer. It turned out it would be cheaper to just get the boards of him and forget about the case. The following list of prices is definitely on the cheaper end of home arcade machines but for what it's worth :-

Wood etc30
Glass etc20?
Joysticks, buttons, IPAC78
Totalapprox 250 GBP
+ considerable time and effort !

Building the frame : 11 Feb 2005
wooden framework Building the frame was interesting. It would of been less interesting if I just went out and bought the wood but I'd decided to use what ever I could 2nd hand and I took apart an old shelf system that was gathering dust. The aim is to have an internal rail that the computer can sit on comfortably and leave the screen as close to the glass as possible. The control panel will but up to this and be screwed into the frame making it as firm as possible. All the button wiring and the IPAC will be fitted to the underside of the panel. The most difficult part of building the frame is transporting any new wood from the timber yard to my house on my scooter - I felt like Sir Lancelot riding allong with 12 foot lengths of timber under my arm - it was also snowing which added to the excitement.

Designing the controls : 13 Feb 2005
To get the real feel of an arcade game you need arcade controls. They look and feel great but don't think you just plug them into the USB port and start playing - oh no ...

First decide on the type of joysticks you want : 4-way means you just get up/down and left/right while 8-way includes the diagonals. Some games expect 4-way input and will just ignore the joystick if you move it to a diagonal where upon the little green monsters generaly gobble you up. Switches come in all shapes and sizes : micro switch, leaf blades or optical. This is much easier as many people prefer the feel and silence of the leaf blade variety. Manufacturers think differently of course and are now discontinuing them. Optical items are more expensive and so were ruled out on my machine. So then, that leaves micro switches. Do you want plain buttons or some design (ie 1 or 2 player start).

my son trying it out Now you need to cut a panel to fix all the controls to and make sure it fits within the space available. Also make sure the buttons etc are playable for a wide variety of games and will fit a variety of hand sizes. Also remember that you'll need a bunch of control keys to run mame before getting to the game itself. My first attempt, on paper, didn't leave enough free space behind the controls to rest your hands, my second attempt didn't work for all games (at least those I've so far discovered) and then finally on my third attempt I ordered the controls.

the controls - easy bit Shortly after the buttons arrived I changed my mind on the colour and now want all the controls black as well - to fit into the non-colour scheme. But at least now I could start drilling the holes and turning everything into reality. I'll warn you now that cutting the 28mm holes required for each button creates a lot of dust and vibration so do it far away from anything delicate.

the controls - hard bit It took most of a day to fit the controls and wire the loom but it was certainly interesting. You need to electrically ground all the buttons by daisy chaining a ground lead between them and then attach a single wire for each button back to the controller. The controller takes all the simultaneous button presses and converts this to a stream of characters as if pressed on a keyboard, I guess it's a small micro controller chip with multiple inputs. I used something called an IPAC2. If you find wiring a plug difficult then just give up now :).

close up showing daisy chaining ground and IPAC controller By the evening I was actually playing games using the new control panel mounted in the frame and watching the action on the monitor within the frame. I hadn't built the computer for this yet so I was using the software on my main machine. It was quiet difficult to stop playing !

trying out controls with MAME Actually it was impossible as I'd forgotten the quit key ! No matter how much effort you put into designing it it's only when you have the thing built that you can see all the mistakes. I'd intended to use the shift functionality of the IPAC where, if you press the "1 player start" button, at the same time as other buttons, then other keys now take on new meanings and the "2 player start" button is the one that gets you out of the game / menus etc. Damn. I didn't include the "2 player start" button as I thought it unlikely that 2 people would want to play at the same time. Now it means I have to drill another huge hole right in the center of my wiring loom and right beside the micro controller - great!.

A cheap minimal computer : 15 Feb 2005
In keeping with making everything as cheap as possible I went to my local computer shop and bought a 2nd hand computer : Celeron 650Mhz, 128 RAM, 10Gb hard drive and running XP. When I got it home I thought the hard drive was faulty as it made clicking sounds all the time - then I worked out that the memory (128M) just wasn't enough to run XP and the drives were "thrashing". I couldn't put the computer directly into the frame as there simply wasn't space so I took the computer to pieces and installed just the bits I needed ie the PSU, the motherboard and the hard drive. This sounds simple but I'd never done this before so I was terrified I'd drop the screwdriver on the motherboard or find static electricity had blown the circuitry. In the end I kept the unit plugged into the wall with the socket switched off - I guessed the earth would still be connected so that would sort out the static side of things. I then tested the computer by rebooting (and shutting it down) after removing each bit from the case and adding it back to the board but outside the case.

Interestingly neither the CPU nor the graphics chip require a fan so hopefully they'll run reasonably cool inside the frame. I may actually add a Ultraviolet fan in the center of the case jus to blow the air around and provide some special affect under the machine when it's switched on. I can't help feeling I'm pimping my processor. I need to think about venting and airflow - the choice is either simple side venting (which would spoil the overall clean design) or pull air from underneath the case (issue of dust).

The monitor I found was only 15" but has a good flat ledge behind the screen which I can build a frame around. I put black masking tape around the edgo of the screen to make it black and I guess I'll use masking tape to merge it with the wood work etc. Perhaps a larger monitor would have been better but it would take more space and add to the weight and I don't think it would add much to the playability of the unit. I've added a UV fan to the back of the unit, I'm not sure whether everything needs cooling but it certainly looks cool.

Picking sides : 15 Feb 2005
all boxed up I've made a few changes to things internally. I was going to have the door on the base of the unit but I've decided that was a poor idea - I'm moving it to the back now. I also decided to pick up the motherboard from the base of the unit and mount it vertically on a piece of wood beside the monitor to save space. I've also tidied up a lot of the wiring as it was beginning to look like a birds nest inside. The sides were going to be in MDF but I'm worried about the extra weight so I've gone for plywood now.

primed with test stripe The aim was to produce a 2 foot cubed retro game cube and I wanted it to feel like it was made from sheets of plastic rather than wood (to get a 1970's retro feel rather than a 1600's retro feel). I've decided to put loads of primer on the wood, then sand it, prime it again and then use acrylic spray paint. I get a feeling that I'm going to have to move the project back out to the garage as I only sprayed one small stripe (to see what it might look like) and I feel the fumes are affecting me ! Doing the painting etc means I have to remove all the buttons etc which is a pain. It would also of been better if I covered the monitor while priming as, no matter how carefull you are, you'll get little flecks landing on the screen. Today's colour scheme is blue sides with black for the top and the feet. The buttons will all be blue apart from the start game/shift button (I still want to underlight them). When buying the paint I saw some stick on stone tiles which looked very cool - I wondered what the cube would look like in slate ?

The setup is now only missing the wooden sides and glass top but is now functionaly complete. I played a few games and was quite impressed. Actually I was ammazed I'd been able to get it all together so quickly.

Sound : 19 Feb 2005
volume controls & on/off after final painting The design is very tight on space but I found some cheap PC speakers with a woofer that fit the space I have and they sound great - a set of Shark Mortar II's from Maplins. What's more they have a remote volume control which I've installed in the side of the unit. I know the original idea was to have a slick black cube with just smooth sides but there would of been no easy way to ventilate the unit and besides the vents allow :-
  • air to flow and cool the unit
  • hand holds for easy man-handling
  • access to the volume controls and the on/off switch.

Finished : 15 March 2005 ....
all boxed up Progress has been a lot slower, not because things were more difficult, but because testing the system after each change (to see if it's still working:) can take an hour or two depending on what high score you want to beat. Of course friends have also come round to help with the testing. The toughened glass for the top took nearlly three weeks to arrive which also delayed things but ...


I've shown it to my wife and she says it can stay as long as it's not too loud. Must admit it can get quite loud and, though the sound quality is good, the whole house can feel like it's rumbling during some of the heavy action in "Assault" but I think it just adds to the realism.

finally finished - I'm quite pleased with the end results

And the funny thing - no matter how much I've tried, I'm still crap at Defender :(

Few small changes: 20 April 2007 ....
My son had been asking for a while if he could have the arcade machine in his room. It was his birthday comming up and I needed the space in my loft. The only problem was whether they would turn the machine off properly - to turn the computer off you needed to press a small reset button just inside the case but then you also needed to unplug the power to the whole unit or the monitor and speakers would remain on.

I drilled a small whole on the side of the unit and attached a large reset button for the computer. Next I found a intelliplug which looks like an extension plug but it monitors the power going to the computer and when it detects the computer has been turned off it will turn off the other sockets - that way the monitor and speakers will turn off at the same time. The whole machine is now much more child friendly even if they do occasionaly turn the volume up a little too high making it a bit adult unfriendly. The interesting thing is it seems to get pretty much the same "play" time as the PC games which just shows how compelling the original games were.

Changes I'd make if I built it again:

  • Acrylic top with beveled edges
  • Slow turning decorative fan on the front
  • Neon underneath just for decoration
  • Coin slot to start it - just for authenticity - might make the kids save some money too:)
  • Seal the back of the unit to keep prying hands out
  • See my 2nd arcade machine