Nerdy Feels: How I Built My Own Arcade Cabinet

Don't Forget Your Quarters

Being born in 1982, I grew up in an era where arcade cabinets seemed to be everywhere. From the Neo-Geo cabinets at Pizza Hut to the Donkey Kong Jr. cocktail cabinet at my dentist's office, these veritable stations of awesomeness were never too far away. Even when Boise had a Ridley's Grocery, it wasn't uncommon to come across amazingly fun titles like Bad Dudes or Knuckle Bash.

Of course, the golden age of the arcades wasn't bound to last forever, and as many of these machines began to break down, their ultimate fate was all too common.

Sad, just sad...

Certain communities like MAME have taken it upon themselves to help curate the history of these great games, while others like the Videogame & Arcade Preservation Society seek to restore and preserve the cabinets themselves. For my own nerdy purposes, I decided one day to do my part and build my own repurposed arcade cabinet. Not only would I be helping to save yet another cabinet from the scrap heap, but I'd also be doing my part to preserve their rich history.

Oh, and have a blast doing it, of course!

Now, please understand that programming such a machine is a ginormous task that is best left to others much smarter than me, so for the purposes of this article, I will be discussing the physical build of my own arcade cabinet and hopefully do my fellow nerds a huge solid.

From Humble Beginnings

Seeing how I didn't (and probably never will) have the space to accommodate multiple cabinets, I settled for an older PC that would be able to run multiple games in one cabinet. After trolling Craigslist for a couple of weeks, I finally found what I was looking for: a Pentium III desktop with a whopping 512MB of RAM.

Pictured: Cutting edge technology

Yes, this computer is a dinosaur, but when you think about it, there isn't much computing power needed when you're talking about games like Space Invaders or Lunar Lander. Though this computer had no problem running older titles, it began riding the struggle bus hard when it came to games like Mortal Kombat 3 and Final Fight.

I knew during the build that I would eventually want to transition to S-Video for the best organic graphical output for these old games, so I scrapped the VGA-only GPU in favor of one that supported S-Video and hooked it up to a free CRT TV I had also found on Craigslist. By this point, it was starting to look like the disembodied innards of something way awesome!

Though 2 player games on this thing sucked!

However, as my game library grew, my aged PC began to show its mortality after painful test runs of more advanced games like Sunset Riders and The Simpsons. When it wasn't clunking like an old car shifting into reverse, it would completely stall out and freeze. With a pained yet determined heart, I donated my old PC away and set out in search of something with a little more muscle.

Turning to Craigslist once again, I found a similarly priced and much upgraded Dell PC with a 3GHz Pentium 4 processor and 2GB of RAM. The result? The new PC ran not only the aforementioned games beautifully, but could easily handle graphical behemoths like Marvel VS Capcom: Clash of Super Heroes and Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting. Being able to run intensive fighting games was exciting, but there was still a crucial element that was missing: arcade controls.

A New Era

While plotting potential control schemes, I considered both buying individual parts from sites like Ultimarc or buying a 2-player fightstick from eBay or the like. Whatever option I settled on would need to be able to support multiple control schemes and be able to take a beating over time. In the end, I went with the X-Arcade Tankstick

Oh yes...so good!

What makes the Tankstick great is that it:

  • Has USB and PS/2 interfaces that easily connect to my PC and comes with auto-installing drivers.
  • Functions as a mouse via the trackball with two mouse buttons located on either side of its assembly.
  • Has a PS/2 keyboard connection for easy programming.
  • Is compatible with multiple consoles via adapters (sold separately).

After a week-long spurt of frantic programming, this was the fruit of my fevered efforts:

Still makes me all weepy.

Since I was programming so much and space was starting to get short in my 800 square foot apartment, I swapped out the ginormous CRT TV for a much slimmer VGA to accommodate my late night scramblings. By this point, it was time to find an old arcade cabinet destined for the scrap heap and save it.

Wait a Minute, It's 2013, Right?

This is true. It's not like I'd be able to find an intact arcade cabinet at the junkyard or possess the patience necessary to wait for when a random business is ready to toss theirs. Again, Craigslist came to the rescue, where I spotted an ad from Ellis Amusements in Meridian. For $50, one could own a non-working arcade cabinet of their choice. 

SOLD!

This was a red letter day to say the very least. After stripping out everything besides the marquee light and power supply, I began cleaning the expensive tobacco stink of a thousand judges off its once white sides. According to the owner, this particular cabinet sat in a judges' lounge in downtown Boise for years before washing up at his warehouse.

1,000 Clorox wipes later...

After removing the yellowed and battered control panel, I dropped in the Tankstick and quickly discovered that it sunk right into the resulting hole with ease. This made accessing the side-mounted mouse buttons impossible, so it was time to think of something and fast. 

After securing a length of MDF wood from Home Depot, I took my wood drilling bits and began poking holes through that as well as the sides of the existing control panel to accommodate the mouse buttons. And that doesn't even hold a candle to what would come next:

Talk about a cluster, amirite?

After carefully noting the location and color codes for each corresponding switch, I began the insanely tedious process of moving each button and joystick to the new control panel. Even better, moving these components to a new panel did not void my warranty and fit the cabinet perfectly! I even retrofitted one of the original buttons to function as an Escape key using a simple AHK script that would auto-launch at Startup.

So beautiful...

What the Hell am I Looking At?

Remember that VGA monitor I was using? Turns out that it didn't sit well inside the cabinet, as in at all. Further, I still wanted to incorporate S-Video using a real CRT monitor, but the only one I had was a flatscreen, and I wanted a curved convex display to really drive home that arcade authenticity. Where else? Craigslist, of course.

Now, this wasn't as easy as it sounds. It's true that anyone almost anywhere can pick up an old school CRT TV for free, but trying to also find one with S-Video out adds a new, challenging spin to it. After 2 weeks of painstakingly zooming in on grainy images thanks to the absolute lack of information that seems to be prevalent in free pickup ads, I found one in the electronics section, as in "for sale" and not "free".

Anyway, moral of the story: I got a free curved display 32" CRT TV with S-Video out. So what happened next? Well...

Fatality.

After removing that pesky plastic case, I had the tube and board left, which got dropped somewhat unceremoniously inside the cabinet's existing mounting brackets. Once I hooked up the S-Video cable, I had something to look at after 2 weeks of darkness.

Cue angelic sound effects.

On the 3rd Day, He Made Sound

Up to this point, I had been using the same computer speakers that I started with, and they were working just fine until a frantic round of The Simpsons blew them out. It was then that I decided that I wanted my sounds to pack a punch. Unfortunately, amplifiers in my area are typically held either by scalpers or those who run white van specials. So for this particular item, I decided to try my luck with an international seller, where I found a Lepai stereo amplifier on the cheap from China.

Believe me, this thing packs a punch.

With the help of a stereo-to-dual RCA cable similar to this one, I was able to easily connect the amp to my PC. And now, it was time to give all that sound somewhere to go.

After buying a roll of speaker wire and some connectors, I took two six-inch 8-ohm speakers I had out in the garage and began putting it all together. Not even an empty Corona box or scrapped plastic sheeting were safe from my mania:

Building green.

During the assembly of the sound system, I had taken it upon myself to paint a few of the cabinet's removable parts, such as the marquee light and the speaker housing, red. Once it was dry, I attached the makeshift assembly to it and put the whole thing back in the cab. I should mention that the amplifier runs on electricity, along with the cab's onboard power supply, the marquee and the monitor. 

After a quick trip to RadioShack, I walked out with a Philips master/slave power strip to help tie it all together. Further, my electronics-savvy stepfather was able to solder a connection between the monitor's now inaccessible Power button to another arcade button located on the back of the cab. Even with the PC plugged into the Master slot, it's not enough to kick on the monitor, so this was a necessary and even welcome step.

As it sits today, simply turning on the PC (I still need to have another button soldered to its Power button) powers up the other components like the cab's power supply and the amplifier, with a quick button press for the monitor. Further, a few additions to the OS's Startup folder automatically run the previously mentioned AHK script and the frontend that houses my game library.

Yes, I can now officially get my game on!

Post-Build Reflections

All in all, I've have less than $500 invested in a fully functional arcade cabinet that now proudly sits in my living room. However, I have logged and sweated over 200 hours into the tiny minutia that comes with running such a complex system, like frantic calls and emails to technical support, the endless replacing of broken components, fevered backpedaling from poorly implemented registry hacks, etc.

Was it worth all the arc burns, splinters and sleepless nights poring over countless forums? Absolutely. You can't put a price tag on nostalgia, and with limited efforts being put forward to preserve the storied history of video games, I'm glad to be doing my part to educate the next generation of gamer on where it all started.

Below, you'll find a slideshow of the evolution of my own home arcade cabinet. If you're considering building your own, I say get on it. There's a strong community out there ready to help and fangirl over the limitless possibilities that are available. This one's for you folks, and best of luck! Game on!