An Illustrated Guide of What You Probably Can't Afford To Do,
Shouldn't Do, or Just Plain Don't Want To Do
By Stefan Gagne
(Last Updated 4/16/2002)
So, you've decided to build a MAME cabinet. Why not? It's the pinnacle of nostalgic geekery -- you get all the bennies of having a stand-up commercial video gaming unit that you're not actually going to pump quarters into to play, and all the pluses of installing six thousand games in one box instead of having six thousand boxes squatting around. There's no reason not to make your own MAME cabinet, except perhaps for reasons of sanity preservation and food budget.
The following tale chronicles my adventures into MAMEdom. It is not a very good guide to building your own; plenty of guides like that are already available of far superior quality. I am not one to muck around in electronics and microswitches and wires and rotating RGB monitors if I can toss wads of money at a problem instead. I created this page more for kicks and to keep my friends updated on the ongoing saga -- and all the mistakes made along the way.
Sega Dreamcast was a nice little machine. Sweet graphics. Good games. Very nice. And a complete failure at the marketplace. They were going for fifty bucks a pop in the X-Masu of '01, and I reasoned: Well, if they're that cheap, the games must be cheap too. Why not buy some games and build a cabinet? Sure! I could use the cheap 13" television I already had, the Dreamcast I already had, some cheap-ass games, a MAME disc (since I'd heard you could run MAME on Dreamcast) and maybe a hundred bucks at worst of parts to build the thing. What a great idea!
Since the title of the page is "How to Build a MAME Arcade Cabinet (The Half Baked Way)" obviously I did not follow through on this initial plan. Here's a brief rundown on everything that went wrong.
ONE... there weren't a lot of cheap, GOOD Dreamcast games out there. I got an Atari Greatest Hits collection for twenty bucks, and Jet Grind Radio for five, and that's really all I could find. I already owned a few beat 'em ups, and there wasn't anything else appealing to me.
(I'm going to keep a running tally of all the money that went into this thing. For comparison purposes, a FULLY assembled MAME driven cabinet costs 3000 bucks from Hanaho. Scrounging for parts, pilfering old boxes, and wiring everything up yourself using recycled computer parts probably costs 200-400 dollars.)
TWO... I couldn't burn the MAME disc myself, so I asked a friend to do it. Shipping, postage, effort, etc. And in the end, the disc was pretty cool, yes... but MAME for Dreamcast only played a lot of really old games, and not very well. I couldn't even get Elevator Action with sound. Not cool. Anyway, shipping and blanks and a little profit for my buddy, total ten dollars.
THREE...I needed a joystick that was Dreamcast compatable. I bid on eBay(tm) and got a transparent blue joystick for 35 bucks. Snazzy. Stylish. And, quite lousy.
I discovered shortly after opening the box : It's a complete piece of crap. The buttons are wiggly and loose and get stuck, the joystick itself has to be pushed far to click the microswitch properly, and most importantly... I could not play a decent game of Donkey Kong on it to save my life.
So, I bid on another joystick, this time an Official Dreamcast Joystick for another roughly 35 bucks. Behold!
(Also in picture: lots and lots of electronic equipment, and me
doing mad grinds in Tony Hawk 3. OK?)
Now, this puppy was the real deal. Great response. Good stuff. But, it wouldn't work with Crazy Taxi (didn't recognize the L and R buttons), it was heavy like an anvil, and really huge. Still, it's the best I had, and I'd go with it.
What went right, fortunately, were two things that would eventually port over to cabinet mark II.
ONE, the arcade artwork itself. It's a bit silly to just make a big blank cabinet, so my loving, generous partner in crime / slave labor sister and I collaborated and decided... why not design the cabinet to look like a fake fighting game I had come up with five years ago? And thus: Furniture Warriors.
Artwork by Bryan O'Malley, originally; artwork for the final cabinet would be by Jenny. This cost me nothing, for a change.
TWO, I went to Happ Controls on the suggestion of someone in my LiveJournal's comments, and bought some decorative items for the cabinet : two coin slots, two coin return boxes, two 'Insert Quarter' stickers in a funky 70's font and even a fan grate. It's not a full blown coin box, but hey, it was cheaper! And it'll make the thing look just THAT much cooler.
(Wai! Coin slot! x2.)
(Fan grate, stickers, coin returns.)
Also for cabinet mk I, we constructed a cardboard mockup of what the final product would look like. I'm a diastrophic dwarf and thus full sized cabinets are for punk bitches of average height... my personal gaming nirvana was to be MY size, dammit. And we carved the living hell out of a cardboard box accordingly. Behold and such.
I considered just building this puppy right out of the cardboard mockup, sort of a cross between a no-cost homeless shelter and an arcade cabinet, but alas, wood would eventually rule the roost...
(The cardboard mockup. An angular chunk
would be taken out of the front; the box
where the controls go is modular. At least,
that's the plan...)
Soooo, after buying all this stuff, Jenny went off to Los Angeles to sell bugs, and I got a CD-ROM from a good friend with an assload of ROMs. ROMs that played like a dream on my PC... but would never work on the Dreamcast. And I said to myself, "Self, WTF am I doing? I should be building a REAL MAME cabinet!"
Since I'm the sort to leap dramatically on top of a shiny new project without looking back, I went to a reliable mom and pop computer outfitter that very next day, and laid down the checkbook. System specs... 1ghz Duron, GeForce 2 MX (for the nice antialiased hardware video stretch on Capcom games), SB Live! Value, 19" monitor. As few extras as I could get away with, using my own hard drive and keyboard. End cost? Nine hundred dollars. And stupid me, when I was acting all "Uh, I don't know..." and they offered to seek a further discount for me, I TURNED THEM DOWN. This shows the kind of crazed mindset I was in. I have a feeling I got burned a bit on this deal, considering they had complete 1.5ghz machines on sale from 600 bucks and up, but odds are those 'deals' had crappy video. I hope so. Otherwise I look like a complete chumpstain...
I've heard of MAME boxen being run on less horsepower and under DOS. To this, I say: Are they running Metal Slug 3? Marvel vs. Capcom? Garou: Mark of the Wolves? No. Right. So, 1ghz it is. I'm not dropping benjamins just to play Frogger and Carnival...
The guts of the beast were now taken care of, may the lord have mercy on my wallet. The computer would be delivered early the next week -- the next step was the fine control. I had opted for a trackball instead of a mouse when I detailed my order at the store, so that would be handled... but get real, how many games use a trackball alone? You can't use one to beat the crap out of Iori Yagami. No. I needed a joystick.
About this time my dad hopped in on the project. Dad's a PHD level radiologist with a damn near professional background in carpentry and electronics. His suggestion was that we build our own joysticks and save some dough in the process. There are many fine sites detailing how such a thing can be done by the bold and the daring.
I am neither bold, nor daring, and in the end the process of whuppin' up home brew controls was daunting even to pops. The parts alone would run us anywhere from 70-100 dollars for all the goodies I wanted, and then we'd have to put the thing together and hope we didn't cause some horrible short circuit that would case my expensive new computer to explode into a pillar of blue-green flame, all burning, all consuming. Nuts to that. So we took the loser way out and got an X-Arcade premade MAME friendly joystick console for two hundred bucks, plus 15 shipping.
Next step, while waiting for various things to arrive by UPS, was to get the software ready. I could prep the computer and the controller without having an actual wooden cabinet to stuff them into; since I wasn't about to whip out the table saw and start hacking up dead trees (that was Dad and Jen's job) I figured I'd handle the computer end of things instead.
Naturally, nobody bothered to write front-end software for MAME that's joystick friendly; everybody brags about how few mouse clicks it takes instead. While my trackball would take care of that, I wanted something dirt simple. I selected PartyOn, a very cheap, quasi-configurable frontend that has exactly the robust feature set I did not need and none of the ones I absolutely wanted -- but it would get the job done with a minimum of fuss.
And lo, that Tuesday, the computer arrived.
Every time I order a computer from that mom & pop place I order my computers from, I get this optimistic streak. "Maybe it'll actually work on the first try!" I believe. And like a fool, I am proven wrong.
Computer took a day's delay due to undisclosed "issues" they were having. Okay, a day, fine. Wednesday we pick it up, turn it on... and nothing. No beep, no bootup sequence, no video signal, nothing. Dragged it back to the store that night and it turns out the power supply was faulty. You'd think they'd TEST for that kind of thing! So we drag it back (with the trackball they forgot to give me when we picked it up earlier, grumble), power it up, I go to install win98... and the win98 installer locks up 2 minutes in. We give up and drag it back to the store the next day for THEM to install Win98 for me. Needless to say, this would be the last computer I buy from them; they're friendly and all, but nearly every system I've bought from them has needed to be taken back for fixes right out of the box...
After that, things went fairly smoothly. I was worried about the crappy trackball they sold me -- "Compatable with Win 3.11!" it declared on the box, which I had not noticed. Fortunately I just plugged it in (to a serial port, no less!), crossed my fingers... and it worked. Perfectly. Marble Madness was 'go'. The joysticks I had to fiddle with a bit to get to work; MAME hated them until I ordered it to believe I had a HotRod SE joystick. Then it loved them. Go figure. I mapped 'Quit' from Escape to 4 (the right flipper button on the X-Arcade) -- that plus a shutdown-windows program plus PartyOn gave me all the control I needed from top to bottom. Yay!
Using some helpful tips from a friend, I got filesharing going between my usual computer and the MAME boxen, and copied over tons of stuff. Beats the hell out of burning CDs! And it meant I was up and running quickly once boot up / control issues had been handled. Two issues remained: the CD-ROM was possibly not working (eh, no big deal, I could go fetch new drivers whenever) and PartyOn wouldn't properly assign window focus to itself on bootup (not a problem if I had the trackball handy).
Last step? Custom graphics. Behold! And feel free to click on the wallpaper thumbnail to download a bigger version.
The test rig, in full, next to the cardboard cabinet.
And thus, I decided to declare the beast tamed, and enjoyed playing around with it while waiting for the next phase to begin: Cabinet Building!
A few weeks after the software was prepped and finalized (and I added some NES/SNES emulation to it for kicks) Team Mamed sat down to plan out building the actual cabinet. The team consisted of my dad (a PHD in radiology and expert carpenter) and my sister (double major in marine biology and art, currently a webdesigner). With smarts like that, the project Could Not Fail!
This is where I'd say 'But it did' so I could be snappy, except that, well, it didn't. Didn't not fail. Worked great. We met around 8pm one night, whipped out the measuring tape 'o doom and started planning how large every little bit of cabinet would need to be. Pop used his expert powerpoint skillz to craft up this initial blueprint. (A final blueprint will be available when we finish in case you want to build a cabinet suitable for a three foot five guy as well...)
It's a lot deeper than I was expecting it to be, but that's because the monitor is so frickin' huge and we can't remove it from its plastic case. Not for lack of trying -- but when we unscrewed the case and tried to open it up, we found to our horror that bits of the monitor had been wired up to BOTH halves of the case and tugging more than an inch could trash the most expensive part of the computer. Yikes. Plus, odds are it only feels really deep because arcade monitors typically are larger, and the cabinets are designed for tall folks. This one's short and squat, like me.
Turning the thing on would be a two step process; a switch in the back for the main power strip that would power up the monitor / marquee light / speakers, and then pushing a plunger or a button or something to turn on the actual computer. We weren't sure at first how to make that computer-on plunger, but dad has some cronies in 'The Shop', a mythical sort of problem solving place at his office which has worked with us before on various projects. Keyboard access would be via a door that also provided CD-ROM access.
Next question was building materials: how would we get a hunk of wood large enough to work for this? Could we properly cut a groove into it for the T-molding? And what IS T-molding, anyway? So, Dad went off to the web to do some research (aka typing 'mame cabinet molding' into Google), and we paused for a while.
After ordering the T-molding (appropriately enough from t-molding.com) and buying some... particle board? Different sort of wood? I'm not sure WHAT he bought, but it was good stuff... it was time to get cuttin'! The goal was to cut the two side pieces first, since they would be the hardest.
Dad getting ready to get bizzy with his saw on the wood. Note my champaigne minivan in the back and the evil expression on the face of the guy holding the power tool.
The finished side panel! I outlined it in green to make it easier to see despite the weak lighting in the garage.
Wow, propping up a slab of wood next to a couple of desks and traytables is JUST LIKE having a cabinet!
After such intense carpentry, we took a break from building and I got back on the ball with software layout and game installation. Which probably should have gone in part 3, but Time doesn't compartmentalize as neatly as I'd like.
A few noteworthy additions made during the lull:
...added a Video Library. By downgrading to Windows Media Player 6.4 after installing 7.1 and a bunch of DivX Codecs, I was able to do joystick-controlled, fire-and-forget video playback. (7.1 stripped out the command line tricks that let you launch video fullscreen without advertising flying in your face.) Now I had an use for the 38 unused gigs of my 40 gig hard drive.
...of course, I then had to download 200+meg files over my crappy 56k modem in order to have some nice video to play on the thing... but in the end this baby's loaded up with some anime fansubs, classic cartoons, music videos and more. Notably, I have the entire run of Furi Kuri (FLCL), an excellent anime that's coming out stateside soon, and the entire run of Invader Zim. DOOOOOM!
...added Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, thanks to the Daphne emulator. Yes, folks, you too can emulate these 80's laserdisc classics! It's not all that hard, either. Hit Digital Leisure, the Canadian company that owns the rights to the series, and buy the games on DVD-ROM. Not DVD. Not CD. DVD-ROM. Then, use the DVD2Daphne converter program to take the data off the DVD-ROM and make it Daphne-friendly. Daphne's play control is infinitely better than the EXEs that come with the games, and this way they can be played off your hard drive (at the expense of 4 gigs). With a little tweaking, I even got it to work properly with my X-Arcade joystick. The DVD-ROM pack cost $60.
...added an MP3 Jukebox that was designed especially for Hotrod/X-Arcade joysticks. Nothin' says lovin' like musical mayhem that's joystick controlled.
...and for kicks, I added Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3, although it plays as smooth as lung butter on my GeForce 2 MX. Why bother? Simple! Now I can claim :
"My MAME box does hundreds of classic games, plenty of modern fighters, realistic pinball tables, a 1-6th mix combined Dance Dance Revolution, nifty NES and SNES Emulation with hundreds of ROMs, two complete laserdisc games, plenty of anime videos, Invader Zim, and FRICKIN' TONY HAWK 3, BABY. What can your puny MAME box do?"
Idle hands are the devil's work, aren't they? Or something. I have an odd obsession with completely maxing out the Cool Factor of this project -- the more crazy stuff the cabinet is capable of, the happier I am. Perhaps I can install a working soda fountain and thermonuclear warhead next. I'll stop when my box has its own registered zip code.
Final item of note before we resume sticking bits of wood next to other bits of wood -- after visiting the Daphne emulator's chatroom I was able to pick up an ACTUAL coin door off someone who had an extra for only $10 shipping. Which means my earlier purchase of mockup parts is rendered useless! Go me. But at least me got a working coin mech now.
As of Apr. 16th, here pauseth the tale. Still to come:
(last update, 4/16/02)