Introduction: MAME Bar Top Cabinet

Hi, I built this a couple of years ago and have been meaning to share it but not found the time until now. As I'm of a certain age, I spent a lot of time (and money) with my mates in the chip shop and arcades playing all the original arcade games. To this day I'm still a gaming fan although I get a lot less time these days to play. Anyway, a number of years ago, like many others, I stumbled across a piece of software called MAME ( Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) which is a free open source program which allows you to play all those original games on your PC. The original games from the arcade machines, known as ROMs still exist if you can find them and for the most part play exactly as you remember them back in the day. For me this was a real revelation but I found it a bit frustrating trying to play with a keyboard - these games were meant to be played with joysticks, track balls and full size buttons! So, after much research I decided to build my own MAME cabinet to try (to some small degree) to relive my miss-spent youth - call it a mid life crisis, maybe it is but I didn't care. The cabinet is still in my garage and gets regular use as a jukebox while I'm tinkering. On the odd occasion however I have a few games of Galaxian or Frogger when I need a break - the only thing missing is the smell of fish and chips! It currently has around 400 games loaded mostly on MAME but also runs Sega Megadrive and SNES.

So, what do you need? For a start you will need access to hand and power tools and so you will need to be fairly competent DIY'er . A working knowledge of computer hardware and software is required (if you follow the same route as I did), and the ability to carry out some basic electrical wiring. For parts, I started with an old Pentium PC which was gathering dust in my loft. this included a 19 inch monitor, keyboard, mouse and speaker system. You will also need to buy some specialist arcade parts which include a keyboard encoder, joysticks and buttons but more on this later.

I'll try to give as much guidance as possible however you have to remember that the cabinet was mainly built on the fly around the parts I had to hand. You may start with different parts which will make your build very different to mine.

Anyway, hopefully you will find something useful here and maybe the inspiration to build your own cabinet - good luck.

Step 1: Planning and Cutting

So, the main decision for me when starting out was the overall size and shape. To cut down on the space required to store the cabinet, I decided to go for the bar top format rather than the full upright cabinet. Very basically the whole cabinet was built around the 19 inch monitor I had spare in the loft. I looked around at the many other designs of cab on the net, decided on the basic shape and proportions then marked the design out on to 19mm MDF. This was cut out with a jigsaw and the edges sanded smooth. The opposite side was then marked and cut using the first side as a template. The two sides were joined by more pieces of MDF that formed the monitor supports, top and the upper box which houses the speaker system and lights. Apologies if this description is a bit vague but the whole cab was built around the monitor I had to hand.

Step 2: The Control Panel - Part 1

The control panel takes some planning. Firstly, do you want controls for one or two players? How many buttons per player? Is a track ball required and do you have space for everything? I went for two players with one joystick and six buttons each as this covers the requirements for most systems and games. I also left space for two add coin buttons, a one and a two player button and a select button, some of which are positioned on the front rather than the control panel.

Once I had a plan, I cut another piece of MDF to size, marked the hole positions and cut them out using a hole saw. Obviously the hole sizes need to match your buttons and joysticks.

The approach I took with the control panel graphics was to print off a design of my choice then cover it with 2mm perspex to protect it. It can be tricky to cut the holes in the perspex without cracking it and the best solution I found was to clamp the perspex between the drilled control panel and another scrap piece of MDF. The hole saw was then run down the hole in the panel and through the perspex. The idea is that the compression of the perspex between the two surfaces stops it cracking.

Step 3: The Control Panel - Part 2

The first picture above shows the prints for the upper marquee and the control panel. I started with images found on the web which I Photo-shopped to add the direction arrows. I also moved some of the Pacman ghosts around to give a better layout. The print was then placed between the MDF panel and the perspex sheet. The holes in the print were cut out and the panel was then assembled with the buttons and joysticks.

Step 4: Computer Hardware

Once the cabinet is built and the monitor installed, the guts of the donor PC were taken out and fitted into the back. The motherboard was just screwed to the base as were the hard drive and PSU (within the lengths of the leads). The disc drive shown was only used during the software installation stage and was removed afterwards.

It's worth taking your time with this stage to make sure you have sufficient space for everything. Also bear in mind that you may need to update the software regularly. This can be done via a USB stick or the drive mentioned earlier.

During the initial stages you will also need to be able to connect a keyboard and mouse. As I also use my cabinet as a Jukebox, I chose to have them permanently connected but hidden in a drawer which slides out from the front.

Step 5: The Screen Cover

To hide the monitor bezel I cut a piece of 2mm perspex to size, masked up the visible area and painted the outer band with black paint on the reverse side. This way you don't see the brush strokes in the paint when the screen is fitted.

Step 6: Light and Sound


I decided to add lights in the marquee so the marquee print was placed between two pieces of perspex cut to size. I used two 12v car indicator bulbs and the power was taken from spare 12v connections on the computer power supply (normally yellow wires). You can easily find more information for this on the net. Just be careful with the how close the bulbs are to the perspex as the plastic will melt if too close.


The sound system used was a cheap powered PC speaker system which was disassembled and the parts added to the marquee box. If you look closely at the photo you can see the two speakers point down towards the screen (holes are required), and the small transformer, power switch and volume controls. These were installed into the lower face of the box so they were accessible by the user but hidden. Again, the system gets its power from a the PC PSU.

Step 7: Special Parts

OK, for this build, it is possible as I did to use a lot of stuff that you have hanging around the house (Old PC, monitor, MDF, timber) however you will have to buy some kit. We've already discussed fitting the joysticks and buttons but not where to get them. I found Ebay a good place to start looking but there are a few online stores which sell them, unfortunately most are in the US where cabinet building is more popular for some reason. They come in many different styles including illuminated which is quite cool but more hassle. Just make sure you buy the switches that fit inside the buttons and you may want to buy the link leads to save time.

One other really essential piece of equipment is a keyboard encoder. Some people have made their own by stripping out a normal keyboard but this is messy and doesn't work well as the response rate is too slow. There are several types on the market but I went for the I-PAC by Ultimarc. It's not too expensive, works well and their website and customer service is very good. A link to their site is provided below. I have no affiliation with them and you may find another cheaper or better encoder if you shop around.

Step 8: Software and Front Ends and Emulators

Operating Systems

For performance and simplicity I used windows 95 in my cabinet. Another reason was that the old PC I had was a few years old and may not have been up to running a later OS plus various emulators. I've configured it so that it boots straight into the front end software and therefore behave more like a games cabinet rather than a PC.

Front End software

What I mean by this is a piece of software that manages my emulators and games. You may choose not to use one and instead run each emulator from Windows when you want to. This is fine, obviously your choice and arguably simpler to get running. You also have to bear in mind that some are free and some paid for. I went for Hyperspin which is free, looks very professional but unfortunately very tedious to set up. I'll add some links below.


The emulators you need depend on what you want to run. You may just want to run MAME in which case you only need one. If like me you want to run others such as Sega Megadrive, SNES or even Playstation 1 & 2, you will need an emulator for those systems. You will probably find that each system has several emulators and that some work better than others, again some are free and some not.


So these are the original software code files that were installed into the arcade machine when it was built. Most games still exist but are still under copyright. For this reason I can't help you in finding them but in this case the search engine is your best friend.

Step 9: Conclusion and Links

As I said at the start, this is in no way a comprehensive set of instructions on how to build an arcade cabinet. I am by no means the first person to do this and I only hope that it may inspire someone else to have a go and build one. I'll try to respond with any specific questions and maybe add a few more pictures at a later date. Thanks for looking, a few links are given below:


EMU Zone