How to Build an Arcade Machine!




Introduction: How to Build an Arcade Machine!

About: I'm just another guy that likes to make stuff and share what I do, that's all. I make instructables every now and again just for fun.

I'm finally back, and I'm here to show you how to make an Arcade Machine for your own personal enjoyment. It's really not too difficult, nor too expensive (compared to how much real arcade machines cost), so this makes for a great summer project.

I removed the step regarding emulators and how I got the games for my Arcade Machines. If you need help with this, please search Google for other MAME instructions regarding emulators and such.

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Step 1: Think to Yourself...

Before you start your journey on the quest for Arcade Machine construction, ask yourself a few questions...

How much money do I want to spend?

This is one of the most crucial questions you have to ask yourself before jumping in and start building an arcade machine. How much money do you have available to you? For me, I had to keep my budget down to about $200-$250 USD because I didn't have a lot of money. In fact, I had to pawn off some of my games and such just to get the funds to build this. I didn't have enough money for *actual* arcade controls because I spent most of the money in the wood, paint, and plexiglass, so I settled with two PS1 arcade sticks and a PS1-to-USB adapter. So, money is a big deal when it comes to this kind of stuff. If you have the money, go ahead and go all-out. If not, then just go with whatever works best for you.

Do I have the right tools for the job?

For a build like this, you'll need a couple of tools. Standard saws, drills, and other power tools will make the construction of an arcade machine run smoothly.

Do I have a blueprint of some sort?

Rome wasn't built in a day. But it was sure built off some sort of plan. So make sure you have a plan of some sort, which I will cover in the next step.

Will this be something I use often?

The thing about building entertainment machines or anything else of the sort is that they lose their shimmer after a certain amount of time. While you may build it and then play it every day for about a month, you might start to play it less and less often until it ends up in storage (like how my last build ended up). So, if you have a family (especially little kids), then it will be used often. If you live alone in your mother's basement at 23 years old, then you probably shouldn't consider doing this at all.

So, after spending a moment to ponder, let's get to building an arcade machine!

Step 2: Tools, Materials, and Other Miscellaneous Items

I'm surprised I actually spelled miscellaneous right...

Anyway, here's a quick run down of the things you're going to need for the construction of an arcade machine:

Materials (the bare minimum):

(Semi-optional) A plan/ blueprint/ sketch of the machine's design
At least three sheets of MDF Plywood

Plexiglass cut to your arcade's specifications
Screws (I recommend some medium-length screws for most of the build)

A can of High-Gloss paint of whatever color you want
A can of primer paint
A Computer with sub-decent performance (depending on what games you want to play)
A computer monitor

Arcade Controls (a general list):

Two joysticks
6-8 buttons for gameplay
1 button for inserting a coin
1 button for exiting a game

A saw of some kind. I recommend getting a saw that allows you to cut in any direction for any sharp turns in the design.
Power screwdriver
Power Driller
Sawhorses of some kind

That's really all you need for this build. Although, there are some points I would like to cover about some of the materials list...

1. The Plan

A plan, sketch, or blueprint of any sort will work wonders for a project like this. This way, everything is aligned perfectly, everything fits right, and you have a nice looking arcade machine. I went to my local arcade and took the dimensions off a Mrs. Pacman / Galaga arcade machine, recorded the dimensions, and drew my blueprints from that. Needless to say, I got a couple of weird looks while I was measuring the machine with my measure tape and meter stick.

2. The plywood

The type of plywood you use greatly influences how well your arcade machine stays together, how well it's painted, and how smooth the machine will be. I recommend you get some sheets of MDF plywood. I say this because MDF plywood is easy to cut, has a smooth surface, and with a couple of coats of paint, it will look great. The only con is that MDF plywood soaks up paint, so it is hard to completely paint without having to apply two to three coats of paint. That being said, moisture will cause the wood to start breaking loose, so be careful of that as well.

3. Plexiglass

Plexiglass is completely optional. You may or may not want to (or have the money to) have plexiglass on your machine, which is perfectly fine. Keep in mind that this is more of a guide than a "this is how I did it, and you'll do the exact same thing" kind of instructable. But if you do get plexiglass, measure out the dimensions of the control panel (the place the controls are on), the bezel (the part covering the computer monitor), and the marquee (the lit up portion at the top of the machine). These help the machine to become more aesthetically pleasing, but doesn't affect the overall operation of the machine.

4. Computer

Whatever you do, please, PLEASE don't spend too much on a computer for something like an arcade machine. The reason I say this is because you don't want to put a brand-new Alienware tower in it just to play pac man. There are hundreds upon countless thousands of old hand-me-down computers at thrift stores, relatives, friends, and even computer shops (ask for a dead computer-- often they'll give you a computer that just has a defective hard drive of some sort. Replace with a new hard drive and some other components, and you're set). They are begging for a new life, a new beginning, so why not use an old computer that would otherwise be thrown in a landfill forever?

6. Arcade Controls

As I said earlier, I did not have sufficient funds to buy and install real arcade controls into my machine. So I used two ASCII PS1 Arcade sticks (which are surprisingly getting harder and harder to find) and a PS1 to USB adapter instead. Although I could have done something more elaborate (like inlaying the controls into the control panel), the end result still works just as fine as actual arcade controls. If you have the money, please, buy the actual arcade controls, learn how to solder, and install real controls instead.

I believe I've done enough talking, so let's get to the manual labor part of building an arcade machine.

Step 3: The Design

This is where we build the cabinet of the arcade machine. An arcade machine without any electronic parts in it yet is referred to as a cabinet.

Sketch out the design of one side of your arcade machine on one of the sheets of Plywood. Follow your blueprint (and/or sketch) carefully to ensure that when cut, each piece of the machine fits well with the others. Below you'll see what I started off with: a blueprint and a sketch on the wood.

After you do that, cut out that piece, set it on top of the other sheet of wood, trace the design, and then cut that piece as well. You should end up with two identical sides of your arcade cabinet.

Cutting the bezel of the arcade can be tricky if you don't have the right tools. If you have a saw that can take ninety degree turns with ease, then this will be no problem for you. If you don't have one, however, you may have to resort to other methods that you will have to figure out for yourself.

Then it's on to the other parts of the cabinet: the base, the back, the footplate (the part where the coin slot usually is), and the top. Cut out each piece and set them with the rest of the pieces, give yourself a pat on the back, and you'll be done with cutting! Now, we put the pieces together like a 3D puzzle.

Step 4: Screwing and Nailing the Pieces Together

This is where having family members or other helping hands becomes very helpful. Since MDF plywood is a bit heavy, and it is hard to put something like this together by yourself, grab a buddy and have them hold the pieces while you screw, nail, and drill the pieces together. For something like MDF plywood, I suggest you get a couple of pieces of strong 2x4s, screwing them to the inside, and then using that to screw the other pieces to it. Having a friend who is skilled in the industrial arts will also help, because he will know what he is doing (most likely), and will make sure the finished cabinet is strong, sturdy, and can support a good amount of weight.

Something you should consider doing is making a Marquee

I custom-made my marquee by using GIMP (a free photoshop-like program) and a bunch of images from the internet. You can have it printed out by a person who makes signs (him and I are friends and share an agreement- as long as I have good grades, he will print out anything for me free of charge). If not, you can just print it out, cut it out, and tape them together. It may not look as great, but you can use it as a placeholder until you get an actual marquee.

When you place lights inside the marquee, make sure they don't get too hot sitting up there turned on all the time. This could pose as a potential fire hazard, and you could lose all your hard work (and your house).

When you are finished, stand back in awe, for you know you are already half way finished with your very own arcade machine.

Step 5: Mounting the Electronics

Again, grab a friend or family member to help you with this one. Determine what angle you want your computer monitor to be sitting at when you mount it to the machine, make a couple of quick measurements, and then start building a slanted shelf of sorts inside the machine. The way my arcade is rigged, it has a solid piece of 2x4 secured by four long screws where the back of the monitor leans back on while the base of the monitor sits on just a simple piece of MDF plywood supported by a couple of other pieces of 2x4s. This shelf will support the monitor very nicely, and is surprisingly strong.

In my build, I simply put the computer tower and speakers on the bottom of the cabinet behind the monitor. If you want, you can build a rig to mount the tower and speakers to the cabinet to ensure nothing tips over, but since the cabinet itself is very heavy if you use MDF plywood, you won't really need to worry about anything tipping over.

If you want, you can go ahead and test everything while you're there, including the controls, the monitor, the computer, and everything else. Speaking of...

Step 6: Electronics

If you are not good with computers, programs, or anything relating to the sort, then I advise you learn a thing or two using the magic of Google and/ or getting help from a friend before working on the electronic part of the arcade machine, because it is often the most technical, tedious, and difficult part of the entire project.

Where to begin:

Once you have acquired a computer, you will first have to run through a check list to see what needs to be repaired or anything of the sort.

Does it turn on?
Does it load an operating system (Windows XP, Windows 95, Windows 2000, Linux, Ubuntu, etc?)
Do all the keyboard, mouse, and USB ports work?
Does the mentioned operating system have support for USB drives?
Does it produce sound when hooked up to a speaker?

If it does not turn on, then check the power supply and replace it accordingly.

If it does not load an operating system, then either 1. It does not have a hard drive or 2. Some crucial parts of the operating system have been corrupted, and needs to have the operating system re-installed.

Look around the internet for guides on how to install and re-install operating systems. Depending on what you're looking to spend, you can either use Windows XP (which costs a good chunk of change) or Ubuntu (free, but doesn't play nice with older computers, and doesn't have good frontends like Windows does). Choose for yourself, and then continue.

If something is wrong with the ports of a computer, then you might just have to throw away the whole computer unless you're willing to replace the parts.

If for some unknown reason you cannot plug in USB drives into the computer and copy files from it, then get the necessary drivers from Microsoft (or just Google USB drivers for Linux if you're using Linux or Ubuntu).

If it doesn't make sound, then you can 1. Get drivers for the sound card 2. Replace the sound card, or 3. Play a silent arcade machine. Go with whatever you feel is necessary.

After checking off some stuff and possibly fixing a thing or two, it's time to start loading up the computer with some games.

Step 7: Painting

I won't cover this too much since this is a pretty simple task. But basically, you want to cover as much of the cabinet as possible with a primer coat of paint of some sort, and then add another coat of primer, and then start coating on the paint that you want the machine to be painted with. As a rule of thumb: the more coats of paint you have, the better.

After you're done with painting, allow it to dry, and then start mounting the plexiglass (if you have any) to their respective locations. I prefer to put tape where the screws will go, and then after screwing the plexiglass to the plywood, I paint the screw with the same paint I used for the rest of the cabinet. Then after I paint it, I can remove the tape and tear off any excess. This way, the screw is painted without getting paint on anything else, and it also looks very professional.

When everything dries, it is ready to be put back together, and then you can begin mounting the electronics inside.

Step 8: The Marquee

Step back. Close your eyes. Let the creative juices of your brain flow~...

Now, think about what you want for a marquee (that is, if you're wanting to add one).

I went for a simple, yet retro-styled marquee for my arcade machine. I couldn't find a good one online, so I made my own.

I used GIMP (which is a free, photoshop-esque image editor) to make the marquee, and found all of the images on google images. I just slapped them all together on the sides and added a couple of red bars. I was planning on adding a design on the sides of the cabinet that was red, orange, and black, so I wanted this to match. I eventually stuck with just this.

The image is actually a lot bigger, but because it's so big, it had to be shrunk down for instructables. If you want a higher resolution of this to use in your arcade machine, just PM me and I'll send it to you.

Step 9: Putting It All Together

After you have everything set up, just put everything in its rightful place inside the machine, set the controls, flip the switch, and you should have a fully working arcade machine. It should work if you've configured everything correctly, but if it doesn't, leave a comment or search the web for an answer.

Have fun with making your arcade machine-- I know I did!


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    14 Discussions


    4 years ago

    I just made this account to say that one idea for a computer would be a Raspberry Pi 2 (or older/newer model). They run about $20 US and are built to be customized for specific uses. My friends have been using those computers to build their own handheld emulators (an arcade machine is basically a large emulator) and find them to run great for gaming at 720p.


    5 years ago on Step 9

    I just wanted to say thank you for your guide. Have a good one!


    6 years ago

    Like do you just build everything and hook up the computer, and on the computer just download the software and ROMs?


    6 years ago

    My favorite instructable :) just wondering if you put a game system in there and put games in it, or how you got the games


    8 years ago on Step 6

    Hi Great tutorial! just one question can you show what software, how to install it and how to add games because i cant seem to find any.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    If you search "MALA" in Google, you'll find the software. The MALA forums also have an extensive help section that can help you with setting up the software, games, and help with any technical issues you may have.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Thank you. This was an incredibly fun project, and I had even more fun making the instructable to share with others. I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Wow. Definitely gonna be trying this. Nice work!


    9 years ago on Introduction

    by any chance does the name brian monroe armitage ring a bell to you?

    nice build!


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Excellent project...
    About emulator: don't bother yourself think about this :D


    9 years ago on Introduction


    As long as you are using the physical cartridge and are using a licensed emulator of the system the cartridge is for, yes it's legal. The second you take the program off of the cartridge and use it in a different format, it's no longer legal (in the United States). Also, if you are using an unlicensed emulator, it's illegal as well.

    Tread carefully and always know a good lawyer!