Ultimate Arcade - a Retrospective Build

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Introduction: Ultimate Arcade - a Retrospective Build

About: Ex electronics tech, now sales rep living in the snowy region. Always tinkering fixing or building something in the workshop. I play guitar, I fix guitars, I build guitars. Any project that has wood, electro...

Experience and hind sight are great things.The other day, I has out in the shed looking at the now defunct creation I had made about 10-12 years ago. I'd started building this when my daughter was only 10 or 11 and she was probably 12 when completed. We enjoyed playing it then and she'd practice all day and challenge me when I got home from work only to complain my turn was always longer (I couldn't help it I didn't die)! Although she did get pretty good at frogger I must admit.

The first generation pentium computer I repurposed was never really up to the task (OK for the older games, not so good on the more elaborate games - even back then). That computer ended up going into a jukebox build and I'd always envisioned putting a cheap, higher powered computer in there and never really got around to it.

At the time of this build (circa 2009), there wasn't a huge amount of information out there on how everything goes together. I sort of had to wing it a bit. When I started looking back at the advances that have been made in emulation (even a few years back), it was astounding. So much progress and so many updates (not to mention the total file size). These days every man and his dog are building one. There's so many more options now to make it quicker, easier and cheaper (Panadora's Box, Raspberry Pi and still the good old PC).

So I thought I'd revisit this first attempt build at an upright arcade machine. The technology I used back then (which was pretty much the norm), the issues with comparability and what I've learned over the 10 or so years.

While this isn't a full tutorial build like I'd normally do (as I'd already pieced everything together and built the cabinet), you can still see how it was put together, what I used and hopefully inspire others to build their own. This is before it gets an overhaul of it's own to drag it up into 2020 and the grand kids can enjoy the experience too.

Enjoy!

Supplies:

Hardware:

  • 2 (maybe 3) sheets of 12mm MDF
  • 12.5mm pine beads
  • Screws
  • Glue!
  • 1200x900mm sheet clear perspex
  • 4x casters
  • T Moulding (to suit your MDF size) off ebay
  • Spray paints (undercoat and your choice of colour)
  • Cabinet graphics (I got them printed from someone in the UK - search ebay)

Tools:

  • Circular saw (or table saw or panel saw)
  • Jigsaw and/or bandsaw
  • Drill, drills and impact driver
  • Router with flush trim & slot cutter bits
  • Hammer
  • Screwdriver
  • Soldering Iron
  • Multi-meter
  • Pliers and/or crimping tool

Electrical & Computer Hardware

  • Power board/s
  • Fluorescent Light
  • Power switch
  • 12V 240/5A relay
  • Old computer (I used a pentium 200MHz full of shear power running Windows XP)
  • Old TV or LCD monitor
  • Audio amplifier and speakers (i used a 12V car amplifier off ebay)
  • VGA or S-video to RF converter
  • IPAC to JAMMA card & JAMMA wiring harness
  • Controllers (2 joysticks & buttons, track ball (Ultimarc))
  • Latching PB switch (for complete power)
  • 12V power supply

Teacher Notes

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Step 1: Design & Inspiration

I still had the documentation stored away in the cabinet of how and what I used in a folder. There's a bit of advise - always keep your documents because then you can refer back to notes on what and how you did things.

From what I can gather (there was a lot more images not very relevant or controller layouts), I did like this build from Dave Turner called Ultra Arcade. You can probably notice some similarities already. I did like the fact the controller assembly was able to be detached somewhat, although I like the idea of having a keyboard drawer (which I still think is a good idea although you could go wireless now).

For the second picture, I liked the idea of having the computer separate to the monitor. I'd put all the hardware underneath out of the way. In hindsight it was a pain and I should have put all the hardware into the top section and used the bottom as a riser only. I'd urge you to make it modular so you've only got power, USB and video (HDMI, CGA) cords running if possible. This will make disassembly easier (if you need to swap out parts) and fault finding even easier as well.

I've taken some actual measurement of the cabinet in the next section but basically the dimensions here are probably what I used with a few alterations. I wanted the cabinet to split into two for ease of transport if needed. The controller assembly was a good idea too if only to just work on that section away from the cabinet. Again I should have incorporated the keyboard encoder somehow along with the trackball USB connection.

I also didn't take into account that this thing will be on wheels which raised it 80mm higher. This made the joysticks way too high now (even for me at 6', near impossible for the kids without a stool). Some of these short comings will be address in the revamp.

Step 2: Cabinet Build

Basically I started by marking out the sides as this is the hardest. As it ended up being something around the 700mm wide mark, I decided to make the front/back about the same (these were the original measurements I got off plans, however I'd make use of sheet sizing and try and get things to about 600mm). Once the sides were marked, I cut them out using a circular saw for the straight bits and a jigsaw on the bendy bits. At this stage, I'm pretty sure I cut the sides in half to split into top and bottom sections.

From here, I attached the 12.5mm beads to the sides with nails and glue for the front, back, top and bottom to screw to. I set them back slightly so that the front and back wouldn't be flush. Then I formed up the cabinet using screws. The back was the last bit to be attached and I put a bead across the top of the bottom sections panel to hold the top and bottom panels together.

I then began work on the joystick panel. The depth is enough for the switches and joysticks (including bottom keyboard drawer). Once it was test fitted to the cabinet it was removed again and the holes were drilled for the switches and joystick. A large hole was cut for the trackball using a hole saw.

The T moulding groove was actually cut using an angle grinder with a multi-cutter blade attached. Not the safest of options but the only one I had at the time. Since then, I've bought a couple different sized slot cutters for various widths of T moulding. The moulding can be hammered into place with an off cut of timber. A little trick when going around corners is to cut a small portion of the tongue where it is to bend around.

I included some internal shelves for the computer and the bottom of the top cabinet (for the monitor).

Total build time for the cabinet was probably only a few weekends. Once it was screwed together and painted, it sat in the shed for a good 18 months.

Step 3: Controls

I looked at quite a few layouts and decided on the ball in the middle with players either side. I wanted function buttons accessible so that I could change settings easily (via function keys). Player 1+2 buttons were positioned on top, although you could put them wherever. Something I didn't really account for was pinball operation. Two side buttons for flippers and a ball release button at the front would have been a good idea. As they're the same as the top buttons, you could wire these in parallel.

I originally planed more switches (as you can see from the extra holes underneath). I would assume that either the IPAC board couldn't accommodate more or MAME only supported up to four player buttons. All of the wires to the switches and joysticks were via a JAMMA wiring harness. I figured that if I ever wanted to ditch the computer and put a 60 in 1 board in, it would just be a matter of plug and play. All of the switches work on the principle of one control connection to ground - so each switch is daisy chained to ground, as are the joysticks. No lights were needed, although you can get illuminated switches these days.

The track ball has it's own USB board connector - it's basically plug and play. The only game I knew that had a track ball was Tank (I think it was called). I never ended up getting that one to work with it

In retrospect, I should have included the IPAC card and JAMMA connector in the joystick assembly with USB only outputs. That's one thing I'll be fixing in the update build. There's also way cheaper options too for encoder boards - Ebay has some for about $6-7, cheaper if you buy multiples. One board will generally do two joysticks which is all you need. It's only if you want extra buttons you might have to fork out for something else like the IPAC boards. There's a few to choose from, a little pricey but they do as advertised. I'm actually using one for a poker machine build because I need extra switches. It also comes with keyboard mapping software if you need it (but I think it only works with their board).

Step 4: Display

A WORD OF WARNING: If you intend on doing something similar and removing the outer case of the CRT, be EXTREMELY cautious! The back of CRT sets contain extremely high voltages and will kill you. Just because they're unplugged, doesn't mean they haven't got voltage stored. It's a good idea to bleed off any voltages before working on these. If you don't know how to do this, I'd suggest you either don't use a CRT TV like this for your project or leave it in it's case. That's way out of the scope of this build working on high voltages.

I can't remember why I took the screen out of it's plastic case? Maybe it was broken or I couldn't get it to fit correctly. It could have been something to do with access to the push buttons? At any rate, it was removed and mounted directly to the back of the bezel. Thinking back it would have been easier and safer to just keep it in it's case.

I measured the screen size and made a bezel to suit, cut out of 12mm MDF with a jigsaw. I made some spacer blocks from scrap timber and screwed them to the bezel. The TV was screwed to that using it's mounting supports. I believe I probably would have used something like liquid nails for glue as I wouldn't want it coming loose.

To get the signal from the computer to the TV (the TV only has RF and SCART connections), I used a converter box. Initially I was going to use the SCART connection, but when the TV powers up, it goes to a default channel (0). Without being able to change channels, this was going to be a pretty pointless exercise. The computer I was using had an S-Video output on it, that went into the converter and out popped RF to whatever channel you select.

I used a sheet of perspex to cover the screen and inserted a graphic behind it. I only noticed I must have ordered a sit down screen graphic after I cut! I'd suggest putting the graphic between two sheets of persex to keep it from wrinkling. I'd say I was being tight and didn't want to pay the extra $40 for another sheet.

The perspex is screwed into place. I probably should have made a frame to go around it to make it look a bit better and not use screws. I think I just wanted to get it done at this stage.

Step 5: Marquee & Sound

The marquee is made of two sheets of perspex and a graphic sandwiched between it. The light is an old fluoro I had in the shed to illuminate it from behind. I put a piece of cardboard stapled behind it to stop the light bleeding into the screen below. I could have made something out of MDF, but it does the job and is still there 10 years later! It's just plugged into a board board below.

For sound, I cut holes to mount two PC speakers (as you can see from the extra large holes). However I have a feeling the amplifier in it stopped working (can't remember why - did I blow it up by connecting it in reverse?). So I sourced a small 12V car amplifier off ebay (20W maybe?). It has volume, balance and a tone control. The speakers are 4" from a set I'd had laying around and I think they were about 5W or 10W each. Between the speakers and amp, the machine can get annoyingly loud. I then covered the front of it over with some leftover speaker grill cloth.Then the assembly is screwed to the cabinet.

A couple of updates I'll probably do with the cabinet update is

  • Put the amp somewhere where I have access to control the volume (maybe under the joysticks).
  • Re-cut the holes for speakers and re-cover them. Then mount the board another way that doesn't require screwing from the front.
  • Same goes for the marquee, I'll probably put that in a frame to hide screw holes

Step 6: Computer

OK, so as you probably notice from the photos - there's no computer!

That's right - it got repurposed for the jukebox as it was on the slow side and I'd always wanted to upgrade it to something slightly faster. Unfortunately, I stopped buying desktop computers and started buying laptops. The first one was going to be it when it eventually would be retired - it lasted 6 months before I cracked the screen and stuffed the HD when it fell of the table. I did end up fixing it eventually for cheap and would probably be OK with it's celeron chip. The replacement laptop had a dual core celeron - this would have been great except it died when I retired it and left it for 6 months - it just doesn't come to life anymore and just hangs.

The computer that was in here was a first generation pentium (200MHz I believe), 96M of memory and a 40GB HD. I left the HD in place to run windows XP and added an old portable HD - 360GB. This had all the good stuff on it (MAME, ROMS, frontends etc). The video card I believe was changed out to one that had VGA and S video out. All of the encoders where plugged straight into USB ports and maybe a USB splitter. The keyboard was PS/2 style and plugged into the PS/2 port. I added a wireless mouse via USB. The S-Video out went to the video converter. There was no wifi in there at the time, although I think I put a wifi card in towards the end to help with transferring files remotely.

The version of MAME I was running was 0.37 (yep). The front end I liked at the time was Mame Classic, however I think it stopped being supported or wouldn't run - There was a problem Houston from memory. I changed over to MameME and it was set to boot straight up after windows. Nothing else was running on the computer. The front ends these days are very spectacular - I haven't begun to even try them out.

Back then, MAME and it's ROMs were such a small package - even if you had every ROM. These games didn't require bucket loads of processing power and would run quite contently - even on a 200MHz machine! The issue now is really the boot up times of XP - it takes so long to start playing and all of the high CPU intensive games MAME can emulate! So I bit the bullet and got an older Dell USFF desktop - i5 2500Mhz with 500GB HDD and 4GB RAM - $120. It cost me 1/10 what I paid for the 200MHz machine did back in the day! I'll upgrade it with a small SSD to boot faster and use the 500GB for ROMS, maybe even hang a 2TB out the back.

Step 7: Electrical Wiring

To turn the entire system on, you might be wondering how that was
done? I believe it was as simple as the main switch turned on the 240V to the powerboards. However the computer was switched on via the large relay. A latched PB switch on the top of the joystick assembly (the blue one) activated it and it in-turn switched the PC on via it's latched switch (I basically replaced the computers latched switch). When it came time to turn everything off, press the button and everything went off (or just shut it down with the keyouse/mouse). Not great, but best I could do at the time. It's much easier these days.

NB Although I can recollect, that I'd switched the entire 240V system via the relay (one side) and the other side also switched the computer on/off. Maybe that was another build?

There was a 12V transformer to run other things (lights, amplifier, video converter).

All of the items that could be plugged directly into 240V were done with powerboards. The 240V fused switch on the back I attached to the back panel (silly when I think of it now) to replace the powerboard cord hanging out. It's impossible to just take the back panel off. I'll end up moving it up to the top and having it permanently mounted with a cutout most likely

Step 8: Support Documentation

It's always a good idea to keep your notes - you never know when you'll need to revisit! They're all stored in a folder within the machine. Any instruction manuals, driver disks, inspiration for the build and measurements to some extent. I'd even had some info on SCART when I was researching it.

Step 9: Final Thoughts

In the end, there was some good design choices and a few that didn't work so well.

The Good

  • The cabinet is somewhat modular - the top and bottom separate, the controls can somewhat be removed
  • Fits between standard size doors (just)
  • Rolls around and easy to move indoors
  • Worked pretty well considering it was running a first generation pentium with very little RAM. Although 10 years ago MAME was at 0.37 and the total ROM download was 200-300GB!

The Bad:

  • The size of the cabinet was quite large and bulky. From what I've seen of plans and dimensions now, the cabinets were around 600mm square and about 1.8m. This cabinet including wheels comes up to about 1940mm (just fits under a door).
  • The controls are way too high as well (fine for me - I'm 6', not so good for the kiddies)
  • The display TV probably could have stayed in it's plastic outer. It would have made mounting it maybe a little easier, safer and if it ever needed to be replaced easier as well
  • While maybe not a good idea, I would have liked to try the TV sideways to make use of the whole screen like in a normal arcade
  • It could have been even more modular by making the wiring between components easier - separate controls with USB out (perhaps DC in as well), display and computer all in the one unit
  • I should have fixed the power switch to the cabinet, not to rear removable panel
  • Using 16 or 18mm melamine would be the go. While I thought 12mm would be lighter (and it technically is), you can't get 12mm T moulding (from what I could find). Also, spraying such a large cabinet in undercoat and black requires a lot of money in spray cans. It would be cheaper and easier just buying a couple of sheets of black Melamine.

The Ugly

  • While the graphics around the screen are OK (except I ordered a sit down, not upright graphic), I should have put it between two pieces of perspex. Over time the graphic wrinkled. Also, I probably could have had some sort of frame around it so I didn't have to use screws.
  • The marquee graphic was fine as it was sandwiched between two pieces of perspex. Once again it could have slid into a holder of some sort
  • I thought it would be a good idea to cover the speakers in speaker cloth. Unfortunately speaker cloth doesn't like to be drilled through and tears. Next time I'll screw in from the back
  • While it might be good to have an authentic retro arcade gaming experience with a TV, unfortunately trying to navigate using an old computer with it's VGA output converted to composite sucks - big time. Playing the game is fine but trying to navigate a menu on a computer is very hard (even at a larger resolution). I'm not too sure what the solution would be other than using a modern LCD monitor (or maybe both).

Step 10: What Does the Future Hold?

With this machine, I intend to address a lot of the gripes I had.

  • I'll cut the machine height down, as well as the width and depth. This should bring down the height of the joysticks.
  • Move the amplifier so I can change volume
  • Update the computer hardware (I have an i5 machine coming), software (latest MAME) and a nice frontend
  • Remake the joystick assembly and include the encoders in there so it's plug and play
  • Rewire the cabinet and put all the hardware up the top
  • Address the perspex screen cover and marquee

Stay tuned, there's a few more builds coming up

  • A 50's style jukebox build with touch screen, 100W amp, 12" woofers - all the mod con's. It's loud - really loud!
  • A poker machine build (that's been in the works for years if I ever finish it)

I hope you all find some inspiration.

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