I recently designed and built my own arcade machine. I found that the retro ones were too bulky, and ends up taking over the entire tea room at work. So I devised a plan, if you can have an arcade cabinet small and stylish enough to blend in perfectly in the room, then your workmates will love you long time. If you have an old computer lying around, and you’re a keen DIYer, then theres no reason for you not give it a try.
I assume that everyone trying to follow my step by step guide already has a firm grasp of the obvious, so I will leave out some of the little details so you can use some common sense where needed. If you don’t have any, then google it.
Step 1: Design
I made some sketches until I found the look I wanted. It was important to keep in mind what the objective was; less bulky, smaller and more elegant. Using an LCD screen, I managed to knock off a lot of unnnecessary weight and bulkiness. I took my sketches and redrew them on computer using Corel Draw, you could also use AutoCad, or any other vector based drawing program that has a decent measuring system. Make sure you know what the size of your computer case is, it needs to fit in the base of your cabinet.
Not being convinced about the look of the cabinet, I took it a step further and modelled it in 3D. I wanted to get a good idea of what it will look like before spending money on materials etc. For this process I used 3D Studio Max.
I will do a seperate in-depth blog soon about the whole design process, with tutorials and everything. For now, I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that you can just use mine. I can provide you with a construction pack that has my material cutting list, parts list and list of suppliers I used, just ask for it in the comments section and I will send it to you.
Step 2: Preparing the computer
The computer I used is really old, but its all it needs to be in order to run the arcade emulator. Its a pentium 4 with 1 gig ram and a 40 gig hard drive. My computer runs Windows XP, but you’re not limited to this, as long as it can run the MAME emulator, it will work.
To make it look cooler while its booting up, I used Stardock’s Bootskin, its free.
Search their skin collection for Mame skins, there are many.
Next, install Mame. Its also free and is available here.
Mame uses ROMs to emulate classic arcade games on a modern day computer. There are some free ones available on the Mame website, alternatively you can search the internet for more.
When Mame is intalled and running, be sure to copy the shortcut to your starup folder, this means when the computer starts, Mame will start. Which is what we want, so we dont need a mouse or keyboard to launch the program.
You can read up on MameWah if you’re interested in making the interface even more awesome. I did not get around to that yet, when I do, I will make sure I include it here.
Step 3: Building the controller panel
The controller needs to be routed out of 16mm MDF (medium density fibre aka superwood). You could plot it out by hand and use a jigsaw, but I disapprove. I took my cutting list to Rind Routing in Paarden eiland. They cut all my parts for me, fairly inexpensive. Small price to pay for precision that you can never accomplish when cutting by hand. The outer edge of the controller panel had to be smoothed out, I used a hendheld router with a 10mm corner bit, you can do it by hand with some sandpaper if you dont have a router. The other 4 pieces of MDF is used to build the box underneath, I used these plastic thingys to keep it all together, they are cheap, easy to use and easy to find.
For the cosmetic finishes I just used spraycans, 1x matte black and 1x white. If you know someone that can duco spray it for you properly, it will have a much nicer finish. The stickers on the top I had cut out with a vinyl cutter. You will find an AI vector file in the construction pack, thats the sticker kit. You can have it cut from white vinyl at your local signage shop.
Now we get to the fun part. We need buttons and lollipop controllers, and more buttons… and some cable. Yes I know my design has an excessive amount of buttons, but we want to take advantage of some of the emulator’s functions, like being able to pause. You will notice mine has an O and K button, which was unnecessary, my bad. I only realised afterwards that you can skip the “OK to continue” message by flicking the player 1 lollipop left and right. I bought buttons and controllers form Blackball in Tokai, but you can order yours from Ultimarc if you like.
Next thing we need is an iPac interface board, this will make all our controls communicate with the computer via USB. You can order it from Ultimarc. I chose the USB version to ensure compatibility with laptops etc. The wiring is quite simple, once all your buttons & sticks are mounted in position, you daisy chain them by soldering the ground cable to all contact points, and connect all other contact points to the corresponding points on the iPac.
You can now connect the controller to your computer and program the buttons to function the way you want them to. Here is everything you need to know about programming your iPac.
Step 4: Building the cabinet
The cabinet design is a very simple one to assemble. I recommend assembling it before spraying it, this way you will use less spraycans. It is assembled in the same way as the controller panel, with some extra screws added afterwards to make it more stable. You can mount four castor wheels, make sure the front two are the lockable kind. This way you can move the machine around easily for cleaning purposes. I thought of that too late, so mine doesn’t have wheels.
The lightbox is the only part thats made of aluminium, which makes it easy to bend into shape. You can use a 1ft fluorescent lamp, the thin type so it generates less heat. The clear plastic PETG panel bends and snaps into place.
Now you can place your PC in the bottom of the cabinet, slot the controller panel into place and connect the monitor. Voila! It still looks a bit boring because we didnt decorate it yet. But if you’re like me, you will play it as is and wait a few months before you get around to decorating it.
For decoration I will have a vinyl print made at my local print shop that I will apply to the side panels and to the lightbox. I got some Mame artwork on the internet and modified it to suit my custom cabinet. You can make your own, or use mine, its included in the construction pack.
Thanx for reading my step by step guide.
P.s. I know there are a lot of other people out there that have built Mame cabinets, and I dont think that mine is the best in the world, so no cheesy comments about how much better you could’ve done it yourself please. Constructive comments are most welcome.