It’s been over a year since I last posted about my plans to build my own arcade machine. I stupidly started my plans a month before we had our second child. A lot of things have been put on hold this past year. But it’s now firmly back on my agenda. I’m even very, very optimistically going to try and build it in time for my 40th birthday in April. Let’s do this!
One thing I’ve done to really help me along this path is to read the awesome book Project Arcade: Build Your Own Arcade Machine by John St Clair. Not all the information in that book will be 100% relevant to everyone’s build but it’s still a fantastic starting point with tonnes of detailed information about a lot of the process, materials and accessories you might need to use. The main thing I’m still lacking is detailed instructions on how to actually build the cabinet itself. But with the help of a couple of people I know who know woodwork and electronics I’m hoping I can get there.
The first step in my process? I had to make a few decisions. Many of these were ‘either ors’, so I have listed them below for easy reading. There are lots of decisions you have to make before you even start.
My usual caveat is in force here: I’m no expert, so some things I say may not be entirely accurate. Feel free to hit me up in the comments if you have any advice to give.
Buy or Kit or Build
This is the first question I asked myself. Do I want to buy an existing cabinet (perhaps one that is dead, for parts), buy a pre-made kit to assemble myself or build one from scratch. I did like the idea of buying an existing one but it just proved too hard to find. I’m still hugely regretting seeing an old Space Invaders out of the corner of my eye as I was driving out of our local dump and not stopping to go back. I didn’t have time to go back, and we were in between houses and I didn’t have access to a van, so I let it go. Hugely regretting that now. I also didn’t want to go for an assembly kit as I just didn’t really like the style of a lot of them and they’re still not exactly cheap. So I opted to be brave and have the extra satisfaction, and stress, of building one myself from scratch. Plus this means I can totally make it look however I want. More on that in the next blog post.
Decision – Build my own
CRT TV or LCD
I didn’t have easy access to a proper arcade monitor so my main choice here was between an old CRT TV or a modern LCD screen. A lot easier to use an LCD screen, in terms of weight and mounting it, but it’s just not the same is it? I felt I had to have the traditional curved CRT with the scan lines etc. I was about to start looking for one online when I happened to chance upon one at a car boot sale. A 20” TV which only cost £5 as the person was just wanting to get rid of it. Perfect.
Decision – CRT TV
Horizontal or Vertical screen
Now we’re getting into decisions which are affected by the games I want to run on it. Do I put the monitor horizontally or vertically? Vertical is obviously better for some classic games like Space Invaders, Donkey Kong and 1942, although most later games and many other classics are horizontal. I chose in the end to go for horizontal, particularly as I would be keeping the TV in its housing and it’s easier to mount horizontally. But my thinking was that the vertical games like Donkey Kong would still work but they would just be a bit smaller with black bars either side. And as none of those games are my all-time favourites I was ok with that. Some people go to the trouble of making rigs that can rotate the screen, but that sounded too much like hard work for my first cabinet build.
Decision – Horizontal screen
PC or Modded Xbox or Raspberry Pi 2
So what is going to be the beating heart of my retro beast? A PC is probably the best option as it is most customisable and powerful, but it can be harder to configure and is heavy and can take time to boot up etc. The modded Xbox is a nice solution but it had some issues that I can’t remember right now. Or the Raspberry Pi 2, which I was surprised was even a contender but I’ve heard pretty decent reviews of it being used for arcades. It just has some slight issues with sound and also can’t emulate 3D games. I was originally going to go down the PC route but then I got tempted by the Raspberry Pi. My thinking is that I’m ok with the restriction in games, I probably won’t be bothered by the sound issues and it’s cheaper. Plus I’ve always wanted to do something with a Raspberry Pi. And I will build it in a way that I could easily swap out the Raspberry Pi for a PC later on if I want something more meaty inside. Special thanks to Dean Swain from the Retro Asylum for selling me the Raspberry Pi (after he chose not to use it for his bartop arcade!).
Decision – Raspberry Pi 2 [UPDATE – I have now upgraded this to a Pi 3 which is more powerful and more reliable, particularly for more modern games]
4-way or 8-way joysticks
This one was tough. Older games like Pac-Man only used 4-way joysticks and if you use an 8-way joystick then your Pac-Man character might not go up at the right moment if you accidentally press the joystick Up-Right instead of Up. But obviously later games like Street Fighter 2 require the 8-way so you can pull off all the special moves. Very tricky, and to be honest I would love a second cabinet to have one of each. I would probably make my second cabinet with a vertical screen and a 4-way joystick and just use it for the older games. But my solution was to spend a bit more and get joysticks that can be switched between 4 and 8-way, and I will just try to make them easy to switch between the two modes.
Decision – Switchable joysticks
Micro switches or Leaf switches
This one is more of a detail but still a hugely important one in my mind. What kind of buttons to have. Leaf switches are the more traditional style, where it feels more analogue when you press them, but they can be more expensive and break a little bit more quickly. Micro switches are the ones where you hear a definite, audible click when the button changes states. My final decision is that I’m going to go for leaf switches for the main game buttons, such as the ones you use when playing Street Fighter or Track & Field. Games like those would feel slightly weird with micro switches I think. But I will use micro switches for ‘menu buttons’ such as the Player 1 button etc.
Decision – mostly Leaf switches but some select Micro switches
Laminate or Painting
This sort of thing is explained very well in the Project Arcade book. Whether you choose to paint the cabinet or apply laminate. I’m still not quite sure and I’ll see what other people have done on forums. I’m thinking I’d like to go for a laminate finish, but I’ll do some more research.
Decision – Undecided. Probably laminate.
Trackball and spinners
I’m still swithering on whether or not to add a trackball or spinner. Obviously these are great for games like Marble Madness or Centipede, but to be honest there’s not a huge amount of games that need them and it does take up space on the control panel. I think I’m going to look into a trackball at least but may end up saving it for my second cabinet with the vertical monitor and 4-way joysticks that I am optimistically planning already. Stay tuned for a blog post where I discuss the layout of my control panel in detail.
Decision – Undecided. Possibly trackball
There are lots of other things I need to look into and make decisions on, such as what speakers to get and what artwork to get done etc, but the above are the main ones that I had to make before I could get started.
I’m making a spreadsheet of all the items that I buy and how much they cost me so that I can share the whole process once I’m done, and see how much it cost me in total.
Immediate next steps…
– Work on blueprints for the design and build
– Purchase wood materials
– Buy electrical parts such as buttons, joysticks and control board
– Research artwork and marquee production so I can plan ahead
See you in the next post in a few days.
Here’s a list of all the posts about my arcade build.
Part 2 – Decisions
Part 3 – Cabinet Design
Part 4 – Control Panel Plans
Part 5 – Initial Questions and Concerns
Part 6 – Online Resources
Part 7 – Cabinet Plans
Part 8 – Buying and Cutting the Wood
Part 9 – Tools and Materials
Part 10 – Building the Cabinet
Part 11 – Building the Control Panel
Part 12 – Sanding and Painting
Part 13 – The Coin Door
Part 14 – Artwork
Part 15 – Printing and Applying the Vinyl
Part 16 – Adding all the T-moulding
Part 17 – The TV Monitor
Part 18 – Making the Bezel
Part 19 – The Marquee
Part 20 – Installing the Electronics
Part 21 – Setting up MAME
Part 22 – Issues to Watch Out For
Part 23 – The Finished Cabinet