Monday, October 29, 2018

I Built an 80s Arcade System

About a month ago as one job was winding down and another had not yet started up, I decided to try to build one of the 80s retro arcade machines that I'd seen other people build on the internet. It looked like a relatively simple project and one that the whole family would enjoy. By the time it was complete, the project had taken a bit longer than expected, but a lot of that time was build-enjoy-modify. If I were to do it again, the process would go much faster. Plus, now I have all of the cool tools that I need.

Here are some of the resources that I used:

  • I bought a complete V-kit Raspberry Pi retro gaming kit on Amazon. I ended up not using some of the parts in the final project and I'm sure that I could have bought it cheaper in pieces, but buying a kit allowed me to very quickly try out the idea without having to purchase arcade buttons or joysticks or figure out how to load software onto the device. If I were to build a second one, I probably wouldn't go this route, but it's a good way to get started.
  • I based the cabinet on this amazing overview on ArcadeCab. I had an available monitor that was much larger that the one in the plans, which made for some interesting modifications. More on that below.
  • I settled on this set of ROM files to download as I ended up using lrmame-2010 as my default emulator (no, I didn't know what that meant when I started, either). Not all of the file names are self-evident, so I occasionally used the MAME list at CoolROM to find ones that weren't easy to determine. And I asked all my old 80s-era friends on Facebook to list their favorite games as a starting point. (I have all of them now except for Joust ... and many, many more.)
  • For buttons and joysticks, I bought this kit from Amy Happy Mall via Amazon.When I decided to make the console 4-player, they were very nice to let me buy just the parts I needed to expand out. The hardware was very simple to set up.
  • For speakers, I bought these cheap ones, but really any computer speaker would work. They get chopped up and only the speakers survive.
  • I played Centipede, Millipede, and the others that used a trackball in their original form for a while with just a mouse hooked up. Eventually I splurged for this nice 3-inch trackball and mounting plate. It's pretty and feels very solid.
  • I already had casters, a USB mouse, USB keyboard and monitor available, so that saved some money. I made up for it in mistakes that forced me to buy extra plywood and other parts.
  • I went onto and found a graphic artist to make the marquee and other designs. I dropped them into my control layout to make the control panel design. I like what he came up with from the options that I provided.
Some notes in case anyone else wants to go down this route.
  • The cabinet plans are really great, but the system ends up being pretty deep. I think that's because the original plans included space for a computer underneath and a wired door with a coin slot. For my console, the Raspberry Pi and all other electrics were in the control panel and I didn't put in a coin clot. If it were to make another one, I would make it shallower so it didn't take up as much space in the room.
  • The monitor that I used was 25" across, which is really nice to see. However, by going past 24" the cost of the system went up quite a bit. A lot of material (plywood, plexiglass, etc.) comes in 24" or 48" varieties. By going to 25" I ended up having to use an extra sheet of plywood (two extra when I messed up on one measurement), much larger pieces of glass, etc. If I'd had to buy a monitor, I'd probably have gone a little smaller to reduce complexity. I do have plans that I used for the 25" wide version if anyone would like them.
  • I did not put covers over the speakers. I just cut them out of their holders, routed out a place for them from the back of the speaker board, and attached them directly. They're black and the paint is black and no one will ever notice.
  • The buttons are all metric sized (24mm, 28mm), so it's hard to find a hole saw that works. I ended up buying Forstner drill bits because that's all I could find in that size. They were a pain and should only be used in a drill press. Use a drill press. Don't make the same mistakes that I made.
  • The plans talk of taking the cabinet apart to paint it. I did not do that. I had some trouble assembling (one of the boards above the slot for the base was slightly bowed and the base did not want to fit in, among other things). I assembled most of the cabinet except for the drawer, top, front door, and speaker board then put it on sawhorses and sanded and painted it. I like the outcome, especially since all of the little gaps could be filled in and painted.
  • Do, however, make sure that everything is going to fit before painting. Not all measurements are as precise as you might think that they should be. Probably due to user error.
  • I did the full back version of the cabinet. I like the way it looks in the house. Be sure to cut a hole for the power before painting.
  • The drawer in the plans is a little shallow. A standard mouse does not fit. I might make it deeper if I did another version. There's plenty of room.
  • The plans also talk of angling the control surface down. When you're building a two-player version that's complicated. With my four-player version it really wasn't worth it. I had to significantly expand the control area to fit everything and had to build a relatively complex box to do it (plans are available if anyone wants them). I might consider angling the part that it connects to next time to get that slope, but honestly it's not too bad the way it is.
  • I think that the controls are a little high. If I made another one, I'd lower them by 2-3 inches. We have some tall barstools, so it's not too much of a deal, but they seem high when standing.
  • I ran all of the cables from the control panel over the monitor shelf. That means that the plexiglass in front of the monitor is resting on the cables. That's not ideal. If I did it again, I'd try to run them under or around that shelf.
  • Plexiglass is hard to get to break right, especially when you're breaking something that's more than 24" across and your longest metal straight edge is only 24". Take the time, use a metal straight edge, and cut the plexiglass at least twice as deep as you think you should. Otherwise things will break sideways and you'll have to start over. Sometimes more than once.
  • I built shelves to go underneath in the empty cabinet and we're storing our DVDs there. There's plenty more room available. It's a big, empty space. I've seen people put in refrigerators. (If you're going to put in a refrigerator, be sure to use the open back version for cooling.)
  • Originally I downloaded some games other than the MAME games (Atari, for example). I eventually deleted them all off and left just the MAME games. Those are the 80s arcade games that I remember and they all can be accessed from one, uncomplicated menu on the console.
  • It can be a pain to determine which games work and which don't. Start out looking for games that you remember. If they don't work, delete and try another version. Only in a few very special cases did I try making adjustments to get games to work (you can pick emulators, change how controls work, etc. - it can be a rabbit hole). I enabled WiFi on the Raspberry Pi and can access all of the files from my home PC by going to \\retropie. That lets me add and delete games whenever I have time to check them. And I try to keep the ones that the family uses the most on the "Favorites" list so they don't get lost in the potentially thousands of titles that can be installed. I have over 100 installed. We play about 10.
If you have any questions, let me know. And please feel free to come over and play sometime!

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