Monday, 23 April 2012

Pac-Man: Arcade vs. Atari 2600

Pac-Man is arguably the granddaddy of all video game heroes.  The Atari 2600, likewise, is considered by many to be the granddaddy of video game consoles.  So, what happens when you put them together?  If you take the sentiments of most retro gamers as truth, the answer is, you get a steaming pile of horse shit.


Atari's questionable port was a  huge seller despite its many flaws.

I was too young to experience Pac-Man fever firsthand when it was taking arcades by storm in the early 80's.  Atari 2600 Pac-Man was the very first video game I ever played in my life; for about two decades, it was the only Pac-Man I knew.  I liked it a lot when I was a kid.  

My perspective changed, however, when MAME made it possible to play arcade games at home, and I had a chance to acquaint myself with the original arcade version of this classic game.  Even through the fog of emulation, I finally began to understand why the Atari 2600 version was met with such derision by hardcore fans of the franchise.  These days, I find the primitive shittiness of the Atari 2600 version almost too much to bear.

Arcade Pac-Man: not for the light-hearted.

The arcade version just has so much going for it.  In it, the protagonist looks chiseled and tough, just like any true hero should.  His foes are a clan of four shady grey badasses, each bringing a unique personality to the fray.  It's impossible to tell them apart, but that's all part of the challenge.  The enemy sprites flicker ominously, as if to say they would eat your children given the chance; I get the chills just thinking about it.  Every now and then, you're presented with the opportunity to chow down on a scrumptious-looking digital wafer that is enough to make your mouth water in anticipation.


Four ghosts of grey: personalities incognito.


By comparison, the Atari 2600 version just falls short on so many fronts.  For starters, your character is a wimpy looking round-headed doofus, resembling a yellow poker chip missing a triangular slice that rotates about at random.  The fearsome foursome of flickering grey badasses is replaced by a rag-tag group of wimps dressed in dainty outfits.  Get this--one of them is even pink.  How gay is that?  Everybody knows that a true video game bad guy makes you want to run and hide, not cuddle with a blankie and suck your thumb.  And what's with the bonus items?  Cherries, strawberries, and peaches?  A single digital wafer contains more protein and rocket sauce than all of those girly treats combined.


Chased by fruity antagonists, Pac-Man can flip his mouth to the top of his head at will on the Atari 2600.

Yes, it's safe to say that I've seen the light.  The Atari 2600 version of this seminal classic may have been the console's top-selling title, but with its sanitized visuals and bastardization of Pac-Man's time-honoured masculinity, I'm now forced to side with the naysayers in declaring the arcade version as the only real way to experience Pac-Man.


If your head ain't made of Legos, you ain't even tryin'.


          

 


Thursday, 19 April 2012

Freelance Retro Gaming Journalism: Pet Peeves


The advent of the World Wide Web has changed the way enthusiasts of all types interact with their hobbies.  From message forums and blogs to free services like YouTube and Facebook, cyberspace is bursting at the seams with user-generated content related to anything you can imagine (and some things you can’t). 

Whether or not this is a good thing is entirely a matter of perspective.  Some would be quick to say: “freedom of speech, baby!”  But if I had my way, everybody would be required to undergo a basic accreditation procedure before being permitted to spew unintelligible gibberish on the internet.  Anyway, I digress; I’m not here to deliver a neo-fascist treatise on cyber-elitism. 

I’m here to talk pet peeves—the life blood of any true cynic.  Specifically, I’m going to talk about 5 pet peeves of mine that have been developed and nurtured through my exposure to the deluge of freelance retro-gaming journalism that has taken the internet by storm in the last several years.  Let’s get started. 

[Editor’s note: I’m not going to call anybody out by name, I’m not that much of a tit.]

#5 – Shunning the classics

If you’re a gaming hobbyist who browses the internet for interesting articles and reviews to read then you’ve been exposed to this one, whether you realize it or not.  I can’t count the number of “Top 10 this” or “Worst Ever that” lists I have encountered that read as though they came from a world where video games didn’t exist before 1984.  As an Atari kid, it’s a bit insulting—I know full well that there were sprites and pixels before Nintendo.  Sometimes, it makes me want to take Mario’s stupid head and pop it like a zit. 


#4 – The phrase “back in the day”

I think I was able to successfully deflect the blows and keep the inflicted damage beneath my threshold of pain for the first 13,456,657 instances of this phrase I encountered in media related to retro games, but my defenses have officially been breached.  Now, every time I read or hear this phrase, it’s like salty sweat trickling into a paper-cut under my fingernail.  I’ll admit that I have used this phrase myself in the fairly recent past, but hey, I also used to think Independence Day  was a good movie.  You have my word that it won’t happen again. 


#3 – The word “addicting” 

"I love this game, it is so addicting!”  I understand the sentiment, but personally, I strongly prefer the word “addictive”.  To be fair, there doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus on whether the word “addicting” is technically incorrect, but I don’t really care.  All I know is that, as a self-professed word nerd, the sound of it makes me want to strangle a kitten. 

To all of you out there who use this word, I hope it helps you get dates with attracting women that have seducing eyes. 


#2 – All talk and no play

I don’t know what it is with video games—retro games in particular—that gets so many people blathering on about them without ever actually playing them.  Being a male in my 30’s living in a scary world full of worries and stress, I fully understand the therapeutic power of nostalgia.  But as a motivation for discussing something at length, the nostalgia factor only goes so far.  I’m not that desperate to be 11 years old again—I need to be somewhat actively involved with something to feel the urge to talk about it on a regular basis. 

You’re probably wondering where I get off accusing people of being all talk and no play, but it’s actually fairly easy to spot.  When somebody talks about a game or console that they claim is one of their “all time favourites” that they have been “playing for decades”, you’d think the things they say would be free of glaring factual errors.  For instance, anybody who claims to be an Atari 2600 Kaboom! freak has no excuse for not recalling that the game was played with paddle controllers (yes, that’s a real world example). 


#1 – Shitty YouTube videos

The internet tools and services available to us today can be used to do very cool things, but it’s a double-edged sword.  If you were to give everybody in the world a brick of gold, many would put it to good use, while others would do dumb shit like make fake teeth covered in dollar signs.  That’s the way it goes with such things, and YouTube is no exception. 

Let me paint a little picture for you here.  You’re waiting for your dinner to cook, so you pull out the laptop to kill some time, and end up clicking on a link to a gaming video on the slim chance that you will be presented with something enlightening, interesting, or at least watchable.  The video starts with a pukey magenta background and a succession of “title slides” that fly in and zip away using obnoxious fonts and cheesy Windows Movie Maker transitions, while Nickelback assaults your eardrums.  Eventually, the presentation segues to the grainy silhouette of an unkempt, bespectacled dweeb in jogging pants and Coca-Cola sweater, sitting in front of his webcam in his parents’ basement, the light from his computer monitor glaring off his glasses, and the crappy microphone picking up every last bit of reverberation the unfinished space has to offer.  This freelance hero doesn’t use scripts, no sir, he kicks it free-style because he’s that good.  “Ummmm…. Uhhhh… so guys… uhhh…. Pubestache89 here with another game review… uhh… glad you … uh… found my channel… uhhh… leave a comment if you like… uhhh… yeah, so, uhh… anyway, Kirby is great... so  uhhh, thanks for subscribing… and uhhh… catch you next time.”  Almost like listening to William Hung sing, you somehow continue to watch, curious to see if maybe—just maybe—there will be a redeeming quality to the presentation, but it never comes.  Be honest, you know what I’m talking about here. 

Well everyone, that completes my list.  I almost included a 6th peeve that talked about obnoxious bloggers who get up on their soapboxes and…. hey, wait a minute…

Uhh… well… uhhh.. yeah, uh, see you next time!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

My MAME Cabinet Project

In my last article I talked about some of the design decisions I had to make when designing my MAME cabinet.  Here, I will elaborate on that a bit and show how the project ended up coming together.  I started out with the intent to document the process intensively with pictures, but unfortunately that effort fell by the wayside as I focused on just getting the job done.  Still, I managed to snap a few photos along the way, which I will share later on in this post.  

As an homage to the archetypal arcade machine, I knew I wanted to have a back-lit marquee displaying some kind of name, but I didn't want it to be overly cliched or cheesy.  I really shouldn't pass judgment on the work of others, but I'd be lying if I said I'd never seen a MAME cabinet marquee emblazoned with a ridiculously stupid name.  Of course, what I came up with might very well seem dumb to others, but what I like about it is that it has meaning; not only to me personally, but to most people my age who grew up in this city.

If you read my previous article about remembering the arcades of yesterday, you might recall the story I told about the undisputed king of arcades in my hometown--a downtown hangout known as Fast Eddy's.  It seemed fitting that I should name my machine "Fast Eddy" in tribute to that once-great local venue.  Excluding folks who did not live in this area through the 80's and 90's, I'm not sure I've had a single guest over to my house who has not instantly understood the reference; the name alone has been a wonderful conversation piece.  

To design my cabinet, I used a neat little piece of software called Google Sketchup, which allows you to model things in 3D using a very creative interface.  I think you have to pay to get the full version of the software, but there is a free version available, which was more than enough for my needs.   

I tinkered around in Sketchup with a few different designs that incorporated elaborate curves and other complexities, but ultimately I settled on the basic design shown in the picture below.   

Sketchup model of Fast Eddy.
The angle of the screen and the height of the marquee ended up being a bit different in the final product, but this is the general idea.  I figured that I'm a novice woodworker so I should employ a "design for manufacturability" philosophy--hence the preponderance of straight cuts as opposed to curves.   For a reference during fabrication, I primarily relied upon the 2D section, which shows the guts of the cabinet.  As you can see, the old 20" CRT monitor is ridiculously large in the depth direction, which necessitated a deep cabinet to house it. 


To layout the controls on my control panel, I used Microsoft Visio.  When I was happy with it, I imported it into Adobe Illustrator so that I could design some artwork for the control panel overlay.  It took me a while to come up with something I liked, but I knew I wanted it to be subtle and not too busy.  Growing up as a hardcore Atari kid in the 80's, I decided to make the venerable Fuji logo the centerpiece of my design. 

Design of control panel overlay.  The crosshairs show the locations of the controls.




I built the cabinet out of 5/8" MDF.  Man, is that shit heavy.  I had a friend bring me to Home Depot in his  truck to pick up the materials.  I was kind of nervous the first time I took a saw to the MDF, but luckily I didn't have any costly screw-ups.  I did the vast majority of the cuts using a circular saw, and kept them straight by means of a guide I fabricated myself.  A router with a flush-trim bit ensured that I was able to cut one side panel and perfectly clone it.      

  
Matching side panels.
One of the most exciting moments of the whole project was the first time I was able to stand the cabinet upright.  Of course, it still looked like a mess, but at least it was standing.  

Little did I know how many more hours remained.

To allow access to the inside of the cabinet I considered making a hinged door, but was afraid I'd screw it up, so I came up with a rather elegant way of simply hanging a panel using L-brackets.  The weight of the MDF keeps it solidly in place; it's very easy to remove, and it provides a nice clean appearance when assembled. 


The 2.1 PC speakers I used had little metal feet on them that made them very easy to install.  Admittedly I kind of hacked in the openings for the speakers, but they would ultimately be hidden by speaker grilles, so it was no big deal. 


As I mentioned in my previous article, I decided to include a ventilation fan.  I'm not sure if it's even necessary, but it wasn't expensive, so I decided to err on the side of caution.  This particular fan contains blue LED's that emit a neat "halo" effect on the wall in my basement behind the cabinet when it's powered up. 


Getting the monitor in place was one of the more tricky aspects of the project.  A 20" CRT weighs just shy of a metric ton, so it was very cumbersome to work with.  As mentioned above, the angle of the screen was changed a bit from the original Sketchup design.  I made a bezel by spray-painting the underside of the plexiglass black and masking off the area required to make the screen visible.  

Dry-fitting the speaker panel and bezel.
  
Once the cabinet was fully assembled, I painted it using a black oil-based paint for a durable finish, then installed the t-molding to trim out the edges.  This thing was extremely heavy, and it took a fridge cart and the assistance of 3 friends to get it down into my basement on April 10, 2011.  

From concept to reality: Fast Eddy lives.  Some disagree with the beer holders, but for me, they were mandatory.

The 8-way sticks are Happ Competitions, and the trackball is the excellent Ultimarc U-Trak, which interfaces via USB.
   

The black joystick is a Happ Super 4-way.  The controversial admin buttons are seen on the left.  I like 'em, personally. 

Well, that about wraps up the story of how Fast Eddy came to be.  The machine has been in my basement for a year and continues to occupy way too many of my free hours.  Until next time!  

Cheers!

  

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Conceptualizing a MAME Cabinet


This post is not going to be a full-featured tutorial on how to build a MAME cabinet.  If you’re looking for instructions on how to cut your side panels or how to install a marquee, this post will be of little help.  My goal here is simply to provide my thoughts on some of the design decisions that many first-time builders seem to ask about.  I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this material and not everybody is going to agree with what I say, but in all cases I will at least provide justification for my recommendations. 

Most everything I learned about this hobby before hitting the garage to start building, I picked up from reading a website called www.arcadecontrols.com (know within the community as BYOAC or Build Your Own Arcade Controls).  The site contains FAQ’s, wikis, write-ups on projects other people are working on, and message forums where you can ask questions related to all aspects of your MAME cabinet project; from woodworking, to audio/video, to software, to artwork.

I started my project by spending a few weeks lurking at BYOAC, simply trying to absorb as much information as possible.  Over the course of that exercise, I gradually started to come up with a “specification” in my head for what I wanted my final product to be.  Arriving at the final specification is really just a matter of settling on answers to a series of questions, and I strongly believe it’s very important to go through these paces before buying or cutting anything.  Below I’ve listed some of the most important questions that need to be answered, what some of the possible answers are, and what answers I arrived at for my project.  Let’s get down to it.    

 

What will the form factor be for the cabinet?


There are several options here.  I’ve got a pretty roomy basement, so I decided that I wanted a standard upright cabinet, wide enough for two players.  Best I can tell, this seems to be the most common choice.  Other popular choices include bar-top units and sit-down “cocktail” units.

  • QUICK TIP: a simple "pedestal" type system--which is not much more than a control panel mounted atop a sturdy stand--is a good option for many, as it greatly simplifies the build, and it provides the ability to easily push the system into a corner when it is not being used

In any case, make sure you browse the project archives at BYOAC to see examples of all types before you settle on something for your project.     

 

Should I build or buy?


The decision to build or buy is probably the most important decision in the entire design process, because it will impact everything you do.    

There are companies that sell cabinet kits that you can assemble like Ikea furniture, which is convenient, but they aren’t cheap. 

Another route that many take is to buy an old, disused arcade machine and gut it.  Old arcade cabinets are not terribly difficult to locate in the classifieds, and can often be had for a very reasonable price.  This is a very good option for those who are eager to have a MAME cabinet in their game room but do not have the tools, abilities, or time required to build one from scratch (I'd like to point out that I am a total novice wood worker, and I think my project came out OK; you just need to have patience, do your research, and proceed with care).      

  • QUICK TIP (for builders): I can guarantee you that you will need to either buy or borrow tools for your project.  If you don't have a friend or family member who can lend you tools, you will have to make sure your project budget covers them.      

  • QUICK TIP (for buyers): most arcade enthusiasts vehemently oppose the use of "real" arcade cabinets for MAME projects.  In their eyes, converting an old game to a MAME machine is a desecration of a sacred relic, akin to urinating on the Mona Lisa.  Keep that in mind before you ask for help converting your Centipede cabinet to MAME.
  
For me, the only option I even considered was to design and build my own cabinet from the ground up.  Not because I am opposed in principle to re-purposing an old arcade cabinet, but because I liked the idea of a challenge, and I wanted a one-of-a-kind.  I don’t regret the decision, but I will say that it’s definitely the most time-consuming, expensive, and error-prone direction one can take—especially for a woodworking novice like me.  So, if you’re considering building a cabinet from scratch, I’d advise you to really think it through before getting started.        


 

What should I use as the hardware platform?



Through the years, MAME has been successfully ported outside of the PC realm, not only to Mac, but to game consoles like the original Microsoft XBox, and the Nintendo Wii. 

Still, in my opinion, the PC platform is the obvious choice.  For the purpose at hand, it is unrivaled in flexibility, peripheral support, software development support, and performance (dollar for dollar).   

  • QUICK TIP: single-core P4-era PC's with 1GB of RAM or so have more than enough power to play the vast majority of games that are currently emulated properly in MAME. 

 

Should I build my own control panel, or use a pre-built unit such as an X-Arcade Tank Stick?


I'm going to be honest; in most cabinets I've seen that use the X-Arcade stick, the controller looks kind of out of place and "hacked in". 

In my opinion, it makes no sense to go through all the trouble of designing and building a MAME cabinet, only to fit it with a generic off-the-shelf controller. 

If you can build a cabinet, trust me, you can build a controller. 
 
Don't get me wrong--I love what X-Gaming is doing and I think their X-Arcade sticks are very well-built, but I think they're best used as self-contained table top controllers.  For MAME cabinet projects, no "prefab" controller on the market can hold a candle to a decent custom build, in either aesthetics or function.     

 

What type of video display will be used?


The main options for video display are listed below, along with some comments on their relative merits.    
  • Flat-panel monitor.  Light, compact, and the easiest to mechanically integrate into your project, but a bit pricey (relatively speaking), prone to failure, and the picture provided is widely considered to be the least authentic of all the options.  Nowadays, new flat-panels are only available in "wide screen" aspect ratios, which is not a very good fit for most old-school arcade games; the counterpoint to this would be that the wide screen gives you room enough to display the game's bezel artwork during play.
  • CRT television.  Large screen, can usually be acquired at no charge from people who just want to get rid of them, but big and bulky, the picture provided is of questionable quality, and a special video card is required to interface with a PC (e.g. s-video). 
  • Genuine arcade monitor.  Obviously the ideal option, but for me it was eliminated up front based on price alone.  Also requires a special video card to interface with a PC, further adding to the expense.     
  • CRT computer monitor.  Heavy, bulky, and awkward to work with, but durable, nice picture, and can be purchased used for dirt cheap.       
The CRT computer monitor seemed like the best bang for my buck.  I ended up going with a 20” unit that I found for $20 in the local classifieds.      

  • QUICK TIP: try to find a display that is capable of being powered on and off simply by connecting and disconnecting AC power.  This will enable you to use a so-called "smart power strip" to turn the monitor on and off automatically when the MAME computer is turned on and off.  Not all monitors will work this way, so choose carefully.   

 

What joysticks are the best for my cabinet?


Opinions tend to vary widely on what specific joystick products are the best.  An important consideration is that you need to match the joystick to the thickness of your control panel.  Some sticks are long enough to be mounted on the underside of wood control panels, while others are intended for thinner metal control panels (NOTE: It is possible to mount joysticks intended for metal control panels on wood panels, but the installation procedure is a bit more complex). 

I’d recommend you start with a short list of products that are suitable for your installation situation (wood vs. metal, etc.), then conduct some research by reading online reviews before spending any money. 

  • QUICK TIP: No joystick is going to be "the best" for all games, and depending on what games you enjoy, the more expensive sticks may actually be less desirable than the lower priced ones.  Do your research and select sticks that have a reputation of being a good match for the types of games you like. 

I went with Happ Competition joysticks in the 1- and 2-player positions, as they are very reasonably priced and have a reputation for being very decent all-around joysticks.

In addition to the Competitions, I also decided to include a 4-way joystick. 


 

What do you mean by "4-way joystick"? 


Many classic games such as Pac-Man, Burgertime, Frogger and Donkey Kong used 4-way joysticks that were only capable of rendering commands in the cardinal directions of up, down, left, and right (i.e., no diagonals).  Later games--from Xevious to Street Fighter II and beyond--used sticks that were capable of registering diagonals, for a total of 8 directions.

You can still play 4-way games with 8-way joysticks, but I can't stress this enough: you're probably going to be disappointed.  The code for many 4-way games is ill-equipped to "understand" how to process diagonals, meaning that using an 8-way stick and accidentally hitting diagonals can result in unpredictable (and frustrating) behavior.  Luckily, 4-way joysticks are readily available on the market.  Whether or not you should integrate one into your control panel is something you really need to decide for yourself, based on the games you like to play. 

There are several joysticks available that are switchable between 8-way and 4-way, but most of them require access to the bottom of your control panel to make the switch.  In my opinion, that makes the feature all but useless.  Other products  such as Ultimarc's Mag-Stik Plus are switchable between 8-way and 4-way without requiring access to the underside of your panel, but they’re pretty pricey, and most reviews I've read seem to indicate that the feel of the stick is not optimal in both modes (to be perfectly clear, I’ve never used one myself as of this writing, so be sure to read reviews and come to your own conclusions). 

Personally, I’m a big fan of several classic 4-way games, so I installed a dedicated 4-way Happ Super on my panel.  The stock Super feels pretty sloppy, so to give it a tighter and more responsive 4-way feel, I purchased and installed an aftermarket restrictor plate, which made a night-and-day difference.  Electrically, the 4-way stick wires up to the same inputs as the main player-1 stick, so I can choose between 8-way and 4-way on the fly without having to configure anything.


How many players can play simultaneously on my MAME cabinet?


That depends on how you design it.  In my opinion, setting it up for 2 players is the sweet spot, as it supports the vast majority of use cases and, at the same time, keeps the cabinet size reasonable.  If you’re considering going with 3 or 4 players, just be sure you think it through.  More than 2 players is going to cost you in money, time, and space, so my recommendation is to just skip it unless you know the additional sticks will get a fair bit of use. 

  • QUICK TIP: even on a 2-player cabinet, you can always plug in additional USB controllers for that rousing game of 4-player Trog or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that you might have once or twice a year.

  • QUICK TIP: a 2-player setup opens up the possibility to play "twin stick" shooter games like Robotron 2084, Smash TV, and Black Widow.  If you enjoy those games, you might want to consider placing the joysticks as close together as possible while still allowing for comfortable 2-player gaming, because widely spaced joysticks tend to diminish the twin-stick feel.  


How many buttons should I have per player?

It's easy to get carried away.

Again, this should be dictated by the games you want to play, and you should include the fewest that you can get away with while still meeting your needs.  Buttons aren’t expensive, but keeping the number as low as you can bear reduces clutter on your control panel. 


  • QUICK TIP: you can play the vast majority of the games available in MAME with just 3 buttons, but many fighter games will require 6.


 

 

What about console emulation on my MAME cabinet?



If you plan to run console emulators on your MAME cabinet, be aware that your button layout will have a direct impact on what you're able to run.  Old consoles like the Colecovision and Intellivision had controllers with numeric keypads.  Later consoles have controllers that incorporate a combination of face buttons and shoulder buttons.  These are both examples of things that you may find difficult to replicate using arcade controls.

Certain types of console games are quite fun with arcade controls (such as shoot 'em ups) but you'll probably find that most console games don't play very well on your MAME cabinet.  The problem is that so many of those games were designed to be played with the hand-held controllers from the original hardware platform.    

  • QUICK TIP: be careful how much you let console emulation dictate your design decisions.  It'd be a shame to incorporate design cues that detract from the MAME experience just for the sake of accommodating console emulators that rarely ever get used. 

I reluctantly went with 6 buttons per player because I predicted that Street Fighter II would be one of the most popular requests from guests (I was right, by the way).

  • QUICK TIP: If you prefer the typical HAPP-style "concave" arcade buttons, make sure you order the ones with horizontally mounted microswitches.  I initially ordered the ones with vertically mounted microswitches and they were horrible (all stiff and crunchy).  I tried to get used to them, but couldn't, so I had to replace them.  
   

Should I include a trackball?


Lots of first-time builders seem to struggle with this question.  Trackballs are great to have, but they’re pricey.  By the time you factor in the cost of the trackball itself as well as the hardware required to interface it to your computer, it’s not too difficult to spend in the neighbourhood of $100 on a decent piece of kit.  For this reason, the money is probably better saved or spent elsewhere unless you know the trackball will see a fair bit of use. 

  • QUICK TIP: there are probably more trackball games than you think.   In making your decision, you might want to factor in the possibility that you will discover new trackball games that you enjoy.  

Missile Command was mandatory for me.
In making your decision, be sure to look at the big picture.  Even if you have no desire to play games like Missile Command, Centipede, and Marble Madness, a trackball might still be a worthy investment.  If you often find yourself entertaining guests, trackball games like Golden Tee, Shuuz, Shuffleshot, and World Class Bowling are great “party games” that can be enjoyed in groups by gamers and non-gamers alike.  Not only that, but a trackball can be used as a substitute for some of the “specialty” controllers that surfaced in the arcades through the years.  For instance, games like Major Havoc and Star Wars did not use trackballs but can be played with one.  Even some car games like Pole Position and Championship Sprint are quite playable with the trackball (at least, more so than with a joystick, because the trackball provides analog control). 

For me, the trackball was a no-brainer because of Missile Command alone.  It also sees heavy use with the “party games” mentioned above when my buddies are over. 

  • QUICK TIP: If you really want to play games like Golden Tee, then be careful how you design your project.  The "traditional" upright arcade cabinet profile--with its bezel and/or monitor right on top of the control panel--can make it difficult to play games like Golden Tee in a spirited manner without smashing your hand up against your bezel, causing damage or injury. 

 

Should I include a spinner?


Best I can tell, the answer to this question is an unequivocal “no”, unless you count Tempest or Arkanoid among your must-play titles.  There are a few other games that use a spinner, but you get the idea. 

I actually investigated the use of a spinner as a poor-man’s steering wheel to make racing games more fun, but without foot pedals and a gear shifter, there’s not much improvement to be had in the racing experience.  Not only that, but not all arcade steering wheels are alike; the spinner only works well as a substitute for games that used a free-spinning steering wheel (such as Pole Position). 
I did not include a spinner on my control panel because I couldn’t justify spending close to $100 for the ability to play a few games I don’t even care for that much.    


What “administrative” buttons should I include on my control panel?


Examples of “administrative” functions are pause, exit game, and tab (which is used by MAME to activate the configuration menu).  You might even consider “coin in” to be an administrative function of sorts. 
Whether or not you should include dedicated buttons on your control panel for these functions is entirely your choice.  You’re bound to encounter differing opinions, but there seem to be two main schools of thought. 

On one side, you have those who oppose the idea (sometimes vehemently), saying that administrative buttons were never found on classic arcade machines, and their inclusion only clutters up your control panel.  They will point out that it is possible to use the “shift” function of your keyboard encoder to execute administrative commands using buttons that you already have on your panel.

On the other side, there are those who would rather not have to rely on combinations of button presses to execute commonly used administrative commands, so they include dedicated buttons. 
 
Personally,  I can see the case to be made for leaving out admin buttons if the goal is to eliminate clutter, but to leave them out simply for the sake of "arcade authenticity" seems a tad silly; after all, if authenticity were the point, we wouldn't be building cabinets with generic artwork, multiple control types, and PC hardware.

  • QUICK TIP: administrative buttons add clutter to your control panel, but the flip-side is that they provide convenience, and will make the system  much more intuitive for guests who can't be bothered remembering button combinations to do simple things like pause a game . 
My control panel has dedicated buttons for pause and exit game.  I used small red buttons that I picked up at Radio Shack, and installed them in the upper left corner of my control panel so they’re out of the way and will never be mistaken for game controls.

If you’re new to MAME, you might not realize that you still have to send an “insert coin” command to the games to get them to run.  Of course, this can now be accomplished with a simple button press, rather than the physical insertion of a token into a coin slot.  Some people prefer to address this need with combinations of button presses via their keyboard encoder’s shift function, but I have dedicated player 1 and player 2 coin-in buttons on the front of my control panel, and would never have it any other way. 

 

What should I use for speakers? 

2.1 PC speakers are ideal for MAME cabinets.

Considering your cabinet is probably based around a PC, you can’t go wrong with using a set of 2.1 PC speakers.  They’re self-contained, compact, reasonably priced, and plug-and-play.  There is bound to be plenty of space in the bottom of your cabinet to accommodate the sub-woofer, which is a nice touch for games with deep sounds.  Also, if you want to play music on your cabinet, a decent set of speakers is a worthwhile investment.      

Playing music on your cabinet can be great fun, and having the music come out of the speakers right in front of your face while you play makes for a very immersive experience that everybody should try at least once.

  • QUICK TIP: If you have an Apple iDevice, download the free "remote" app, and use it to transparently control the music on your cabinet without having to exit your game or front end (NOTE: this will require iTunes and Wi-Fi connectivity; see the note on network connectivity later in this article).   

You should give some consideration to how you’re going to control the volume of your speakers.  There are MAME commands that allow you to do it in software, meaning buttons can be assigned.  Most people—myself included—seem to prefer a physical volume dial.  Many PC speaker systems have the volume control integrated into one of the speakers, meaning it will likely be hidden once installed inside your cabinet.  There are various ways of hacking an external control into your speaker system, but I couldn’t be bothered with that.  I installed removable speaker grilles on my cabinet that attach with magnets.  Any time I want to adjust the volume, I simply remove the grille on the right side, turn the dial, and replace the grille.  It’s a crude solution, but it works; you’d be surprised at how rarely that dial gets turned anyway. 

 

Should I include a ventilation fan on my cabinet?


The answer is, I don’t know.  Whether or not it is necessary probably depends on the geometry of your cabinet, how things are packaged inside it, etc.  I put a fan on my cabinet to be safe.  It’s wise to give some consideration to proper ventilation.  As long as you keep that in mind from the start, it shouldn’t require much effort to implement some kind of measure to prevent your hardware from overheating.     

 

Does my cabinet need a keyboard and mouse?


No, it doesn’t need those things, but you might find them useful.  Lots of MAME cabinets incorporate a “keyboard drawer” beneath the control panel, to allow easy access to the keyboard and mouse. 
The keyboard and mouse come in handy for performing impromptu tweaks to your emulator or front end setup, but that alone does not make them necessary, because it is usually possible to completely configure your setup on a different PC, then copy the root directory over to your MAME PC. 

If you ever do anything else on the MAME PC—such as play music, for example—the keyboard and mouse may be necessary depending on what software you’re using (there are jukebox software packages available that are designed to be used with arcade controls).

I included a keyboard drawer on my cabinet, and this is one of the few things I’m not sure I’d do again if I could go back in time and start over.  Keyboard drawers are like the "fanny packs" of MAME cabinets: they're extremely convenient and useful, but they look bad. 

  • QUICK TIP: A nice “best of both worlds” solution to the keyboard/mouse dilemma is to pick up wireless units, tuck them away nearby, and pull them out whenever necessary.  This way, you get the convenience of being able to use them whenever you want, without having to design and build any special provisions into your cabinet.    

 

Can I connect my MAME cabinet to the internet?


Since your MAME machine is more than likely just a PC, you can connect it to the internet just like any other PC, and the widespread availability of wireless adapters means you don't even need to run any unsightly network cables to do it. 

Still, just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should

Yes, it’s kind of cool to have internet access on your cabinet, but the price you pay is exposure to security threats.  You also have the additional software bloat that entails, which can lead to all kinds of notifications popping up, slower boot times, and other annoyances that only serve to diminish the gaming experience.  I originally had my MAME PC on the internet, but eventually wiped it clean and reinstalled it with no internet connectivity—wow, what a difference.     

  • QUICK TIP:  you can still enjoy local network connectivity with other computers in your home without worrying about internet nasties by setting up a second wireless router with no internet connection.  This also provides a means of using the Apple remote capability I described earlier to control your music. 

Well, that’s all for now folks.  Stay tuned—in my next post I’ll talk a little bit more about my project and show some pictures. 


            

Introduction Part 2: Remembering the Arcades


As mentioned in Part 1 of my introduction, I played a lot of Atari and Nintendo in the 80’s.  As great as those consoles were at the time, I always viewed them as second-class citizens in the larger gaming realm, ever subordinate to the coin operated titles that could be found at the local arcades.  The latter were not just games, but machines—dressed in colourful artwork and packaged in monolithic cabinets that towered above my pre-teen frame; oozing bombast with their thumping sounds and over-sized, fuck-off displays; their mesmerizing attract modes beckoning me to waste my allowance on the cutting edge gaming experience that lay within. 

I missed these games when they were current.
I was too young to experience the so-called “golden age” of arcades, a time when kids would queue up in droves to showcase their skills at classic quarter-munchers like Pac-Man, Galaga, Defender, and Donkey Kong.  By the time I was old enough to ride my bike down to the local bowling alley without a parental chaperone, those games had all but vanished to make room for the latest hot titles; which, at the time, included the likes of Double Dragon, Altered Beast, R-Type, and 1943.  There were a handful of games that were slightly older and still relatively common, such as Kung Fu Master, Ring King, and Exciting Hour (also known as Mat Mania).

In those days, it was still quite common to see arcade machines in the lobbies of restaurants, at gas stations, and in convenience stores.  This meant there was always an assortment of games to play right in my own neighbourhood, all within reach of a 10-15 minute bike ride.  Games would get churned through the local circuit fairly quickly, so it was exciting to stop in at those places on a regular basis to see if anything new had come along. 

Fast Eddy's in its glory (top) and downfall (bottom).
The neighbourhood scene was nice, but the ultimate arcade experience in my hometown could only be had by venturing downtown to a two-floor establishment known as Fast Eddy’s.  It was the quintessential classic arcade: dingy floors, dim lighting, a symphony of electronic sounds, and air redolent of stale popcorn.  It enjoyed a surprisingly long tenure; I remember going there with a friend and his dad when I was only about 5 years old, and I continued to drop in there from time to time all the way up through my late teens.   Sadly, Fast Eddy’s closed down in the late 90’s when it was bought out by a development firm to make way for an office building.

These days, arcade machines are all but extinct in my area.  There are some “family centers” around town that still contain an array of coin-op video games.  I was recently informed by a friend that he went to one of those places with his son and saw what sounds like one of those “Class of ‘81” cabinets that plays Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man.  By and large, though, the selection is usually limited to dancing and racing titles that don’t interest me in the least.
 
Shortly after I took a renewed interest in retro games in the fall of 2010, I got to thinking about the old days of the arcade.  I found myself wishing I could play some of those old favourites again; games that I hadn’t seen in 15-20 years, but could still vividly remember.  Cursory internet research indicated that I’d have to drive several hours to have any hope of finding a bona fide classic arcade, which was a bit discouraging.   So, I turned to something I’d dabbled with briefly several years prior but never really explored in-depth: a little miracle known as the Multi-Arcade Machine Emulator, or MAME as it is more commonly known.  If I couldn’t play the games on original hardware, playing them on my PC at home would have to suffice. 

I got myself a copy of MAME and some ROMs, and bought a Logitech USB gamepad at Radio Shack for about $10.  I had to climb a bit of a learning curve on MAME before I was able to get it up and running, but before long I found myself browsing through thousands of old arcade titles, many of which I’d never heard of.  It was fun for a while, but the whole experience wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped it would be.  I quickly attributed the lack of excitement to the environment; it was obvious that I’d never be able to recapture the experience I was craving by sitting at my computer desk with a handheld d-pad controller.

So, after a very brief foray into the world of MAME, the half-assed experience of playing arcade games on my computer meant that my limited budget of gaming time would be spent elsewhere.   

Then, one morning during my 45 minute commute to work, a light switched on in my mind.  What if I were to mock up something that resembled an arcade cabinet?  Would I then be able to install a MAME PC inside, and more faithfully replicate the arcade experience I was longing for?  It was a very intriguing idea, and I decided that I would check the internet that evening to see if anybody had ever done such a thing and written about it.

When I fired up Google and entered a search for “homemade arcade cabinet”, I was a bit shocked at what I saw.  Not only had this type of project been attempted and documented by countless people around the world, but there were entire online communities dedicated to it as a hobby!

At that very moment, the “homemade arcade cabinet” or “MAME cabinet” went from being a hypothetical curiosity to a veritable work in progress.  I knew it was going to be time consuming and probably a little bit expensive, but my mind was made up—I was going to do it. 

Anyway, this wraps up my introduction.  Stay tuned—in my next post, I’ll share some thoughts and opinions on how to conceptualize your MAME cabinet

Introduction Part 1: The Making of a Retro Gamer


My renewed interest in old video games is a fairly recent phenomenon, and as you’ll see in this article, it kind of came out of nowhere.  In fact, as recent as a few years ago, I probably would have laughed if somebody would have told me that I’d eventually become so interested in such a thing.  You’re probably wondering why you should care enough about my experiences to slog through a verbose and at times effusive article on the topic; the answer is, well, you probably shouldn’t.  Still, I thought I’d lay it out anyway, in hopes that somebody might happen upon my story and be inspired to reflect upon their own experiences in a similar way.  Let’s get down to it.    

Like most males my age, I played lots of video games in the 80’s.  I mean lots of them—mostly Atari and Nintendo.  My gusto for the manipulation of sprites went strong into the early 90’s; a time period that corresponded to the beginnings of the 16-bit era.  Then, at the age of 14 or so, I moved away from video games in favour of growing my hair long and playing guitar.  The Sega Genesis in the basement started to collect dust, and I quit the arcades cold turkey (by then, they were shutting down left and right anyway). 

I take my screen name from the custom guitar I built.
By 1992, video games had gone from being one of my favourite things in the world to being a take-it-or-leave-it footnote on the list of things I did for fun.  The next few years were spent playing rock and roll, discovering girls, learning to respect the wrath of Sunday morning hangovers, and generally evading the law.  In fact, during those years, I probably mocked kids my age who openly declared their love of video games.  Shame on me, I guess. 

In 1996 I enrolled in the engineering program at the local University, and in the summer of 1997, I landed a nice summer internship at a major automotive OEM.  It was a paid gig, and I was getting paychecks unlike I had ever seen.  Mind you, that’s not saying much; my previous jobs included delivering junk mail (that sometimes contained product samples like apple sauce and tampons), slicing potatoes, and placing packing materials on car seats.  Anyway, with the new-found riches burning a hole in my pocket, I decided one day that I’d just go out and grab myself one of those Sony Playstations that I’d heard some friends talking about.  I was completely aloof from the gaming world at that time, and the purchase was very spontaneous; it probably had more to do with my desire to buy something expensive than it did with any resurgence in my enthusiasm for gaming.  Still, the system ended up getting a fair bit of use, especially when I moved in to a rental property with three fellow engineering students in my second year of school.  The little Sony-that-could would sit in the middle of the nasty, stained carpet of our common area, and—with the requisite accompaniment of excessive booze—games like Tekken 2, Twisted Metal 2, and Rally Cross would go on to occupy innumerable hours of our carefree lives.  It was wonderful.    

I broke down and bought myself a Playstation 2 in 2003 or so.  Up front, it saw a fair bit of use—mostly with the Star Wars Battlefront series—but it spent the lion’s share of the next half decade either collecting dust, playing DVD’s, or serving as a bed for my cat Stu.  For the purposes of discussion, I pretty much consider myself to be a bystander in the PS2/XBOX era of gaming.
Where's that damn PS2?  I'm tired.
As we all know, the economy imploded in 2008.  Shortly after the crash of all those big financial institutions, things got really slow at work, and they started cutting jobs.  I survived the first several rounds of cuts, but I was eventually hit in mid-2009. 

Laid off.   

I would spend the next 10 months unemployed and alone (my marriage had also crumbled in a big hurtful mess that year, but that’s a whole other story).  Most of my free time was spent applying for jobs, writing and recording music, and surprisingly, playing my Playstation 2.  From friends, I borrowed copies of some very memorable titles such as Black, Medal of Honour, and the original God of War.  I also dusted off my own copy of Gran Turismo 4, which I had purchased a few years prior but hardly ever played.  It was a dark period of my life, so I’m very thankful I had those games at my disposal to sedate my mind and beguile my spirit. 

By early 2010, I was back to work.  My PS2 returned to cat-bed duties, and it was back to the rat race.  Video games quickly faded out of my consciousness once again.  I remember telling a gamer friend of mine around that time that I didn’t see myself ever getting back into it.   

But then, I was forced to rethink my position when that same friend brought home a Playstation 3 and I saw everything it could do.  Not only were the games gorgeous, but it was a BluRay player, it played simple pick-up-and-play downloadable games, and had some cool media center capabilities.  Eager to treat myself to some toys with my recently re-established income stream, I bought myself a new guitar amp and an 80GB “fat” Playstation 3, the latter of which I picked up used from the local classifieds at a very reasonable price. 

Super Stardust HD: bad-ass arcade action on PS3.
I had a lot of fun with the PS3, at least initially.  I liked how it was so heavily integrated in the home network and the internet.  Online multiplayer was everywhere, and low-priced games were brought right in to my living room via the Playstation Network.  I played some so-so “big title” games like Resistance 2 and the like, but I found I was most interested in the more simple downloadable titles—not because they were downloadable, mind you, but because they were simple.  Games like 1942: Joint Strike, Super Stardust HD, and the absolutely amazing Pac-Man Championship Edition DX were (and still are) favourites of mine.   I loved how they combined classic gameplay mechanics with thoroughly modern and dazzling sights and sounds.  I also liked how they were well-suited for short play sessions as desired, which was in stark contrast to the commitment of 40-hour long cut-scene-fests that used CGI and abysmal voice acting to tell me a “story” that I didn’t give a shit about.  In retrospect, my partiality to those classically inspired games was probably a harbinger of what was to come in my gaming world.    

By the fall of that year, after several months of PS3 ownership, the glut of first person shooters and shallow audiovisual wankfests like Uncharted 2 had taken a toll on me.  I tried to like those games—I really did—but I eventually noticed that I’d always get to a point where I couldn’t wait for the stupid game to end.  I’d finish a “mission”, hoping it was the end of the game, then let out an audible gasp of disappointment when I was greeted with yet another frivolous cut-scene informing me that the tedium was not yet over.  Eventually, something that should have been obvious from the get-go dawned on me: I didn’t care about “finishing” these games, and I most certainly did not care about amassing collections of trophies for such arbitrary accomplishments as being a “sharp shooter” or a “treasure hunter”.  So, from that point on, I vowed to just ditch a game as soon as it stopped being fun, regardless of whether I was 10% or 90% of the way through it.  It was quite liberating, actually. 

I was becoming more and more disillusioned with the modern games I was playing; I felt like they more or less played themselves, and there didn’t seem to be any meaningful way for me to measure my performance or skill.  I think the latter concern was what caused me to look back in time to my gaming roots.  I recalled the evenings sitting in my basement with my older brother playing Atari 2600—games like Joust, and Astroblast, and Frostbite.  They were primitive, sure, but they were games of skill.  The promise of setting a new high score gave me a goal to shoot for, not to mention an objective means of comparing my abilities to those of others.  The gratification to be had from winning a down-and-dirty contest of skill in a classic video game is very hard to replicate in modern titles that are all too often marred by dull cut-scenes, intrusive on-screen tutorials, and a lopsided emphasis on pretty looking graphics. 

Clockwise from upper left: 4-switch woody, Vader, and Jr.
So, on a whim in late September 2010, I headed down to a local used game store in search of an Atari 2600.  I walked in, and within a few seconds of scanning the inventory, I saw it: an Atari VCS CX2600A—known as a “4-switch woody” in retro geek parlance—in its dilapidated original box, sitting high up on a shelf above some surplus N64 peripherals that were still in bubble-wrap.  I felt like Yukon Cornelius from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer arriving in the Land of Misfit Toys, ready and willing to adopt some long lost object of neglect.  I eagerly brought my find up to the counter to buy it, but not before stopping at a bin that contained dozens of crusty old cartridges that were selling for a buck or two apiece.  I grabbed a starter batch of old standbys, including (but not limited to) Missile Command, Asteroids, Dodge ‘Em, and Breakout—ah, the memories.  At the front of the store, locked away under glass, were some other games—not necessarily rare, but perhaps a tad too elite to be slumming it alongside the likes of E.T. and Combat in the bargain bin.  I quickly discerned the unmistakable form factor of several Activision cartridges.  Among them were Kaboom!, Frostbite, and Enduro; adorned with slightly stained and fading labels of pink, blue, and green respectively.  Sold.  

I brought the Atari home and, while most of the cartridges required a good cleaning, the console worked like new.  I would spend the next few months looking through the classifieds and chasing down all of my old Atari 2600 favorites that I was unable to grab up front, like Frogger, Pressure Cooker, and The Empire Strikes Back.  It occurred to me that this system was a relic that might not always be readily available in good working order, so I decided to grab a few extra units to tuck away: an Atari 2600 “Vader” that a local kid sold me for $10, and a 2600 Jr. that my previously mentioned PS3 friend had discovered in his crawl-space.  The Jr. didn’t work at first, but luckily I was able to isolate the problem to a bad power switch and repair it.    
 
Make no mistake, I buy games to play, not display; I’m not a collector, retro or otherwise.  In fact, I don’t understand the collector mentality at all.  To me, spending absurd amounts of money on 30+ year-old video games that often aren’t even any good or fun to play seems more than a little bit silly.  Anyway, I don’t judge, whatever yanks one’s crank I guess.  I’ve got a nice little collection of Atari 2600 games—all games I genuinely like—and it’s nice to know they’re in my basement ready to go whenever I get the urge to play them.  I also have a NES with a small collection of games, but I don’t enjoy it as much as the Atari.  Both systems are hooked up to crappy old 14” CRT televisions from the early-mid 80’s, just like they were meant to be.        

This seems like a convenient spot to pause, because the next step on my journey of rediscovery involves the classics of the arcade, and how they live on for me in the new millennium.