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 (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. 


1 comment:

  1. These are some really useful tips, thanks for sharing them! I have always wanted to own some of my own classic arcade machines because I think they wold look great in the entertainment room that I have at my house. The real question is which games I should get? Pac Man, Asteroid, Centipede, Dig Dug, so many options!