The time had come for us to finally build our MAME cabinet. It had been something i've planned to do for years. Unlike a lot of people who've built cabinets, i didn't spend a lot of time in the arcades. I was able to sneak in every so often when my parents had to go shopping at the mall, but for the most part it was more of a forbidden fruit. My parents often had a habit of getting me weird and useless gifts, and one Christmas they bought me a cheat guide for a bunch of classic arcade games. I knew all the secrets to Pac-Man, Robotron, Sinistar, Joust, and Dig-Dug, but never got to actually play the games! I did have an Intellivision system at home, but i knew just enough about arcade games to know that i was missing out on the graphics and quality. There was also a terrible sitcom on tv when i was growing up called Silver Spoons about a Richie Rich type of kid, and he had a few arcade games in his play area and that made me terribly jealous.
Years later, bored at work one day, i somehow stumbled across MAME, the emulator that plays just about every arcade game. That was cool enough, but then i started hitting sites talking about people building their own multi-arcade cabinets. Awesome!, but it seemed like such a momentous project that was basically outside my skill set. But min knew i wanted to do it, and i guess after hearing me wistfully talk about building it for a few years, she finally said "Why don't you just do it already?!?". So i did.
Actually, we did. Unlike a lot of the poor people i've read about, where the guy will build his dream cabinet only to find his wife won't allow it anywhere except the garage, not only did min allow me to build it, not only did she encourage me to build it, but she actually took on the project as a partner, dedicating our summer to putting this thing together. And that's even more awesome than having the cabinet.
Also, we're both useless suburbanites whose parents never knew or taught us anything about home improvement or anything along those lines, so we recognized that a large benefit to this project was that we were going to learn a bit about carpentry, power tools, electric wiring, and more. So this is sort of a (major) baby step towards getting the confidence to re-model our kitchen on our own, and then maybe building our earthship.
We started with some serious conceptual blueprints:
I tried to find a balance between "the control panel that does everything" and the Frankencontrols that you sometimes see online. I probably leaned more towards the Frankencontrol side, but it seemed to have worked out ok.
It needed to be four player, with the ability to use the extra joysticks for two player dual-stick games like Smash TV and tank games, which are among my favorites. I started with four Magsticks from Ultimarc but quickly realized that in order to do tank games properly you need to be able to push at least one button while holding the sticks, so i found two Happs Topfire Superjoysticks on ebay. For the Magsticks, i also realized that the classic balltops are the way to go, so i ordered replacement shafts and replaced the standard bats.
Players one and two needed six buttons for Street Fighter type games, but the most buttons i've seen for three and four player buttons is four, so that meant three plus the topfire.
Additionally, i wanted two spinners that could serve as, well, spinners, as well as low-realestate steering wheels and a rotational device for games like Ikari Warriors that had a joystick you could also twist (again, the topfire buttons became critical so you could keep one hand on the spinner). Since i wanted one spinner to be available for both one player games (like Arknoid) without having to stand to the side and games using the topfire joystick, it was placed in between players one and three, whereas the second spinner was placed to be used in conjunction with the player four joystick. I got two Slickstick Tornado Spinners from Happs. USB connections.
Also, a trackball, which would be used not just for games but also for serving as a mouse when navigating the OS. Went with Ultimarc's U-Trackball, which allows for a bottom mount without taking up a lot of ugly space on the control panel. And it's USB as well. For the buttons, i tore apart a PS2 mouse and soldered the button connections to two standard pushbuttons. I debated getting a second trackball since there are a decent number of two-trackball games, but even with the bottom-mount they do take up a lot of real estate. Plus my friend who's really into Marble Madness moved across the country.
I also bought a used USB Logitech NASCAR Racing Wheel. I didn't want the wheel as i intend to use the spinners as steering wheels for racing games, but i wanted the brake & acceleration pedals. I was hoping the pedals would be a seperate USB device, but it turns out that they connect to the wheel via a serial port. So i've actually got a steering wheel hidden inside the cabinet.
I'm a bit of a tweaker when i play games in MAME so i felt like i needed a decent amount of Funtion buttons, probably more than is absolutely necessary. I got four nice light-up buttons from Ultimarc and then four more standard buttons, two black, and two white. These are assigned to Escape, Pause, Tab/Config, FastForward, Reset, and the two main Service buttons (F2 and 9). There's one extra button which is essentially intentionally left blank so that i can assign it to whatever additional menu function i need. I'm using an Ipac as my keyboard interface so i really could have handled a lot of the functions using the shift feature, but it's a lot more intuitive for me to just have the buttons there. They'll also serve as control buttons for other emulators as well (think of the controls across the top of an Atari 2600, for example). I also went with player four start buttons.
For coins, i debated getting a real coin door, but they are fairly expensive especially for four players, and i thought the idea of having to put in a quarter to play every game would be a neat novelty at first that would get old really quick. So i wasn't sure what to do until i found great fake coin door buttons at Groovy Game Gear. They light up and look awesome and authentic so i'm fairly happy with that choice, but i'll always kind of wish that i had real coin acceptors, especially when playing through the coin eating games that let you continue (like Gauntlet or Smash TV) because using up a bucket of real coins would be a great way of judging how well people are doing. Oh well.
The Magsticks switch from 4-way to 8-way without having to reach under the control panel, so i didn't need a dedicated 4-way. There's also a 4-port USB hub on the side so i can attach additional peripherals like a flight stick. I also got two HKEMS Topguns, which are supposedly the best USB light guns currently available, which is kind of sad because they are a little buggy. They require a sensor (similar to the Wii), but it wreaks havok when it's plugged in with certain games with non-standard refresh rates (like Pac-Man), and it prevents the screen saver from turning on, so the usb port for the sensor actually snakes around and comes out the side of the cabinet so that it can be plugged into the external USB hub for use when playing with it only.
First we laid everything out on a couple of cardboard boxes just to confirm that we were thinking right in terms of spacing. This probably didn't have a lot of value, but when you get all your controls in the mail, you want to take them out and start playing with them.
We only bothered to drill half the holes for the prototype. The idea was to get a vision of what the thing would look like, cut our carpentry teeth, and ensure that the layout would actually be playable (although we did end up having to move things around for the real CP).
We then wired up the joysticks and buttons, and i got to spend some time "testing" the CP ("No, no, i'm working, really!").
I found that comic book boxes did a good job of holding up the CP while leaving space for all of the wires and things that hang off of it.
You can see that we did in fact route the wrong side of the joystick holes, which i attribute to getting confused because we only did half the CP, not because we're total idiots.
Here's a sample of what it looked like underneath.
One important factor for me was that the topfire joysticks could be used for both a 3rd/4th player stick and as a second stick in dual-joystick games. The angle had to be right so that it worked for both.
This time for real
We cut all of the MDF pieces using these plans, which min modified from the Lusid's designs.
Here's a few shots of the control panel after cutting and drilling:
The side panels were also tricky due to the different angles.
Having gotten this far, we wanted to see what it would look like, so we kind of leaned all of the bottom pieces together and it held long enough to take a picture.
You can also see in that picture our detailed project plan. Here's a closer view:
Next, we had to get a few pices mitered. Due to the complexity of our control panel shape, all of the side pieces needed to be mitered at odd angles, so we couldn't just buy a standard miter saw. Luckily a friend has a power miter saw that can do any angle. If you don't have a miter saw, you may want to consider a standard box design for the control panel. The angled cabinet pieces also needed to be mitered, but those were more standard angles.
A lot of the pieces needed to be routed for the T-Molding. We had to buy a special routing bit for that.
We put the control panel box together first.
We painted it before assembly; i'm still not sure if that was necessary. It's not what we did for the main cabinet. I experimented with spray paint but found that regular latex paint (with a dark primer) worked best. The sides and bottom were Gorilla Glued together and then screwed in. We counter-sunk the holes and then filled with wood putty and re-painted. The top is actually not secured to the base, so it can be lifted up at any time. It is held in the right positions by battens that were strategically placed on the bottom of the CP top, and there are also magnets in the front. The plexiglass - and this seems to be a secret that i wasn't able to find online but eventually inferred - is just held in place by the buttons since they go through all the holes and are anchored on the bottom.
For the plexi, we got a big piece of lexan and basically just cut through it with a utility knife. You have to make slow and careful cuts repeatedly in the same place over and over again until you cut through (and make sure you've got something underneath the lexan if you're cutting on the kitchen table unless your wife loves you very, very much). I've read that some people just score the lexan a little way through and then snap it off the rest of the way, but with all of our angles on the cp that didn't seem like a good idea. You can avoid to some degree by keeping your straight edge on the "good" side to block your strokes, but It's almost inevitable that you'll screw up a few times and scratch the plexi. We've covered our (ok, my) mistakes up with racing tape from Pep Boys, and it actually looks good.
For the cabinet itself, there are battens that were glued and screwed in all the places where pieces need to connect. So for the main pieces, there are no cases where MDF is attached directly to MDF. It's all secured by connected each piece to the battens. The battens were made out of 1x2 pine wood.
The first piece we connected was the center back panel.
Here's some views from the sides with the cabinet actually held together by something other than hope. You will see the fan holes, on the bottom on one side for intake, and up around the monitor level on the other side for out take. You'll also see the little hole near where the control panel will sit on the one side; that's for the floor pedals and gun sensor.
We did do some direct MDF to MDF using scrap material when creating an extra layer of support underneath the monitor shelf and base, and i can tell you it is hard to drive a screw through two pieces of MDF. Also a note on screwing - electric screwdrivers don't seem to be the way to go due to the thickness of MDF. We stripped a few screw heads that way. Better to do it all by hand.
Since we don't have an actual coin door, we needed a way to access the cabinets innards, so we made the back panel a door. It is secured on one side with a long hinge (with like 30 screws), and held closed on the other side with some magnetic push-locks.
We debated putting on casters. I was afraid it would ruin the look by having wheels sticking out of the bottom, but we decided we need a way to move this monster around. We got more pine and attached the casters through the pine to the base of the cabinet. We got two straight wheels for the back and two swivels for the front. It turned out that once the casters sink into the carpet they are not visible anyway, but they are still functional so it all worked out. Since the sides of the cabinet go down lower than the base, we also put some of those furniture glide sticker thingys on the sides, just in case they rub against anything if pushing on an uneven surface.
The supports on the base of the cabinet lock in to the battens on the cabinet sides. It's a pretty neat design that min came up with.
Once it was all assembled we painted it the same way as the control panel. We were gonna go with all black but i started thinking that might be a little boring so we found a purple that kind of matched our SuperMega logo, just for highlights.
At this point we were really feeling like we had something here. The downside of that is once you have something that's essentially playable, you kind of lose your momentum.
Here's the control panel, nearly finished. At this point we still haven't put in the T-Molding or put the racing tape all around the outer edge, but the buttons are all in place, the lexan is down, it's painted, and we've got our stickers printed out in between. It actually looks even less like stickers in person.
I wired up the control panel. The IPAC4 is a great device. Not only is it very easy to understand, but it is very easy to re-program the buttons. MAME is 100% configurable, and the IPAC is set up to start off using the MAME keys, but some other emulators have certain buttons that either must or cannot be used. Mugen, for example, won't let you use the space bar, and some other emulators won't let you map to the Alt keys. So i had to take stock of all my emulators and figure out what made sense, and then re-configure MAME accordingly.
For wiring i started off with the wiring kit that Ultimarc sells. I thought i would be very good and use color coding in my wiring to help troubleshoot problems later, but i quickly ran out of the right colored wires and then the Ultimarc wires altoghter. Radioshack sells wire, but it only comes in red, green, and black. Here is a good tutorial on wiring.
For the mouse buttons, i tore open a mouse and found the two switches for the left and right buttons. Using a soldering iron, i melted off their connections and then attached wires where the connections used to be (two connections for each switch), and then attached the other side to standard arcade pushbuttons.
For the USB devices, there is a 4 port hub sitting inside the CP, which the trackball, trackball LED, and two spinners are connected to. The trackballLED came from a multi-color LED USB christmas tree that i got off Amazon marketplace. We just unscrewed the tree and taped the LEDs to the botton of the trackball house. Works great. Make sure your trackball is plugged into a powered hub, otherwise (in my experience) it won't be nearly as responsive.
My wiring is a big birds nest mess and it's a little precarious, but it's survived multiple openings and closings of the CP with minimal frustrations as the quick disconnects fall off. A larger frustration was that one of the LEDs that i bought for the translucent buttons turned out to be bad, but i thought that the problem was my fault and i spent a lot of time troubleshooting and re-wiring when i didn't need to.
I originally envisioned that only a few wires would need to go from the CP down the hole into the main cabinet, but it turned out there's quite a few: the IPAC PS/2 cable, the mouse PS/2 cable, two USB cables (for the internal and external hubs), two power supplies for the USB hubs, four wires to send power to the translucent button LEDs, one grounding wire for the coin buttons, and four more wires for each coin button. That's going to be a lot to disconnect if we ever have to move the cabinet, so you may want to think about a better strategy.
Our monitor is a 26 inch flatscreen tv. For the bezel, we went with the $2 cardstock approach.
We had to get the marquee printed at Staples because it was too big for our printer. You can also see the speaker grills, power button, and volume control module in this picture.
Some more pictures of the completed cabinet
An endless supply of quarters to:
We have two video game amateurs that may be tracking you down for future reference in creating their own SUPERMEGACADE. Thank you for the detailed process. Pretty amazing!:)