Manufacturer: Too Many to Count...
Released: 1972-?
Designer: Many
Added to my collection: June 5, 2016
Current Condition : Working 100%
 


Description:

I've been collecting coin-op games for a long time--almost 20 years. (I purchased my first game in 1998.) Although I loved the idea of having my own arcade and the idea of being able to play my favorite classic games any time I wanted, I never did acquire a love for repairing the games--or, indeed, the requisite skill and knowledge required to do so. As such, it became increasingly frustrating each time I wanted to spend 20 minutes playing in my arcade and, instead, ended up spending three or four hours trying to figure out why, out of the blue, one of the games had stopped working. This isn't uncommon when you're dealing with technology that's 20+ years old. It happens to the pinball machines from time to time, but the video games are way less reliable. As a result, I ended up playing the pinball machines a lot, but hardly ever switching on the video games.

For the last couple of years, every time I got a flaky game working again, part of me would say, "You should sell these things while they're working." So, I began formulating a plan--I'd sell off the bulk of the video games and keep the pins. I still wanted to play my favorite classic games, though, so I decided to use the knowledge I acquired while building my virtual pinball machine to build myself a fully tricked-out MAME cabinet that would allow me to play not only the games I already had, but many others that I didn't have the money or the space to acquire.

Originally, I wasn't in a hurry to embark on this journey--but, when I was laid off in November, 2015, I was put into a situation where I needed money more than I needed a basement arcade. So, the collection went bye-bye, and the MAME project began.

The story of the MAME project--a lot less long-winded than the story of the pinball project--unfolds in the sections below. The final product, which took a couple of months to complete, turned out pretty well. It ended up supporting more emulators than I care to count, and plays pretty much every coin-op arcade game--including all of the laserdisc games, like Dragon's Lair and (my personal favorite) Cliff Hanger--from the 1970s through the early 2000s.

It does such a good job emulating the actual arcade experience, that I only ended up keeping two of my original dedicated machines: Spy Hunter (because you need a steering wheel, gear shift, and gas pedal to play it properly) and Food Fight (because it's super rare--and, as it turns out, it doesn't play well on MAME because you really need those weird, unique joysticks to control the game). For now, I'm also hanging on to my 60-in-1 multicade. The MAME cabinet has all of those games available...but I'm thinking it will be nice to have another cabinet for people to play at parties.

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The Cabinet

I actually started shopping the auction for potential MAME cabinets a couple of years ago. The original plan was to complete the MAME project before I sold the other games. Plans change...

At any rate, I was looking for a cabinet that would accommodate a large monitor (LCD...I'm done with those pain in the ass CRTs. They're scary, they're flaky, and they are really hard to find these days.) I also needed a big control panel. I was originally thinking of a 4-player setup, although I changed my mind about that eventually (more on that later).

Due to my looming financial crisis in 2015, buying even a cheap cabinet was out of the question. Luckily, one of the games that was giving me trouble at the time was NBA Jam. The monitor wouldn't sync, and I couldn't figure out why. But, as it turns out, the cabinet was pretty much perfect for MAME purposes--it was big, had lots of buttons and joysticks to scavenge, and I already owned it. Plus, the parts (two working board sets and the monitor) could be sold for enough money to buy the parts I needed to build out my control panel.

 

 

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The Computer, Monitor, and Speakers:

One advantage to my layoff was that, when the company closed its doors for good in January, they gave away a lot of the leftover hardware. I was the beneficiary of a couple of full PC systems, about 10 24" wide screen LCD monitors, a couple of 20" 4x3 monitors...the list goes on. The best part about it was that everything was free! I've still got most of that stuff and will probably eventually sell it...but one of the computers and one of the 24" monitors were ideal for my MAME project.

Many of the Dell monitors I acquired had speaker bars on them. Rather than go to the trouble of mounting speakers in the cabinet, I decided to just run the sound through the monitor speaker bar and see what happened. As it turned out, it sounds just fine. Saved a lot of trouble and time.

The one part of the hardware that was not free was the hard drive with the emulator software. Rather than finding shady, gray-market sites where I could download everything on my own, I decided to go the quick and dirty route and buy an (illegal) drive from someone on Craigslist. There was a local collector who was selling 4TB hard drives with every emulator under the sun, all the ROM images and video files (for the laserdisc games) that you could imagine, and the front-end menu software (Hyperspin) already installed. It took some configuring to get it to work, but most of the steps for that were covered in helpful setup videos that were also included on the drive. This saved me a lot of time and effort--downloading setting up the software and games took about a month for my virtual pinball project--and it only cost me about $200. I installed it as a second drive in my PC (which is running Windows 7), and set the machine to auto-boot to Hyperspin.

You can probably find something similar on your local Craigslist or on eBay if you want to take a shortcut for your own project. You can also visit Hyperspin Systems and choose from among many hard drive options there. Setup is still not 100% intuitive and you'll still have to configure all of the game controls (which varies wildly depending on the input method you choose), but you'll save yourself a lot of time and effort by going this route.

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Cabinet Refinishing and Hardware Installation:

Of course, I didn't want my MAME machine to look like an old NBA Jam cabinet. If you've perused my other projects, you know that I've gone through the ordeal of stripping and refinishing a couple of cabinets over the years. It's messy and it's a pain in the butt, and it never looks quite as good as you hoped it would when all is said and done. To properly refinish the NBA Jam cabinet, I would have had to strip off the old side, sand and fill the wood, prime it, and paint it. Frankly, the thought of that just made me tired. I was determined that, this time, I would find a shortcut.

The solution I came up with was contact paper.

At Walmart (or pretty much any other similar store), they sell rolls of contact paper of various colors and finishes. Typically, this is the stuff you use to line cabinet shelves and the like. I found some rolls of black chalkboard-finish contact paper 24" wide and about 20' long. At around $5 per roll, I figured it couldn't hurt to give it a try.

Without doing anything to the cabinet itself other than wiping off the excess dust, I applied the contact paper to the sides and front, using a sharp exacto knife to trim the excess from the edges. The results were nothing short of amazing. In less than an hour, I had a pristine, black cabinet. No sanding. No paint. No mess.

Is it perfect? No. You can still see the outlines of the old side art if you look closely, especially on the right side. But I think it turned out really well. And, in the end, I'm the only one who has to be happy with it, right?

The Marquee

In preparation for the conversion, I gutted the cabinet. All that was left was the monitor shelf, the light fixture for the marquee, and the wiring for that fixture (which I adapted to allow it to plug into a standard outlet). I found a perfect marquee on eBay for around $20. I ordered one that was the same size as the NBA Jam marquee, so it fit perfectly.

Mounting the Monitor

I really didn't want to build a monitor bracket to hold the PC monitor. Luckily, there was a built-in solution: mounting the monitor directly to the monitor shelf. I removed the plastic sheath from the monitor's base and found that there was a metal frame underneath with ready-made screw holes. So, I simply used wood screws to mount the monitor base to the shelf in the cabinet. I then tilted the monitor to the correct angle. Couldn't have been easier!

The monitor I chose was almost the perfect width for the cabinet, but I realized I still needed some sort of bezel. Using a piece of scrap plywood that I had in the basement, I cut out a frame and covered it with some of the leftover shelf paper from the outside of the cabinet. I then simply placed the frame on top of the monitor, and then placed the original NBA Jam bezel on top of that to hold it in place. The result, while not perfect, is certainly adequate. I finished off the monitor installation by having a piece of Plexiglas cut to size and placing it on top of the bezel. This keeps the monitor from being exposed to dust and fingers. It also makes the display look a little more finished--and it only cost me $20 or so.

Installing the PC

The PC that I'm using is a monstrous Dell XPS 710. It's got the biggest case I've seen since the first Pentium computer that I laid eyes on in the late 90s. Even so, I wasn't keen on the idea of removing the computer from the case if I could avoid it. Even though you can save a lot of space by doing so, everything is already securely mounted inside the case, so you just create mounting problems for all of the hardware bits if you start taking it apart.

Luckily, my gutted cabinet was just big enough for the case to lay on its side in the bottom. It's almost the same size as the bottom of the cabinet, so it doesn't move around--and, with the side left off, it gets plenty of ventilation. Once again, you couldn't ask for an easier solution.

The one thing I might or might not address at some point is the fact that you still have to turn the computer on using the front power switch. (The computer, monitor, and marquee are plugged into a surge protector, which is plugged into an external power strip. First, you turn on the power strip. Then you turn on the PC.) It's not that big of a deal to do it this way--you just have to reach in through the coin door--but it would be more polished to have everything operating from a single switch.

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The Control Panel:

By far, the most complicated part of the project was the control panel, both in a physical sense and an electronics sense.

I thought long and hard about how to configure my control panel. My primary goal was to be able to play most games using the controls that they used in the arcade. That meant that I needed to include not only fighting game controls (an 8-way joystick and at least 6 buttons for each player), but also a 4-way joystick (for games like Pac-Man), a trackball (for games like Centipede and Marble Madness), a spinner (an absolute must-have for games like Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator and Tempest), and a flight stick with 1-2 built-in fire buttons (for games like Zaxxon...but also for TRON, which also uses a spinner).

There are tons of example control panel configurations online. My original plan was to go with a 4-player configuration but, considering all of my additional control additions, I realized pretty quickly that everything wasn't going to fit my existing NBA Jam control panel. So I decided to go with a 2-player layout instead.

The first step in converting the control panel was to strip off all of the existing controls and the plastic overlay. I then used chalk to draw out my control layout. Where possible, I tried to incorporate as many of the existing holes as possible to minimize drilling. I then cut discs of wood from an old shovel handle (which just happened to be the exact right diameter) and hammered them into the existing holes I wasn't going to use.

I then drilled all of the additional holes I needed, including the massive one for the trackball. I should have measured more carefully when positioning the trackball, though. It turned out that the trackball mechanism under the control panel needed to be about an inch farther back. To make it fit, I ended up having to cut a notch in the front of the box under the control panel. I covered that up with contact paper, so it looks fine...but I'll always know that hacked up mess is hidden underneath.

After everything was drilled, I covered the top of the panel with contact paper, this time with something thicker that had a carbon fiber pattern on it--thicker because it's more durable, and carbon fiber because it kind of looked cool. The end product is not nearly as visually appealing as I would have liked...but it'll do until I can come up with something better.

The Controls

One of the inevitable things that happens when you collect coin-op games is that you accumulate parts. Over the years, I had amassed a lot of buttons, joysticks, and wiring and--as is so often the case--my packrat nature came in handy. The NBA Jam control panel provided the 8-way joysticks and a lot of the buttons. I had plenty more buttons in various boxes and attached to other control panels I wasn't using to complete the set. I even found an unused 4-way joystick amongst my parts. (I'll probably end up replacing it...it's kind of awful.)

Almost everything else, I ordered from Ultimarc. If you need parts, they've definitely got the best selection that I've found. From them, I ordered the following:

I ended up needing some additional wire for daisy-chaining my repeated buttons and controls (see Wiring below). I ordered some pre-made daisy-chain wires from Paradise Arcade Shop. You can get these from Ultimarc, but only in black. I wanted a different color so that I could tell which one wasn't the ground at a glance.

Wiring

As I said, figuring out what wire goes to what button is super easy with the Mini-Pac harness. The manual tells you what wire goes to what. Then, it's just a matter of running the ground wire daisy chain to all the ground connections. I won't go into the details here. If you want to learn more, check out the virtual pinball project. The principle of wiring buttons and joysticks in a chain here is exactly the same as wiring buttons on the virtual pinball cabinet.

The one new thing here was wiring redundant controls. Because I wanted so many control options, there are multiple "copies" of many of the Player 1 controls on the panel:

The problem here is that there is only one input for each of these controls. I contacted the helpful folks at Ultimarc about how to handle this, and it turns out that it's simple--you merely have to daisy-chain the controls to a single input. There are a few ways you can do this, but the easiest is to pick up some splitters (like the ones pictured) that allow you to connect two wires to a single input. I cannot for the life of me remember where I got them, though, and I can't find the email or the receipt. Sorry...you're on your own finding these.

I mounted the Mini-Pac to the bottom of the control panel in a central location to get it as close as possible to the controls. Almost all of the wires reached the controls, but a few needed to be extended. The USB cable just runs down to the front of the computer through the opening in the back of the box upon which the control panel is mounted. It looks like a rat's nest...but the wiring really is very simple if you follow the Mini-Pac instruction manual.

Final Control Configuration

In the end, I incorporated the following:

Future Control Panel Changes

As I said, I'm not super happy with the cosmetic appearance of the control panel. Also, there is no good way to label the controls so that people other than myself know what everything does.

Eventually, I think I'm going to order a pre-made control panel from Monster Arcades. Their panels are very professional looking and can be either covered in graphics or painted to look nice and polished. I also want to buy some lighted buttons with labels for the Start, Coin, and menu buttons. Monster sells those as well.

For now, however, the control panel is functional. That's all that really matters.

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The Final Product:

Overall, I'm happy with the end product. Side art and control panel modifications can come later. For now, I'm just enjoying playing not only the games I used to have in the arcade, but hundreds of others as well--on modern, less-likely-to-die technology. Unless you have tons of space and really love repairing coin-op games, MAME is definitely the way to go.

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