Component Overview and Cost | Back to Intro | Cabinet (Part 1)
What you need to build a virtual pinball machine depends on how elaborate you want your machine to be. Some people build small, table-top cabinets with two monitors, while others build full-sized, wide-body pinball cabinets with two large LCD monitors and a real pinball DMD (dot matrix display), shaker motors, pinball solenoids (for sound and tactile sensation), and so on.
My goal was somewhere in between. I wanted a full standard-sized cabinet with three monitors (one for the playfield, one for the backglass, and one for the DMD). The only non-essential item I wanted on the cabinet was a digital plunger (rather than just using a button, which is an option). More on that, later. At any rate, this component list is what I used on my cabinet. Your needs might vary depending on what you want.
Some people build their own cabinets, but that's just silly. You can pick up a dead pinball machine (it would be wrong to sacrifice a LIVE one) more cheaply than you can buy the materials to build one. Plus, I have zero woodworking skills.
I got mine at the October 13, 2012 auction in Winston-Salem, NC. There were a few dead 80s machines that were good candidates but, even non-working, they were going for $200 or more. I set an upper limit of $100 for my cabinet.
The last machine they auctioned was a totally trashed 1966 electro-mechanical (EM) machine called A Go-Go. I actually looked at this one first and thought it was a piece of junk. It was missing its glass and side rails, and the left lower corner of the back box was either rotted away or smashed. When it came to the end, however, I (mostly out of desperation) decided to bid on it. I got it for $20--a full $80 under budget!
As it turned out, the cabinet was actually really solid (other than the aforementioned back box damage), with few dings and no major issues. It was filthy, however. It needed some TLC...but, other than that, it's a pretty good cabinet. An added bonus is that the frame around the front of the back box is hinged so that it swings open. This isn't common in old EM machines--you usually have access only from the back.
Plus, the machine met my main criteria--it did not work. When it was plugged in, about 8 bulbs lit up. Someone with a lot of pinball knowledge might have been able to restore it and make it work, but not me. No living pinball machines were sacrificed for this project!
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As mentioned above, I needed three. Obviously, we're talking about flat-panel LCD or LED monitors. (Don't use plasma screens--they have serious issues with image burn-in and they are generally less reliable.)
General monitor buying tips:
This is the biggest of the three, and you want to go as big as you can afford so it is as close to the size of a real pinball playfield. This one needs to be capable of 1080p resolution. A standard-sized (non-wide-body) pinball machine can accommodate up to a 37" monitor, as long as you remove the case (the plastic housing).
I went with the RCA 37LA45RQ television. I purchased it on eBay from EZK Liquidators. I highly recommend checking out their eBay store--they sell tons of scratch and dent televisions and monitors. Some have screen damage (look at all the pictures and read the descriptions!), but most simply have cracked housings, are missing stands, etc. This doesn't matter--you're taking the case off anyway and, if you're like me, the idea of doing that to a brand-new TV is a little troubling. I got my TV for $159 plus shipping (and another $18 got me a year warranty on the thing; which is why I kept the casing--in case I need to put it together again for service).
The only thing I regret about this TV is that it doesn't auto-detect a video signal and switch itself on from standby mode. This means that, although everything else switches on with a touch of a single button (see Wiring), I have to turn this monitor on separately.
The second-largest monitor. This one only has to be capable of 720p resolution, so (technically) it should be cheaper. I set out to find the biggest monitor I could fit into the backbox without having to uncase it. I figured that I'd have to figure out a way to frame the thing if it didn't fill all available space, and that the black case would look as good as anything trim-wise. Based on my measurements and the measurements of TVs and monitors that I looked at, I figured I'd be able to fit a 23-26" LCD monitor or TV.
Then, as fortune would have it, I was in Sam's Club looking at the marked-down, open-box TVs and saw a Hitachi LE29H306 29" 720p TV. I checked the measurements of the TV and it was just the right size to fit in the backbox. This is due to the fact that LED TVs have much narrower cases. They're also a lot lighter and thinner than their LCD counterparts, which I knew would come in handy. (See Cabinet (Part 2).) They're more expensive, though. Because this one was open-box and had blown speakers (which I didn't care about), I got it for $191. (The retail is $238.)
I could have saved money by going with a smaller LCD, but I don't regret the extra expenditure one bit. It was almost as if this TV was made to be mounted in a pinball machine. It looks absolutely awesome. For my cabinet, there simply couldn't be a better backglass monitor. Period.
The DMD monitor is the smallest and cheapest monitor of the lot. Almost any flat screen monitor will do. I was originally planning on using a 19" monitor that I already had but, in the end, I opted for a 15" monitor I got on eBay (for $6Ñsmall monitors are dirt cheap). Ideally, this monitor should be as thin as possible, and it should, like the backglass monitor, be wall-mountable.
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This is likely to be your biggest expense--it definitely was in my case. The reason for this is that the pinball software needs a lot of horsepower to run it You don't want to skimp on the processor, video card, RAM, or hard drive speed--get the best you can afford. It was hard for me to find definitive minimum specs for running the software, so I went with something pretty top-end. I decided to order the parts from Newegg and build the PC myself. (Out-of-the-box PCs tend to skimp on one or more components or have a lot of features you don't need.)
Details on my system:
I also got myself a small, wireless keyboard, a wireless mouse, and a USB hub, which I mounted in an accessible location inside the coin door. Wireless is the way to go--it's hard to get to the back of the PC to plug in a keyboard once it's installed in the cabinet.
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This was an easy one. Years ago, when I worked at MicroProse, we used to trade games to people at hardware and software companies for other cool things. So, for over 10 years, there has been a nice Cambridge Soundworks computer audio system with a sub woofer and cube speakers sitting in my attic. This was the perfect time to put it to use.
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There are a bunch of buttons and other accessories you need to make your cabinet work.
The number of buttons you need can vary greatly depending on what you want your cabinet to do. My best advice is to plan first (based on your cabinet--you really DO need to get that first) and then buy accordingly.
Turns out, I ended up needing only 9 buttons.
There are button packages available from sites like virtuapin.net, but make sure you really need that many buttons. I bought a lot more than I needed. (Not that I won't use them at some point...)
As soon as I found out about this, it was a must-have. A company called NanoTech Gaming Labs makes a digital plunger--a real pinball ball-shooter with sensors that detect how far it is pulled back and the force it should impart to the ball. It's really cool.
What's even better, they also make a board called the Mot-Ion adapter. This board acts as an interface for your pinball buttons (THERE IS NO NEED TO BUY ANY OTHER INTERFACE BOARD--THIS IS SOMETHING THAT I HAD NO IDEA ABOUT UNTIL I GOT THE THING). It also has an accelerometer that detects tilt and shake to add even more authenticity to the games.
The two items can be purchased separately, but you can buy them packaged together for $139.00 (a $30 savings). This package includes wired connectors--no need to build your own. (You'll still need ground wire and connectors.) You can buy the Mot-Ion Plunger package from Virtuapin. You can also buy it directly from NanoTech, but I've heard that their shipping times are pretty long. Plus, the guys at Virtapin are really supportive of the virtual pinball community, so I was happy to send some money their way.
There are a few additional electrical items that you'll need:
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This is a category that can be really minimal or pretty beefy cost-wise. If you're building the cabinet, this is probably one of your biggest expenses. Otherwise, you probably won't need a lot. Here's what I used for my project:
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