Lots of people are making their own games these days. Point-and-click tools (like Scratch and Game Maker) are making it more accessible for non-programmers, and it’s easy to get your game out to the world via the Internet. But wouldn’t it be even cooler to see your own games played on an old-school arcade cabinet?
The old cabinets are generally made to play one specific game, but they can be re-fit with a PC and a display and wired up the existing controls to make it possible to play new games. Many people have been doing this to run emulators of the classic games. T
he Hand Eye Society, a videogame culture collective, wanted to do a similar thing, but with locally made games. They debuted the Torontron, which plays six handcrafted games by Toronto indies, at the last Canzine. Jph Wacheski, who did the retrofitting, takes us through the steps.
Step One: The Cabinet — Retrofit or built from scratch?
First I began looking for an old cabinet that we could stuff all the gear into. In Oakville, Ontario we found The Original Pinball Exchange Club which was selling various scrapped amusement vending machines. I visited the shop and chatted with the proprietors. Walking through their collection of machines — and parts — I was amazed, and was fully inspired.
The hardware we got was old and unique — it originally played an Italian clone of Centipede. It worked for our purposes because the graphics printed on it were generic enough that we would not need to change them. The down side of getting a machine that was built in 1982 is that it is almost 30 years old, and though the build quality was reasonably good, some parts of it were quite worn and broken. I would suggest just building the box yourself since the reconstruction needed inside our cabinet to make sure it held the display was extensive. However there is something nice about the nostalgic old machines. If you plan to use a retro cabinet be sure to measure your display and check that it will fit in the box. This will greatly depend on the orientation of the display and where it will sit in the box.
I got a cabinet with simple controls — one joystick and buttons — but you can get cabinets with more elaborate or specialized control schemes. If you plan to use the original controls (as opposed to buying new controls) then make sure the games you plan to run need only those controls to play.
Step Two: The CPU — Find a computer someone’s throwing out.
I used a laptop that was being thrown away, but any old PC will do, as long as it will run the games you intend to play on your machine. We wanted our machine to travel so the rugged nature of a laptop was desirable. If you intend to keep your machine in the basement/garage for your own use then a standard desktop PC will work just fine.
Step Three: The Display — CRT or LCD?
Next we need a nice display. The tube-style CRTs are easy to find on garbage day as people upgrade to flatter LCDs , but you have to take care in mounting them within the cabinets — they’re heavy. (Seventeen-inch screens are very common but look a bit small in a full sized cabinet.) I went with an even heavier option, an old 21″ Trinitron TV with an S-video-in that I connected directly to the laptop. Although this would limit us to 1024 x 768 resolution, and it’s a bit blurry, it does provide a proper, large and bright image that is more authentically “arcade”. The weight and fragility of the old TV makes moving it difficult when we don’t have a vehicle big enough for it to stand up in — setting it on its back has caused the TV to come loose in the past. So you might have to choose between authenticity and portability.
Step Four: The Controls — Buy a kit or rewire the original controls?
Since I wanted to use the original controls that came with the cabinet, I got a USB controller, opened it up and then soldered the outputs of the original controls to the corresponding buttons on the USB controller. You could also consider purchasing all new controls since two new sticks and 20+ buttons runs around $40. Then you could replace the original controls and plug them directly into your CPU via a USB gamepad interface (a small circuit board) for another $40. Some are solder-free standardised connectors and some require some soldering. The computer will then interpret the inputs as keyboard or gamepad button presses. The games will then only require that the keyboard or gamepad controls match those of the interface chosen. That extra $80 would have saved me many headaches indeed.
Step Five: The Mounting — Securing the display, CPU and speakers.
By reworking the old monitor mounts — the wood planks that held it at the right height and angle — and adding some new bracing to work with the oddly shaped and situated TV, the TV was mounted inside. Adding the TV monitor had the added benefit of making the whole box more solid. The TV speakers, which we removed from the TV, were mounted where the original single speaker was in the cabinet and wired in, giving us some nice stereo sound. If the display does not have sound, a pair of computer speakers could also do the job.
The old marquee light did not work and was replaced with a simple under counter florescent fixture and was wired in. The laptop fits in the coin box area, and everything is plugged into a single power bar mounted near the back of the box.
Step Six: The Interface — How to launch the games?
Windows XP was what we used as an operating system, but anything that runs the game(s) you want to play will work. I used Game Maker to build a menu that lets the player select and launch between the six games. The menu keeps running, and when a game is exited, goes back to the main menu so the player can select another game. We used six games in the Torontron and we had all the game creators make a version of their game that conformed to our control requirements, such as quitting when the red button on the coin box was pressed.
Step Seven: The Glory — Is there anything cooler?
As with any hardware/software proposition, there’s a lot of work and a lot of testing required to get it looking and acting like an arcade machine of old. We had particular trouble with the controls which tend to be glitchy. But once you get it working right, it’ll inspire spontaneous high-fives and many exclamations of “awesome!”
Jph Wacheski and the Hand Eye Society are hard at work making five more arcade cabinets to be presented as an indie arcade at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for Nuit Blanche 2010. Want to help out with the Arcadian Renaissance event? Drop them a line at [email protected]
For more advice from Jph Wacheski on building your own arcade console, visit nomediakings.org/DIYArcade to read further instructions and post questions.