Building my own MAME machine

by Patrick Fonck


My first game-console was a Philips VideoPac G7000. I remember the local supermarket had two demo systems on which kids could play... a Philips G7000 and an Atari 2600. I can't exactly recall why I went for the Philips system, but I believe it came with a Space Invaders clone with very cute graphics including a big red spider that came down to hunt you. My favorite game was the Pac-Man clone "K.C. Munchkin" (or "Happelaar", as it was called here in the Netherlands).

[Image: Alien Invaders on the Philips G7000]

Alien Invaders on the Philips G7000.

As I young man, I personally never spent much money on coin-operated arcade machines, except for one week of the year during my family holiday in a bungalow park which had an amusement hall. They had Pac-Man, Bandits, Galaga, Phoenix, Scramble, Crazy Climber and a few others that I can't recall.

However, that one week a year was enough to have me hooked on arcade games. So when the ColecoVision came onto the market with all its great conversions of famous titles, I just had to buy it! Donkey Kong and Mr. Do! were my favorite titles on that platform, I could play them forever :-)

[Image: Mr. Do! on the ColecoVision]

Mr. Do! on the ColecoVision.

While at school, I recall getting BASIC lessons - which I thought was awesome, being able to have a computer under control - so I decided it was time to have a "real" computer. I found a real bargain at an electronics store... the Atari 600XL. I was really addicted to this system and spent every free hour between coming out of school and going to bed behind it.

[Photo: My Atari 600XL]

My Atari 600XL with 64 KB, internal SIO2PC interface and improved video quality.

As lots of youngsters in their puberty do, I lost interest in computers for a while, so I sold my old systems but later bought a Philips MSX2 system because my girlfriend's family had one (as well as loads of games on easy-to-copy floppy-disks).

Even though I never considered myself to be an "Atarian", when I decided to get rid of all my old computer stuff, I ended up keeping my Atari 800XE. I later expanded my 8-bit collection with an Atari 600XL (read all about those at my web site,

But anyway, this article is supposed to be concentrating on the arcade experience...

Ever since I started to discover the internet, I have been deeply interested in arcade emulation. Emulators make it possible to play those old arcade hits on your PC. First there were single-machine emulators - which were mostly incomplete (missing sound, wrong colors) - but when MAME came along, things really started to take off. Now although Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME) offers perfect emulation for hundreds of games now, I always thought there was something missing. To me, playing games means relaxing, getting away from the daily terror of unstable or even crashing PCs. So running an emulator on a Windows system just doesn't cut it. I never got into 3D games except maybe for the occasional racing game or pool simulator... nope, call me crazy... I want big sprites dancing around on my screen!

I've got an emulator installed for every system I have ever owned as well as a few to give my son access to games that would require the purchase of a console like PlayStation and Nintendo 64.

One day while I was surfing my favorite second-hand goods web site when I saw a section with arcade machines for sale. I suddenly thought, what a good idea it would be to buy one of these and build a PC running MAME into it. There was somebody who was clearing up his garage with old cabinets so I called him to ask for a particular machine. That one had already gone, but when I told him I only needed a defective machine, he offered me one for free! So that same evening I went to pick it up.

[Photo: The cabinet just after I picked it up, standing in my office]

The cabinet just after I picked it up, standing in my office.

The cabinet was perfect... It's real eighties-style, one of those you can "climb in to", shutting yourself from the outside world and the controls are simple. I prefer games that only use the joystick and one button... yep, like Atari games!

First thing I did was to strip the cabinet from its old internals (the display was broken anyway) and clean it thoroughly. I like insects, but only the ones you can fire at in a field covered with colorful mushrooms ;-)

The next thing to do was to fit a new display. I had an old Eizo 20" monitor laying around the office that had become too fuzzy to display a high-resolution Windows desktop (a.k.a. a write-off), so that one was perfect for my project. At first I wanted to separate the monitor's electronics from the display tube, but when I had removed the plastic from the monitor and looked at the guts, I decided to keep everything inside the steel casing. This would also prevent problems with electric shielding.

The only downside of keeping the metal chassis was that it stuck out the back of the cabinet a little (10 cm's or so), but when the cabinet is placed into a corner of the room, you don't notice. The original display was bolted onto a wooden plate, but as I hate working with wood (it always cracks and chips), I made one from my preferred material... aluminium. I stripped the monitor from its casing and bolted a framework of angular profile onto it.

[Photo: Test set-up for the monitor]

Test set-up for the monitor.

[Photo: Picture of monitor inside the cabinet]

Picture of monitor inside the cabinet.

As MAME supports rotation of the display in all directions, I was free to select the orientation of the display. Some people build a construction that allows the display to be rotated, but as I only intend to play games that are portrait, there was no need for that. There are various front-ends (menu programs) that also support the rotated display, I use a DOS program called Launcher.

[Photo: Testing the monitor powered by a laptop and a normal keyboard]

Testing the monitor powered by a laptop and a normal keyboard. This is not the best way to play arcade games so we need some controls!

After I had completed most of the construction work, it was time to move to the electronics and hook the controls up to the PC. There is a very neat trick for this, you can wire the micro switches directly to the little controller inside a keyboard. The keyboard controller works using a matrix, connecting a certain contact with another which generates a certain key press. The hardest bit is making a map of that matrix by trying out all combinations. Once you've done that, the wiring itself is easy!

[Photo: Keyboard controller]

Keyboard controller (left) and color-coded wires that go to the micro switches of the controls.

[Photo: Micro switches wired to the keyboard controller]

Here you see the micro switches wired to the keyboard controller.

As I said earlier, I like simple games using simple controls, so the standard buttons were all I needed:

  • One Player
  • Two Players
  • Joystick - also used in menu to scroll trough available game titles
  • Fire button - also used in menu to select game
  • Exit button - to exit game and return to menu

[Photo: The coin mechanism]

The coin mechanism.

One of the coin slots was still functional, so I wired that one in too. I had a hard time finding some Dutch guilders though as Euros had been introduced a few months earlier! Coins fall into a small cardboard box now as I'm using the space of the coin collector box for the PC now.

[Photo: The PC guts, well hidden away]

The PC guts, well hidden away.

The rest was easy. I just grabbed some old PC internals I had laying around and put them into the empty coin box compartment. I'm using my favorite Intel CPU, the Intel Pentium Pro (over clocked to 233MHz). This very hot-running CPU required some attention to the airflow, so a fan was fitted into the door.

At first, MAME (the emulator) wasn't running games smoothly enough with some visible frame-skipping and some sound problems. Now you would think that a 233 MHz CPU would have no problem emulating a 1.7 MHz arcade game. However, the developers of MAME appear to prefer quantity above quality which implies that every time they add support for more games the program becomes slower. Downgrading from version 0.68 to 0.36 made everything running smoothly again.

The sound is taken care by a Sound Blaster Live! PCI card, a bit of overkill maybe for the standard mono speaker inside the cabinet, and MS-DOS 6.22 is booted from a 512 MB SCSI hard disk. The menu program Launcher is started automatically from which game selection is made using the joystick and the red fire button (which in turn starts the game in MAME). It then works just like a real arcade machine. If it was standing an amusement hall alongside original arcade machines you wouldn't be able to tell the difference!

[Photo: The menu system (Launcher)]

The menu system (Launcher).

Now that it's finished, it really is a joy to play with. It is easier to operate than a Nintendo Game Boy! Once you've played this machine you wonder why people pay huge amounts of money on their collection of classic arcade machines... This one plays them all in 99% authenticity and has cost me... nothing!

My eight year old son loves playing games on the machine even though he hated them emulated on the PC. It's the charm of the full-size cabinet that makes everybody love it. My high-scores double easily compared to playing them on a PC using a normal game pad as I'm so much more concentrated "inside" the cabinet.

If you're into classic gaming, a MAME-cabinet is a must have and even if you're not in the situation like me, where you've got 20" monitors and computer parts for grabs, you still should be able to build one for the amount you sold your PS-2 or X-Box for ;-)

A very good place to start looking for info is where you will find the most amazing machines with 26" screens and every control fitting you can think of.

[Photo: The finished article]

The finished article.

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MyAtari magazine - Feature #8, October 2002

Copyright 2002 MyAtari magazine