The Cabinet - Cabinet Kit
One of the toughest things for me when starting this project was trying to determine exactly what hardware I would need. I spent hours surfing Google for "MAME cabinet" pages, noting what other people used and had success or failure with. I knew I needed a few things to begin with, the single most important being the cabinet itself. The original plan was to build the cabinet myself. I had found Kyle Lindstrom's Pac-Man cabinet plans online, and I figured that would be the cheapest way to do it.
After downloading, printing, and reviewing Kyle's instructions, I decided that I wasn't quite the Bob Villa I thought I was. Not having all the necessary tools to construct the cabinet, and probably lacking the skills needed, I started to investigate other options. I was able to use Kyle's diagrams and instructions to gain a lot of knowledge though. They helped me to get an idea of the dimensions I would be dealing with, and also gave me some important links to other websites that would help me along the way.
With the woodworking route abandoned, I needed another way to get my cabinet. Some serious surfing led me to www.arcadedepot.com. It was there that I found the perfect solution to my problems. The folks at arcadedepot.com sell a range of things, but the thing that pulled me in was the replica Ms. Pac-Man cocktail cabinet. To me, it looked exactly like what I was after. So, I fired off some e-mail inquiries to get a better idea of what the product was like.
Not only were the responses quick, they were informative and very helpful. These people have made a great effort to faithfully reproduce the original cabinet design, while providing as much flexibility as possible to accommodate modern components. They are also willing to do custom work, for those who have a more specific vision of what they want. For me, I simply desired the most faithful reproduction of the original cabinet I could get - so I went with the cabinet as-is. Since money was the driving force behind this project, I chose to go with the most economical option of the un-assembled cabinet kit. I needed only to specify that I wanted grooves for t-molding, a coin-door cutout, and that I wanted them to do the staining and sealant for me before shipping. For affordability sake, the sub-$200 price can't be beat.
The Cabinet - Table-Top Glass
When it came time to get the glass top for the cabinet, I asked some friends. I was directed to a buddy who had a custom fish tank made for him - and he referred me to a local glass shop. I brought in my tabletop artwork as a template for them, and asked for ¼" glass cut in the shape of the artwork outline, and to give it nice rounded edges. They had no problems with the angles/corners, and the guy behind the counter even acted like they'd done something like it before! I originally asked for tempered glass, thinking it would need to be kinda strong to withstand the repeated clinking of Newcastle bottles and other items - but the store steered me away from it. They recommended regular glass, saying it would be strong enough and cheaper. Sounded good to me, so I went with it. The cutting only took 3 days, and the result was perfect. One detail though, the ¼" glass is a tad thick for the glass clips - I think because the cabinet top from arcadedepot.com may be a little thicker than the original Pac Man cabinet. Don't get me wrong, the clips fit over the glass fine - and do the job of holding it down, but I think they'd be a little bit looser on the original table. No cause for concern, just FYI. Either way, any local glass shop should be able to do the same for you.
The Cabinet - Coindoor & Coinbox
The coindoor cutout in the cabinet kit from arcadedepot.com is cut for a standard Williams-type pinball coindoor. Happ sells a Williams compatible coindoor that drops right in without a problem, and mounts with four simple holes and carriage bolts. Set it in the hole, drill, bolt it in - and you're ready to empty your pockets into it. Over time, the coindoor can become slightly "off" due to moving the cabinet around or people banging into it. Happ sends a calibration sheet for the weight/size mechanisms in the door, so you can recalibrate the thing if it starts jamming, not passing, or rejecting coins.
The original Pac Man machines came with a coin box designed to fit under the coindoor and collect kids' hard-earned quarters. I've seen an actual coin box, and I think you can even buy one from Happ - but with my motherboard, power supply, and various other PC-related items secured to the bottom of my cabinet, I didn't have room for the conventional coinbox. Now, this may not seem like much of an issue - but think about it. I went to the trouble of buying, installing, and wiring up a functional original-looking coindoor so people can get the true arcade "feel" when they use the cabinet. But, where are those little coins gonna go once they get dropped in? In my case, they'd end up bouncing onto the motherboard - and metal coins rolling around on my motherboard just didn't sound like a good idea! You'd be shorting something out for sure, and that's never good. So I had to think of some solution. I toyed with several ideas, but in the end I came up with a very simple solution. Remember, the coinbox is inside the cabinet - where no one will ever see it - so there's no need for it to look "authentic." My solution? I took an empty Wheat Thins box, and then cut it to the right height to ensure all coins would be caught and not go loose into the cabinet. I trimmed it from all sides and used a generous amount of masking tape to "stiffen" it up. When I was done, I had a perfectly sized coinbox for my cabinet config.
The Cabinet - Cabinet Top / Underlay Art
One important caveat to keep in mind - the cabinet that arcadedepot.com sells is a Ms. Pac Man reproduction. If you, like me, are working on a Pac Man cocktail table - there is one major difference that could present some roadblocks. The tops of the Pac Man and Ms. Pac Man cocktail cabinets are not the same! The corners on the end are different, as is the "cutout" for the control panels (looking down). I found this out the hard way when my Pac Man underlay artwork did not match up with the top that came from arcadedepot.com. However, arcadedepot.com being the standup guys they are, offered to make me a custom top based off my Pac Man underlay artwork. So, if you plan to use the cabinet from arcadedepot.com - I would, in retrospect, suggest that the optimal way to ensure a perfect cabinet top (no matter which original cocktail you're trying to reproduce) would be to order your underlay artwork early - and send it along to arcadedepot.com when you order your cab kit, so they can create a perfect-match cabinet top for you. That way there's no guesswork. The guys at arcadedepot.com are more than happy to do custom work, and at very reasonable prices.
After posting this page online, a very kind reader sent me a reproduction Pac Man underlay in Adobe Illustrator format that he had created for a cocktail project. As far as I know, this is the first time a file of this quality has been made available for us do-it-yourselfers. Most printing shops prefer to print directly from Illustrator format - so I've posted the file in that format. For about $20 you can have this printed on a nice piece of vellum at Kinkos or a similar store - and then tailor-cut it to fit your cabinet. Here's the link to download the file in Illustrator format. By the way, Adobe's free Acrobat Reader can read this file if you'd like to get an idea of what it looks like. (Thanks Ohara!)
The Cabinet - Securing the Hinged Top
Once the cabinet top is attached to the monitor-mount side, the whole assembly can be opened and by lifting the "lid" and swinging the monitor side and top on the hinge. This presents the obvious problem of not being able to lift the cabinet by the top without inadvertently opening the whole thing. Original cocktail cabinets had two latches that secured the cabinet top to the non-hinged side. However, I couldn't find these latches while building my cabinet. We bought a couple window "sash locks" from Home Depot, and used a Dremmel and pliers to manipulate them into something we could use. They work, but now there's a much better option - www.arcadeshop.com sells the exact latches that were used in the original cocktail cabs. Search for "Control Panel/Cocktail Top Latch," these things work perfect, and are the right price.
Finding a source for the game controls was no problem. Site after site pointed me to www.happcontrols.com. Happ has just about every kind of game controller you can think of, and the prices typically aren't that bad. I knew for my cabinet I'd be needing some pushbuttons and joysticks, but that's about all I knew. I would have to log some more research before I could make a decision about what particular kind of controls I needed.
The Controls - Joysticks
When considering joysticks for the cabinet, I at first wanted to stay as true to the original Pac-Man controls as possible. That meant for my cabinet, I had a decision to make. Pac-Man and the related games (Ms. Pac-Man, Galaga, etc.) were designed for use with 4-way joysticks only. 4-way joysticks only register motion on the four cardinals (north, east, south, west). However, most other games are designed for use with an 8-way joystick, so the player has a wider range of motions (getting the diagonals in addition to the cardinals). I primarily wanted to play the "classic" arcade games - and the cabinet is designed to be a Pac-Man replica. But, I also wanted to be able to play some newer/other games as well. Since 4-way joysticks wont work for 8-way games, and 8-way sticks sometimes give funky responses in 4-way only games, I had a tough choice to make. (If you're facing the same choice, be sure and read the last paragraph in this section for some updated information that may help you).
In the end, I decided to go crazy and give each player both a 4-way and 8-way stick, that way, they could use the dedicated 4-way for the real old-school games, and the 8-way sticks for most others. So, I needed two 4-way sticks and two 8-way sticks. Happ had what seemed like the perfect solution. Their "Super Joystick" can be configured as either a 4-way or 8-way joystick (see the costs page for details). Sounded great to me, and they happened to be on sale at the time I ordered them.
Happ advertises that the "Super Joystick" can "change actuation to 4-way or 8-way simply by flipping actuator over." Great! Sounded awesome to me, I just needed to find this "actuator" thing and flip it, how hard could that be? First off, when the sticks arrived, they looked awesome! I couldn't wait to put one together and try it out. By looking closely at the µswitches on the bottom of the joystick, it was easy to see how maneuvering the stick above would hit the different switches. You could wiggle the stick and watch the four cardinal direction switches trigger, hitting a combo of two for diagonal movements. However, I didn't see any way to make the thing operate as solely a 4-way stick. It seemed to me that, the way the switches were, there would always be a chance that you'd hit two at once (and get a diagonal). I figured I had to flip this magic "actuator," and everything would be OK. Well, after getting frustrated and even taking apart one of the switches (they're cool inside!), I finally figured out that the actuator is just the little hourglass-shaped piece that goes on the stick on the bottom. The hourglass shaped piece controls the 4-way or 8-way option, put the bigger end at top for 8 way, smaller end for 4 way.
Since doing my machine, and choosing both 4- and 8-way sticks for full game compatibility, I've discovered a new type of joystick that would've made things a lot easier. Ultimarc now sells a joystick called the T-Stik Plus, which is real-time 4-way or 8-way configurable. This means, you can switch from 4-way to 8-way mode without going under the control panel and flipping a switch or moving a restrictor plate. All you do is pull up on the stick and turn it to lock it in 4-way or 8-way mode. This is far superior to installing two sticks, or having to access the panel underside to achieve the switch. I would recommend the T-Stik Plus for the most in compatibility. In fact, I'm using them on my 3rd-side horizontal panel cabinet "upgrade" project, which you can check out here (link to be added soon).
The Controls - Pushbuttons
The pushbuttons also come from Happ (check the costs page for an itemized list of what I got). For buttons, there's not much to talk about. However, there are a few things worth mentioning. First off, I would recommend getting the buttons with the horizontal µswitch units. I arrived at this decision after looking into several reviews on different sites. Basically, the horizontal µswitch buttons last longer and "feel" better than the alternative. Second, think about what you need before you order. When I placed my order, I added up all the buttons I figured I'd need, and threw in a few extra for good measure (they're only $1.70 or so).
When thinking of the button-total, consider how many buttons you'd like each player to have, and add two more for 1-player and 2-player buttons. When I ordered my buttons, I was also planning for "alternate" buttons in addition to the standards mentioned above. I wanted some "hidden" buttons for things like "coin," and "escape." Only after I ordered the buttons did I realize that the I-PAC (see the Controls-to-PC Interfacing section below for details) offers a much more elegant solution to the "hidden" button problem. It's built in "shift" functions give alternate functionality to special button combos, for example - Start1 plus certain other buttons sends commands like "coin," "escape" to MAME via the keyboard's PS/2 port. For more about the I-PAC, read on!
The Controls - Controls-to-PC Interfacing
If you're like me, you probably didn't even think about the problem of getting the arcade controls mentioned above to register within MAME on the PC. But let's stop and think about it for a second, MAME works by interpreting keyboard input and turning that into game commands. There are keys assigned to movement, buttons, and even things like "coin" and game config menus and test modes. In order to get our new arcade controls to work properly within MAME, we need to figure out how to translate the button presses and joystick movements into the correct corresponding keypresses for MAME. In the olden days, people did this via the "keyboard hack" method. Meaning they would actually hack into the keyboard's internal circuitry, and make the arcade controls simulate sending a keypress to the keyboard controller by activating the circuit for that key. If it sounds complicated, it is! If you don't know anything about how keyboards work, the circuitry inside is arranged in a matrix (kinda like a huge crosshatching). Hacking into this presents several problems, not the least of which is "ghosting," when you lose the ability to map certain keys, due to the nature of the circuits. All of this makes the old-school keyboard-hack solution less than optimal.
Luckily for us, there is an ultimate solution available for the controls-to-PC problem. A great guy named Andy Warne has come up with an invaluable little tool for using arcade controls with MAME. His tools can be found for sale on the www.ultimarc.com site. Ultimarc sells several different tools for using arcade controls with PC-based emulators, all are equally excellent for the application they are designed for. But the one we want for this project is the I-PAC. The I-PAC is designed to seamlessly interface arcade controls with your PC via the keyboard's PS/2 or USB port. I don't want to go into all the product details here, but let's just say that this thing is packed with goodies that make it a breeze to setup and use with MAME. In fact, it comes pre-configured to run with MAME right out of the box (although I understand it can run with many other emulators as well). It comes pre-programmed for the standard MAME inputs, and also adds some excellent "shift" functions (see the pushbuttons section above for more details). Basically, you plug this thing in and off you go. It's simple, configurable and powerful, no homebrew cabinet should be without one of ultimarc's products.
Since I wanted 2 joysticks per player, and several buttons each as well - I hadd to go with the I-PAC4, which has enough inputs for my purposes (if you're only designing for a 2 player system with 2 sticks and buttons, you may be able to go with the I-PAC2 instead). I chose the PS/2 interface, mainly since it's cheaper - and the pure DOS "legacy USB" support is sometimes dodgy. I know, I'm using Win98 running DOS - but I'd still rather go with PS/2 (and... it's cheaper!).
The PC hardware and software setup ended up being one of the most complicated parts of the whole project. For hardware, I had chosen an Intel motherboard, with a Pentium III processor, SDRAM, and integrated video. My initial plans were to install DOS v6.22 on a smallish hard drive, run DOS MAME and ArcadeOS and be done with it. However, one roadblock after another was thrown at me, and plans ended up changing pretty radically.
I began with the hardware mentioned above, a 900MHz Pentium III, 256MB PC100 SDRAM, an old Aureal Vortex PCI sound card, and Intel integrated video down on the board. I started off by installing DOS v6.22 and installing MAME and ArcadeOS with a few test roms. The first problem I ran into was getting the Aureal sound card to work under pure DOS. I found the DOS driver on the web, and tried to configure it to do Sound Blaster emulation to no avail. I spent several hours fooling with my autoexec.bat and config.sys files before finally giving up. It was this "sound-in-DOS" problem that led me to install Windows 98 on the machine. I started with a fresh install, same hardware setup as before. After installing all the relevant chipset and audio drivers, I was up and running. DOS MAME and ArcadeOS were working fine, and the Vortex card was giving sound in the DOS-under-Win98 environment. All looked fine with the 3 or 4 roms I had copied over to test, and I was confident that this was the system config I'd be putting into the cabinet.
However, soon I copied over all the vertical games that MAME v0.62 supported (about 900) and began scrolling through the list in ArcadeOS, randomly choosing interesting sounding games to try out. It was then that I discovered the second shortcoming of the platform I had chosen. The integrated video solution on the motherboard I was using had only 1MB of video memory - and some of the "newer" MAME roms needed at least 2MB to run at the right VESA resolutions. Not only that, MAME was choking on other games too - one's that I had tested and were running fine on my home machine (a dual-proc box w/AGP8x and WinXP). So, now the integrated video was preventing me from running some games - it just didn't have enough horsepower. The sad thing was, there was no AGP slot on this motherboard. Meaning I'd have to switch my hardware plans drastically.
I now knew that I would need a little more horsepower in the graphics department if I wanted to be able to emulate the full range of roms MAME supported. That meant I would have to ditch the motherboard I had planned on using, since I couldn't use anything but the puny 1MB integrated video solution. So, I upgraded to the next thing I had laying around. Using a new Pentium 4-based motherboard with RDRAM and an AGP slot, I began rebuilding from scratch. The cool thing was, this board had audio down too! That meant I wouldn't have to use the Aureal PCI card for my audio (or so I thought at the time, read on).
I must admit I did, at first, try once more to go the pure DOS v6.22 route, figuring that perhaps I could get the integrated audio solution on this new board to work under Sound Blaster emulation. This, like the 1st try at sound under pure DOS, failed miserably. It was then that I realized that I hate messing with sound under pure DOS. So, back to installing Win98 again.
I began with a fresh install of Win98 (older versions of Windows don't take to well to motherboard swaps, so I figured a new install would be the best idea). With the hard drive setup exactly like on the previous board, I gave MAME a test spin. Bad news - no sound, not even DOS-under-Win98 sound. What I found out (after a few hours of tinkering), is that, in general, integrated audio solutions suck. Good luck trying to find DOS drivers for whatever audio solution is down on your motherboard. Next step, the triumphant return of the Aureal Vortex PCI card. I disabled the onboard sound in BIOS, and installed the Vortex card. Once the drivers were setup in Windows - I was once again happily listening to Ms. Pac Man chomp those power pellets in DOS MAME running under Win98.
The AGP card I decided to go with is a Rage 128 Pro (quite a change from my measly 1MB video solution from the 1st setup). All the games that wouldn't work on the previous board now worked fine, and with sound. Although it was no small feat - I had finally arrived at the desired end, a working MAME machine.
But, was I happy?! No way! I wanted to do one better. Somewhere along the line I started thinking it would be cool to be able to use Windows XP's "remote desktop" feature to control the MAME machine remotely - that way I'd never have to open the case and use the old keyboard and mouse to change things. Since I already had wireless at home, I figured I'd install a wireless PCI card in the cabinet, and then it'd always be accessible from another one of my PCs. It really was a stroke of genius, I thought. So, I grabbed another hard drive (wisely keeping the working Win98 drive untouched) - and started installing WinXP.
After the now familiar installing OS and drivers, I was up and running on my wireless network - with remote desktop working perfectly. I then installed MAME and ArcadeOS. Silly me, ArcadeOS wants to run under pure DOS, as does DOS MAME. So, I downloaded MAME for Windows and some Windows MAME frontends (the best being Cocktail Frontend, the basis for EmuWizard). Only problem - WinXP hates to run in 640x480 screen resolution, and will only do so in so-called "compatibility" mode. Not only that, I couldn't get MAME's game display to look nice at all. After massive amounts of tinkering, and even installing advMAME and others, I could not get the games to display even close to how well they were looking on the Win98 version. So, even though the remote desktop functionality would have been great, I scrapped this idea. It's kind of hard to pour hours of work into a different version of a setup that you've already got working flawlessly somewhere else. So I took the easy road and went back to the Win98 config.
After bouncing from one potential setup to another, I finally ended up with the following: 1.8GHz Pentium 4 on an Intel motherboard, 256MB RDRAM, Rage 128 Pro AGP4x card, Aureal Vortex PCI sound card, and a 6GB hard drive; all running Windows 98 with ArcadeOS and DOS MAME. Everything worked perfectly - and just to be on the safe side, I Ghosted off the drive in it's perfect working state - and burned it to DVD-R. So, in case the hard drive crashed, or the software got horribly corrupted - I can always revert to the virgin working setup by Ghosting the image onto a new drive. I tend to be overly cautious when working with computers, but I felt a little more secure knowing I'd be able to bring the machine back up from a disk failure if needed. I mean, I am using an older 6GB drive in there - and who knows when it may decide to take a dump on me.
The hardware/software setup worked perfectly on it's initial in-cab run. We plugged in the I-PAC, used the real controls that had already been mounted and wired up, and a PC monitor on it's side as a test display device (the real arcade monitor hadn't arrived from Happ yet). The thing fired up on the 1st power-on and played Pac-Man (and many other games) like a champ, all buttons and joys working as expected, and the I-PAC performing it's job splendidly. I was overjoyed at the 1st-boot success, which is generally a rare thing when dealing with PCs and as many variables as go into the cabinet setup (control setup and wiring, etc.).
Out of all the items I researched for this project, the monitor presented the biggest challenge. As a novice, I had no idea what type of monitor to use. I started browsing other MAME cabinet websites, discussion groups, and forums. Since the arcadedepot.com cabinets are designed after the original Ms. Pac-Man specs, the monitor cutout is made to fit a true 19" arcade monitor. So whichever type of monitor I did choose, I had to make sure the display portion would fit in the cabinet cutout as well as within the volumetric constraints of the cabinet itself.
I spent several nights online weighing the options as I saw them: TV, PC monitor, or true arcade monitor. Several times I told myself I had figured it out, for one reason or another - and just as often I changed my mind for other reasons. Since affordability was the number one concern, I at first wanted to go with a plain-old TV. I planned to use the S-video input and get a graphics card with S-video out. However, that presented a couple problems since the motherboard I had laying around had integrated graphics and no AGP slot. Meaning I would not only need a decent graphics card, but I would need a whole new board. Not only that, but it would be a trick to get a TV with a big enough display area to fill the cabinet's cutout, yet small enough to fit into the cabinet without some modification. The last thing I wanted to do was kill myself trying to disassemble a TV in an attempt to get it inside my cabinet. Then there's also the mounting and space complications using a TV would add. So, I had to put the kybosh on the TV idea.
The next option was to use a standard PC monitor. This seemed much better than the TV option, because I could use the standard VGA output on the motherboard I already had, and the monitor would support the PC's native display resolutions. However, a PC monitor still presented a size problem with respect to fitting it into the cabinet. Not only that, but mounting a PC monitor (providing I could fit it in), would be more work than I really wanted. I suppose I could have rigged something up, and I've seen other people design cabinets with both PC monitors and TVs that seem to look and work fine. However, simplicity once again became the deciding factor for me. Since the arcadedepot.com cabinets were made for a standard "shelf-mount" 19" arcade monitor, I decided to shop around.
While poking around for a 19" monitor, I discovered a few challenges. Some sites that sell these monitors (which are sold exclusively for arcade/gaming purposes) wouldn't sell to you unless you were a company or distributor or something. While trying to decide what to do, I stumbled across the monitor forum on the BYOAC site. In the forum, the same PC/TV/arcade monitor debate was going round and round. It was here that I first learned of so-called "hybrid" arcade monitors. Hybrid monitors are the same size as standard arcade monitors, and are mounted the same. However, hybrid monitors have standard VGA input connectors (15-pin). That means you can use them just like you would a standard PC monitor, by plugging directly into your video card, and the monitor will work perfectly with the PC's native display modes. Hybrid monitors are more often called "VGA arcade monitors," but you'll see them referred to as both. A hybrid monitor sounded like the perfect solution to me. Not only would it give my cabinet the ultimate look of authenticity, but it would be a cinch to mount.
After some searching, I found my monitor at the good 'ol Happ Controls website. Check the costs page for details on what I paid, and the assembly page for more about the mounting and usage of the Vision-Pro model I ended up going with.