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Building a MAME cabinet


ChrisBardon
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I've toyed with the idea of building a dedicated MAME cabinet for a few years now. Closest I got was about five years ago, when I bought a bunch of parts from Happ to start with one stick/button setup, which I never got working right. I tried wiring everything to an old gamepad, which I could never really get to work right. Just too many inputs on a small board, and craptacular soldering skills. Fast forward to a couple weeks ago though, and an ad that I got forwarded about a local arcade liquidation sale, and the project all of a sudden got a new kick in the ass. For 50 bucks, I managed to pick up two full used control panels, and a couple of monitor bezels and light box inserts. I almost walked out of there with a full Marvel vs Street Fighter machine for 500 bucks, but that's another story. I also decided to do things right this time, so I ordered an IPAC-4 encoder from Ultimarc to wire all the inputs to.

 

Step one is going to be getting a working control panel with the scrounged parts from the ones that I bought (both street fighter conversions). I'm thinking two six button sides, with a 4 way station in between for older games that don't play well with the 8 way joysticks. There seems to be enough room for it, and the encoder has more than enough inputs. I can't think of a nice way to be able to support things like Street Fighter at the same time as 4 player brawlers, so I think I'll stick with the one layout for now. Once I have the controls working, I have to get the PC set up with the right software. I'm looking at MameWah (which I saw on the Systm series on Mame building), which looks like a good cabinet frontend. I'll probably try it under Windows to start with just for driver support, but I might jump over to something lighter weight if it turns out to be unwieldy. After that, I just have to figure out monitor options and build the actual cabinet. Construction is pretty simple, but I'm still not sure whether to go for a TV output or try to find a 21-22" CRT monitor used somewhere.

 

Anyone else here built a cabinet themselves?

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Always wanted to do one myself. Hopefully I'll be finishing school by next spring, so maybe a good summer project next year.

 

Did a lot of reading on them though. I liked the idea of a real arcade monitor and the funky proprietary video card to drive it, but I'd likely go the cheaper route and use a big CRT. They are so cheap these days.

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Those are some pretty cool pics-not sure if I'll be able to do anything that cool, but I'll give it a shot. I like the idea of the 27" screen though-looks pretty good at that size. I don't think I'm going to bother with the spinner/trackball yet, but there's always room to add on. Honestly, I think the first addition after I get the monitor figured out will be light guns-I really miss arcade shooting games.

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So I actually had an hour or so last night to work on this, and I managed to get one of the used panels I bought wired up to the ipac to test everything. Going the route of buying used arcade equipment seems to have at least one major benefit-one of the panels I bought was already wired up with connectors on one end of the wires, meaning that I could reuse most of the wiring that was already there. This minimizes the soldering, and also means buying fewer wiring supplies (those ends are more expensive than I thought). I got the two street fighter panels wired to my PC, and other than a couple of flaky buttons, all the controls seem to work just fine. Just goes to show how much abuse this kind of stuff can take. Tested it with a round of SF2, and despite being rusty as hell, I could still pull off moves as I expected, so at least the sticks seem to work. I'm not wiring anything too permanently yet, since none of the controls are in their final homes, but having something to test with is an essential first step. Since everything is connected to the switches with the connectors, it means that I can move everything into a new cabinet once I start building.

 

Hopefully I get a chance to spend some more time on it over the weekend. I still need to get my 4 way stick wired up, and there are a couple of buttons that definitely need replacement. I also have to wipe out the PC and start fresh with the latest MAME and romset, and try to get MAMEWAH working. Then it's time to start looking for a TV, but I figure worst case I can buy a brand new flat 27" CRT for $200 or less. I'll probably start looking to scrounge one first, but the only spare CRT I have is 32", and that's a little big to put in a cabinet.

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After grabbing a few hours on the weekend and last night, I've made some more progress on the cabinet. I now have a 27" samsung CRT connected via svideo to the radeon 9550 in the PC. The PC also has a clean WinXP install, and all of the roms have been moved over. I started messing around with Mamewah last night, and it looks like I have a lot of work cut out for me to get things tweaked and laid out. My goal now is to have everything working exactly the way I want it in the final cabinet before starting construction, since it's easier to deal with software changes etc while I have a monitor hooked up and more space to work with an actual keyboard. Remote desktop is enabled on the machine though, just in case.

 

As for the TV out, has anyone else done any calibration on svideo outputs from a PC? Running MAME on the TV looked like crap, part of which I'm sure has to do with the settings on the TV (character sprites were really blurry). I suppose I could just pop in a DVD and run optimode on there, but I'm not sure whether the calibration should be different for emulated games vs DVDs. I think I might try calibrating to one of the console emulators first against the actual console (e.g. hook up the SNES via composite and match ZSnes on the svideo to it). I've also read about setting custom game resolutions, so I'll have to paly with some of the MAME tweaks. Then of course there's creating custom game lists (to make navigation possible), and getting the layouts/screenshots etc working for all the emulators. So far I have full romsets for MAME, plus NES, SNES, Genesis and TG16. I'll probably toss some C64 games on there, and possibly Daphne (laserdisc game emu) if I feel like adding more stuff to the project.

 

More to come, but I get the sense that you could never be finished tweaking a project like this.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I think I finally got MAMEWAH working the way I want it to, but it took some doing. Basically, I created my own layouts for everything for better viewing on the TV, and tweaked the individual emulators on their own instead of through mamewah. What are you having a problem setting up? I wasn't able to get a genesis or PC Engine emulator to work, and the visual pinball launcher seems to be busted. I might go back to them later on though, now that I think I have a handle on how mamewah works.

 

I now have MAME, NES, and SNES set up on the PC, but then I ran into some control panel problems. Some of the microswitches in my joysticks were flaky (which I think comes from being un-soldered and generally abused), so I've been working on some trial and error to fix those up. Then I decided to go all out and buy one of [RL=http://ultimarc.com/ultrastik_info.html]these [/url] instead. It's an analog stick that's completely programmable, so I can make it 4 way, 8 way, 2 way, etc. I figure it'll make the panel layout cleaner, and mean that I can also run software that needs an analog stick (N64, Dreamcast, PSX etc). After watching the last Star Wars retrospective, I might even try installing Tie Fighter on there. Along with the ultrastick, I picked up some of the mods that seemed to be popular on byoac. The longer handle for a higher profile, the harder spring for more resistance, and the restrictor places to decrease the throw distance. Ended up costing a little more than I might have wanted to spend, but I'd rather have the parts and be able to test them all myself than have to order twice and pay extra for shipping. Worst case, I can ebay what I don't need. Only other issue is that once I get that stick set up, it'll mean more mameah config to load the right joystick programming on a per-game basis. I'll also have to check out whether I can get MAME to deal with directional inputs coming from a joystick, and buttons from the keyboard (since the ultrastik registers as a joystick).

 

I also ordered one of the act-labs guns, which I gather are the best you can get at this point. Again, they're pricey (80 bucks for the encoder, 10-20 for the shell), but it sounds like they're the best of the gun solutions out there. Depending on how well that works, I might pick up a second one for 2p area 51 action later on (or me with a gun in each hand :)).

 

As for how it plays though, I gave a couple games a spin and it seems great. Arcade SF2CE is a lot harder than I remember it, but the control feels good to me. Tried UN squadron as an 8way shooter, and it also seems to work pretty well. I think the 4 way stick is dead, but some of the 4w games work ok with an 8 way. Pacman seemed fine, but Donkey Kong gets confused if it sees a diagonal. NES games also work really well, but SNES stuff is a little tricky to control. I might have to remap the buttons for Mario World, since having a SF layout with Y above B (Y on light punch, B on light kick), is a little tricky.

 

Then of course there's the actual cabinet construction, but that's probably going to be a while. I still have to design something, which I think I'm going to try to do with my wife's help in Solidworks. I've poked around in it, but she's done modelling in it for a living, so between us we should be able to figure out a good design. I also haven't ruled out the idea of a 4 player panel, which should be more feasible with the ultrastik. I suppose it'll depend on how many working joysticks/buttons I can come up with-I think I'd need at least four buttons at each of the 3p/4p stations for most of the good 4player games.

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I guess it's all the customizing individual emulator configs. Can you point me to any good how-to docs? I find myself not knowing what to do next.

 

I was playing with GameEx as well. It's pretty good but I don't really need all the features and stuff it comes with as the PS3/Xbox streaming covers a lot of that.

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I took a look at what's here to start with, but I was only able to get MAME and the NES/SNES emulators to work. For zSnes, I just configured the emulator in the GUI, and then set the option manually to disable the GUI later on. There's also some information here that looks pretty good, but I haven't tried it yet. I want to try to get the Dreamcast and ps1 emulators working once I get the ultrastik in the mail.

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I think I've come to terms with the way that mamewah works, and it does seem to make sense once you understand the config file hierarchy.

 

Not much to update on the cabinet progress, except that the new parts from ultimarc came in the other day. I got a chance to install the ultrastik yesterday, and it's certainly an impressive piece of hardware. The downloaded program maps work as expected, so I now have a 2/4/8/analog joystick in my panel. I still haven't tried updating mamewah to automatically download the maps for a particular game, but with the new WIP version that Minwah just posted (that can return the input type to the command line), it should be pretty easy to add support to the frontend to automatically define the stick parameters. As for how it plays, I see what people were saying about the throw being really large, but hopefully the restrictor plate solves that problem. It's nice not having the clicking of the switches on the joystick, but the stick still feels very "floaty". I had a hell of a time playing street fighter with it, but I'm sure part of that is the travel distance (and complete lack of movement restriction). Perhaps I'll give the 4/8 way plate a try in 8way mode, and see how that makes 4way games play with the 4way map.

 

I also got the act-labs lightgun in the mail, but so far I haven't been able to get it to work in Mame. XP can detect the gun, and the test program registers all of my shots, but once I load a game in Mame, the accuracy goes to hell. I might actually be running mame with some of the wrong options (if the ini file overrides what's on the command line, the resolution is wrong), but I really haven't had a lot of time to experiment.

 

Next step is design on the actual cabinet. I haven't decided whether I want to bother with lexan overlays on the control panel and monitor. I might do one on the panel so that I can sandwich some custom artwork in there (to label buttons, cover screw holes, and look cool), but I might not bother with a monitor bezel. Now I just need a few hours with a decent 3d CAD app that I can use to dimension things out and see what will fit where. The temp panel that I'm using is going in the trash in favour of a custom 4 player design, so I'm holding off on any more wiring/programming until the controls are all in their final home.

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  • 2 weeks later...

More updates, now with pics. First, here's the current state of things in my workroom:

 

img8555yf4.jpg

 

Test panel is working with Mamewah, and the ultrastik is working a whole lot better with the circular restrictor plate. I've also managed to get some CAD work done with Google Sketchup, which isn't a bad app once you get used to it. There are still some problems getting 3d geometry to be exact, but I think I've managed to get what I need:

 

mamecabnu6.jpg

 

And the control panel (controls are roughly in the right spots, but I'll create a more exact layout with my panel art):

 

mamecab1pl4.jpg

 

Nothing too revolutionary about the design, but I still have to decide on how I want to vent the back, and how I want to mount the marquee and monitor shelf. The other goal is to get everything to fit in 3 4x8 sheets of MDF or melamine (still waffling on materials), possibly with an extra piece for the control panel top-I'm thinking of making that part 1/2" instead of 3/4" so I can get a higher profile on the joysticks.

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Yeah, I'd seen both of those layouts, but the first one has the problem of not having two sticks in the same plane for 2 player dual stick games. I'd still like to be able to play smash TV and Robotron on there, and I can see that being really hard with one joystick at a different angle. The control panel is 4ft wide though, which is about as big as I can make it given the space. I compared this to other 4p measurements, and it doesn't seem that out of whack. The final acceptance test for this will be once I have the control panel artwork printed out though-I think it'll take seeing it at 1:1 before I decide for sure.

 

Speaking of which, I still have to finish designing that. I have zero artistic ability though, so I'll have to see what I can find on the web. I like that first link though-I'd seen it before, but I'd forgotten about that design. I'm probably going to go with something simple, but I like the groups of characters on the panel (as opposed to trying to do way too much on there). I'll probably also come up with a custom monitor bezel to show some basic navigation instructions.

 

The rest of the superstructure is designed though, so now it's just the artwork and then I can start building.

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OK, I need an opinion on a panel design that I threw together over the weekend:

 

panel1cc2.jpg

 

The basic layout is the same as before, but now I've photoshopped everything and added some artwork. My original design was a little cleaner (same thing without the SF sprites), but I thought I'd try it out like this, and I'm actually pretty happy with the result. I was trying to think of theme designs for panel art, and stumbled across some of the high res sprite images that Capcom released for SF2HD, which seemed to work well because the isolated sprite images meant a lot less photoshop work. As for the controls, there's not a lot of space there for p3/p4, but the way I see it, the number of times I'll actually have 4 players that need access to all 6 buttons are probably going to be just about never. MAWS doesn't list any 4p games that use 6 buttons, so it's pretty much there for 4p SNES games and to give me more inputs if there's need for them down the line. It also gives you the option to play 2p games with the p3/4 controls if you so desire.

 

Any thoughts on the layout? I'll probably do a quick full size print of this sometime to get a feel for the layout in person before I start cutting. My only thought at this point is that I might actually want to move the controls up a little on the panel, since they might be too close to the edge.

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I thought about a trackball and spinner, but the price put me off of it. A decent trackball is about $100, and looking through MAWS, there really aren't that many games that use a trackball that I care about. Centipede and Missile Command are the big ones, and I'm not a huge fan of either. Same idea with the spinner-it's a $100 control, and losing it means not being able to play Arkanoid or parts of Tron properly. Again, not a huge loss in the grand scheme of things. Now, that's not to say that there's not room for those controls to be added later on (there's enough room in the middle of the panel for a trackball), but for the moment, I've decided to pass on them. What you really need are three trackballs for 3p rampart (although there's apparently a joystick variant that I've never tried).

 

As for o/s navigation, the UltraStik has a "mouse mode" program that maps the analog joystick as a 3 button mouse. Works OK for very basic stuff. I've also got the machine set up to boot straight to mamewah though, so I shouldn't need to get at the OS very often. I'll keep a mouse/keyboard in the base though, just in case, since I'm just tossing the PC in still in its case, and not mounting the bare parts to the walls of the cab.

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  • 5 weeks later...

Some things I've learned in the last few weeks when working on this cabinet:

 

-MDF dust gets abolutely everywhere

-Apparently, 3/16" slotting cutters aren't that simple to find

-Drilling holes in lexan is tricky, especially when the edges melt and stick to the hole saw

-Oversized printing at Staples is actually more reasonable than I thought

-Drilling through 3 layers at once is a great idea in theory, not so much in practice

 

Still, progress is being made, and I should be able to finish by the end of the summer. The joys of having limited time, workshop space and a 3 month old baby-it turns a 2 week project into one that takes 3 months and counting :)

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  • 1 month later...

Progress has been made. I mentioned in another thread that I had a new TV to put in the cab that was a little too wide. Here's my solution for making it 1/2" narrower:

 

IMG_8750.jpg

 

Now that it's in there, the new TV is MUCH nicer:

 

IMG_8752.jpg

 

You can sort of see the lines I was taking about in the pic of the old TV:

 

IMG_8734.jpg

 

Cabinet guts:

 

IMG_8738.jpg

 

Wire!:

 

IMG_8740.jpg

 

Control panel:

 

IMG_8753.jpg

 

Cab profile:

IMG_8755.jpg

 

The rest of the pics are on my picasa site.

 

Now all that's left is some trim work. I need to come up with a marquee/bezel design, and do some touch up painting, but the major part is done now.

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