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Space Invaders. Battlezone. Pac-Man. Donkey Kong. Mortal Kombat. Anyone who spent a geeky adolescence haunting loud, dimly lit arcades knows that playing those games on a PC just isn’t the same—a keyboard is a poor replacement for a joystick, and most PCs don’t stand up to even a single full body slam.
- Tech: homemade arcade
- Cost: $50 to $800
- Time: 20 to 40 hours
So Tim Eckel, a self-employed systems analyst, devised a compromise. He loaded an aging PC with MAME, a program that emulates old hardware so it can run more than 2,700 arcade games, and mounted it in a real game cabinet rescued from the junkyard. Replacing the picture tube with a used monitor and wiring controllers to a keyboard, he squeezed the entire arcade of his youth into one fairly inexpensive box.
Dozens of enthusiasts have followed the trail he blazed—check out arcadeathome.com for a gallery of home-built boxes, and the other “Sources” (below) for all the info you need to create your own.
The homemade arcade shopping list
- Arcade cabinet: free to $200
- Used PC with keyboard: free to $150
- Used monitor: free to $150
- New controllers, including joysticks, buttons, trackball: $50 to $350
- MAME: free
- Game ROMs: free to $5
Assembling the arcade
1. Get a used game cabinet. Try eBay, arcade suppliers, or junkyards.
2. Strip out the guts, keeping the joysticks and firing buttons.
3. Mount a 17- to 21-inch CRT monitor behind the cabinet´s faceplate (a sheet of plywood and some L-shaped shelf brackets make a nice cradle).
4. Install MAME on an old PC (at least a 300MHz P2) and place it in the bottom of the cabinet.
5. Connect your control panel to the PC so that each joystick motion and press of a button represents a key or combination of keys (see “Cooking the controls,” below).
6. Load the ROM data for the games of your choice. (You can buy and download ROM images or get them free with gaming hardware.)
7. Wire a button to a key on your hacked keyboard that will simulate dropping in a quarter.
8. Destroy your old high score.
Cooking the controls
You’ve got a few options for wiring your control panel. The simplest is to buy a prebuilt arcade-quality panel with a keyboard cable that plugs into your PC. Slightly more complex is a keyboard emulator, which has wire inputs for the controls on one end and a keyboard cable on the other. The ultimate DIY solution is to open up an old keyboard and solder wires from the salvaged buttons and joystick to the traces for the keys that you want the PC to think you’re pressing. Keyboards work by scanning a matrix of horizontal and vertical wires with a key at each intersection, so you’ll have to figure out the position of the keys you want to connect to, and then tell MAME which keys represent which commands (instructions included with MAME). One warning: If you make completed circuits on multiple columns and rows at the same time, the keyboard matrix scanner may think some switches are active when they aren’t, or vice versa.
- Arcade At Home: Most of what you need to know and links to most of the rest.
- MAME: The original emulation software, able to reanimate 2,700+ games.
- MAME for Macs
- StarRoms.com: Download licensed game ROMs.
- Hanaho.com: Hot Rod Joystick control panel ($100), includes 14 games.
- Wico The Source: Arcade parts.
- Happ Controls: Even more arcade parts.
- Hagstrom Electronics: Keyboard encoders.
This story has been updated. It was originally featured in the June 2004 issue of Popular Science magazine.