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Retro Gaming Hacks by Chris Kohler

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Buy Your Own Arcade Hardware

Know the hardware to buy when it comes to playing arcade games.

Having your own, personal arcade machine is a very, very cool thing, and there are several ways you can go about making this a reality. Of course, there are plenty of intricacies to deal with—for example, what’s the JAMMA standard? Should you buy a large American cabinet at auction or hold out for a sweet sitdown Japanese mini-cabinet? Even if you’re not interested in the rather titanic task of building an arcade cabinet from scratch, there’s still plenty to learn about buying, understanding, and customizing your own arcade hardware.

Arcade Cabinet Hardware Basics

If you’re starting from scratch and know absolutely nothing about arcade machine hardware, think of the arcade machine as a big games console and the games as cartridges. Simply open your cabinet, plug in the cartridge (the circuit board containing the game), and turn the cabinet on to play that game. You don’t need any detailed electrical knowledge at all.

However, the console/cartridge analogy doesn’t quite hold water, because there’s no built-in CPU in the arcade machine itself; the arcade game circuit board is a self-contained computer that has all the gaming hardware needed to play that game. Obviously, this makes arcade games potentially expensive propositions. Imagine buying a whole new PlayStation 2 every time you want to play a new game! Fortunately, because arcade operators very quickly switch games, there’s a flood of older titles that nobody except collectors want, so second-hand prices for arcade boards are relatively reasonable.

Although there was a mess of conflicting standards early in the life of the arcade machine, the Japanese Amusement Manufacturer Association, or JAMMA, introduced a standard in the mid-’80s that most games have since followed. If you have a JAMMA cabinet you can easily swap Final Fight for Bad Dudes Vs. Dragon Ninja, because they both connect to your cabinet using the same pin-based connector.

However, there are custom variants of the JAMMA standard. Some recent games, usually with custom controllers or cabinets, don’t adhere to JAMMA at all. You can still go a long way by buying a JAMMA cabinet, though. Browse the Killer List Of Videogames (http://www.klov.com/index.php ) to see the percentage that support JAMMA to see what we mean.

If you’re really a classic game fan, you have to accept that Pac-Man won’t easily play in the same cabinet as Q-Bert, since both use non-standard, non- JAMMA connectors. If your classic games have fairly standard controls, you may be able to find JAMMA adaptors for each of them in places such as the Multigame.com web site (http://www.multigame.com/KITS.HTM), but it’s really not straightforward. Worse yet, Pac-Man cartridges rarely exist outside of Pac-Man cabinets and it’s the artwork of classic cabinets that makes them particularly good-looking. You may be best off buying specific old arcade titles as separate machines, then buying a generic JAMMA cabinet for everything else.

The other alternative for running those classic arcade titles is to run the MAME emulator through JAMMA. See the PC2JAMMA project (http://www.mameworld.net/pc2jamma/) for more information. Heck, you could skip the JAMMA step altogether and make a fake arcade machine. That’s not the real thing, of course, though it’s workable. It’s also ethically and legally dubious unless you own the original boards or run homebrew [Hack #24] or legal ROMs from places such as StarROMs [Hack #25] .

Finding a JAMMA Arcade Cabinet

You’ve made the momentous decision to somehow buy a JAMMA cabinet. What are your options, and how much will it cost you? Here’s a rundown.

Buying used American JAMMA cabinets.

If you’re looking for a JAMMA cabinet originally constructed in the States—the larger, stand-up, heavy arcade cabinets, generally made of wood, that you’ll see in your local game room or bar—then you have a few choices. Go on eBay, find a live auction, or talk to your local arcade operator.

Since eBay has a Location / International option in its advanced search which will find items local to you, you can search for arcade cabinets in your area. Be aware that shipping cabinets can be as or more expensive than the cabinet itself—even brief freight trips to you, the lucky buyer, can cost over $300. If you can manage it, try to buy a cabinet that you can pick up yourself.

You may need to do some detective work to see if the cabinet in that perfect eBay auction supports JAMMA, because many cabinets that include games won’t have the phrase “JAMMA compatible” in their auction listings, even though they actually are. Search for information on the game currently working in the cabinet with KLOV (http://www.klov.com/index.php).

Make a note of the button configuration, too. The basic JAMMA setup supports two players with three buttons per player as well as a Start button. If the cabinet you’re bidding on has fewer buttons, you may have trouble playing standard JAMMA games without modifying your control panel.

As for auctions, SuperAuctions (http://www.superauctions.com/) are probably the most famous regular arcade game auctioneers in America. They hold multiple yearly auctions from the West Coast to the East Coast. Prices range from a hundred to over a thousand dollars, depending on the size and quality of the cabinet and the ferocity of the bidding.

Finally, it might be worth going into your local (perhaps slightly rundown) arcade to see if they have any old cabinets they might sell cheaply. Unfortunately, given the upkeep of a lot of these establishments, you may not find a perfectly preserved artifact, but it’s better than nothing.

Buying used Japanese JAMMA cabinets.

Although the mid- and late-’90s Japanese arcade cabinets that made their way to the States have the same basic design and no region lockouts, they have quite a different style and form factor from American cabinets. To start with, they’re generally made of metal and are much shorter, so players sit, not stand, at them. They also have larger monitors—at least 25 inches diagonally—and have generic, good-looking decals on the sides, which should suit almost any game you put in them. If you can deal with sitting down to play and sometimes being uncomfortably close to your fellow player when dueling in 2-player combat due to the smaller size, then Japanese cabinets are the stylish, cool-looking choice for the JAMMA acolyte in a hurry. Remember, you can play American games in Japanese cabinets and vice versa.

Finding Japanese cabinets is a little trickier than old American cabinets, though. The vast majority of these cabinets enter the U.S. via container ships steaming into Los Angeles right now. You’ll always find at least one seller on eBay selling generic Japanese JAMMA cabinets. Prices start at around $250 for 25-inch monitor models and can reach $700 or more for deluxe 29-inch versions. These cabinets are actually branded around specific arcade game manufacturers, but will work for all JAMMA titles.

Some common Japanese cabinet brands turning up in the States include the Sega Aero City and Astro City, the quirky but excellent-looking Taito Egret, and a variety of SNK Candy cabinets that come ready with the extra JAMMA connections to play Neo Geo games. Most of these cabinets sell without any included games, incidentally. Unlike the majority of U.S. arcade cabinets, which started life with a specific game inside them, the Japanese cabinets are completely generic by design.

The biggest problem with buying Japanese cabinets is probably location, location, location. Unless you live close to Los Angeles, you’ll probably spend $300 to $500 just to ship the cabinet to your house.

The problem is similar to that of buying non-local American cabinets, which means that the relatively competitive pricing on these Japanese-imported cabinets becomes uncompetitive pretty quickly. Many collectors think the extra shipping is still worth it to pick up the good-looking, versatile Japanese cabinet styles, though.

Building your own JAMMA cabinet.

Cabinet building is an extremely complex topic all on its own, admirably covered in another O’Reilly title, Hardware Hacking Projects for Geeks, which you should check out at your leisure. Suffice to say that many cabinet-building projects don’t include JAMMA connections, but are set up for the player to simply put a PC and a normal computer monitor into the cabinet and pretend like it’s a real arcade machine. We call cheating on that, but your mileage, naturally, may vary.

Anyhow, if you want to build a cabinet and then build JAMMA connections into it, the ArcadeRestoration.com site has a good explanation of how to go from an empty cabinet to a JAMMA cabinet (http://www.arcaderestoration.com/index.asp?OPT=3&DATA=63&CBT=24). This page explains the full, if complex wiring set-up you’ll need.

Warning

Safety is really important, even if you’re just buying an already-constructed videogame cabinet, so bear in mind that you shouldn’t interfere with the innards of the machine while it’s turned on. Make sure the machine is properly electrically grounded (many Japanese machines are not, using two-pronged plugs only), and especially avoid the back of the monitor, even when the machine is off.

In most arcade machines, if you have the keys to open the cabinet and are dumb enough to wiggle your hands into the dangerous parts around the back of the monitor, you’re in trouble: there’s enough voltage up there to kill you.

Be careful, and by all means touch the adjustment knobs often situated around the back of the arcade monitor, but try not to expire in the name of playing arcade-perfect Street Fighter II.

Simon Carless

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