It has been a very long time since I’ve talked about building an arcade cabinet! The last time I looked into it, I had considered building a MAME PC but did not have time to follow through with the carpentry required to either build one from scratch or buy a new one (which were quite expensive at the time).
I bought an original Asteroids cabinet last week from a local classified ad. It is not functional. When I picked it up, the guy showed me that it would power up the marquee on top, and the self-test would produce beeps, and there was an audio hum. But by the time I got it home, it wouldn’t power up at all any more. Didn’t really expect to get the original electronics to work but it would have been sweet if it had. I actually found a troubleshooting site that described exactly what would cause it to fail the way it was running that night, with the constant hum, no CRT, etc. But now it’s completely DOA.
So, I have several options here.
- Try to restore the original electronics
- Install an aftermarket JAMMA system
- Turn it into a MAME cabinet with X-Arcade hardware
The cabinet itself is clean but not in “great” shape up close. I have it in a spare room where it will get completely disassembled and cleaned up. I might sell off the old boards on ebay.
Sometime in the mid-1980s, the arcade industry standardized on a circuit board design that made servicing them easier–a standard called JAMMA. Here’s a list of games with JAMMA boards in them.
There are now aftermarket multi-game JAMMA boards available that plug right into the old JAMMA-based arcade games. (In fact, if you aren’t careful when shopping, you might end up with a JAMMA aftermarket system instead of original electronics). The so-called “JAMMA” multi-game boards (such as the 60-in-1) are not original NOS boards but aftermarket boards that basically emulate the included ROMs and can interface directly with the original buttons, joysticks, and even the coin doors.
The really compelling aspect of a JAMMA system is that you can restore an original arcade cabinet with all new electronics if you don’t want to recycle the cabinet (kind of a shame, usually). The JAMMA multi-game boards (like the 60-in-1) can be set so only certain games come up in the menu–or you can disable all but one game and have it come up by default! A JAMMA board with power supply and wiring harness is only about $100. That’s all you need–you’re done at this point, just hook it all up.
Going the MAME route, you can replace all of that original stuff with X-Arcade parts, from joysticks, buttons, to even a working coin door. Going the “MAME PC” route with X-Arcade hardware is probably the easiest for a PC gamer since you’re just building a gaming PC in a cabinet. I didn’t like this approach at first because it implies a PC boot up, but in fact, most MAME cabinets use “wake on LAN/USB” to instantly wake when you hit a button so that would be cool. As for the MAME “PC”, you don’t have to install a whole PC case, just mount everything inside the cabinet which itself is a huge case.
So, I haven’t decided what to do just yet with Asteroids. My first inclination is to restore just “Asteroids” with a JAMMA board, while the remaining games are disabled, to at least bring life back to this arcade classic. It might not be *THE* Asteroids 6502 CPU, RAM chips, ROM chips, in hardware form, but the ROM binaries are the same. I do get the difference, knowing that you’re actually playing on the original hardware is compelling. But that would require a working system and this one is too far gone for my limited IEEE skills. I can handle a soldering iron–I did mod a few Xboxes after all–but this type of repair requires a digital multi-meter to test, diagnose bad chips, and replace them. Way beyond my ability!
So JAMMA is a good alternative. And apparently it’s happening a lot out there in arcade retro land. Some “original” cabinets owned by people probably have JAMMA replacements and they don’t even know it. No harm done, right? Ignorance is bliss? If the game plays the same, looks the same, sounds the same, then it’s better this way than using the cabinet for fire wood.
Meanwhile, X-Arcade has a compelling dual arcade joystick for $129 that’s hard to pass up. Just plug into your PC’s USB port and you have an instant MAME PC with authentic controls. I think it might be fun to just pick up one of those controllers. And, if you like it, the joysticks, buttons, and USB interface card can be purchased separately as parts to install in to a real cabinet!
Here’s some inspiration!