In part 1 I told you why I was getting an arcade cabinet (hint: it’s because I’m a 40 year old white guy). In part 2 I told you how I picked the cabinet. Part 3 is all about the software. At every phase of this process I have been a little surprised at the number of decisions to make and options there are. With software there are really three main options that would allow you to multiple games in one cabinet.
If you want to go truly authentic you can get an original JAMMA (Japanese Arcade Machine Manufacturers Association) board. It’s the standard that pretty much everything from the 80’s and a good chunk of the stuff in the early 90’s used (one exception being the Neo Geo arcade machines). If you can find original boards they’ll be very old and not exactly cheap. They can also be hard to find. But with a traditional JAMMA board you get one game. The good news is there are JAMMA switching boards available which will let you put as many as 8 JAMMA boards in one cabinet. A cabinet built like this will be extremely expensive and has a high degree of complexity. It’s also a bit limiting and requires a higher degree of technical knowledge and ability. But, if you want authentic (and also the only option on this list that is unassailable in its legality) it’s the only real way to go. Maybe someday I’ll build something like this, but that is some far flung future where I make all the money.
There’s another JAMMA option. You can buy modern boards with JAMMA interfaces that play anywhere from 19 games to thousands of games. These boards plug into the standard JAMMA harness and use standard JAMMA connectors for everything. If you’ve bought a vintage cabinet in good working order, you can just slide this in with minimal effort and you have yourself a multicade. If you have a new cabinet you can buy everything you need fairly easily off Amazon (or any number of specialist websites). The 60-in-1 JAMMA board runs about $60 or you can get a kit for $120 which gets you just about everything you need to build a 1 player cabinet (including joystick, buttons, power supply and harness). It’s a pretty affordable way to do it and if you get the right set the harness is labeled making wiring relatively easy.
The modern JAMMA board approach has some downsides. Modern JAMMA boards are really just dedicated MAME computers. The companies that produce them build a custom MAME front end and put a set of ROMs they’ve tested with the hardware on them. The cards are encrypted so putting your own MAME ROMs on them isn’t an option. There are some issues with some of the ROMs, Centipede is notorious for having terrible sound for instance. Another issue is even on the 60-in-1 JAMMA boards you have repeated games with special modes. On the boards with more games you get even more duplicates. Still there’s good value here and it was almost the way I went. Two things stopped me from getting a JAMMA board, first, I can’t get QBert and I really need QBert. The second, and really more important reason, is that these boards don’t support 4 players for games like TMNT and I’d decided that I wanted to make a 4 player cabinet. So, to get what I wanted most I had to go with a third option.
The most flexible option is MAME (Multi Arcade Machine Emulation). MAME is software which can run on pretty much any PC. Many of the new cabinets you can buy have MAME in mind and many of the complete systems come with MAME computers in them. MAME uses ROMs created from the original arcade machines to give as accurate a recreation as possible. MAME gives you an accurate experience for thousands of games in one place. With MAME you can do four player games without a problem and with thousands of games supported you’re likely to find any games you want as well. On top of that there are alot of options for front ends and if you have some patience and a little bit of skill you can even design your own front ends. In short MAME is flexible and capable of doing everything I need. Unlike the other solutions this approach takes much more work to build the system I want. Of course it’s the only way to get exactly what I want so it’s worth the effort.
The downside to all of this is that the nature of MAME runs into copyright issues. Most MAME sites will make it clear that discussing where or how to get ROMs isn’t allowed on them and very few sites will host links to MAME ROMs. With a little bit of internet knowledge finding them isn’t difficult. However, it can be quite a chore to make them work, I could write an entire article on how to fix ROMs (maybe I will). The final downside to MAME can be cost. If you’re wanting some of the more modern games you need to put a couple hundred dollars into a computer, you can build a decent MAME system for around $200. That pushes the cost up but it’s relatively painless to install and configure MAME on a windows PC. That’s not what I did.
The Raspberry PI can be a MAME computer. It’s by far the cheapest way to do it. For $35 you can have a MAME system that runs all of the classics. The only game I had performance issues with was Double Dragon, but that could also have been input lag because it was before I got any of the controller hardware working. The catch is the easy to setup interfaces don’t look all that great and it can be a bit of a pain to setup one of the nicer ones. There are a few drive images out there that help that but those images tend to make managing everything rather complex. However I found a nice setup that allowed me to do some serious customization and come up with an excellent interface. The end result is very nice and opens up a lot of options for future projects.
Next up, the great controller conundrum.