Seemingly gone are the days riding your bike down to the local mall, wolf-down a slice of pizza, and then hit the Arcade to drop every quarter (or tokens) you had into a slew of games. Gaming consoles sounded the death knell for arcades as they began to dominate the industry starting in the early 80’s and by the late 90’s, most arcades were all but gone. The dawn of the 21st century brought with it affordable and easy to use development boards and other electronics, which makers used to build their own games, essentially bringing the arcade into their own homes. Makers have made everything from tabletop machines to full-on cabinets to bring back the nostalgia that once was and this roundup is just a few of the unique builds that are popping up in homes all over the world.
It should be noted that most of these DIY arcade machines use a software emulator that mimics the game platform the games were initially used on. In this case, it’s MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator), which is used with the corresponding game ROM images. The emulators themselves are legal to have and use, however the use of ROMs is illegal in many countries and have the same ramifications as pirating movies and music. Use them at your own risk.
Reddit user [Mystery_smelly_feet] paid homage to the Nintendo NES with his incredible Nintendo Themed Arcade Cabinet that looks like an oversized controller or a massive Gameboy. He constructed the cabinet using plain MDF boards that were actually color matched to the original NES controller with Sherwin-Williams paint. All of the decals were made using Photoshop and printed on high-gloss paper, giving the cabinet that ‘Nintendo’ feel. ‘Mystery’ used Happ competition joysticks and big coin-cell buttons along with an Ultimarc trackball for the controls, which are connected to the MAME-based PC through an Ipac 2 interface. Yep, there’s a full-on overkill PC powering the machine with an Intel I5 processor and GTX 660 providing the graphics, which are projected on a 32-inch Viewsonic LED screen.
Relatively new games can also be made into ‘arcade ports,’ and it’s no surprise that a PC is powering this one as well. Steve designed his Borderlands 2 cabinet using the usual MDF boards, which are easy to cut into just about any shape that’s needed. Steve’s dad custom-made the cabinet’s control panel out of plexi-glass shelving, which features 20 LED buttons along with 2 8-way joysticks connected to the PC through a PAC keyboard encoder. Some of the more interesting features include a secret drawer underneath the buttons houses a keyboard and mouse to interact with the PC and a real coin insert that is used to engage the PAC when tripped. Powering the PC on and off is done through a motherboard cable that’s connected to a coin button for easy access rather than going inside the cabinet to flip a switch.
Scaled down versions of arcade cabinets have been popular since Coleco released their miniaturized versions of popular games back in the early 80’s. If you’ve ever played them you know they couldn’t hold a candle to the larger versions, in fact they barely resembled our favorite games at all (PacMan’s music and sound effects could win the War on Terror), however the home-brew versions of arcade machines are leaps and bounds over Coleco’s blunder. Case in point- Ryan Bates’ Porta Pi Arcade machine, which has the look, sound and feel of its larger cousins only in a relatively small tabletop package. Ryan designed his Porta Pi around the Raspberry Pi instead of a PC, allowing the cabinet to shrunk down to a significantly smaller size. The cabinet itself is crafted out of laser-cut wood that fits together without the need for screws, allowing users to easily access the electronics inside. The buttons are hard-wired directly to the Pi’s GPIO headers, making it easy to modify the buttons to user’s preferences. Of course, the games are all MAME-based ROMS, utilizing the popular emulator and are pumped to the machine’s 7-inch HD LCD screen. The Porta Pi is available for sale as a wood or plastic kit with a 7 or 9-inch LED screen and can be found here: http://www.retrobuiltgames.com/diy-kits-shop/
Keeping on the tabletop theme, Mike Trello of ArcadeCab designed his BarCade tabletop arcade machine with a mere $40 in an effort to keep expenses ‘very low’. While the machine looks like it cost more than a couple of Benjamins, it was designed with readily available parts he had on hand, including an old Compaq PC with an Intel Pentium 75 CPU (that’s 75MHz of raw wanton power!), which powers the cabinet. The screen is actually a 15-inch CRT mounted on its side to give it that vintage arcade look. A customized PCB was created by one of Mike’s friends in order to trick the PC into thinking the buttons and joystick are actually a keyboard, thereby allowing the buttons to act as keystrokes. The BarCade eschews the MAME emulator in favor of Vantage and ArcadeOS running on DOS6.
Rasmus Koenig Sorensen took his love for retro arcade games and built a few standup and tabletop customized cabinets to play old-school games on. He started his builds with the Project MAME cabinet using the typical MDF/HDF boards found in most cabinet designs. As with some of the others, a PC runs the MAME emulator, allowing for an almost unlimited choice in game ROMs. A 19-inch TFT LCD display was used for the monitor but there is enough room for 20 or 21-inch displays as well. 4-inch car speakers and a Creative subwoofer pump out the sounds and an X-Arcade board was used for the buttons and joysticks, which were later replaced with a custom designed unit with sanwa joysticks and orange and red buttons. Besides the Thundercats artwork pasted on the cabinet’s sides, Rasmus designed his own graphics for the marquee, front panel and speakers. Actually, he incorporated an alien ship from Galaga into his speaker graphics, giving it a nice retro touch. The interesting thing about this and his other builds, is that he posted all the plans needed to build them online. Yep, they are open-source so users can modify them at will to suit their own needs.
Ok, yes, this was meant to be a joke but it is functional and plays just like any other DIY arcade cabinet only it was built using thrown-out cardboard boxes and tape. A lot of us as kids thought of doing the same thing with a console system like an Atari 2600, ColecoVision and the original NES but were too busy playing games to actually build it. UGIANSKY designed the TrashCade with dumpster-found cardboard boxes that he cut and taped together to house the PC running the MAME emulator. He made cutouts for the monitor, speakers, mouse/keyboard tray and used an X-Arcade control panel to give it that ‘arcade feel’. To keep with the ‘less-than-stellar’ motif, he taped a piece of cardboard over the top of the PC and made a display bezel from cardboard and plastic wrap ‘just because’. There’s even a marquee with TrashCade logo drawn on paper that lights up from behind using a flashlight! Actually, this looks much better than the Doctor Who Tardis control panel my brother and me built when we were kids using cardboard and a cable spool.
Those Coleco tabletop machines weren’t all they were cracked up to be, however ThinkGeek designed a DIY kit that plays the games as they were meant to be- enjoyable. The statement ‘some assembly required’ is more of an understatement at best as the kit requires ‘total assembly’, including soldering some of the components. Actually, you will also need some programming skills as well in order to edit configuration files needed to play the games. The CupCade is powered by a Raspberry Pi and uses a PiTFT 2.8-inch display for the visuals, which can be converted for vertical or horizontal configurations. It also features a mini joystick and buttons for selection and gaming that can be re-mapped as required. Gaming ROMs are loaded onto the Pi’s SD card and used in the same fashion as console cartridges, making it easy to swap-out games. It may look simplistic but users need the skills mentioned above to put it together and as of now, ThinkGeek doesn’t offer fully-assembled kits.
Video games were incredibly popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s that you could probably find a sit-down table machine at local restaurants, especially pizzerias. These types of cabinets in the DIY world are often used as a coffee table in living rooms. And why not, they are after all for entertainment, which makes it the perfect edition to any media room. Building one of these is the same as building an upright cabinet, which is what maker [swangle] did with his DIY Arcade Machine Coffee Table. This too is a MAME-based machine that’s run on a PC housed inside the table. Unlike the others, he chose to use an IKEA Besta Bench for his build instead of using MDF board and coupled that with the Swedish company’s INREDA slide-out drawer to house the control panels. Not only does it look elegant but provides more fun than any conventional coffee table could.
There are some interesting arcade cabinets that people have made that incorporate various appliances such as ExperiMendel’s Multi Arcade System. The cabinet features the same conventional MAME emulator running on a PC system as those mentioned throughout this roundup housed within the top portion of the build. What makes this machine unique is that it houses a mini fridge in the bottom of the cabinet, making those marathon gaming sessions even better without the need to break to grab a cold drink. It also serves to provide a stable platform for the components, which can also be housed inside the fridge, keeping them fresh (nobody likes a stale keyboard). This is perfect for college students who don’t have a lot of space in their dorms. Add a microwave where the marquee is located and you have a full-on kitchen with a built-in gaming machine!
Rounding out this roundup is another unusual arcade machine, which is roughly the size of a soda can but is still capable of pumping out the retro games. Designed by SpriteMods, the Raspberry Pi Micro Arcade Machine is powered by the popular SBC, which is mounted on the back of the acrylic-glass cabinet that was designed using Inkscape and laser-cut to size. The control panel was customized using an Alps mini joystick and cut-to-size acrylic buttons connected to micro switches on a prototyping PCB board, which connects to the RPi using M-Joy firmware burned into an ATMega88 board. The Micro Arcade Machine features a 2.4-inch LCD connected directly to the Pi’s GPIO pins to help eliminate lag experienced with certain MAME ROMs. Another interesting feature is the cabinet’s OLED marquee screen that displays the title of the game being played and switches when a new game is loaded. SriteMods designed a customized power supply that runs on a pair of Nokia BL-5J rechargeable batteries.
These are but just a few examples of home-based DIY arcade projects that are on the internet and there are far too many to list here or even fill a book with. It is a testament that speaks volumes in the love for the arcade games we played as kids and now into our adulthoods. While the physical brick and mortar Arcades have gone extinct, they live on in our basements, living rooms and garages where we can relive those days of glory without needing a small fortune in quarters. In most cases, the arcade builds are designed around old defunct PCs that have been repurposed to run emulators, which don’t require powerful hardware to run. With that in mind, it only takes a little bit of knowhow to build your own with the toughest part learning how to run the ROMs (see disclaimer). Once the knowledge has been resolved, putting an Arcade machine in your own home is a breeze!