I started writing a piece about the building of my arcade cabinet, but I think it’s important that I go back a bit. I just need to fill in the parts that let a reader understand why anyone would embark on such an endeavor in the first place. In 1998 I discovered MAME.
I was sitting in the basement surfing on very limited dial up internet. Something had put it in my head to look up Legendary Wings.
Legendary Wings is a Capcom shooter that came out in arcades about ten years earlier. During one summer, I had played the game an embarrassing amount at the local convenience store. It got to the point that I would walk into the store with one quarter in my pocket, drop it into the machine, and play straight through to the end. If I didn’t manage to complete the game with that one quarter, I considered it a failure and left the store to ride around on my bike some more. I could do that three or four times a day and make a few dollars last for a week. It was no wonder that I would still have a fondness for what I knew to be a fairly generic shooter.
During my search I found a few screenshots that were too large to comfortably download using my 56k modem. I also uncovered some information I hadn’t been aware of, like the fact that the japanese release had different player characters to the version I had spent so many hours on. More importantly I found some people talking about how they had just played it. At home. On their computers.
Over the next couple of days I filled a ZIP disk with the MAME arcade emulator, a solid handful of mid 80s classic games and a couple other emulators with clever names like Nesticle, and Genecyst. Clever in a 5th grade sort of way. I had just downloaded a significant chunk of my childhood.
I had a keyboard and an old, pre-thumbsticks gamepad as controllers. I could play a half way decent game of Excitebike on a keyboard, but it was only a matter of time before I felt the need to graduate to proper arcade sticks.
About a year later I had access to broadband internet and the collection of arcade games grew well beyond the 100MB limits of a ZIP disk. I went hunting around and found that HAPP controls sold arcade parts to pleebs like me. I picked up a couple arcade sticks and a fistfull of buttons. I had absolutely no experience building arcade sticks, and really didn’t have any materials to work with. I gathered up some scrap plywood, 2x4 offcuts, and a crap ton of acrylic paint to cover poor seams.
When I told some friends at school what I was going to do, we had a small arcade stick building party. I used my scrap wood and the circuit board from an old gamepad. My friend used MDF and a PS1 controller. Soldering up the very fine wires to the even finer solder points on the board was tricky. I’ve gotten much better at it in the intervening years, but I’m sort of surprised that both sticks ended up working perfectly.
I used that clunky stick for several years, until I finally decided that it was time to build a full arcade cabinet. As luck would have it, I had become a CNC router operator by then, and had access to both the tools and skills to build something more impressive than a scrap wood box. But I’ll cover that next time.