/ retro

I Built An Arcade Machine

It took about nine months but it's finally done! After my family and I moved to Devon, I found myself with no friends locally but more time on my hands. This seemed the perfect opportunity to start a fun project. Like lots of mid-thirties nerds, I had always dreamed of owning my own arcade machine and leaving it on free-play so I decided to do something about it.

I built this:

Finished cabinet

Carry on reading for my blow-by-blow picture-heavy construction log.

About the project

In essence, this is just a PC running Windows 10 inside a custom made (mostly) MDF case constructed to look like an arcade machine from the 1980s. The PC runs what's called a frontend after booting which displays all of the games you own in an organised & fun way. Selecting a game from the frontend will load it for playing in one of a number of different emulators. You can read all about the technical setup of the software I'm using in a later post but in essence I'm using HyperSpin, MAME and a bunch of other emulators.

I had hoped to base the arcade around a Mac (specifically a Hackintosh) as I can't stand using Windows. Unfortunately, there just aren't the same number of emulators and decent frontends for the Mac as there are for Windows so I had to swallow my pride and use Windows. Thankfully, the only real time you know you're using a Windows PC is at startup.

I probably went overboard with the specifications for the PC:

  • Intel core i5 3.5GHz
  • 8GB RAM
  • GeForce GT740 2GB GPU
  • 250GB SSD

My rationale was that I wanted to be sure that the system was future-proofed in case I wanted to play more modern games on it. If you're only planning on playing games from the 1990s and earlier, a much more modest PC without a dedicated graphics card would likely suffice.

By my calculations, I spent around about £1280 (£885 for the electronics and £395 for the cabinet). Realistically I spent quite a bit more than that as I <del>had to buy</del> treated myself to several new tools like a router (a must have), a better drill (this one) and various other small hand tools which you may or may not already have access to.

Pictorial overview of the build

I started by marking out the outline of the cabinet sides. The string is for drawing a smooth curve.

Measuring up

I cut the MDF with a jigsaw. The reason there are three sides is that I fucked up the first attempt and had to start over. Once one side is cut perfectly, cutting the second is easy as you just use the first as a template. There's a spare sheet of MDF to the left - I went through a lot of wood on this project. One thing important to note when working with MDF - get a decent respirator/mask. MDF dust is nasty stuff if inhaled.

Two sides cut

As you can see, the base is made from a rectangle of 18mm MDF resting on four wooden battens. The holes were drilled with wooden spade bits and are for ventilation for the PC. Note that I'm countersinking the screws for later filling in with wood-filler.

Cabinet base 1
Cabinet base 2

I decided to split the back of the cabinet into two parts. The lower part (pictured below) is solid and contains ventilation for the PC and a hole for the power and ethernet cables to exit. I joined the holes up with a jigsaw to fashion the wide slits. The top half of the back of the cabinet will be a door to provide access to the PC and monitor later. By the way, the clamps you can see in the picture are excellent and I highly recommend them.

Back panel 1
Back panel 2

Getting the cabinet upright was a real pain in the arse to do on my own! The cabinet is pretty sturdy at this point. It's held in place by a combination of countersunk wood screws and wood glue.

She's upright
She's upright

Here's the panel to hold the car speakers I purchased. I used thinner 12 mm MDF for this. You can see the bad ass drill bit I had to use. It was easier than I thought.

Speaker frame

Fixing the speaker frame to the cabinet shell took a bit of fiddling to get it angled correctly. I was reasonably pleased with how it turned out in the end.

Speaker housing 1
Speaker housing 2
Speaker housing 3

Next up was tackling the T-moulding. This required buying a router. The picture below shows why you should practice first before attempting it on your part-built cabinet!

Bodged routing

Not a complete disaster. It doesn't actually notice when the T-moulding is in place. I did the edges of the marquee surround with a dremel later on. Below is the cabinet with the routing finished and a sample of T-moulding on to check it fits:

Finished routing

My made-in-China 10p piece coindoor arrived so I had to fit that. I cut a simple hole in a MDF panel with my trusty jigsaw. It's held in place with clips provided by the manufacturer.

Coindoor initial fit

Mounting the monitor was the next challenge. I made sure that the monitor I bought had standard VESA mounting holes and simply cut a thin panel of MDF and drilled four holes for the M4 screws to secure the monitor to the panel. Getting the support panel level and angled correctly took a little trial and error.

Monitor mounting panel

Thank God the monitor fits!

Monitor mounted 1

Here's the cabinet with the coindoor panel and monitor panels mounted. A blank control panel is resting on the cabinet and I've mounted a front panel with two button holes (for quickly coining-up players one and two).

Getting there

After spending an age sketching out where I wanted the buttons placed on the control panel, I settled on a modified Street Fighter two player arrangement. I later added dedicated buttons for exiting the emulator and moving backwards in HyperSpin as well as for pausing the emulation. You can see the freshly cut control panel resting in place below.

Monitor on

Wood filling done in preparation for painting:

Wood filling 1
Wood filling 2

Obviously I need to a way to access the internal components of the cabinet once it's finished so I opted for a simple door mounted on a piano hinge.

Backdoor 1
Backdoor 2

I thought it best to include a drawer so I could have a keyboard permanently attached to the PC in case I needed to fix a problem quickly.

Drawer closed
Drawer from above

Whatever you do, when painting MDF you must prime the material first. MDF is super absorbent and the paint job will look crap if you don't prepare the MDF before painting it.

Primed cabinet

Here's the finalised and primed control panel. Note the new button holes at the top for navigation and the player 1/2 start buttons.

Primed control panel

Pretty pleased with the paint job. I used a water-based satin finish black paint from B&Q. I applied most of the paint with a radiator roller and touched up the tricky parts with a small brush. Don't worry, I did finish painting the drawer!

Almost painted cabinet

Wiring up the control panel was a complete pain in the arse. I bought the excellent MINI-PAC arcade cabinet builders kit from Arcade World UK. It comes with a controller board to convert the switch activity to key presses, loads of buttons, two joysticks and a wiring harness. I ended up buying two new joysticks (these ones) because the included ones just weren't sensitive enough.

Crazy control panel wiring

Here's the finished control panel. The lighting is bad in this photo. I don't notice any odd reflections on the panel from the varnish when using it day-to-day.

Finished control panel

The car speakers I bought for the build were straightforwards enough to mount.

Speakers from behind

Here's how the coindoor is mounted. The mounts came with the coindoor assembly.

Coindoor mounting

From the front.

Coindoor front view

After putting the PC and a power strip inside and pushing the T-moulding in place, the cabinet was in a playable state.

Inside components
Cabinet in a playable state

So I moved it out of the garage into my study and played a little Street Fighter II. Obviously Ken rules!

Playing Street Fighter II

All that was left was for the final touches. I ordered two pieces of plexiglass for the marquee and sandwiched a vinyl sticker from Game on Grafix between them. I then got a piece of 5 mm black tinted plexiglass cut and mounted it to some battens in front of the monitor. All plexiglass was bought from (and cut to size by) Sheet Plastics UK. After glueing some architrave around the base of the plexiglass bezel and putting some vinyl on the sides, I was done.

Finished cabinet cabinet 1
Finished cabinet 2

Learning points

This project taught me a lot about general wood-working and tool handling. Whilst overall I'm happy with the finish, I definitely would do better next time. Here are a few things I wish I had done differently:

  • Routed the front of the control panel for a T-moulded finish
  • Mounted the speakers horizontally above the screen rather than angled as it would have made mounting the monitor plexiglass much easier
  • Put more thought into how I would mount the monitor plexiglass before I started. It's currently permenantly fixed in place which will make accessing the monitor difficult if it breaks
  • Drilled holes for flipper buttons in the side of the cabinet for virtual pinball games (I may do this if I can be bothered to get the control panel out)

I love my arcade and it's proving to be really popular with my new friends here in Torquay. In fact, my neighbour and his son were round over the weekend playing. I'm still working on getting my wife to give it a go - if anyone can think of a good game to start her on I'm listening!

If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments below and I'll happily answer them.