Building your own arcade games machine – the ultimate geek project?
If your love of computer games extends back past the current generation of consoles and handheld gadgets then there might be a room for DIY arcade machine in your home.
While the mobile revolution has forever changed the face of gaming, there’s a lot more to computer games than Flappy Birds and 2048. If you spent your youth pumping coins into arcade machines or playing the old-school consoles then it might be time for you to revisit the classics.
Retro gaming is one of those hobbies where you can spend as little or as much time and money as you like. It’s also one of those hobbies which lets you roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty if you’re keen to tinker. While it’s best to start small, a full-blown cabinet or tabletop arcade machine running the likes of Space Invaders and Pacman might make a good long-term project.
Don’t rush into a project like this, the planning phase is the most important to avoid expensive and time-consuming mistakes further down the track. As with any major IT project, the first steps are to evaluate your needs and get buy-in from the major stakeholders – the people you live with.
Think about the games you want to play. Are you pining for Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment System or Ikari Warriors on the Commodore 64? Perhaps Pitfall on the Atari 2600? Or do you want to go back further to the glory days of Asteroids and Galaga, enjoyed on arcade machines in fish and chip shops across the country?
If you’re chasing old console games and you can’t get your hands on the original hardware then you might look to an emulator, which is software that can mimic an old console on a new computer.
Finding the right emulator takes time and you might need to experiment before settling on the best option for your needs.
As a starting point, check out Stella for the Atari 2600, Snes9x for the Super Nintendo, Kega Fusion for the Sega Genesis and Vice for the Commodore 64. Try MAME if you’re looking to emulate old-school arcade machines.
The next step is to think about the hardware you’ll need for this project. It might be as simple as installing emulator software on your current computer, or perhaps an old computer that you’re ready to repurpose. Alternatively you might think about running it all a on tiny computer such as a Raspberry Pi. If you’re to going down the Raspberry Pi path, you’ll find that much of the hard work is already taken care of thanks to downloads such as RetroPie.
Now you’ve got the heart of your retro games machine, the big question is how do you want to put it all together? Are you happy to simply sit an old PC next to your television, or do you want to go the whole hog and drop the hardware into a cabinet or tabletop-style arcade housing? For bonus points you might even test out your woodwork skills and build the housing yourself, or perhaps drop a screen into a coffee table for something a little more lounge room-friendly.
This raises the issue of controllers. If you’re building an arcade cabinet and not afraid to get technical then you might wire up a joystick, buttons and control board from scratch. If this sounds a little daunting then you could look to USB joysticks or even wireless handheld controllers – ensuring they match up with the types of games you want to play.
Around about now is a good time for a reality check. Where will this machine live and who will play it? While you might be dreaming of a six-foot tall arcade cabinet to sit in the corner of the lounge room, do your loved ones share the same enthusiasm? A little compromise might be called for in order to keep the peace. This is where a tabletop-style arcade machine might be more practical – something you can easily move out of the way or even convert into a standard coffee table when it’s not in use.
At this point you might be forced to go back and reevaluate some of your software and hardware choices to fit your design constraints. This is why it’s so important to think it through, investigate your options and plan ahead rather than leaping in head-first and looking back at your mistakes. Rather than knocking it over in a weekend, building your ultimate games machine might be that long-term project you’ve been looking for.