Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Chronicles of MAME

Back in November I picked up an old, gutted-out arcade cabinet off of some dude on Craigslist. The plan was to refurbish the beast and convert it into a MAME machine (the original post can be found here.) Now, four months and many 12-packs later, the transformation is complete.

* Note: you can click on any of the pictures for a larger view

The gutted cabinet

First let me tell you something upfront before I go any further: If I can do this, anyone can do this. I am an artist by nature but -- much to the chagrin of most people, even those who know me well -- that does not qualify me as a builder or a woodworker of any kind. I am pretty much the last person on earth qualified to pull this off. Almost everything that could go wrong... did go wrong. If there is a bolt to be lost or some wood to be cracked apart, I will most likely be involved. Even the simplest of tasks... for me they are an exercise in torment. It's not that I'm technically stupid (at least I'd like to believe I'm not), it's just that I'm really, really clueless when it comes to woodworking and assembling and it takes me forever to get it right. But by the grace of Jesus and baby Jesus this MAME thing all came together in the end. Again... unless you are truly, certifiably mentally retarded, you can do this because I am living proof. One nice thing to come of this should you take on the challenge of building your own MAME setup is that you will learn a lot about woodworking and all sorts of other shit. If you are planning a MAME project it is my hope that you will read this to gain tips and learn from my mistakes.

It has been a long and winding road but now that the smoke has cleared I'm pretty happy with the results. In this post I will detail the process I went through from beginning to end, complete with pics, links to some of the items I purchased and the total cost of goods.

The Journey Begins
After unloading the cabinet from the Craigslist dude's rusty POS van (parked behind a Taco Bell near Cleveland Hopkins) and into my garage, it was time to go to work. The cabinet was vintage, one of my favorites from back in the day: a 1980 Centuri Phoenix. Like a dirty old whore, there was no doubt this machine had been ridden hard and put away wet; cleaning her up was no easy task. When I removed the back panel I discovered insect carcasses and crud and god-knows-what inside. I also painstakingly removed a ton of decal residue from the two woodgrain laminate side panels using Bug & Tar remover (worked great btw). The sticky shit was all that was left of the original (and beautiful) Phoenix side art. I'd estimate clean up time at around 4-6 hours. The carnage is depicted below:

The light fixture for the marquee was pretty much shot

Layers of dust

View from the rear with the back panel removed

Once I had the cabinet filth-free I started sketching out my game plan. The only thing I knew from the very start was that I wanted this to be a decent quality one- or two-player MAME machine and my plan expanded from that point. I weighed a lot of options before committing or buying anything. Since I didn't feel comfortable with the idea of building a custom control panel from scratch, I decided to incorporate the X-Arcade Dual Stick control panel I had purchased several months earlier. I also planned to buy and mount a mid-sized LCD monitor (I hate those jumbo 25 inchers, they just look ugly to me.) More on that later.

The X-Arcade Dual Stick

After removing all of the screws, nuts and bolts and after stripping off the pitted and warped t-molding, I disassembled much of the paneling. I then sanded, wood-filled and primed the internal areas and -- with the exception of the two woodgrain laminate side panels -- all of the exterior portions.

When I sanded the black paint from the lower front panel (must've been three layers) I uncovered the original woodgrain laminate. I seriously considered leaving this panel unpainted since it looked similar to the woodgrain sides but I decided against it because the bottom was chipped so badly there was no way I could see myself being able to match the woodgrain. I ended up mounting 1x4's along the bottom perimeter to conceal the horrible gouges as well as the corner that appeared to have been hit with a truck. I gave the 1x4's three coats of matte black paint.

I sanded the living fuck out of almost everything...
this pic shows the bottom front panel

The bottom right corner had massive damage...
there was no way to seamlessly recreate the woodgrain
so I had to come up with a plan B

And because most of them were scuffed up I also removed, sanded and repainted the head of every single carriage bolt. There must have been fifty or sixty of these.

The Phoenix cabinet originally featured a single mono speaker which I would replace with two satellite speakers. I bought a ceiling fixture cover plate to conceal the 4" speaker hole. I then bored-out two smaller 2 and 1/2" speaker holes and mounted metal grates above them.

The large hole in the center housed the original
mono speaker for Phoenix and would soon be
concealed by a circular cover plate

One of the speakers, shown with grill

I carefully measured out, balanced and mounted my X-Arcade controls to the area where the original Phoenix control panel once was. I used eight steel L-brackets to make sure the sucker would withstand furious pounding from above.

The Monitor
My next challenge turned out to be the biggest of the project: what monitor would work best and how the fuck was I going to mount it? The entire mid-section of the cabinet was gutted... even the brackets for the original CRT display were gone... so how was I supposed to secure a screen inside? This was the most critical portion of the project; I knew that if I fucked this up it would derail the whole thing. I went after a 19" LCD monitor with an old school ratio of 4:3 because I wanted both vertical and horizontal games to display at a decent size. People say that if you look long enough you will eventually find some amazing deals on Craigslist and sure enough I hit pay dirt! Some dude was selling a $250 Samsung LCD that was only a year old and in near mint condition... for fifty-five bucks! I couldn't believe it!

The Samsung monitor I obtained is similar to this one

I decided I would bolt the monitor to a wooden platform supported by 2x4's -- which I pried off of an old beat-up bunk bed. First I removed the LCD from its stand. I then bolted a steel plate to the back of it and threaded three large bolts through that plate and through the wooden platform. The bolts were secured firmly behind the platform with washers and nuts. The entire platform, with the monitor attached, was secured to the left and right insides of the cabinet using four L-brackets. I strategically mounted the LCD platform at a slight angle and then attached L-brackets and Velcro to support a plastic bezel and Foamcore surround. You wanna talk about a pain in the ass? Ho shit, yes indeed this was. But it worked.

Something Rotten
The bottom panel was the only unsalvageable portion of the cabinet. It was rotted from what appeared to be water damage, so I replaced it with a fresh piece of 3/4" plywood and added leg levelers with the help of my son Doug.

We spent almost an entire afternoon working on this section because we knew it was important: this was literally the support base for the cabinet. Rather than buy each leg leveler component individually I purchased a kit from The Real Bob Roberts (Bob is a very stand-up guy by the way and I recommend him highly.) In any case, before attaching the leg levelers, Doug and I bored-out three vent holes with the hope that they would help to keep the PC from overheating.

Speaking of ventilation, I added another vent hole to the back panel so it would be directly in line with the exhaust fan on the PC.

After what seemed like an eternity, it was finally time to prime and paint the non-woodgrain panels. As recommended by many MAME builders, I used foam rollers and a couple of those wedge-shaped thingies to apply the matte black paint and it went on nicely. Three coats were applied.

Home Stretch
From this point it was a matter of tying up loose ends. I purchased a new light fixture from WalMart for seven bucks and attached it to the marquee area.

Some things I purposely left for the final phase, such as t-molding, outer hardware, the plexiglass and graphics, and the "gotta-have-it-or-it-just-ain't-an-arcade-machine" coin door. With regard to the t-molding... I needed special offset t-molding designed for Centuri cabinets and the only place that had it was The Arcade Shop. T-molding isn't that hard to install, you just have to take your time with it and do it six to eight inches at a stretch. It also helps immensely to use hot glue and a heat gun (or blow dryer). Try to get someone to help you with this. As you juggle the hot glue and heat guns it's nice to have a sidekick spool off the t-molding and keep it off the floor as you go. Again, my son Doug helped me immensely here.

The Graphics
I weighed so many options here. For the longest time I wanted to do that "big, bad MAME machine" vibe like so many others have done, maybe with the neon blue color scheme. But my mind kept drifting back to Space Invaders. There's just something about it that is so iconic, so bold. I ended up going for it. I would print out S.I. art for the front glass and marquee. And I would add that "moon" somehow. I really wanted that moon. I printed off the graphics and pieced them together between two sheets of plexiglass. For the moon, I spray-mounted a print out onto a piece of Foamcore and cut it with an Xacto. I then scored and bent it to create a base which I attached to the inside, behind the glass. This created the dimensional effect I was after.

The "moon" standup floats back behind the front glass

Limp Dick Or Full Power?
I had a shitty old PC and with some exceptions (anything more current than Street Fighter II) MAME ran fairly well on it. My plan -- almost up until the very end -- was to use that PC to power my games. Then one day I stumbled onto an awesome deal at WalMart... a very well-equipped, fast-as-fuck eMachines model for only $399! It was too good to pass up. At 2.7Ghz speed, the eMachine can handle almost anything thrown at it, including games like Daytona and Mortal Kombat 3.

The Relay
Finally, I added the speakers, a slide-out keyboard drawer, and a relay switch. Even though I had a power strip mounted just inside the coin door bay, I still needed a way to power-up the PC without having to get inside the cabinet. I asked my friend (and technical genius) George for advice. A relay switch was the answer. George got me the parts I needed and helped me wire it up to the power actuator inside the PC. Now every time I want to power-off or power-on the computer, all I have to do is reach up and hit the metal button on top of the cabinet. Works like a charm -- I highly recommend it to anyone thinking of building a MAME cab.

Before and After

The Tab
Gutted Centuri Phoenix cabinet: $25
Lumber and hardware: $60
Sandpaper, liquid nails, misc. materials: $20
Paint and brushes: $25
Leg levelers: $18
Plexiglass: $20
Monitor bezel: $20
Foamcore monitor surround: $5
Marquee light fixture: $7
Drawer glides: $6
PC power relay switch and wiring: $8
T-molding: $15
Coin door (new): $62
Power strip: $10
Speakers with subwoofer: N/A
HyperSpin front end: N/A
6,000+ game ROMs: N/A
X-Arcade DualStick control panel (new): $120
19" LCD monitor, Samsung, 4:3 ratio (used): $55
PC, eMachines, model ET1331G-03W (new): $399
External hard drive, 1TB (new): $60


Considering all of the games and all of the joy this thing provides -- and will continue to provide for years to come -- this MAME cab is worth every penny as far as I'm concerned. From a pure home entertainment standpoint this is one of the best investments I have ever made.

The black plastic bezel is held in place with Velcro
and fits perfectly around the edges of the LCD

A Giant Thank You Goes To:
• Keith for the front end and games
• George for moral support, technical advice, and that kick-ass power relay
• My son Doug for moral support and all of the hard work
• My wife Pam for supporting me and my (seemingly stupid and immature) hobby
• All the friendly cats on the KLOV boards for their very helpful advice and links

Hope you enjoyed the rundown. Take care and don't hesitate to post a message or shoot me an email if you have any questions! LONG LIVE MAME AND OLD-SCHOOL GAMING!!


  1. w00t!!!!!

    congrats man. this looks really good. Now you just need to spring for a custom Space Invaders control panel overlay and you'll be a rock star!

  2. Dude! That MAME cabinet turned out sick! I can't believe the before and after! LOL! Great job! I was thinking when I first saw it that it needed side graphics to liven it up but then I read that the wood panels are part of the Phoenix cabinet charm and so I get it.

    Very cool man

  3. Great job, but seriously get rid of the x-arcade.

    Everything looks great except for that.

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