How To Build A Windows 8 Powered Mame Arcade Cabinet
I still fondly remember my father taking me to the neighborhood arcade every Sunday afternoon when I was a kid. That was our bonding time and something we still did even as consoles and computer gaming crept into our home. It’s something I actually regret not being able to do with my kids since arcades are now extinct. After years on unsuccessfully trying to convince my wife to let me make or buy a full size one I decided to just build a mini arcade machine that I could easily put in my closet when I was done with it. This post will walk you through how I took an iCade, a Windows 8 Tablet and some easy to get parts into a Mame arcade cabinet that my 4 year old and I now both love to play on!
First off I am only going to focus on the hardware part of this process. I don’t encourage illegally obtaining roms and there are a million sites out there talking about the software side of building a Mame machine. Also, I don’t do any soldering, everything here is easy to do even if you have no experience working with wiring but it goes without saying that working with electronics is dangerous so be careful. I’d also like to state that I’m in no way responsible if you break your hardware or hurt yourself. Use caution, this is potentially dangerous stuff.
Ok now that we got the legal stuff out of the way let’s talk about everything you will need and what it will cost you:
- ION iCade Arcade Cabinet for iPad $46.95
- Windows 8 Tablet: Acer W3 8” Tablet $269.00 + Shipping
- USB Joystick Encoder $10.88 + shipping on Ebay
- 2x Insulated Crimp On Quick Disconnect packs (Radio Shack 6403132)
- USB keyboard & mouse
- USB female to mini USB male adaptor (less than $5)
- Mini USB Hub (less than $10)
- Wire cutters & Pliers
- Small Philips head screw driver (not sure of the exact size)
- Security Torx Set (will need one for taking apart the control case)
In total this ended up costing me around $350 or so and took a Sunday afternoon to put together. It was also an awesome opportunity to teach my 4 year old how electronics work, the basics of wiring and get him excited about building something. Once you have everything you should be ready to get started. Let’s talk about why I went with the iCade case.
As you can see this is the iCade case. It is designed to fit an iPad and has a built in stand for holding it. I also did a bit of research online and was happy to find out that it uses standard arcade control wiring meaning it wouldn’t be very difficult to modify it to work with USB. The actual iCade is designed to work as a Bluetooth keyboard of sorts with an iPad. I originally thought of trying to get it to work as is with the Windows 8 tablet but from reading the developer docs it appears that the joystick sends out two sets of keys, one to signal if a button is pressed or released. While this works with compatible iOS games it will not be ideal for emulators on Windows. So we will be converting it into a self-powered USB controller.
Another important thing about the iCade is the amount of room in the back and bottom of the case that can help accommodate the hardware we will need to put in it.
Here is a close up view of the iPad holder. Luckily it can be unscrewed which means we will not have to do any drilling or dremeling on the case to run our wires.
The first thing we are going to need to do is take apart the case that has all the controls. This is relatively easy with the exception of the 2 security torx screws you will need to remove.
Once you open up the case you will see the control’s connections on the top and the Bluetooth module on the bottom. There is also a connection for the batteries and a small light to illuminate the face of the coin slot. Next it is time to start wiring everything up.
Here you can see I have the USB adapter laid out. It is relatively straightforward to get this working. Basically the controller board has slots for all of the buttons and a power cord. In this case the entire thing will be powered off of USB and we will make use of the joystick wire adapters on the right as we rewire everything.
If you take a closer look at the joystick board you will see some of the slots are already labeled for you. You can match it up to the following diagram as you connect things up.
The other really cool thing about this adapter is that it simply just works with Windows. You will not need to install drivers or anything else, it’s fully plug and play. It actually registers itself as a generic controller so it can work with any Windows app that supports joysticks.
Now you will want to start by disconnecting everything from the Bluetooth controller. As you can see there is some plastic melted on there to keep people from taking it apart. The plastic simply comes off by picking at it with your nail. Since it’s on the outside of the connector chances are good that you won’t break anything. If worse comes to worse you could always just snip the cables and reconnect them to new connectors.
As you begin to disconnect the wires, make sure you label them. It’s a simple step but something that could save you a little frustration in the end.
One thing you will notice is that the joystick itself was has the connectors soldered onto it. We will not have a problem but it’s something to point out. Luckily for us the buttons are not soldered on so you can easily pull them off, especially since we will not be able to reuse their wires.
Here is a close-up of the connectors. Simply pull them off one by one. The one problem we will have connecting them to the USB board is that the iCade case simply jumps the negative wire from switch to switch. Because of this the final wire connection is one plug and not compatible with our USB adaptor.
We will simply use the wires that came with the USB board kit so just put these wires aide. Once you have everything disconnected it’s time start connecting up the joystick wires to the USB board.
Before you move on you should connect up the power cable and test it out. The joystick is probably the easiest thing to test out. There is one slight problem with the button cables that come with the USB board, their connectors are too small to uses as is. We’ll need to cut them and add new clips. This is really easy.
Here you can see I cut off the old connectors, on the left, and the new larger ones are on the right side. Use a wire cutter to expose some new wire and pull off the rubber casing from the new connectors so you can rewire them. I got these connectors at Radio Shack but they only come with 5 female connectors in the bag so you’ll need to make sure you pick up two bags.
Once you have the wire exposed just put it into the back of the metal clip. For those of you who have never done wiring before let me explain what is going on. Red is positive and black is negative. Most people get this concept. The way this clip works is that it basically makes a solid connection to the button terminal. Think of the button as a simple on off switch, which is what it actually is. You press a button and it send out a signal, release and it cuts off the current. Basically you just need the wire to touch the metal part of the clip. The rest of the connection will conduct the electricity to the buttons switch and it works “like magic”. That being said this isn’t an exact science. Simply get as much of the wire into the clip as possible and clamp it in place so it doesn’t come out.
I do a first pass to get everything in place by putting the wire in and clamping it.
Next I go back over the connection and clamp down as hard as I can. When you are done there shouldn’t be any pull on the wires. The last thing you want to do is put this entire thing back together to find out a wire comes lose and you have a dead button.
Once you are done connecting all of the buttons to the USB adaptor you are ready for testing. I can’t stress this enough, test at every step of the way. This is really basic wiring but you may overlook something and the last thing you want to be doing is taking everything apart to find a problem.
Here you can see I have Mame loaded up and going through setting each of the buttons to make sure they work. I don’t really care what order I connect the buttons since I am going to manually be setting each button in the emulator. Just wire it up and make sure it works then you can spend more time later getting the exact configuration you want.
We are now ready to put everything back together. The new USB board is larger than the Bluetooth one so we will have to improvise. I was able to cram it into a space in the back right side of the case. It is a tight fit but the good news as that it sits perfectly and you don’t need to screw or glue it in.
Once you have the USB board in place you can put everything back together. There was another small problem I had which was the wire for the coin slot light was too short to reach where I ended up putting the USB board so I’ll have to modify that wire another time.
Once you are done you should now have a fully functioning USB arcade controller. Again, before putting the iCade back together make sure you test it out again. You’ll notice that I removed the iPad stand, which was held in by 4 screws and I was able to slide the rather long USB cord for the joystick adaptor back into the case.
So here you can see everything put together. While it’s not much to look at I have some plans on how to clean it up to make it look more like a finished project. Even right now, in its rough state, it was a lot of fun to build. It’s the perfect weekend project and I was surprised by how happy my son was to help me make it. There is nothing more powerful than teaching a kid how to make something. He now has a direct connection to the machine and its creation. I’m a big believer in empowering children early on and making them feel confident around electronics, computers and working with tools.
The last thing I wanted to talk about was why I chose a Windows 8 tablet. Originally when I was going over this with Stacey Mulcahy I ended up getting a Raspberry Pi for it. I quickly got overwhelmed with the options for choosing a monitor and the extra amount of wiring and configuration I needed to do in order to get this working. A monitor was looking like it would run anywhere from $100 to $200 plus I would still have to take it apart and then I had no idea if the joystick would work with the Pi. Plus you have to do a custom build of the OS and all that jazz. The Windows 8 tablet actually solved all of these problems since everything was built into the display, there is a touch screen so I don’t always need a mouse and finally it has its own built in battery to power the arcade joysticks and itself. Now this arcade is fully portable!
I hope you enjoyed this post. I want to do more physical computing projects with Windows 8. This is another reason why I get so excited talking about the platform because it just works and lets you do so much more with a full OS underneath. I also want to add support for my own games in this setup and do an HTML5 powered arcade installation somewhere. I’ll probably have to do a little bit of C++ hacking but nothing out of the ordinary from what I did to have my games support the Xbox controller. I’m looking forward to the kind of physical gaming stuff windows 8 opens up and I’ll be looking forward to all the cool gaming concepts I’ll be able to do with the built in support for 3d printers in Windows 8.1.
Also if you like the image I used for the post, make sure you check out DKNG and order yourself a print.