Building a MAME Arcade

Mar 08 2013 Published by under General, Technology


I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s. The golden age of arcade games. My best friend and I would hit up the various arcades in the surrounding town, and at 25 cents a game, I’d easily spend $10 for a couple hours of entertainment. My favorite game of all time, hands-down, is Tempest. In the arcades of the South Shore of Boston, I was the second best player. I could walk in to any arcade and get my initials on the high score board. Most often, after a few games I could get to the number one spot. Unless my nemesis had been there before me. Who this other person was, I have no idea. He (possibly she, but given the demographics of the time, most likely he) wasn’t amazingly better than me, but better enough to nudge me out of the top spot. I could usually get a number two spot though.

I was the guy people would stand behind and stare at in amazement. Granted, the only time I got such attention at that age was while playing video games, and only that particular one. I was pretty good at plenty of others, but Tempest was my forte.

Later years: Enter MAME

Well, time marched on, I grew up, arcades were replaced by home computers and XBoxes, etc. But I always remembered those old time games. Of course, I’ve installed MAME a dozen times and sought out various ROMs and had a good old time with them, but the holy grail of reliving Tempest was always out of reach. The problem was that Tempest requires a spinner. You spin the spinner to move around the screen and shoot the stuff that’s coming out of the tubes at you. There are plenty of workable Tempest ROMs for MAME, and Flash versions, and various copies. But moving around with the keyboard or mouse was an utterly lame experience compared to the real thing. A few years ago I went as far as getting a Griffin Powermate, thinking that’d work. No such luck. First of all, I was unable to even get it to talk to MAME successfully, and what I heard from those who had, was that it didn’t work all that well anyway.

Let’s just DO this

I most recently installed MAME while working on my Infiltration game, in order to get some Gravitar inspiration (another favorite). Of course, I gave Tempest another shot and had another bout of frustration. But this time I took it one step further and started to look into real game controls. Starting with these sites:

I came up with a list of vendors that sold game controls and various plans on how to put them together. I got a shopping list together from Ultimarc and bought some wood and started cutting and drilling. My plan was to first create an arcade control panel that I could just plug into any computer running MAME. Some people go all out with two- or even four-player control panels. I decided to start with a single player. I ordered a bunch of buttons, a joystick, a control interface, and the ultimate – a real arcade spinner.

The work


While I waited for the controls to arrive, I started preparing the wood. I bought a 2’x4′ sheet of half-inch wood at the local Home Depot. I cut a 1′ strip off the end to give me the 1’x2′ top of the control panel.



Ye olde workshop. (Yes, I keep a bottle of wine in my workshop. Don’t you?)



Control top.

Then I cut a piece of cardboard to the same size and experimented with some layouts, coming up with one I liked.



The plan was to have the joystick and spinner in the center, and three buttons on each side. Some games are all button based, like Gravitar or Asteroids – a pair of buttons turn you left and right and other buttons shoot, thrust, shield, etc. These are usually laid out with buttons on opposite sides of the panel. Other games are joystick / button based, and of course Tempest is spinner / button based. Generally, the joystick or spinner is to the right and controlled with the right hand and the shooting / jumping / action buttons are hit with the left hand. Thus, the main buttons are the ones on the left here. Then, on the top are the coin button and start game button (one player start).

That was about as far as I got before the controls arrived.

The controls are here!!!

The controls arrived on Wednesday of last week. Pretty quick considering I ordered on Satureday and they originated in London. I actually did not realize that when I placed the order with Ultimarc. But I’m VERY happy with what they provided, as well as the prompt service and quick shipping. Here’s everything:



Doesn’t seem like a whole lot for $200 something. But I have zero regrets.

What you see here are:

A. 7 gold leaf buttons. Actually I ordered 6, they threw in an extra green one.

B. A J-Stik joystick with red ball top.



C. A SpinTrak spinner. With a silver/red spin top and extra heavy flyweight. The weight gives it momentum. This thing will spin for a minute or more.



D. A MiniPac interface. With full wiring harness.



This lets you hook up a joystick, all your buttons, a spinner, as well as a trackball. You then hook it up to your computer via a mini USB cable and you’re good to go. It basically converts all the buttons and joystick movements into key presses, and spinner and trackball input into mouse signals. It’s set up out of the box to work with standard MAME inputs, but it’s also programmable so you could make any control send whatever signal you want. Here’s how you wire it up:



Took me two or three tries to figure it all out, but once you get the logic, it’s fairly simple. I could rewire the whole thing in five minutes at this point. The wiring harness is well worth it too – you just look up the color and hook it to whatever control it’s supposed to go to.

Alpha Test

My control panel wasn’t ready yet – no holes drilled or anything, but you know I had to see this thing in action. So I put my laptop down on the living room floor and started hooking up wires. Again, there were a few false starts, but I eventually got it at least partway functional.



Dang, that’s a mess o’ wires!

I grabbed one of the cardboard boxes that the stuff came in and cut a couple of 1 1/8″ holes in it. Stuck the #1 button in one and the spinner in the other. And fired up… Tempest! I wish I could describe how awesome that was and how excited I was, but you’d probably get really uncomfortable and click off to some other site. Anyway, playing Tempest with a real spinner, even if only mounted in a cardboard box was nerd nirvana. Several hundred times better than trying to make it work with a keyboard or mouse.



Here’s my daughter Kris getting her first taste of Tempest. She likes.



High tech.



Now you’ve seen my slippers. Feel like you know me better?

As for the joystick, I got that wired backwards AND upside down the first time. After switching all the wires I realized I just could have flipped the thing 180 degrees. I didn’t mount that in anything, just held it steady while Kris got her first experience with Space Invaders.



That’s the look of pure retro joy. Take THAT, Wii!

Making sawdust

Thursday night’s project was to mount this thing in the real control panel. Based on my cardboard plan, I marked out where I wanted all the holes to be.



Then drilled some starter holes.



Then used a 1 1/8″ spade bit to cut out the final holes.



Conveniently, the buttons and the spinner both fit in the same size hole, and that works well for the joystick as well.

Started mounting the components.



And wiring things up in back.





Here’s the frame for the sides.



Right now, the top sites loosely on top of the frame, but I glued some blocks to it so it doesn’t slide around.



Then put the bottom onto the frame and drilled a hole for the USB cable.



A bit of cable management.




And we are good to go!




Yeah, there’s one button missing, but few games actually use all 6 anyway. Originally I ordered 6 buttons thinking of just the 6 player buttons. I can still control MAME, enter coins and start using the keyboard. But when the extra button came, I decided to skip button six for now and implement the coin and player one start buttons on the top. I’m ordering some more buttons anyway – I’ll probably add a pause, reset and select at least.

The cabinet itself is completely unfinished at this point. But we’re having a blast with it. It’s amazing seeing my wife get into it as much as she is. She grew up in the same time and who knew she knows various Space Invaders strategies. She even mentioned some by name. Daaaaamn! The woman is geekier than she lets on. And it’s really awesome to see Kris discovering and enjoying the games that I grew up with. Anyway, I’ll eventually get around to sanding it down a bit and will probably just stain and shellac it. I’m already looking into project number two, which will be a standalone mini table top arcade cabinet, something like one of these. And if that goes well, I might even attempt a full size two-player model.

6 responses so far

  • felix says:

    Super sweet! You also need to get a big old CRT monitor for the a true recreation. A few years ago I bought the Hotrod joystick, which is proper arcade controls for mame, but they now appear to be out of business.

  • Robert Hall says:

    Looks great Keith – love it! Nice article – very cool to see your wife and daughter get into it as well. Something about the feel of those buttons, joysticks that takes me right back to a couple of my favorites: Moon Patrol, Rygar, Elevator Action and a couple others. Glad to hear the spinner control works so well. Any affinity for the old light up trackballs like in Crystal Castles and Centipede? Heard they don’t always work as well with mame as they did in actual hardware but that was several years ago. Thanks for sharing – love this kind of stuff. 🙂

  • Josh Tynjala says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Keith. That look like a lot of fun!

  • Bill says:

    Excellent! I’m a MAME junkie myself and I love arcade nostalgia so much that I bought a full size upright Spy Hunter which resides in my office. I chose that one because, as you found out, there is no substitute for playing the game with the original set of controls!

  • nicholas says:


    I built a cab with a trinitron TV screen and am wondering why there are vertical lines moving, its killing the eyes on some games.

    it does the same thing on the windows OS so its not mame related, more hardware/compatibility, could it be refresh rate related????

    Any thoughts would be massively appreciated.

    Thanks in advance


  • nicholas says:

    Ballsed up my email, leave a comment on the youtube vid if you know how to get this problem sorted.

    Thanks in advance