How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Build an Arcade

Last summer, one of my favorite pieces of equipment passed away. It was neither fancy or expensive, but I truly loved the tone I could weasel out of my VOX 15 watt amplifier. It was an import model, not worth much of anything, and had no analogue components.. I had just finished remodeling a Fender Jagstang, and the new pickups and amplifier seemed to get along perfectly. Ultimately, it's cheapness was its demise – the input jack slowly developed a short. In the end, the cost of repair was more than buying a new one. Instead, I decided to pay homage to my amplifier by turning it into something I had always wanted to try building – a bartop arcade cabinet. So now, in three parts, is the story......

The Brain

My fiancee had, years before, abandoned a Dell Inspiron laptop after the hard drive died. It was running a Pentium 4 with an integrated ATI graphics card. Not great, but powerful enough to drive MAME, and I liked the idea of being able to use all of the components of the laptop, keeping everything linked to one power supply.

As the hard drive was a goner, I needed to find a cheap IDE 2.5 inch drive, a task much more difficult than imagined. I was trying to build this thing for as little as possible, and didn't want to drop fifty bucks on a hard drive with lots of space that wouldn't be used. At this point, I had settled on using a variant of Puppy Linux as the OS, so I didn't need much hard drive space at all.

I found the best solution – a 4 gb CF card and a CF to IDE converter. I got both from Amazon for about twenty-five bucks.

The laptop only had 256mb of RAM, which I upgraded (a headache worthy of its own post) to one gigabyte.

With the memory in order, I took the whole thing apart and got rid of any component that wasn't used.

The Body

The amplifier was then gutted in the same fashion. Aside from the speaker, there really wasn't much going on inside of it. That being said, I found that cheap VOX equipment is assembled much better than cheap Fender equipment, or at least it was in the nineties.

At this point I got smart enough to start taking pictures of my progress, so I'll let those do some of the talking.

 The body, with drilled control assembly temporarily attached.
 The body, with drilled control assembly temporarily attached.

The Controller

Knowing nothing about arcade cabinets going into this, I was amazed to learn how many resources there are for this particular hobby. I initially thought that building the control panel would be the hardest part, but it turned out to be the easiest. You can import genuine Sanwa or IL arcade sticks from a multitude of sites, but the best bet is Lizard Lick Amusements. Based in North Carolina, they import the parts themselves and sell them direct from their website. I wound up getting an IL “American” style joystick, four Happ pushbuttons, two Yenox pushbuttons, and a Happ “1 Player” pushbutton for thirty dollars.

All of the controller parts need to be able to talk to the computer, and for that I found the best option to be the Ipac, a circuit board specifically designed for building your own controller for a PC. The Ipac is made by Ultimarc, a British company specializing in arcade machine components. As of now, they offer an inexpensive version of the Ipac, dubbed the “VE” for “Value Edition”. It sells for about forty dollars, which includes international shipping.

After all of this comes the boring parts, namely wiring everything together and then getting all of the software to work. I used a build of Linux called "Puppy Arcade", that is nothing short of awesome. So we'll cut to the chase.....

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It should be noted that while this machine is running an emulator, which some people find inherently illegal, there are a great deal of MAME games that have been released by their owners - and can be found here. I didn't build this thing in an effort to play smuggled games. 

I strongly advise anyone with some free time to consider building your own cabinet, as it was the most fun I've had in a while and was a lot easier than I thought it would be. I also discovered the value of "Gorilla Tape". Holy shit, that stuff is amazing.

All of these parts came together in the end to create a pretty cool arcade machine that sits on my kitchen counter. My fiancee is still coming to terms with this, but I'm sure she'll eventually appreciate it.

 I know I do.


   - Added this video of the machine working, and me not really working the machine. I added paneling to the sides and top of the body, and attached a trackball mouse to the right side.