In my youth, home systems were great, but nothing beat the experience of going to an arcade. Games were bigger, louder, generally controlled better, and it was also somewhat of a social experience. I met quite a few interesting people in my time as a mallrat who made Aladdin's Castle my base of operations, taking on all comers as I defended my turf on the Street Fighter 2 Turbo machine.
As we all know, arcades fell by the wayside as home systems became more capable, and online gaming replaced the social aspects of arcades. However, a part of me died as arcades all but went extinct. It was such a huge part of gaming culture as a kid and teenager, and then they were just... gone. Even though arcade bars are surging in popularity, it's hard to find one that has a good selection of machines in proper working order. Plus, I can't share that experience with my kids, as they're more adult oriented.
Of course, emulators have been a thing for a long time. I remember first playing with the MS-DOS version of MAME back in the late 90s and thinking how cool it was to have a close enough to arcade perfect experience playing Donkey Kong and Ms. Pac-Man on my PC. Ever since then, it's been a dream of mine to build a multi-system arcade machine and emulate all the things. I finally started making a move on this two years ago when I bought a set of Sanwa clone sticks and buttons along with a USB encoder on an Amazon lightning deal. This, along with a Raspberry Pi I had already been using as an "all in one" emulation box would serve as the guts of the arcade machine I would eventually build.
Or so I thought. There was still the minor problem of me not owning any wood-working tools, or having any wood-working skills. I'd sketch out ideas - at one point I had a design for a really cool looking cocktail coffee table - but as I'd take stock of what I needed to make these designs reality, I'd become dejected. It would either require a lot more craftmanship than I was capable of, or a lot more money than I wanted to spend getting someone who could do the work for me. I looked into ready to assemble kits with pre-cut components, but finding one that looked good and wasn't prohibitively expensive just never worked out for me.
So the home arcade idea sat on the back burner for a while, until Arcade1Up came onto the scene. Sure, they weren't a full sized arcade machine, but I was confident that if I got my hands on one, I could make the most of it and mod it into the machine of my dreams. They were easy to put together, had a screen that fit in the cabinet properly, and plenty of people had the same idea, so there were a lot of helpful resources in getting started. Finally, I felt like my home arcade machine was within my grasp.
I just needed to decide which machine to buy. The intial cabinents were a pretty slim selection. I knew my main requirements were that I wanted to be able to play Capcom fighting games, and I wanted to avoid having to drill additional holes to add more buttons. Given that, it pretty much meant I was going to have to go with the Street Fighter 2 cabinet. I pre-ordered it from Wal-Mart and sat back and waited.
And waited. And waited. For some reason, my pre-order kept getting delayed. Then finally - about two months after the units lauched, Wal-Mart inexplicably cancelled my order. By this point, it was hard to find certain machines from this initial wave, and they commanded high prices on eBay and other 3rd party sellers. Arcade1Up did release a Mortal Kombat machine, which I had actually considered getting. But wasn't a huge fan of the button layout for MK - it had the 2 punches and 2 kicks, with the block button in the middle, and the run button for MK3 off the lower left. I didn't feel like that would translate well to Capcom's typical 6 button layout, whereas the reverse wasn't necessarily true. So again, I kept waiting.
Arcade1Up released another set of machines late last year, one of which was a Marvel Super Heroes cabinet. This was pretty similar to the SF2 cabinet they had released previously, but with a slighty better screen and speakers. Since this was released around the holiday season, I decided to wait and see if there were any good black Friday deals on it. There were a couple, but by waiting till the week that, I was able to get a great deal. The Wal-Mart near me actually slashed their prices on all arcade1up cabinets even further that week to clear space. So, I got my Marvel Super Heroes cabinet for $200. I put it together after work and put it through the paces.
Thestock games included were the aftoremetioned Marvel Super Heroes, and X-Men: Children of the Atom, two great licensed fighting games that ran on Capcom's CPS-2 system boards back in the mid-90s. They were basically Street Fighter with Marvel characters, but this was during Capcom's golden age of fighting games - they pumped out several SF inspired clones with slightly different characters and nuances, and I believe they all turned out quite well. Rounding out the three game collection was the Punisher, which was pretty much Final FIght with Frank Castle and Nick Fury kicking ass and taking names.
I knew from the beginning I was going to mod the unit, but I wanted to play the base games with the built in controls to get an idea for how everything felt. And the stock controls were okay - everything was responsive enough, but they still didn't feel great. I measure controller functionality in a fighting game by how consistently I can pull of a dragon punch motion. Admittedly, I was a bit rusty, but I found I was only able to do it about 60% of the time with the stock sticks. I was definitely going to be swapping those out.
Like I said, I had already purchased some sticks and buttons along with a USB encoder - the control board that the sticks & buttons would plug into, and would then act as my contoller/gamepad on whatever I was using to run the games on. I finally wired up what I had bought years ago and started testing them - I found they weren't that much better than the stock arcade1up contols. I decided to bite the bullet and go ahead and shell out for actual Sanwa sticks - sometimes you just need to stick to the name brand.
Two sticks set me back $20 each, roughly. I also decided to buy a set of octagonal gates for the sticks - I had played around with both 4 way mode and 8 way mode with the gates I already had. In doing a bit of research, and knowing the style I like to play in fighting games, I felt the octogonal gates were a better fit for me. So that was another $9. So far, I had sunk a total of about $250 into my arcade modding adventure.
The Sanwa buttons were also just a bit larger than the buttons the arcade1up came with. Again, I didn't want to do any cutting or drilling - I wanted to keep everything as close to stock as possible. In doing a little more research, I found that Happ microswitch buttons fit perfectly. Two sets cost me $20 total, and I needed to buy the necessary wires to plug them into my controller board, so that was another $10.
I knew I would need a new LCD controller board - this is the part that allows you to plug in a computer/pi or what ever you're running your games on into the arcade1up's LCD display. Another option would've been to replace the included LCD screen - if I had bought the SF cabinet, I probably would've gone that route. But quite frankly, I'm happy with the MSH LCD display for the time being at least, so I went ahead and bought the LCD controller - $26.99 on Amazon - and stuck with the stock display.
I knew I was keeping the stock speakers, but figured that the rewiring job I was going to do was going to force me to dump the built in power button and volume slider. Because of that, I'd want some way to control the volume externally. So I bought an amp for $10. The cables I would need to go from the amp to the speakers and the amp to whever I was running my cames from were about another $13. So now I was up to just over $300 - about what a MSRP arcade1up unit would cost me.
My next major decision was what I was what I was going to use to play the games. In order to answer that, I needed to figure out what sort of games I wanted to play on it. I had planned to run pretty much everything from the MAME 2003 romset that I could, and have NES, SNES, GB/C/A, Master System and Genesis representation as well. Most of that would run on one of the Raspberry pi 3b+ units I had sitting around. But then I started thinking about a handful of games I had deemed must have, namely Marvel vs Capcom 2 and the Capcom vs SNK games. These aren't really emulated well in MAME, but the Dreamcast ports are just about arcade perfect. So I decided I was going to need to be able to emulate Dreamcast as well. And that's where the pi came up short. Some people say a 3b+ could run MvC2 well if it's overclocked, but then I'd need some sort of external cooling system. Running a pi well past it's rated clock speed and enclosing it in a box in my basement didn't seem like a great idea.
So I started looking at the recently released pi 4. It is much faster, and supports much more RAM than the 3b+ did. Unfortunately, the jurry is still out on whether it's enough to reliably emulate DC and other more advanced systems. It was also neary $100 after factoring in storage and other necessary items for it, so I decided instead to purchase a used Dell Optiplex 780 small form factor PC running Windows 10. The advantage of using a Windows PC is that it's much more powerful than a pi or any other small board computer. In addition, I can always add more RAM, or drop in a 3D video card at some point. Basically, it gives me a lot more options than a pi, and it only set me back about $90. At around $400, I had pretty much everything I really needed. Now it was time to start swapping things around.
All the modifications were actaully pretty simple. Everything was mostly a matter of plug and play, it actually took much longer to copy my ROMs over to the PC than it did to do any of the mechnical work. Plugging in the new LCD controller was simple, and wiring the sticks and buttons was straight forward as well. I installed Retroarch to use as my frontend, download the cores (emulators) I planned to used, scanned my ROM directories and started testing, running random games from all my various collections. Then I played Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo to see how good the sticks and buttons were, and they were fantastic. I was able to not only do the dragon punch at will, but I could even hit Zangief's spinning piledriver motion most of the time, something I couldn't do in the action arcade that well. Octagonal gates FTW!
As I went through the ROM lists to find games to add to my favorites, I saw a handful of games staring back at me that I'd never play on this hardware, namely light gun games. I got to thinking, why not? The issue is, all the orginal "light gun" type games relied on reflecting light back from CRT televisions to detect a hit. That doesn't work on modern LCD monitors. So just about anything that was going to be wireless was going to need some type of sensor. That lead me down the rabbit hole of using a Wii remote as a light gun. I did a bit of research and found that to be a viable option - I would just need a USB Wii sensor bar that worked on PC. So, I purchased a dolphin bar for $20 and even found a couple of Wii remote shells that were shaped like a pistol, with working triggers. So, now I have functional light guns and can play Area 51, Revolution X, and Duck Hunt with no problem. All told, I've sunk around $450 into this project.
The final thing I wanted to test was playing modern games on this setup. It would be nice to play Street Fighter 4 and 5 on actual arcade sticks, after all. The problem is the PC I'm running there isn't quite beefy enough to run either well. So, I installed the Moonlight game streaming client - which allows me to stream them from my main gaming rig upstairs using nVidia Gamestream, and voila - USF4, SFV, Mortal Kombat X, and anything else I own that my gaming PC has installed can be streaming to my arcade unit. I played a couple rounds of SFV online, and latency isn't bad all.
So that's pretty much the end of my little project for now. I recentlly bumped the RAM in my box up to 12GB from 4GB and installed Launchbox/Big Box to use as the front end - Retroarch is great from a functionality standpoint but the actual interface is kind of bland. But now I'm wondering what else I can/should do to make this even better. My success with Wiimotes as a light gun has made me look at other peripherals - should I pick up a USB dance mat for DDR? Is there some way I can get that Namco skiiing game I played back in the day to work? But I finally got what I wanted, and I'm able to share the golden age of arcades with my kids, so it's been worth every penny I've sunk into it.