How to play old arcade games with a MAME machine

Posted by matt on February 21, 2009

Ahh, arcade games.  Last summer, I posted my “What’s your top 1% video game“, and it got me thinking that I haven’t played too many games lately…

Over 6 years ago, I decided that I wanted to build an arcade cabinet that would play all the old-school arcade games.  While my MAME (Multi-Arcade-Machine-Emulator) machine has gone through at least 3 rounds of iterations, it has been out of commission for over a year (after some hard use at my last Karaoke party… kind of a long story).  Until last week…  I finally got around to putting in an old workstation that would update the CPU hardware for the first time in about 4 years and get everything else back working.

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been messing around with MAME for over 10 years.   Growing up in a 12-machine video game arcade at my parents campground in the 80s was a dream come true.  Today, it would be too hard to figure out which specific arcade game to buy, so in the 90′s when MAME came out, having the ability to play many games on the same machine had huge appeal.  How many is many?  As of early 2009, how about over 6500 working games!!

While there are many paths to going and getting one of these machines running, I’ll tell you what I did:

tankstick_sm2.jpg1) Controls ($200 or less) – Back in 2002, I purchased an X-arcade Joystick.  This is arcade quality, and if you just want to use MAME with a normal computer it works well.  If you plan on having a cabinet, a better way to go would be to simply buy the controllers and build your own board.  I ended up ripping up my X-arcade and put it in a custom board.  I’m lucky that my good friend Cory was able to make me a board and layout.  Check his modern arcades site for more of the cabinets he has built!

2) Computer – (cheap/free?) Many people have an old computer lying around.  The one that is usually in my MAME cabinet is what typically becomes of my primary workstation after I upgrade (typically every 2-3 years).  While some games don’t even work with the newest hardware, you can easily play over 4000 of these games with almost any machine.  Remember, these games are from the 80′s, so emulation of them isn’t that intensive.  The first computer I used was a 486 running Windows 95 and it easily played all the early 80′s classics like Galaga, Pacman, etc.  Today I’m using a middle-of-the-line Athlon 3800+ with 1GB of RAM and a 256MB Radeon HD 3450 video card which also works quite well.

lowerhell-MAME-Custom-Arcade-cabinet-by-Matt-Apps3) Cabinet – ($varies, mine was $175 delivered) The biggest commitment is the cabinet.  Rather than try to build my own, I went to a local games distributor and asked if they had an old cabinet.  They did, and I ended up with an old Zenophobe cabinet (it had been later turned into Combattribes).  If you know of a game vendor in your area, chances are they have old stuff around in a warehouse that can be had for cheap.  Check craigslist too.  You might find a working machine that you could convert fairly easily.

4) Monitor ($varies) – I used a computer monitor that doesn’t look the best in my cabinet, but there are a lot of options.  With LCD’s so cheap, taking one out of the case and mounting in a cabinet may work well for you.   You can probably get a CRT almost free these days.

5) MAME Emulator – It’s free, just download it.  This is the program that acts as the hardware for all the different games by using your computer.  It’s been in active development for over 10 years and continues to improve.   I use the MAMEUIFX32 as it has some features over the official builds (like high-score saving).

6) ROMS and CHD’s -  These are the actual games and use use the MAME emulator to play them.  While the copyright on many of these games has expired or the potential interested parties are no longer interested, you will officially be entering a grey area playing any of these games.  There are groups of individuals that have been around for years that will get the roms to you for cost of the media.  Doug Burton is one of these guys.  You also may also consider bittorrent. Please don’t ask me–I’ll just direct you to this post.

Recently, the size of all the games has grown astronomically with the addition of CHD (compressed hard drive) files.  I mentioned before there are 6500 working games (about 7500 total that don’t all work).  If you sort by size, the first 3000 games only add up to 90MB!  But they go up from there…  To get to 5000 games, you need 611MB of disk space, and to get to 7400 you need 17GB!  Finally, if you include a couple of hundred games with the CHD files, the archive grows to almost 150GB!!  Drive space is cheap these days though, so even at that size it shouldn’t be an issue.

Check this Youtube video of me playing M.A.C.H 3, an old laser disk came from 1983.  While emulating Galaga and Pacman isn’t that hard, MAME has come a long way to be able to emulate old laser disk games too.

Posted under tech gadgets, Video Games
  1. Quimby Said,

    The easiest way for me to get MAME would be to have YOU build me one!!! Now we’re talking!!!

  2. Ziggy Said,

    Crazy! Laser disc games now, too? I remember playing Mach III back in day.

  3. William Said,

    Do you have a build log of this Xenophobe cabinet? I was able to acquire one myself and am trying to turn it into a Mame cabinet as you did.

    Thanks!

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