Mame Cabinets – Things learned thus far

Blk and FroggerWe’re about halfway through the whole Mame project hullaballoo, so, since I inflicted my Mame cabinet on Ubercon a week and a half ago, it’s really only fitting I take a few minutes to contemplate the lessons learned so far.

First and foremost, I have no regrets embarking on this whole rigamarole. It’s been a tremendous amount of work, but it’s work that’s resulted in something tactile. I can point to the cabinet and say “See that? I built that. And those folks gaming on it? Yep, they’re enjoying themselves because of my handiwork. Rock on.”

That’s not to say the path hasn’t been without it’s bumps and bruises. None of the decisions I’ve made so far are gruesome enough to regret, but it’s certainly time for a bit of reflection. Lets see what’s working, and what isn’t.


Lets start things out on a positive note. What’s working?

  • Xmame
    Because I’m using an older version of MythTV on deathstar, I’m still using Xmame. In the retrogaming world, Xmame is a dinosaur. Most serious Linux-runners have moved on to SDL-mame, which is more up to date and has had some wonderful work done to it. Having said that, Xmame has behaved swimmingly for running my games. I will certainly migrate away from it to SDL mame soon, but for the time being, it’s working great.

  • I-Pac from Ultimarc
    Originally I was going to hack in the console controllers using USB-based gamepads modified for the pushbuttons and joysticks. But after thinking about it, using a $39 iPac keyboard encoder seemed to be by FAR the path of least pain. The board arrived, and was up and running in no time. In the basic configuration, it’s awesome (and they even have a USB version now. Double-bonus).

  • Plywood
    I had my misgivings about using raw plywood on the cabinet. However, it’s working out remarkably well. Cheap, easy to build with, quick to assemble. Once the entire cabinet is done, I’ll sand, paint, and finish the surfaces so they’re less rough on the skin, but all in all, I’m pretty happy.

  • Panel layout
    I was very nervous about this one. I came up with my own joystick / button panel layout, after looking at various ones online. It’s not a massive variation from standard 6-button + JS arrangements, but it was also not from any known template. Single player and dual player gameplay worked just fine, with the joysticks and buttons and other controls all working the way they should, and players being comfortable with where everything was.

Needs Improvement

Since the project is only halfway done, what’s really on my mind are the things that don’t work so well. So here’s my punchlist of stuff I want to work on…

  • deathstar
    This makes me sort of sad, but I have to really take it into account. deathstar has been my all-around mythtv / retrogaming box for several years now, and it’s showing it’s age. It’s a mere Athlon 1400, and the larger games were not running well on it. That, combined with it being a full size chassis (heavy!) means that there are better options for the brains of the box. A new machine is really needed

  • Mythgame
    This is the component in MythTV that is used for playing retrogames. In theory, it has a nice GUI interface that allows basic menu navigation, even using the joystick and buttons. In practice, it works VERY poorly. Keystrokes were misplaced, the menus were hard to navigate, and searching through large game lists was nigh on impossible. There are several other Linux front ends kicking around on the net, it’s time to explore the others.

  • 4 way Joysticks
    I picked up the standard el cheapo 4 way microswitch based joysticks off ebay. They’re.. okay. I can feel the springs already wearing out on the left hand controller (it now has ‘slop’ in the neutral position). I’ll need to replace them with 4 / 8 way joysticks with a restrictor plate at some point.

  • Cabinet stability
    If anything pointed out that an arcade cabinet needs to be stable, it’s schlepping the whole thing to a convention and back, and letting others bang on it. The cabinet needs to be SOLID. The current incarnation is getting there, but I’ll need to pay more attention to stability.

  • Monitor size
    I used a spare 15″ LCD monitor, sitting on the cabinet, for gameplay. While this was ‘okay’,it missed a lot of the arcade experience. A 19″ ‘high mounted’ display, which I’m planning for the upper part of the cabinet, is definitely going to be the way to go.

All in all? I’m reasonably happy with the progress. I can see where I need to improve things, and see where things are working. I’m still playing games on it and enjoying it, but I also want to improve and expand it. All good traits, I think.


A wandering geek. Toys, shiny things, pursuits and distractions.

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