Mame Cabinet delivered and installed

Installed at the office.Before I got sick last week, I installed the Mame cabinet into the rec room at work. Since we’re moving, it seemed like a good way to get One More Thing out of the house, and it would be nice to have the machine get some use.
Feedback from folks at the office has been really positive. The new Wah!Cade front end is quite stable and easy to navigate (though people tend to get confused with the “Pull up menu” and “Select” options). I had a problem getting the screen previews working, but ironed it out. Now people play 10 or so times a day. Yay!
I did hit one problem. The cabinet (now stained and looking pretty splufty), has no cooling in it. The little Dell laptop I’m running everything on had no moving air, and started overheating. It’s now sitting on the shelf next to the cabinet until I can rework cooling inside the box.
Now of course I’m considering the next rebuild of the controller panel. I do miss not having a trackball, and I think a set of switchable 4/8 way joysticks would be a huge win (I have 4 way microswitch driven sticks now, and they’re noisy. I’d love true 8 way, with quiet contacts, specifically for games like Robotron).
It does feel good to walk into the break room and see someone playing Galaxian or Ninja Gaiden or the like.

The weekend. Let me tell you about it.

So this weekend had me out to Ubercon down in NJ. All in all, things went pretty well. It was the second time I took Zach with me to an event, and he and blk’s son Justin had a riproaring time gaming, socializing, and geeking.

On a personal level, this wasn’t one of my banner events. It’s been a while since I ran at at-con registration of a reasonable size, and a lot of things conspired together to fail so that, by today (the last day of the con), I felt pretty down about my showing. Let me esplain. No, there is too much, let me sum up.

  • Mame – My MAME cabinet, which I’d been hauling down to Ubercon for now the third event, gave up the ghost last week. deathstar refused to boot, and I almost cancelled bringing the machine. The UC folks happily offered up some spare hardware, and I decided to bring the machine down. Early Friday morning I did an emergency load of Kubuntu 8.10 on a spare laptop, installed my MAME drive that has my roms in as an external drive, and configured up KXmame. The end result? Unstable, video modes not working right, and general bleah. I managed to keep it limping along through the weekend, but it was not the glorious, elegant machine of the last event. There needs be work here.
  • CONGO – Hardware – The server I use for events, ‘endor’, has been running faithfully for almost 20 events now. I’ve done one full OS reload, and for the most part it has been dependable as all git out. This weekend however some hardware twitches started to come up. First, the CMOS battery died, which causes the ‘things have reconfigured!’ message on boot. What I didn’t realize was it had also reset the dates, so that all the log entries for CONGO this weekend have a datestamp somewhere in 2006. This will require manual fixing. We also lost power twice due to a flaky outlet. The last bit was I attempted to cut back the amount of hardware I bring to events, and in doing so managed to arrive short 2 keyboards. Fortunately, Ubercon loaned me a pair so things were fine, but Grr.
  • CONGO – Software – For the most part, CONGO behaved appropriately and did all we asked of it. I’m itching to get v2 up and running, because of all the deficiencies I keep seeing in v1. But, the old tried-and-true still chugs along, and we cranked out hundreds of badges over the weekend.
  • Organization – I normally have a very competent reg manager running the event with me. This time, the normal Ubercon chap I work with was unavailable (due to health issues). While other folks helped man the desk (we were never short on people), not having an “In charge” Ubercon person with us really pointed out weaknesses in the process control in CONGO (things like cash drawer management).

Despite my grumblings, the convention was a success, and I think we did a bang-up job on keeping everything flowing nicely. I am utterly, 100% exhausted – the drives up and down take their toll, and caring for a 9yr old while running an event can be a bit taxing. Would I do it again? Absolutely, and will next year. For now, I’m going to go fall over.

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.

Mame Cabinet, continued.


Originally uploaded by eidolon

Well last night I put in some time to assemble the frame for the pedestal. This is the bottom third of the cabinet, and will contain the PC and other hardware necessary.

It’s pretty solid (and heavy) at the moment. Once I fabricate the front and rear panels, it’ll be ready for hardware to be installed. I hope to do one of the panels tomorrow before I leave for Ubercon, so it’ll hold up for the event.

This whole project has been quite therapeutic for me. It’s getting me to get up from behind my desk and go down and work in the shop. My shop is cleaner and more organized than it’s ever been, and I feel like I’m accomplishing something. On the one hand I’m looking forward to showing off the end product, but on the other hand, the travelling the road has been rewarding in it’s own right.

Of Systems and Services, Mame and Madmen…

It’s been a challenging few days here at Chez Geek. In true journal fashion, here are the highlights, because I know my devoted readers are sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting for every geeky installment of my daily encounters with recalcitrant hardware, misconfigured servers, and twitchy environments.
Of Mame
Mame console underneathOn Friday night I finished wiring the console. I’m short a half dozen buttons, so some functionality is missing, but I really wanted coin drop buttons. I picked up a couple small single-throw pushbuttons I had lying around, and wired them in with duct tape, so now I can ‘drop coins’ to get credits just by pushing a button on the console. Looks like ass, but it does work. I’ve ordered the new buttons, and they’ll arrive in a couple days, and I wanted to play games NOW.
There’s a whole post about things I’m learning regarding building a Mame cabinet, but that can wait. For now, I’m using deathstar, my MythTV box, as my ‘mame front end’. MythGame is “okay” as far as interfaces. Mostly it’s “okay” because it’s actually working correctly, and works with the controller. I’m hoping to haul the entire setup to Ubercon this coming weekend, so minimizing fuss is a big win.
Of Stonekeep and Conventions
Next weekend I’ll be down at Ubercon in New Jersey. This of course means I need to get most of the CONGO system up and running to run badges. Unfortunately, endor is not behaving. After almost 4 years of constantly apt-getting and updating packages on it (Starting from a Debian ‘woody’ install), a series of packages failed miserably during an upgrade (I haven’t really worked on it in about a year), and has left it in an unuseable state. I’ve backed the data off it, and reloaded Ubuntu Feisty Fawn on it. There’s a bunch of configuration that still needs to be done, and that’s making me nervous so close to an event. At least the install seems to have completed cleanly.
Those are the two primary things on my mind these days. Oh, and in the background is ongoing Java work and the slow moving ahead of Mosaic Commons, but that’s sort of the ‘steady noise’ bits. I’m just covering the highlights right now.

Mame project – Some more work done.

Tonight while Catya and Zach were off doing stuff, and after a frustrating afternoon of successfully NOT getting an LDAP server working, I decided to put in some time on the cabinet.
IMG_0855.JPGI needed some minor parts, so I went by Home Depot and picked up some basic assembly hardware (screws and some electricians bolts and nuts, etc).
Most of tonight was measuring, measuring, and re-measuring, THEN cutting… the pieces for the console ‘box’. This was a little tricky because it’s angled, but after screwing everything together, I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.
I also installed the second joystick and re-mounted the first one with the correct bolts.
I’m short a couple buttons, and I’m considering getting the trackball sooner than later. Probably off to an arcade supply store later tonight / tomorrow to quick-order some buttons.
In all the blogs, websites, and books regarding building Mame cabinets, one thing is said over and over again. Plan, plan plan. I’m really glad I took quite a long time planning, drawing, re-drawing, and sketching components of this thing before I started cutting wood. So far I haven’t had to ‘go back on’ anything, or re-think anything on the fly. Since everything is already measured out, the assembly is not running into any problems along the way.
Some minor geekynotes…
I have mad, deep love for Irwin quick-grip tools. These are one-handed rubberized wood clamps (or anything, really) that you can put in place very quickly. They hold things incredibly well, and since I work primarily on sawhorses for cutting, these things are awesome.
It’s funny also that my workspace is getting CLEANER the more I work on it. With my new tool cabinet, I’m getting things organized as I’m working. This is the most use I’ve gotten out of my shop space in a while, and it’s nice knowing where tools are and what I have and don’t have.
I may be able to start work on the base cabinet by this weekend. We’ll see!

A new project – Mame Cabinet

For several years now, I’ve been considering building a MAME Arcade cabinet. I’d been using the MythTV box for retrogaming, but I’m becoming increasingly frustrated with the limitations:

  • The MythGame interface is painful to use.
  • MythTV is such a moving target, keeping it updated and stable is very tricky.
  • Using USB based handheld controllers has it’s own issues, particularly when dealing with multi-player games (like Gauntlet).
  • Not having ‘real’ arcade controls, and a standup console to play against seriously takes away from the entire experience. I’ve found the large joystick and poundable buttons are necessary elements of gameplay

IMG_0817.JPGSo, the mame cabinet project is rolling. Buttons and joysticks were aquired from eBay. An i-Pac controller from Ultimarc, and things were started.
The control panel here is a test setup. Using some scrap plywood from the workshop, I’m testing out my button and joystick layout. I’ll build the entire panel from scrap wood, and put it together for playtesting. I’ve left space on the panel for a trackball (which, in the Mame world, acts just like a mouse. Very handy), as well as ‘additional’ buttons for coin drops, reset, ‘escape’, and other Mame functions.
Hopefully I’ll have this up and running before Ubercon, but chances are 50/50 of that. There’s a lot of wiring to do before I can even begin testing.
This comes after probably 4 weeks of planning and sketching, working out the dimensions of the cabinet, how it’ll be assembled, what controls I’ll use, and how the whole thing will be put together. One of the design goals is the ability to move the durned thing and take it to conventions and other gatherings, so it needs to be able to be ‘taken apart’ fairly easily. This console is set up to attach to the front of the larger cabinet, so hopefully it’ll be easy to move about when ready.
The one real question mark in the equation now is what Mame front end to use. Currently I’m sort of tinkering with KXMame, which is… “Nice”, but has some serious interface quirks. The page is showing no updates in 5 months, so I’m skeptical if I can go with it. The other big contender for linux-based Mame cabinets has traditionally been AdvanceMenu, which has quite a good arcade interface, but alas, has been end of lifed. I’ll continue searching. I do NOT want to use a windows-based front end, so that certainly limits my choices.
I’ll keep folks posted on how the build is going. So far Zach loves punching the buttons on the panel. I don’t think the 1/2″ plywood is going to hold up well for long term playing, but this is after all a test setup. It’s not expected to.