Build a fully working Retro Arcade Cabinet on a small budget

Many of us (geeky people) in a certain age group (roughly around 30-50 years old) spent considerable time (and money) at a front of some sort of arcade cabinet during the 80s/90s, some kept going even maybe after. I, for one, remember fondly for “sneaking” into terrible looking pubs during the 90s as a young teenager, just to throw some money into a usually weird arcade machine. I frankly was totally rubbish in most of the games, but for some reason I loved playing them regardless. Maybe because I had to spend (part) of my pocket money, I don’t know…

Fast forwarding time to the present, rapid technological advancement means we have access to almost all of those childhood arcade memories. Besides of the countless retro game collectors out there, companies and enthusiasts are churning out remakes and emulators to enable to relive the nostalgic excitement playing some of the old pixelated action games.

If you are an avid DIYer, like me, there is a fantastic software initiative, called the “Retropie” which can use the little computer/ microcontroller Raspberry Pie, to run a retro game emulator. It gives you access to almost all the arcade and console games ever been produced. But, but, but what about copyrights? Well, the platform is just a platform which enables you to run ROMs. You have to source your own so-called “ROM”s, which are the game software. These ROMs can be acquired from various places, they are for preserving the history of gaming and computing. It does not take a lot to find the appropriate websites, where most ROMs or ROM collections can be downloaded from.

Installing all the software can be a bit tedious and at times frustrating, but there are a lot of good descriptions on the net about it, I will not cover the installation process here. If you have a bit of experience in playing around with computers, you will be OK. I am not a software engineer either….

There are numerous versions of Pie based retro consoles which can be build from scratch, from a kit, you even can buy readily assembled ones. After deciding whether you want a console/ handheld recreation, a small tabletop or a fully fledged arcade cabinet, choose your build option based on your skills, tools and available materials.

I had a lot of different parts, bits & bobs already. My plan was to use as many parts I can from leftovers and only buy anything if that is absolutely necessary for the build and I cannot use an alternative solution. That approach is for the brave and for the creative only as the result although is fully functional, aesthetically cannot be compared to a professionally produced one (for a couple of $$$$, may I add). Although I quite like the DIY charm of my machine.

Here is the BoM (Bills of Materials) for my own build. I make a note about each item, and where I have sourced the parts from, there will be some pondering and conclusions made about some of the items.

  • The cabinet:
    I had several wood sheet materials (such as like a large presentation board, a dry pen white board, some other random OSB and Plywood).
    I have worked out the dimensions on paper first, such as how much room there will be for the two players, etc.
    I wanted to build a full scale (in fact, it is slightly bigger than full scale) machine, totally ignoring the size of our house…. Work out all aspects of the cabinet, how you want your button layouts, shape of the cabinet, etc. make a lot of drawings and sketches.
    You can buy ready-made plans, which makes the build far easier – nothing wrong with that option, but I enjoy the creative process.

    If you have access to proper tools, like a CNC or a large space with a decent router set up, it is entirely possible to achieve great quality after your own design. I have used a hand held circular saw and a jigsaw (mainly because I cut everything on a garden table). The result, well, it is not super accurate to say the least, but for the purpose and considering that I am building out of waste, it turned out to be OK.
    In retrospect, I would size it a little bit narrower, but there is no way I will alter that. The next one maybe…

    You might be worried, how stable your machine will be for furious gaming. This cabinet weights nearly 40kg as the panels are very dense, thick chipboard style boards. It really depends on what material you are using (for weight) and how good is your woodworking skill.

The Computer – a Raspberry Pie

I already had a Raspberry Pie 3+. It is a great little machine, I have made a smart tv box (KODI) out of it before, but streaming is king, so we have not used it for a while. I would actually aim for the latest RPI 4, as the 3b+ one really has its limits. SNES and SEGA equivalent is running smooth, GEO NEO is running great, MAME is running with only a very few ROMS. I would not go anywhere near to earlier PIEs or the Zero or the Banana ones. Unless you want to do an early handheld console remake. The best, but the most expensive and complicated solution is a built-in dedicated PC (nothing fancy, an average, few years old office pc should be OK, although emulators are using CPU power, keep that in mind when selecting a PC). I might upgrade to that at some point.
You might have come across “Pandora’s box”. I never had one in my hand, but I believe it is a retro arcade ecosystem, developed in China. Basically, it is a box which contains an RPI/ small PC with audio amplifier, monitor port and ready flashed software. IMO it takes the DIY out of the project. However, if you want to save a ton of work, that might be a route to take.

The monitor:

I had this CIBOX pc monitor for about 15 years, it was put away in the loft in the last fair few years. So that was also a free item. You can use any monitor or a TV set you like, however some modern TVs will not display the correct screen ratio. Test your screen if you plan to use one of your own. The cheapest solution if you are buying, is to try to get an old TFT monitor. Maybe a CRT monitor/ TV if you want to be really authentic and like challenges…
There are a lot of options for mounting your monitor, I have built a mount out of two heavy duty right angle brackets and some wood. The easiest option would be to get an appropriate wall mounting kit for your screen.

The Controls

I have bought a “Retro Arcade Joystick set” which included two micro-switched (that is what you want for maximum simulation) joysticks, 16 buttons and four service buttons (for start, select, coins, whatever). A budget kit costs about £40, and you can find them pretty much anywhere online. I guess retro arcade cabinet building must be a really popular hobby nowadays.
I have bought a pair of retro controllers, kinda like the ones Super Nintendo had at the time. I have these controllers tucked away at the back of the cabinet, when I fancy to play some Nintendo / Sega action these are better than the arcade joysticks.
Lastly, I have got a little wireless keyboard already, because the RPI is a computer afterall, and well, sometimes you need to do computer stuff on it (the software maintenance is far more easier obviously with a keyboard

The Sound

I have a soft spot for sound and I think no arcade cabinet recreation should be build without being capable to be unnecessarily loud, in order to replicate maximum arcade place feelings. I had an active Logitech 2.1 PC amplifier and speakers, which I was not using any more. I have gutted the whole thing, only kept the little speaker boxes, the bass speaker cone and the electronics. It sounds awesome. It also has separate volume control and a headphone jack!
One little advice on RPI and the 3.5mm jack. That port is doubled up as RGB + Audio out signal source. Therefore, if you only use the audio you might have to pull the plug back a bit, so you are not hitting the RGB signal. If you want to use an older TV/ monitor, this is a great feature of the PIE btw.

The Power

There are a lot of considerations around the wiring. I have decided to use standard wires for everything, IE I did not hot wired everything together, saving work, but loosing sophistication. There is an extension lead, everything plugs in it and this is the source of power. I will put a main switch on it at some point.

Things I have learned through the build

  • Cutting the cabinet with a jigsaw is doable, but it is difficult to achieve a good result. I never actually figured out how to use a jigsaw, even remotely accurately. Regardless, this project proves that things can be done with less than ideal tools. The two sides of the cabinet are annoyingly not the same….
  • I had the idea of plugging all the controllers in, so I can just pick the joystick, or the controller. This solution does not work very well, I ended up unplugging the kind of controllers I don’t need. Besides, the RPI 3 only has 4 USB ports and I like to use one for the wireless keyboard.
  • Not all arcade controller joystick kits are equal. I am not sure if I like mine, it feels too loose. Maybe it can be adjusted, I have not looked yet.
  • If you play NEO-GEO, it does not matter where you assign the joystick buttons in Retropie, the layout will be
    NEO-GEO’s own arcade style controller layout.
  • Retropie’s hotkey button is an utter pain as of, it is always in the way, easy to accidentally push it while I play. Besides, do not forget to set the “hot key” button, because otherwise you will not be able to ext the games without restarting the PI.
  • Making your own ROM collection is a good idea (especially for NEO-GEO and MAME), but unless you set up an emulator on your PC, it is a tedious process. The ROM file names are an abbreviation of the actual game names, so when I make a list from my game library, many times have no idea which file is corresponding to…
  • I don’t know what double-sided tape is for, because it is not for gluing.
  • I need a workshop.

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