Hii. I've recently been thinking about building my own MAME arcade cabinet, does anyone have any tips/notes from experience? Also a recommendation for a program that runs the games would be appreciated :) Thanks for your time.
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Emulator discussion is a bit of a grey area on this board in terms of moderation. We can discuss the fact that it exists, but providing instructions on how to emulate is a strict no-no.
However, a front-end isn't actually the emulator so I'll point out GameEx as a good arcade cabinet interface. It's at http://www.gameex.com. It's available for free with a bootup nag screen, but no other restrictions.
As for building the cabinet itself, you have several options. First of all, I'm assuming you know how to build a PC so I'm not going to get into that at all. Essentially what you'd be doing is building a PC into the cabinet in place of arcade machine hardware.
The most expensive option is to order a dissasembled cabinet online. This will usually run you about 1 grand just for the wood, so you'll still have to provide the PC parts, monitor, controls, etc yourself. Expect to spend around $1,500 to $2,000 if you go this route, which is still less than you'd pay for a pre-built cabinet and those will typically come with the lowest end parts possible.
The route that I recommend is to get a used cabinet online. Craigslist is the best route as opposed to something like Ebay because you'll typically find more local cabinets. Because of their size, shipping is prohibitively expensive. You'll want to figure out what kind of cabinet you want, first. 2 player or 4 player, full cabinet, cocktail table cabinet, "pedestal" cabinet, etc. This will depend on your preference and size requirements, but I'm a fan of pedestal cabinets and full cabinets. Also, I figure if you're going to go to all this effort, you may as well go for a 4 player cabinet as well.
Once you figure out what kind of cabinet you want, you need to identify a game that matches the cabinet style. You'll want to identify the monitor type in the cabinet. If it's a recent game, the cabinet may have a VGA monitor. If it's older, the monitor may be EGA or even CGA and may require some video card driver hacking or a special video card to work. Personally, I recommend avoiding this route for a couple reasons. First, any CGA or EGA monitor cabinets will have monitors so old they'll likely be near the end of their life. Even many VGA CRTs will be pretty dated these days. Since these are CRT displays, they'll likely have a lot of burn-in.
So, you can plan on buying a cabinet with a halfway decent monitor or you can plan on getting a cabinet for a dead monitor or no monitor and replacing it yourself with a new one. When I built my cabinet, I picked up a Gauntlet Dark Legacy game that was a converted Gauntlet Legends. It had an EGA monitor and I spent hours and hours figuring out how to get it working, only to discover that the picture quality and resolution was so low that I needed to replace it anyway.
There are companies that sell arcade machine monitors. One of the better ones is Wells Gardner and you'll find their monitors in a lot of arcade cabinets. Unfortunately, they stopped making CRTs a few years ago in favor of LCDs. I got mine just before they discontinued them, so I have a 27" Wells Gardner CRT monitor in my cabinet. The LCDs they sell are designed to fit inside the mount for CRT monitors, and arcade cabinets use a pretty standard set of mounts so if you get a monitor that's the correct size it'll generally work. Although Wells doesn't make CRTs anymore, there are probably other companies that still do if you really want that true old-school look. I'm of the opinion that if you want to play classic arcade games, CRT is the way to go.
Ultimarc is a company that makes arcade parts specifically for PCs. They make a video card that can run legacy monitors called the ArcadeVGA that's a modified AMD card. If you don't necessarily -need- this card to get older monitors to work, but it makes things easier and, if you do get a CRT, it lets you run older games at their native resolutions, no matter how low those resolutions might be.
The drawback to this card is it's not a modern 3d graphics card, so playing newer games on the cabinet will not work. I own one, but I don't use it in favor of a Geforce 8800 because I also wanted to play newer games like Street Fighter IV (yes, I have a Street Fighter IV arcade cabinet in my house that plays online).
They also make control interfaces. If your arcade cabinet uses a JAMMA connector, you can get a JAMMA board that plugs into a USB port on your PC and be done. Otherwise, you can use other control interfaces that you'd have to wire up yourself. This is the route you'd want to go if you want to build your own joysticks. I also recommend going this route, because if you look at all the different types of games you might want to play, you'll probably find that the arcade cabinet you buy will not be idealy set up for. For example, Gauntlet is a 4 player game with 3 buttons per player that uses psuedo-analog joysticks. I like fighting games, but Street Fighter IV with analog sticks would be horrible and 3 buttons is 3 buttons short of the 6 buttons required.
This company will build entire cabinets for you, or they'll custom cut invidiual parts like the arcade controls. I replaced the control board on my cabinet with one from here:
I purchased just the wood, which ran me about $150 instead of the fully assembled $899. I then built my own buttons, joysticks, trackball, etc into it and used this:
This is a standard microswitch controller, that turns microswitch inputs into keyboard keypresses. Basically what that means is my 4 player arcade controller is essentially just a fancy keyboard (including the joysticks, as standard arcade 4 and 8 way joysticks are basically just four "buttons").
There is so much more you can do with one of these, such as adding light gun support, spinners for "Breakout" style games, flightsticks for "Afterburner" style games, wiring consoles into the cabinet so you can play PS2/3, Xbox and 360, Gamecube, Dreamcast, etc games. My cabinet has a Core2Duo PC inside it, but also is capable of taking a PS3, 360 or Dreamcast so I can play all teh modern fighting games online.
That should get you started. If you have any specific questions, feel free to ask. I've intentionally avoided any emulation talk so as not to violate forum rules, so I won't help you out there, but anything else you might want to know I can talk about.