Summer of the DIY Arcade pt2: The MAME Cabinet & X-Arcade Tankstick

Presented by Dsheinem

In my previous entry, I discussed how I got the notion at the 2011 PAX East convention that it was high time for me to introduce some form of arcade gaming (beyond arcade sticks) into my home retro gaming setup.  My first foray into this – and something that would prove to be an incremental step – was the use of an iCade, a device that still has more promise than delivery, but which nonetheless offers an affordable and showpiece-worthy entry option into having an arcade cab simulation at home.  If anything, the shortcomings of the iCade would actually be its most important feature, as they motivated me to take the leap into building a full sized MAME cabinet.

Building a MAME cabinet can be pricey, but fortunately I had most of the important electronics already laying around.  Built around a 27” RCA CRT and a Home Theater nettop PC  (similar to this one), I was able to get the basic system setup and running long before I built the cabinet or even looked at buying parts.  I chose to go with a no-frills MAME frontend (MAMEwah) as I just wanted something basic and fast.  I tested all the hardware, used an old USB arcade stick to play with a few games, and basically made sure everything worked before putting it aside to work on the cabinet.

I have never in my life made anything from wood that was more complicated than a “CD Clock” when I was in 7th grade (about 20 years ago), so the idea of building a 6-7 foot tall by 2-3 foot wide MAME machine out of cabinet grade plywood was a daunting proposition.  I started with some easy things: I made sawhorses to work on, I bought several sheets of 3/4” thick plywood, and I started looking for a good set of directions.  I settled in on a set of plans found on http://www.arcadecab.com/, a site that had very good step by step instructions and became my bible throughout the cabinet building experience.  I then ordered and/or purchased all of the needed materials (about $300 worth) and worked off and on for about 3-4 weeks, carefully measuring, adjusting, constructing, fitting, sanding, priming, and painting.  Throughout the entire process I was constantly amazed with myself for not screwing things up, something which I attribute to careful planning beforehand (my dimensions were different than those on the site) and the inclusion of excellent suggestions and illustrations in the plans.  If you want to read more about the actual construction of the cabinet (including many more pictures), you should check out this thread in the forums.

Even though I had made a leap of faith in doing the woodworking, I didn’t feel up to the task of wiring up a custom control panel.  I also wanted to have the option of a control panel that could be removed and replaced with other kinds of controllers (more on that below), so I started researching pre-made CPs.  What I settled on was the X-Arcade Tankstick + Trackball.  For one, I had been frustrated by playing games like Centipede and Missile Command with a joystick on the iCade, and I wanted something with a built in trackball.  Second, I wanted something that would stand up to the rigors of my two year old son, who would likely begin abusing the cabinet the day it was built and probably continue to do so until he reached his mid-teens.  The Tankstick boasted durability and a lifetime guarantee, so I decided to go that route.  The folks at X-Gaming were nice enough to send me a review unit, and so in mid-August I placed the controller on the newly completed cabinet and gave it a whirl.

The X-Arcade is a very solid piece of hardware that feels weighty and well-constructed.  It does indeed duplicate the feel of many of the cabinets that you would find in an arcade, and overall my initial impression of the stick was that it was probably the best bat-style stick I had ever used in a home setting.  Not only did the stick and buttons feel responsive and well placed, but the additional buttons on the side (for credit feeding, menu options, etc.) and the ample room for wrist resting on the unit made it feel up to par with some of the best console arcade sticks I had used.  The X-Arcade’s standout features, however, were the trackball (which was even better than I had imagined) and the connectability options.  I built the cabinet with room for console hook ups underneath, and the X-Arcade supports (via adapter) many classic and modern consoles.  I gave it a spin with my Dreamcast (Cannon Spike and Zero Gunner), PS2 (Ibara and Tekken Tag), and my Gamecube (Capcom vs SNK EO and Ikaruga), and could also hook up an Xbox and PS3 if I were so inclined.  The stick felt just as responsive when playing these console games (many of which are not yet possible to emulate in MAME) as it did with the PC, so by going the X-Arcade route I essentially opened up a world of possibilities for arcade gaming.

My experience with the stick wasn’t all positive.  For one, out of the box the Player 1 stick kept getting stuck in a specific direction.  I had to follow a video guide on X-Arcade’s site to make an adjustment and have had no problem with “stickiness” since.  I have also found that the stick doesn’t always do a good job detecting new hardware when you switch it between consoles or between the console and the PC, and sometimes it requires a reboot of a system.  These concerns were ultimately minor though, and the stick is satisfying my needs well.  Furthermore, it is handling toddler use and abuse like a champ.

I also chose the X-Arcade because it is heavy enough on its own that it doesn’t need to be permanently fixed to the control panel shelf, and so I can easily lift it out and replace it with a pair of console arcade sticks (not that I’d need to), a steering wheel setup (something I have yet to try) or, as was my design, a Steel Battalion controller.

Hooking up the Steel Battalion controller and pedals to the cab is a remarkable exercise that makes you feel like you are genuinely playing an arcade-like experience.  The act of sitting on a stool in front of the cabinet while operating the pedals and controlling the sticks and other buttons on the controller t is something that anyone who can duplicate the experience should do immediately.  The cabinet works great as a MAME machine and gives me all the classic coin-op play I can handle, but it also doubles as a unique experience for playing some great console ports and original titles, and for that I couldn’t be happier with it.

The cabinet is now sitting in my “media room” next to the TV where I do most of my modern gaming and movie watching.  The ability to stand (or sit) at the cab while my family watches TV shows, while friends watch football, or when I want to get up on a commercial break is exactly the kind of experience I was looking for.  My son is already addicted to trackball based games like World Class Bowling, I have had late night Galaga and Guwange sessions, and my wife has bested me many times in Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo.  I still have a few minor things to do – I want to install a coin door (for aesthetics at first, maybe as functional later on) and still need to settle on some side art….but at this point those are minor concerns, as the vision I had at PAX East in the spring had been realized by the end of the summer, and I now have an arcade experience at home!

If you have had similar thoughts and want to know how to get going, I’ll be happy to answer any questions or offer advice in the comments below…

8 Comments

  1. Eddie says:

    I wanted to do something similar, but not as sophisticated. A friend suggested the X-Arcade set up but he just said to connect it to a big screen tv and have a computer with all the games emulated and there you go. I like your idea a lot more.

  2. david carrington says:

    First let me start by saying very nice cabinet.I,m a joiner with over 20 years in the buisness and are very pleased to see your efforts in woodworking.I think that making the first cut is so hard for most people.I hope you get hours of pleasure from your cab.I wish that someone on tv would do a program on this kind of stuff than just your regular diy.The ratings would go thru the roof.I,ve thought about doing an arcade cab myself but just never have the time plus it would be just like a day at work.A BIG WELLDONE!

  3. kbuzz says:

    I have to express my serious disapproval of that project. As you found out, X-Arcades are very poor for the money. The parts are cheap yet the price is not, and you end up with something that is more of an eyesore on a cab that had potential. I admire the efforts, I certainly wouldn’t try to build a cab. But I don’t understand why you would go to the trouble but then stop with the CP. It’s not hard to build your own with professional parts, and the results would be vastly superior to the X-Arcade.

  4. racketboy says:

    The upside is he can easily swap out controls, like he did with the Steel Battalion controller

  5. Fedexin says:

    Try pricing out all of the component in an Arcade Tankstick, and then the components needed for “professional” parts.

    – You’ll need a USB/PS2 interface for the trackball, and one for the buttons/joysticks, thats $80 from Ultimarc.

    – Then you’ll spend at least $1 a button/switch combo (on the very low end of the price scale), so there’s another $24

    – Simple joysticks, $9 each, $18

    – Trackball $70

    – Large piece of MDF, $10

    So now we’re at $202. This is before the cost of wiring, paint, and most importantly, any tools you don’t already have!

    I’ve personally created “pro” style MAME machines, and the cost is significant and should not be ignored. My FIRST project used an Arcade Tankstick, and I’d recommend it to ANYONE looking to get into MAME. Also, they’re now having a sale so the thing costs $150 right now, and they guarantee all the parts for life. I shorted out their interface board and they sent me a new one, no questions.

  6. Yaniv says:

    I’m so satisfied with my X-Arcade stick! it’s just perfect for me, I can play alone or with a friend, connect it to PC for use with MAME and other games\emulators or plug it into a console (PS, PS2, PS3, DC, GC, Wii, Xbox360 and more possible)!

    Very recommended, I know that in the future when I’ll have more place for it, I will build a cabinet for it! 🙂

  7. jillian says:

    Candy cab or gtfo

  8. crux says:

    Candies aren’t for everyone. They’re the most practical (get a stool!) and have great build quality, but cabs are all about nostalgia anyway, so some would just rather opt for that American feel. Coming from a person with a boardmaster and an RGB CRT, I just don’t see the appeal of sitting at a cab if not for the nostalgia.

    That said – and I know I’m reiterating here – I really don’t like X-Arcade sticks. The build quality of the actual case really does deserve the monicker of “tank,” but the buttons and sticks are substandard in-house quality, and they’re not even especially cheap. It’s the much easier route, of course, but so much work and money goes into building a cab in the first place (again, when you could just stick to a monitor and PC), that it seems a little anti-climactic to stick a substandard arcade stick on it. The controls are the most central part – without arcade-quality controls all we have is a giant box that houses the monitor and PC.

    They used to sell a trackball controller separately (if you have swappable controls, why not separate the trackball), but they no longer offer it. They do sell the assembly for $50, for do-it-yourselfers trying to save a dollar. Since MAME can only emulate trackball support, there’s no way to achieve perfection anyway, so that’s one area where I’d advocate saving a buck.