Building a Killer Arcade & Neo Geo Collection With Limited Experience

RB Retro Collecting Interview 009

Check out Interviews #1 , #2#3 , #4 , #5, #6 (our first interview about building arcade experience at home), #7 (making multiplayer Sega NAOMI arcade hardware console-like and portable), & #8

Collecting arcade hardware — especially maintaining original cabinets can feel incredibly intimidating, especially if you don’t have a strong electronics background. Our Retro Collecting interview guest this month, Joe from the Youtube channel, Scarlet Sprites proves that diving in may be less intense that you might expect as long as you’re willing to invest time time and energy.

I don’t subscribe to a lot of Youtube channels personally, but over the last few years, Joe at Scarlet Sprites has not only built out a physical collection that resonates with his arcade nostalgia and interests, but also taken his audience along for the ride. The result is a channel that is well-produced, authentic and downright interesting.

While he does still partake in a lot of the typical retro gaming many of us do, his curiosities have more recently taken him down the route of investing in a more high-end experience with both the Neo-Geo ecosystem (eventually building a complete MVS collection) and Arcade cabinets in general (including some impressive Sega racing units).

One thing I didn’t realize until after this interview is that Joe actually wasn’t especially experienced in electronics aside from the general computer tech that is typical with the average retro gaming enthusiast. The majority of the guys that I talk to an observe have been working on the guts electronics for decades and perhaps even have an engineering background.   As somebody that eventually does want to take a similar dive into adding a few arcade cabs to my basement, it was refreshing to hear a more relatable experience.

Please enjoy this conversation!

Collecting Background

Basic Bio

  • Name: Joe / Scarlet Sprites on Youtube & Twitter
  • Age: 42
  • Collecting Timeframe: Been a console gamer for nearly 30 years.  Has been collecting Neo-Geo MVS games for 13 years and arcade cabinets since 2015.

What brought you to the point to go from console gaming to pursue arcade gaming?   And how long ago did you start?
It really started in the early 2000s when I started becoming less and less interested in modern gaming and would take breaks from it to return to play older games. I had been revisiting some of the Neo Geo stuff via emulator and began wondering if that had gotten any cheaper since its retail days. I think I eventually bought my first MVS cartridge in 2008, which was Metal Slug. I had no way of playing it but thought it was cool and told myself that I’d put a small collection together and someday maybe buy an actual Neo Geo machine.

Yup, he got them all.

For you, what was/is the appeal of arcade gaming compared to console or emulation?

The Neo Geo was really the gateway drug. Since it was the system that lived in both worlds it was really intriguing to me to know that these weren’t ports. The AES games were identical to the MVS arcade carts. At this point I was already buying MVS carts and feeling like I was collecting cool arcade games. It’s a slippery slope. My mind then switched to wondering why I couldn’t collect other arcade games too. Why settle for console ports? I could go out and grab the real deal.

Shopping For/Sourcing Arcade Items

When you set out to find restoration components/parts, what are some of your primary sources?

I hit the marketplace sections of a lot of different forums (KLOV, Arcade-Projects, Arcade Otaku, etc.). Patience is really the key. If you go shopping for something hell bent on finding it NOW you often pay a premium. If you’re really hard up or stuck without it it may be worth it so long as you aren’t getting gouged too hard. A lot of good Sega stuff can still be sourced from Japan as well. It takes a little more effort but sometimes I can find things on Japanese game stores or even Yahoo Auctions Japan.

If someone just starting out wants to purchase an arcade cabinet, where would you suggest they search and what methods would be the most fruitful in their pursuit?

Go local. Keep an eye on Craigslist, FB Marketplace, OfferUp, etc. There are also a few FB groups that are region weighted. A local cabinet also gives you a chance to see it in person and have the owner review any issues or shortcomings. I personally think monitor issues can be the most intimidating for a beginner. I usually tell people if its their first cabinet to try and make sure they get a working one.

When hunting down an arcade cabinet do you recommend the person search locally (local pickup) or is freight a safe option?

Local is preferred in my opinion. Like I mentioned above it gives the buyer a chance to look the cabinet over and ask questions. I have had cabinets shipped with mixed results. You really have to trust the seller. Fastenal is a relatively cheap shipping option if the seller offers it. You’ll still have to pick the machine up locally when it arrives at the hub, but you’ll save a bit. Beltmann is another decent shipper that will go door to door.

Any special methods you use to track down pieces that you’re interested in? (Do you make more compromises from your normal game plan for high priority/rarer pieces?)

That’s always tough actually. In both case (Virtua Racing/Daytona USA) I wasn’t actively out there searching saying “I gotta have this right now.” But when they pop up cheap on a random day, I kind of had to act fast or they’d be grabbed by someone else. I have a list of what I want in my head, but like I mentioned earlier, patience is the key. If you go actively looking for say, a Narc cabinet, you’re sure to find it and also a hefty price attached to it. If you know you want that Narc and can kind of passively shop and be patient until it or even it’s cabinet pops up, you’ll get a better deal. I suppose the answer is just being aware of what your top games are and being prepped to grab them should you come across them.

Should a person live in a part of the United States (or the world) where arcade cabinet availability is low or non-existent do you have any tips for them?

I sometimes hear from people in Europe who talk about wanting a Big Red or other North American styled cabinet. In that case a lot of those guys end up sucking it up and paying for shipping from a US dealer. I don’t know that coming across something like a Big Red in the UK is a common occurrence at all so options are really limited. Similarly I would imagine here in the US you’re going to be paying for shipping from a seller. I’ve seen forum members offer to check out cabinets that were local to them for other forum members before. Certainly not a guarantee but at least in some cases in larger source markets you have fellow arcade enthusiasts willing to help out someone who can’t be there physically to inspect a cabinet.

What arcade platforms do you think are the best bang for the buck currently?

I’m biased but the Neo Geo MV1C and MV1B boards are still relatively cheap and open the door to a big library. A lot of the consolized offerings have chipped away at the once large supply of these and they are starting to creep up in price because of that. They can still be had for $50-$60 though.

The IGS PGM [Cave PolyGame Master] flies under the radar a lot too. The boards are still relatively cheap and so are a few of the cartridges.

Stepping outside of straight OEM hardware, I do personally believe the Darksoft CPS2 multikit (see also on eBay) is maybe the greatest bang for the buck from a multi perspective. It opens the door for playing that iconic library which has all genres of games and even allows for a few hacked versions of games like SFCE and The Punisher to run on CPS2 hardware.

Have you ever had to make or purchase custom made parts for your arcade restorations?

I’ve purchased some reproduction parts for different machines. I really didn’t like the vinyl that had been applied to the control panel on my Astro City. There is a gentleman who goes by “Alberto” that makes really nice metal replacements. I had him make new panels for both the Astro City and Blast City. More recently I just purchased new bushings for my Terminator 2 gun that are custom made and smoothed in a shop. There are some DIY options for that as well and I’m currently experimenting with both options.

What It Was Like Getting Started with Arcade Cabinets & Maintaining Them

Did you already have some electronics restoration experience before collecting boards?

Practically none. The closest thing I can say is that in college I used to mod PlayStations for people. By that I mean I soldered in modchips. That’s it though, that’s the only experience I had if you can even call it that.

When you were new to arcade collecting, what were the biggest challenges you ran into? Or things that worried you in advance, that weren’t so bad?

It’s like anything new really, it’s all foreign at first. Jamma? What’s that? What do you mean by JVS? Why are things wired differently? Check the voltage!? What!? I’m not an electrician! But you don’t have to learn it all at once. You go step by step and research and read. Read. Then read some more.

Thankfully we live in an age where information is everywhere and there are a lot of helpful people in the community. Just doing searches on part numbers or certain terms yields lots of results you can then dig through. This is probably where patience comes in to play again. You have to be willing to read, process, and then try things. You also have to be a little humble and ask for help when you need it, but after you’ve exhausted your normal options and have put some work in.

Monitors were definitely the piece that worried me the most. From discharging them and avoiding a potential shock to just removing neckboards and being afraid of cracking the glass neck (and once that happens, its over). I’m not ashamed to admit that its really only recently that I’ve been doing my own chassis work. I was just always afraid of botching them and sought out professional help. I still will in some cases if I’m stumped or just want to know that it’s been done 100% correctly.

Was there anything about refurbishing and using arcade boards that surprised you in your earlier days? Anything you wished you knew earlier?

I think the one that shocks most new people is the cleaning of parts. Stripping a board as best you can and then using Simple Green (Home Depot / Amazon) or a similar cleaning agent to coat the PCB, let it work, and then hose it down. It removes decades of dirt and grime from boards and allows you to see whats going on more easily to work and replace components. It of course has the nice side benefit of making something look new again if you care about that sort of thing. But yes, most people assume you can’t hose PCBs down. Water and PCBs are fine. Water and electricity is not. Anything you’re washing you want to give AT LEAST 48hrs to dry, perferably in a warm area. I try to do most of this type of cleaning in the summer months here in PA.

As far as anything I wished I’d known earlier? I’d have to say that the Hakko Desoldering Gun (Amazon / eBay) has become a life saver for an amateur like me. It’s clean, quick, and makes removing components a snap if you’re not great at using braig or traditional suckers. It saves so much time on simple recap jobs.

What was the most difficult arcade restoration, what was the biggest challenge and how did you resolve it?

It was definitely Virtua Racing. I knew nothing about how a racing game was setup, not to mention something as complex as all of the PCBs needed for a Model 1 game. The fact that the game was a Twin setup seemed overwhelming at first but actually became a huge positive. Since there were two of everything I could swap parts and boards back and forth to rule out different components as working or non-working. In the end, the most difficult part of all of it ended up being the sanitation of the wood. It was covered in mold, excrement, smelled like urine, and in fact contained several decomposing rats. Everything had to be stripped down, sanded, bleached, treated for mold, and repainted where applicable.

Planning / Prioritizing / Storing  Arcade Collections Given Space Limitations

Personally, I’m all about planning a curated gaming collection, but I know it’s an even more important thing to plan with arcade games that are not only expensive, but space-consuming. What has your game plan and/or technique like for deciding what you hope to add to your collection. Is it just a simple priority list or is it deeper than that? How do you go about prioritizing?

Before I moved I was pretty much done. The priority was the Big Red and two candy cabs. Someone local to me posted the Virtua Fighter locally to me for a pretty great price and even though I had no room it lived in the garage for a year. I’m fortunate now to have a pretty large basement and space isn’t so much of a concern.

To your point though, it’s not endless and so I am choosy about what comes in. I really think about the games/hardware I have and which of those I want dedicated homes for (Neo Geo the Big Red, CPS2/3 the Big Blue, Naomi the Blast City, etc.). I still have a few Konami boards that I one day want to put in a 4P cabinet and also a few Midway games. Those two cabinets are probably on my end game list and so in my head I know I always have to have enough space for when one of those pops up. It’s kind of like that whole “it’s a journey, not a destination” saying.

A recent candid photo during a basement re-organization

Maybe elaborate on collecting boards vs full cabs and how you balance that planning and such.

I kind of hinted to this above a little. There are games that I own the boards for that are from the same family of hardware or maybe even just the same company in some cases. I like TMNT, Sunsetriders, Simpsons, and GI Joe, but I don’t personally feel like I want a cabinet for all four of those.

But if I can find a 4P Konami cab some day, I would put all of those boards inside and call it my Konami end game. In that exact example I actually would probably prefer having the GI Joe cabinet because I like it’s side art and am more attached to it from playing it at a local arcade. There are still games that I would be interested in owning just the PCB for and having a universal Jamma cabinet is perfect for rotating games in and out. Candy cabs are great for that.

On a related note, how have you planned your space usage in your basement. If you don’t mind worth sharing, maybe include the square footage you have to work with.

That’s still TBD honestly. I was on the verge of having my basement partially finished prior to the pandemic and when that hit last year I backed off. At the time I had about a quarter of the space reserved for hanging a projector and screen as a movie area and the rest of the space was pretty much available then for setting up cabinets. I kept another area unfinished for storage and any future projects I wanted to work on. (I don’t know the actual sqft, but it is a pretty decent area)

Did I see that you have a walk-out entrance in your basement to move cabinets in?
Any other logistics notes/tips of getting things moved in? Or any interesting moving stories worth sharing?

I’ve been fortunate with this. Even at my old townhouse I could bring cabs in straight through the garage, up a small step, and then straight back into a finished bonus room. I had to take the door off to get Big Red through it but it wasn’t too terrible honestly. Virtua Racing comes apart and wheels, that was surprisingly easier to move than most people realize. Daytona was by far the most difficult and heavy. I’d highly recommend not be lazy and removing the seats first. Those units are just so awkwardly shaped. I do have a ground level door for the basement and that makes getting thing in and out very convenient. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a selling point of the house.

Thankfully, those large cabinets do break into planned sections to making moving easier.

As somebody that just moved into a new house with an open basement and is a relatively blank canvas, do you have any advice for those that might want to plan to have some arcade action? Electrical stuff, layout or otherwise?

I guess I technically still have a blank canvas as well since I haven’t done any work on finishing the space. When I was planning though I didn’t want any additional walls or dividers put in. I just wanted the large area as it was finished with walls and carpets. Only exception would be extending a wall and adding a door for the area I wanted to close off. There is also already a separate breaker box in the basement from the previous owners pool setup.

The contractor I worked with had planned to leverage that to add quite a few additional outlets along the walls for the arcade machines and any additions. We had talked about maybe doing a few floor outlets as well for convenience or even maybe a cocktail cabinet in the future. Those can be especially helpful if you want to do a center row and put machines back to back.

Re-organizing the basement layout

Favorite Items, Preferences & Customizations

What parts of your collection and/or hardware are you most proud of?

Proud is a tough word for collecting I think because I haven’t truly done anything other than invest some time, money, and scout. I’m proud of the work I’ve done on some of the machines though, maybe seeing it from a self-growth and knowledge perspective is a better way of looking at it. I like what I’ve been able to save and preserve if that makes sense.

It’s not a surprise probably that I’m probably happiest about finishing off the Neo Geo MVS collection. It’s just the mythical system from childhood that no one I knew owned and so playing it in the arcade was the only way to experience it. Having brought all of that home (including the Big Red) in true arcade form is pretty neat and something I wouldn’t have imagined ever being a reality thirty years ago. I love the history element to collecting and given that the Neo survived as long as it did (1990-2004) it captures and amazing era in gaming, even if it went HEAVY on fighting titles. That’s just reflective of history and the time though.

What arcade joystick and buttons do you prefer and why?

I really like the iL Euro Joysticks and iL pushbuttons. They are what most North American players will remember from the arcade days, although they were licensed to HAPP at the time. Happ began outsourcing parts to other areas of the world a few years ago, and while their equipment is still good, its just not quite iL level in my opinion. So buying iL gives you the same quality parts you remember from back in the day.

If we are talking about Japanese style controls I generally prefer Seimitsu over Sanwa. That’s purely a personal thing and you can’t go wrong with either company. Seimitsu buttons have just a tiny bit more resistance to them and I like that. They aren’t quite as “mushy”. For sticks I use the LS-56 sticks mostly. It’s a good all round stick for many types of games but does have a stiffer spring it, which I like.

I know you’ve talked about multi carts for some of your cabs.  How many multi carts do you have and are they any platforms that are on your wishlist for obtaining one or just wish there was one available?

I guess multi solution is probably a better term here, as I think I only truly own one that is a cartridge. You’re right though, I do have a few options. For Naomi 2 I have a netboot setup where games are loaded to the systems memory by sending them over a crossover cable from a Pi. I have the Sega ST-V system which I have Darksoft’s multicart for. I have the CPS2 multi which I referenced earlier. I also have the CPS3 superbios which allows any of the six games to be written to memory and boot. I recently secured a Taito G-Net board and plan to work on modifying that for playing CF cards in order to experience its library.

Darksoft’s CPS1 multi is all but ready to come out and I know a lot of people are waiting on that one. I wouldn’t mind seeing a PGM multi solution, although some work has been done on at least making reproduction carts more recently.
Personally, and I know this is odd, I’d love to get rid of the Naomi Netboot setup and have a much cleaner integrated solution. I’ve just never liked how clunky it is, the need for a Pi or other device, the additional wires, the crossover cable running to the NetDimm, the additional power, etc. It’s a first world problem for sure, but it’s far from elegant. It’s also a very power hungry setup which can lead to errors at times. A CF solution exists for this and I have seriously considered going “backwards” to implement it due to some of the things I called out. I have skipped playing the Naomi at times just because I haven’t wanted to bother with wondering if it was going to be temperamental on a given evening.

How often do you change out boards/carts on your machines?

It’s so easy to do on the Astro City since everything is right there up front. I would say I switch games on that two or three times a week. On the Neo Geo 4-slot, despite it being super easy to change carts in and out, I probably only swap games once a month. I will sometimes change them if I know friends are coming over and I can predict what I know they will want to play. On the Blast City I have to choose a game every time I power up with the Netboot, so that one potentially has a new game each time its turned on. On Big Blue I almost always have AvP, Mars Matrix, or SSF2T running. It’s very easy to change the game in a matter of seconds though if I want.

Drool-worthy customizations to some favorite arcade boards

What little customization, innovations, or personal touches are put on your pieces/collection that you’ve been satisfied with?

There are some really simple things that I think people often seem to overlook. T-Molding is relatively cheap and an easy thing to replace on a beat up cabinet. Since it isn’t permanent you can experiment with changing the color of this too to brighten up or accent a cabinet. The original (and very beat up) T-Molding on my Virtua Racing was just a flat black. I switched it to chrome to match Virtua Fighter and it turned out pretty good. I like how it reflects the lighting and gives the machine less of a drab look to it.

I also like to upgrade speakers in cabinets. I usually don’t go wild on that, but almost anything modern beats the old paper cones and low cost options being used in machines back in the day. Sometimes even using a cheap $15 amp can make a dramatic improvement to a machine and bring out richer audio quality.

I also almost always switch old marquee CFL and ballasts out for led options. They consume less power, produce less heat, and as a result don’t continue to burn up and ruin marquees. I personally like the bluer temperatures and think they make the marquee colors look much better, but warm led options are also available. All of this stuff I mentioned though is personal preference and I leave the original wiring in place to revert back to stock should I or any future owner choose to do that.

As far as boards go, I do like to encase special ones in acrylic if an option is available to do so. Lions3 does really great work with acrylic. In a lot of cases this not only makes the board look great for display, but it’s also providing some added protection against warping, being scratched, or having something dropped on it. Not all board sizes are available but if he stocks something that fits other games (like UMK3 being the same board type as Rampage World Tour) then he might do the plates in other colors if you ask. In the case of Rampage I asked for the UMK3 cut on green acrylic and without the engraving. I then printed the marquee for this on glossy vinyl and stuck it under the top plate when assembling.

What improvements that you would recommend that many people might overlook?

Controls. I don’t know why people skimp on these so often. It’s your gateway into the game and unfortunately so many older games have had the same sticks and buttons on them for decades. The switches are loose, shot, springs worn, plastic sticking, etc. The top of the line (imo) iL Eurosticks are just $15 brand new. You don’t have to live like that! I almost always just switch out all of the buttons on a new cabinet too. Make sure to use the D44X microswitches. Don’t cheap out on your controls. They’re too important for an enjoyable experience.

MiSTerCade Add-On for utilizing MiSTer FPGA in arcade cabinet setups

I was excited to see you sharing your experiences with the MiSTerCade beta. How do you see the MiSTer platform factoring into your personal gaming “workflow”/setup over the next few years?

That’s a really good question and one that I’ve asked myself. I can definitely see it being on rotation or at least as a switchable option in a Jamma cabinet. Hopefully the games available to it continues to grow. I know a lot of people are really waiting on some of those Konami games I mentioned earlier, not to mention 90s hits like NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat.

I think collectors, self-included, will still continue to pursue owning original hardware for games that are genuinely important to them. There’s also a group of people who want their multis running off of original hardware, so this isn’t an option for that niche group either. I think almost everyone is going to have a different answer as to where and how this applies to their setup and what they will play on it. As much as the CPS2 library has been hyped for MiSTerCade, it isn’t something that I’m personally eagerly awaiting since I’m already running the Darksoft setup on real hardware. I won’t be selling that or retiring it even when CPS2 is fully available on MiSTer.

Looking back on CPS1 though? I can play a lot of those games now on MiSTerCade, I don’t need to invest in a new multi, and the games that I REALLY like I own original boards for (Final Fight, Champion Edition). MiSTerCade definitely slides in to most people’s setups as an option for something, but that something will vary from person to person.

Collecting Neo-Geo MVS Cartridges

After completing your MVS collection, how has your brain processed it all over the last few months?

I look at it like a wall of history. I’ve been tempted to rearrange the carts by year as opposed to alphabetical order just to better soak in that history. Unfortunately I think it would take me a little while longer to find something so I haven’t done that! But yes, it’s really cool to have the full lineage there on display and ready to go into the Big Red. The strangest part has been not looking for Neo Geo games. Previously I had spent more than a dozen years looking through forums, ebay, even grabbing a few carts at cons, and now I don’t have to. The hunt being over is definitely weird.

(I often get asked about the NG Dev games but I really don’t have a lot of interest in those as they aren’t part of the original lineup imo. They’re cool games, but not something that really interests me and certainly not at their price points.)

When it came to the MVS collection, what do you wish you would have known near the beginning of your completion quest that you knew now?

That it was never going to be cheaper or easier to obtain than the moment I started. I’m shocked by how much carts have gone up in even just the past five years. I don’t know that thinking that through changes the amount of disposable income one has, but it may shift which games you target to purchase first. Way back when I started I was impulsively buying games that were either dirt cheap, or something that I really loved (even if I had no way of playing the carts at the time). I should have been picking up the rarer titles. To be fair though, it wasn’t until maybe five years ago that I realized I had a chance at finishing off a complete set. I was about forty short or so at the time and when I made the decision to go ahead and finish it I went after the big titles first because like I said, they aren’t going to get cheaper.

I’m also fortunate I didn’t end up with a lot of bootlegs. I’m not sure when went live, but I can tell you I wasn’t checking it way back in the day. I didn’t know anything about bootlegs, or fake labels, or any of that stuff. Today we have a wealth of information available to protect collectors from unknowingly purchasing bootlegs or conversions. Out of the dozens of carts I picked up before becoming more aware of those types of details, I only had one bootleg in my collection. I of course replaced that cart with a genuine copy since.

What videos of yours do you most recommend people check out to get the best feel for your collection and most interesting/unique for those either into arcade/Neo-Geo collecting or those thinking about diving in?

Some are from when I had NO idea what I was doing from a video making perspective. Others I thankfully know a little more than nothing.

I want to say an extra thanks to Joe for taking the time to chat and share his journey with us.  I’m looking forward to seeing and learning more.

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One Comment

Zach says:

great interview – chatted with him briefly during a stream once

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