Many years ago, my favorite arcade game was Elevator Action. It’s a pretty simple game. You land on the roof of a building and make your way down to the basement where your escape car is waiting. On each floor along the way, you have to defeat bad guys, and make occasional stops to pick up secret paperwork.
So this summer I decided to build an Elevator Action arcade game.
Now the very first problem, before I even started, was where the hell was I going to put it? My wife had several ideas, none of which were viable as the human anatomy is just not that flexible. Arcade games are quite large. Elevator Action was about six feet tall and about 2 feet wide. I just didn’t have the room.
Then there’s the age factor- the electronics, not me. Old arcade games used printed control boards, basically a motherboard, but nowhere near as sophisticated.
These things are miserable to work on. I’ve restored enough old computers and TVs to know. Parts dry out, the circuit boards crack, chips come loose, and soldered connections fail. So even if I did find a working board, I would need to find a second board to keep on hand for extra parts, and finding one was hard enough.
The chips on the board contained the programming to control the physical game -things like joysticks, buttons, coin mechanisms, and the monitor. And the board connected to all these parts together via a wiring harness. The board was the brain and the harness was the spinal cord that communicated to all the other parts and pieces.
The circuit board also contained a handful of chips that stored the actual code for the game itself.
And even though it was like the Dark Ages for computing, they did do something very smart. Many of the older boards conformed to a standard called JAMMA (Japan Amusement Machinery Manufacturers).
JAMMA is a standardized configuration for the circuit board. It basically meant that no matter what the game, the harness hookup was always the same.
So if you’re a business owner who runs an arcade, and Pac Man is no longer popular, you could buy a new board like Galaxian, switch out the boards, put new game decals on the cabinet, and you had a brand new game. You didn’t have to go out and buy a new cabinet, monitor, joysticks, button, speakers, and coin mechanisms. You simply unplugged the harness from Pac Man, and reconnected it to Galaxian.
As I continued to research old arcade games, I found that quite a few websites sold emulators.
What’s an emulator?
Well, thanks to modern computers, someone was able to create a computer program that could run an arcade game. You didn’t need the board anymore. Well, you still needed one part of it- the game code. But these same programmers simply copied the code off the old chips, and put them in a computer file. And guess what? It worked. The games would run on a computer, wouldn’t break down, and took up less memory than an iTunes song. You just turned on the emulator, pointed it to the game file, and voila, you’re playing the game. Thousands of game files have been converted from old arcade chips, and the resulting files are so small, you can have all of them on your computer.
But there was one problem. You had to use your computer keyboard to play.
Who wants to do that? You want to be able to use a joystick and buttons.
So the programmers got together again and created a miniature circuit board that could run the emulator- a board where you could plug in an SD card full of games (a small SD card can hold upwards of 10,000 games).
And then they took it a step further. They added the same wiring interface that the old arcade games used.
So this new little board with the SD card could actually control a monitor, joysticks, buttons, and speakers. All you had to do was attach it to the same cable.
To give you some perspective, the old boards were about the size of a record album and played one game. The new mini board was the size of a large index card and could play thousands of games.
A whole bunch of companies saw this as an opportunity, and started packaging the board and adding their own extra touches. Like instead of having to hook up an old style monitor using the wiring harness, you could simply plug your flat screen monitor into a VGA port.
And since people usually had a ton of games on an SD card, they added an interface that would let you choose what game you wanted to play from the card.
I purchased one of these pre-packaged boards called a Game Elf. It comes with 621 games on the SD card!
It’s an all-in-one device, so all I need to do is add a wiring harness and build the cabinet. Of course I’d also have to provide the joysticks, buttons, speakers, monitor, etc….
But that’s it. You buy this little box, it comes loaded with games, you wire it up, put it in a cabinet, and you’ve got a mini arcade.
Part 2 of this post will chronicle my building of the arcade.
Here’s a sneak peek at the final product: