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Playing Arcade Games at Home

The reviews on this site are the text versions of the videos on my YouTube channel. The text based reviews use (if at all) very little pictures. Please follow the link to the corresponding video in order to see in game graphics.

In episode 154 I played a real arcade game at home. In the current episode I want to show some behind the scenes details, so that viewers can figure out whether playing arcade games at home could be something they would enjoy trying out themselves.

In order to play arcade games at home one needs the internal guts of the arcade cabinet. The most important part is the PCB of the game. The PCB is the game cartridge, the video game console and the input/output controller all at once. Not surprisingly the PCB is usually rather big. On the PCB are connectors and pin headers to which all periphery devices such as cabinet switches, controls and the power supply are connected. Furthermore these connectors carry the audio and video output. In 1986 the Japan Amusement Machinery Manufacturers Association introduced a standardization which allowed operators to use the same break out hardware for all compliant games. Before that users needed a fresh set of wire harnesses on a per vendor- and in some cases even on a per game basis. This so called JAMMA standard made the operation of arcade cabinets so much easier. Now that JAMMA is strongly established it isn't unusual to find adapters for some oddball PCBs to make them compliant to JAMMA break out boards.

To play real arcade games at home most people use a JAMMA compliant break out board with some built in interfaces and buttons to make the operation more user-friendly. These break out boards are often referred to as "Supergun" or "MAK" which stands for Mega Arcade Konsole, spelled with a K. Of the two terms Supergun is far more commonly used, but for this video I am going to use the name MAK, to avoid confusion with gun controllers. There are many sources which offer MAKs, ranging from big, well known companies such as Datel to luxurious boutique style creators. Some MAKs even have the controller already built in. MAKs used to be pretty costly and were made for the enthusiast marked, but since the rise of emulator cartridges such as the Game Elf and Pandora's Box it has become easy to buy very cheap MAKs from sites such as ebay and AliExpress. Personally I use the so called "Supergun MAK Strike" made by ArcadeForge. It works well and is neat looking while staying highly accessible for me to tinker and fiddle around.

Usage of a MAK sounds simple in theory but in reality it isn't. The operator should read and understand the arcade PCB manual before attempting to use the board and some basic knowledge of electronics is beneficial. Problems start at powering the board. Usually MACs accept a computer power supply via a standard connector. These however do not carry a -5 V line. Attempting to use a PCB which needs a -5 V supply without it, can cause it to malfunction and for example rapidly turn on and off all the time. Such a scenario can result in signals temporarily being of a too high voltage, which can damage the attached screen. This happened to me once. The plus 5 V line is a problem on its own. This voltage has to be dialed in while the board is under load. Having a too high voltage will kill some integrated circuits. Having a too low voltage will cause the game to reset during power demanding moments.

For many cases the operator can't just connect the arcade PCB to a MAK because it doesn't fit sterically. Using "Invasion: The Abductors" as an example the SCART socket of the MAK can't be populated anymore if the PCB is connected, as the cable would collide with the pin header of the board. For such cases people use prolongation cables. The cable I bought isn't labeled. Connecting it in the wrong orientation might destroy the attached equipment. Short of documentation it isn't unusual that the operators then have to look at the components and figure out the pin out themselves. Personally in such cases I am looking for GND and follow traces using a multimeter.

Many arcade PCBs don't just consist of one piece, but attach to daughter boards. Daughter boards are another source of errors. Having them not connected properly can result the board to spam certain inputs. That way the system can turn deaf for other inputs. At Invasion: The Abductors the light guns connects to a daughter board. The original gun socket is much wider than the connector of a HAPP 45 Cal controller. Therefore the operator has to figure out how to plug the gun in by looking at the documentation, the PCB or by making measurements.

Changing the settings of a game can be difficult too. Some games are set up by flipping physical DIP switches on the board itself, some games are set up in a service menu and some games need a combination of both. Often settings are saved in a battery dependant way and the chance of an installed battery being dead is very high, especially for old games. Some service menus need input buttons, which are not accessible via the MAK. The operator then has to identify those functions, built a break out harness which is then typically connected to pin headers and build a controller. As such harnesses were typically part of the delivered system, it's not uncommon for the schematic diagrams in the original manuals to include unnoticed errors. In the case of Invasion: The Abductors the service menu is navigated by volume up and down, which are just accessible on a pin header which is documented wrong.

Many arcade boards hook up to CRT TVs just fine. As the signals are often slightly off standard it can be a big hassle to connect them to video capture hardware and other video equipment. Sadly high quality professional gear is often less flexible when it comes to non standard signals. Personally I have found that often middle priced "prosumer" video equipment yields in an adequate quality after some slight custom modifications. Price is no guaranty for quality though. The AJA IO is a great example for this. This former multi thousand dollar device was already at the date of release inferior to cheap consumer electronics when it came to video quality. Analogue video fell out of fashion and devices are more affordable now. Sadly much knowhow got lost too and vendors often have no clue what they are selling and whether it is operational. This goes as far as sellers not knowing how to unplug BNC connectors. I often buy broken devices and fix them, which keeps the price rather low.

I had problems capturing Invasion: The Abductors directly and therefore I converted and normalized the video signal. Sadly after this procedure my TV wasn't able to take it back. As capturing in high quality was already guarantied and just my personal fidelity while capturing was distracted, I gave in to just connect the luma stream to the composite input of my monitor, which should result in a crisp black and white image. Sadly my TV somewhat managed to attribute false chroma artifacts to this signal. I was unable to capture this problem with a second capture device, as the capture card wasn't generating these artifacts and behaved as the TV should have done. To show how I ended up playing while capturing I filmed the CRT monitor with my camera. If people buy a MAK specifically to record or even stream video at a high quality, they should be aware that some skill and knowledge of video technology are of benefit.

Operation of proper arcade hardware at home is in my opinion an enthusiast thing. I would not recommend it to people who seek a quick, simple solution. A MAK operator should be willing to spend some time tinkering and figuring things out. Basic knowledge of electronics is not required but it helps a lot. If any of the quirks shown in this video was bewildering to you, you should think twice before buying a MAK. MAKs allow me to authentically play exclusive games and for this I love them.