Robotron Restore Part 1

Having been content with JROK’s multi Williams, and considering the rarity of Robotron cabinets, I never really thought I’d have to decide whether or not to buy one. Of course I should’ve seen that I’m weak and can rarely say no to obsessions. A few months back Mike stumbled across an early model with the wrap-around control panel. While the sides were rather ragged, most everything was original except for the sticks and speaker grill. He focussed on the board stack to address the common Williams’s failings, replacing the RAM, connectors and pins, rebuilding the power supply, and fitted in a 2032 lithium, replacing the AA batteries.

Once Mike got it working and stable, I assumed, being a big fan of the game, he would then restore it for his collection. But a few weeks later he suddenly finds a second Robotron in Los Angeles. Though this one lacked the original side art and contained no PCBs, he decided to throw a JROK inside, keep it and sell the first one. How could I say no?

In person the cabinet was pretty rough, with the sides showing enough wear to warrant repainting, which is no easy feat. I’d read enough restore posts to know this involved careful color matching, several coats of silver, and an expensive set of stencils with rounds of red and blue paint. And ideally an air gun setup. While tempting, the effort and cost involved, when it would likely have one or both sides covered by other games anyway, wasn’t exciting me to go buy supplies. Also, like with Gyruss and Galaga, having some of the cab left untouched — with its period scars — is far preferable to me than ending up with something that looks like a shiny, new box.

Since I decided to leave the sides intact and original, I wanted to address everything else to the best of my abilities. This is one of the fun parts, the slow observation of what’s in front of you, what’s broken and what can be refurbished, and then drawing up a plan. I Wondered what lives it had led and in what arcades (I found a Chucky Cheese token and a tantalizing sticker of a boy in purple slacks). A quick rundown.

  • The marquee had wear but was very useable, while the glass bezel could stand to be replaced.
  • The control panel needed major work all around, from overlay to new sticks.
  • While the coin door was solid, the bottom coin door had about a dozen more holes than it needed.
  • Like many arcade cabs it had been dragged around in its later years without leg levelers, and the bottom suffered from it.
  • The wiring harness was good throughout.
  • The back doors were ok, but could certainly use primer and paint, along with the front and top of the cab.
  • One area where you could find yourself lost for days would obviously be the monitor and the PCBs, but this time I was lucky. The K4900 worked well already, with the screen rather bright and colorful, though with traditional Robotron burn. And the boards had already been addressed by Mike.

A sizable list of tasks but nothing too difficult. Holy mackerel it’s Robotron!

Candy Speaker Replacements

Occasionally I start researching speakers for the Astro City and Egret II, don’t find much, then give up for a few months and try again. The only drop-in solution I’d come across always seemed to be the Cambridge Soundworks SBS 52. Knowing this would work for the AC, I started focusing on what would fit in the Egret. There were a couple Egret tutorials for full on powered speaker solutions, usually involving modifying the original wiring and shoving in an ugly PC subwoofer behind the coin box. Yech. I didn’t want the cabs to sound unnaturally pumped, I simply wanted them to sound better. The stock speakers in both are actually pretty decent, but the Egret in particular could use a boost.

Cambridge SBS 52 are cheap on eBay so I thought I’d give them a shot in the AC. Removing the housings required a long Phillips screwdriver, with a fifth screw hidden behind the speaker grill. I removed the old solder, brought them upstairs and swapped them with the AC’s originals, using its quick disconnects. Sampling games I was familiar with I could hear maybe a very slight improvement, but the midtones had a kind of boxiness to them that wasn’t so pleasing. Or maybe they were fine and I just needed to give them more time.

I went ahead and took apart the Egret’s factory speakers which took a little more work to disassemble. They have their own brackets and speaker boxes, and their wires were soldered directly on to the driver’s tabs rather than using connectors. It turned out the Egret’s speakers are also 3″, same as the AC, and both are 4 Ohm ~10 watt. So sorta rushing things, I ordered another cheap pair of SBS 52. When they arrived I went through the same process, removing the housings, desoldering, then desoldering the Egret’s speakers, soldering in the new ones, back in their boxes with the bracket and back in the cab.

Since I’ve been playing a lot of DonPachi I threw the board in and played for a few minutes. It didn’t take long to realize it actually sounded a bit worse. I’m not sure how I thought swapping in unpowered PC speakers would be an improvement. I also realized that the Cambridge speakers were actually 3.5 Ohm — probably not a big deal but long term maybe not a great idea. In the end I put the factory speakers back in both cabs, annoyed with the whole project. Anyway, these were never meant to sit in someone’s office, but in cacophonous arcades pushed, by the dozens, side-to-side. This was another lesson in being happy with what you already have.

Galaga Restore Part 3

A few items had remained to finish this project, largely the K7000 chassis. I was losing steam after spending weeks sorting out endless monitor problems. Before I could dive back in with another round of prodding, I suddenly found a box in front of our door containing a Sharp Image monitor chassis. Mike! This guy’s too nice — I’m not even sure where he found this thing. Except for a fairly menacing looking very alive spider, the chassis looked to be in excellent shape. I swapped it in and it immediately worked. Using the test pattern generator I calibrated it with a mirror then mounted it back in the cab. While I value the gained experience of working on an old monitor, in the end simply replacing it turned out to be the sanest option.

There were a couple more issues to work out. One was quick, replacing the 35-year-old 6×9 speaker. It actually sounded fine, but if I could eke out a small improvement, why not. Surprisingly I could find very few 6×9 speakers between $10 and $75, so I chose a Lanzar OPTI2698 — 8 Ohm and capable of 1190 more watts than necessary.

Now for the joystick. Even after previously spending several numerous hours rebuilding the original, it continued to feel sloppy. Worse, the two leaf switches would occasionally need bent again to help the stick auto center, inevitably causing the ship to move on its own in one direction (more on that in a minute) when the strength of both leafs weren’t exactly the same. Rather than try finding another Galaga stick, I started to consider Mike’s suggestion of using a Pac-Pro joystick. While I usually loathe the idea of swapping in modern replacements, the originals just didn’t wear well, and this was still a leaf stick. It mounted on the control panel with a Twisted Quarter Galaga adapter plate, with the oval hole in both acting as a 2-way guide. Unfortunately once the control panel was back on the cabinet, I found that it wouldn’t shut completely — the Pac-Pro base and the top leaf tabs were protruding about 1/8th of an inch too far. The tabs were able to bend 90 degrees, but I had to take the Dremel to one side of the new base. Nothing that’s ever seen, and it fit. I wish the red balltop was the same size and material as the original, but its matte finish matches the overlay well. It’s considerably stiffer but hopefully that will become less noticeable as it breaks in.

Overlapping with the previous issue of the old leaf switches sometimes nudging the ship by themselves, at some point this started to happen even when the joystick wasn’t plugged in. After crediting up, the ship would slowly gravitate to the left in random blips. It turned out to be one of the Namco custom chips, 51xx. I swapped it out with another 51xx on a spare Galaga PCB I happened to have. Previously I’d hoped to fix this second board and sell it, but having a donor board on hand seems a much better idea.

It’s great having the game finished, slid in next to Gyruss, and actually playable. I owe a big thanks to Mike for not only locating and delivering Galaga, but also tirelessly answering my tiresome questions, and problem solving from beginning to end. He elevates “a friend in the hobby” into something we should all hope to emulate.

Galaga Restore Part 2

It’s been a few months since Galaga was mostly wrapped up, with one remaining snag that’s lingering on into the new year. What could it be? How exiting, but first let’s see where we left off.

I applied several coats of paint to the front and back of the cabinet, the coin door, other metal parts and screws. For a rattlecan, as it’s affectionately called, Rustoleum Satin Black actually does a decent job on smooth surfaces. At some point I suppose I really should look into an air gun. There was a stubborn bondo hump on both the coin door and the front of the cab from patched holes which took three or four rounds of sanding and painting but eventually blended in. After a few days of drying, I applied the kick plate and front art, bolted the coin door back on and added new coin door inserts and bulbs. The original Midway coin door plate, despite my best efforts to save it and the rivets, had to be replaced by a repro. Next came the control panel overlay and rebuilding the original joystick, which included replacing the bushings and tweaks to the leaf switches to try and get the stick to center with less slack.

At one point I had intended on adding a Galaga ’88 board to the mix, requiring a double jamma adapter, a Galaga-to-JAMMA adapter, and of course Galaga ’88. Eventually I found the PCB, but it wasn’t cheap and looked so good in the Egret that I decided to skip the dual setup and leave Galaga as original.

The last issue to work out was the finicky K4600 monitor. It had a magenta cast to it, was faded to almost black at the top and overly bright at the bottom, and had occasional flickers of light. I started by replacing the caps and reflowing solder on the chassis — no change. Hoping that it may just need the pots fine tuned, I spent hours calibrating it but the issues remained. Still, it was good experience for someone with no real monitor knowledge, including watching my first horizontal width coil disintegrate.

As I started looking on KLOV for local replacements, Mike offered up a K7000 project monitor. Since the closest alternative was in Sacramento, I agreed to Mike’s generous donation and began researching known issues and buying a few parts: flyback, HOT, voltage regulator, C36 safety cap, and R103. Little by little I replaced the parts that had failed, but I still couldn’t get the thing to power up until Mike pointed out that the middle leg on the HOT wasn’t connected. Fool!

While the K7000 was now firing up, the image was rather magenta again, strangely similar to the K4600 — while I could see red, blue and green individually, it somehow wasn’t mixing for pure whites. To rule out the PCB I tried Gaplus which gave exactly the same results. Then came a series of never ending tweaks and tests, checking B+ (123.6), to more reflowing and calibrations. Mike brought over a test pattern generator which helped since Galaga only displays a test grid. We adjusted convergence, then tried swapping Q201, Q202, and Q203 transistors around on the neckboard. Nothing seemed to help, then at some point we lost blue entirely. Since then some good suggestions have come through KLOV, requiring more time on this before I start hunting for another K7000 chassis.

So Galaga — it’s close! The cab was looking good, though like Gyruss I kept the sides original so it certainly looks better slid in next to other games. Thanks to the enhancement pack it’s now saving high scores like Gyruss. Hopefully with a bit more work on the monitor this project will be completed.

So New It Hurts

Over the past couple years I’ve made a few arcade friends, but none who seem as fresh to the hobby as myself. Most people I talk to have been playing shmups for 10-15 years. And a lot of the classic collectors were hauling cabinets across the country in the 90s. I’m only recently consumed with games like DonPachi, Espgaluda and Truxton. Others may have cleared these long ago and are working on their second loop. And these games are only getting more expensive — digging around in forum archives it’s obvious at this point what a seller’s market it’s become.

In a short period I’ve managed to build a little collection of decent boards with good replay value, and enough challenge to keep me occupied for years (cause I suck). After almost three months of Espgaluda I was able to reach Jakou’s first phase near the end, though not often enough to progress much further. I considered using MAME save states to focus on problem areas, as some players suggest, and occasionally used the PS2 port, but really neither were as much fun as playing all the way through in front of a cab. At some point I start to itch for another game, ignore the guilt and swap boards.

My current daily credits have been going into Gokujou Parodius (stuck on stage 3) and DonPachi (stage 4). I’d likely have to play far more every day to get to a place I’d be happy with. But who’s got that kinda time?

Galaga Restore Part 1

Once the Gyruss restore was finished (still looking for a top marquee bracket and a Centuri coin door), I slid it against the wall into its home, always intending for it to live in the workshop where it can be played while fiddling with other projects, and is conveniently located for repairs if (when) it breaks one day. The high score save kit really adds an incentive every time I’m down there, and with some LED lights and music, the space is much cozier than it was in January. Of course the more games added the less space there will be for restores (and storage). Some better shelving would likely make room for several more games. There are probably more important projects to occupy my time, like replacing windows, laying a new bathroom floor, and gutting the kitchen, but those things are difficult and costly, and don’t become an arcade game at the end. Guilt aside, I really enjoyed and now miss the stuff that went into the game restore.

It would be nice to take your pick of the games you’d like to restore and play, but the reality most of the time is choosing from what’s available in your area. Texting with my friend Mike that I was feeling fidgety without a project, I offhandedly mentioned wanting a Galaga. The next day he sent me photos of one in the back of his truck that, by chance, he’d gotten a lead on (this guy!). I could hardly say no. Pulled from a hair salon in Fruitvale, it still had the sweet, stale smell of hair products. The game played but with occasional bursts of piercing distortions accompanying the explosions. The K4600 monitor was faint and rather purple, definitely needing cleaned and capped. Also original, for better and worse, was pretty much everything else: cabinet, marquee, glass bezel, joystick, Midway coin door, PCB, and the Midway power supply (though someone had already wired it to use a switching power supply). Most of the pieces were there, though it needed plenty of love, to be expected from something built in 1981 and coined up, according to the coin counter, 143,000 times.

After a laundry list of general supplies like wire wheels for the drill, Citrustrip, and paint, acquiring a shop-vac and an air compressor were the main purchases this time. Then game supplies: new buttons, control panel overlay, monitor cap kit, t-molding, leg levelers, new power supply, coin door bulbs, kick plate and front art. I’m not going to touch the side art — like Gyruss, it has its scratches and gouges but I prefer those scars to the cabinet looking like a brand new box. This is 90% true. As the sides were originally laminate, I’m not sure I want to deal with replacing it, nor do I have a router.

For a couple weeks I just circled the game, making and rearranging a to do list, taking reference pictures of wires and connectors and bolts, then slowly stripping it down and bagging the parts. Placing the cabinet on its side I started the deep clean, vacuuming up wads of hair and dust, and Simple Greening away many layers of funky grime. Now that the cabinet was bare and clean it needed repaired on the bottom corner of the wood that had come apart. Since this wasn’t one of the Ms. Pac-Man plywood cabinets, the MDF was crumbly where some of the white pegs would normally keep the boards joined. After some research and talking to Mike I decided to epoxy the joints, then 24 hours later install six brackets along the inside/bottom edges. Happy with the rigidity of the cabinet, I moved on to stripping the old paint off the coin door and marquee brackets, then scraped off the CPO with a heat gun and a couple rounds of Citrustrip. I’m not sure that stripping down the parts to bare metal was entirely necessary, but I wanted to see how it compared to some of Gyruss’s flaws.

Before painting the coin door and front of the cabinet those pesky security bar holes needed to be filled. JB Weld worked fine on the metal parts (though the holes were probably small enough for Bondo), and a wooden dowel and wood glue plugged the holes in the cabinet. A day or so later I sanded down the excess, then started prepping everything for paint. My list was shrinking and I was beginning to imagine the game happily working and humming its melodies.

JROK’s Robotron

Like many early-80s arcade games, my first memories of Robotron: 2084 are fuzzy. It looked old and difficult and, nestled between games a decade younger, probably wasn’t something I put many quarters in. It wasn’t until many years later that I took notice again. Whenever an arcade had a classics row I’d search for it, and when retro arcades started appearing it was one of the first games I’d play. While MAME in recent years has emulated it quite closely, you’re usually missing the dual-stick controls, and that’s obviously a huge part of the game’s appeal. Robotron on Astro City I got used to a PS3 controller and put in many hours in front of my iMac, then later tried Williams Arcade’s Greatest Hits for the PS1 but there the control scheme was even worse.

Created by Eugene Jarvis and Larry DeMar as Vid Kidz and released by Williams in 1982, Robotron had for the time an unusual dual-stick setup: one for moving your character to both rescue your family and avoid being killed, and the other for shooting. You start in the center of the screen surrounded by enemies, then shoot and dance your way to the next level, or wave. There’s something very pure about the experience. It’s immediate and relentless, forcing you to learn some of the strategies in dealing with its patterns in order to survive. “It was vicious and it was mean. I guess maybe the arcade is just a microcosm. Kind of like in the human brain, we have this thing called the reptilian complex. Somewhere deep down in our brain is a guy that says, I want to eat. I want to have sex. I want to kill.” The minimal graphics have kept the game play relevant, and its indelible sound effects still penetrate.

Hoping to one day own the PCB, I eventually gave up when I realized it’s a 6-board stack notorious for failures, not to mention how tough it is to find an original cabinet. One last real option remained. In 2008 the UK engineer JROK began creating his own Williams multigame board, an entirely self contained jamma PCB running on the original 6809 CPU. JROK Multi Williams No emulation, FPGA-fueled, and a spot on match for first generation Williams hardware. Well received, JROK released a couple revisions, most recently this summer which added Robotron’s 2014 Tie-Die roms. Also included on the board is Defender, Stargate, Joust, Bubbles, Splat, Blaster and Sinistar (vertical only).

Robotron on Astro City’s 29″ monitor is very roomy, making the game a little less claustrophobic. While the player one and two sticks aren’t the same height or in the same location as the original, they feel uncompromised. I tried adding some round gates to the Sanwa sticks but somehow the square gates played better. Despite these differences the experience feels authentically Robotron to me, but an old school baller may balk. Like most arcade games, having it in an actual arcade cab has made it even more enjoyable. I sit down, play a few credits, then do something else and come back later when the frustration’s wore off. My score started improving within the first few days, but then I realized it was defaulted to difficulty 3 rather than 5. Boy, to have had 30 years worth of its brutality must be something.