Pi-to-JAMMA

Posted April 1, 2018

After researching a few mini-PCs last year to play MAME in a JAMMA cab, I ended up with a Raspberry Pi 3. While the PCs were at least several hundred dollars, required Windows, and a power source, the Pi was $35, has no paid licensing, and gets 5v off the JAMMA harness. With growing momentum around Linux game emulation, the Pi seemed well worth experimenting with.

Raspberry Pi 3 with ARpiCADE adapter

I’ve used MAME since the early 2000s, first on a PC and then a Mac, but the Mac experience is clearly second class, sometimes forcing you into some frustrating workarounds and Windows virtualization as a last resort. While it’s ideal to keep an old PC around for emulation/ROM burning/Steam, it’s still entirely possible to throw SDLMAME and some ROMs on a 27″ iMac and have fun. Even simpler, OpenEmu. But when my iMac’s screen died and I moved to a MacBook Pro, playing games became less exciting on a 15″ LCD, especially compared to sitting at a cab.

Connecting the Pi to JAMMA requires a bit of hardware, so I tried out the ARpiCADE, a Pi-to-JAMMA adapter and Raspbian build with 240p output, no scaling or hardware lag, a bumpy but improving menu system, and incredibly dedicated support from its Australian developer “dee2eR” who tirelessly answers questions at KLOV and Aussie Arcade. ARpiCADE is really the hub which pulls together various open source efforts, from the frontend Attract-Mode to a range of emulators like MAME 0.192 and 0.172, AdvanceMAME, MAME4all, RetroArch, and Daphne (Dragon’s Lair!).

Emulator support is decent, though I’m far from current on this stuff. I’d like to say in general if you were happy enough with MAME on your PC, you’ll likely be satisfied with the Pi, but your mileage will vary –I’ve not explored all that many games at this point. Certainly the more familiar you are with a game the more flaws you’ll notice, Pi or otherwise. Running a granular comparison across a few games on a average PC vs the Pi3 would be interesting. One game I know pretty well, Donpachi, doesn’t play on the Pi like the original PCB–I’m unsure how it fairs on a PC. DoDonPachi, released two years later and also on Cave’s first gen 68000 hardware, seems to play accurately from what I’ve seen and heard from others. Truxton II looks and plays great to me, but I don’t have the PCB to compare it to.

Whether the games emulate well enough, they do tend to look pretty great, at least on my Nanao MS8. On the MS9 that’s in my Egret II they’re not quite as sharp and vibrant, but it probably has more wear than the MS8. I do think the MS9, while somewhat smoother, just doesn’t resolve images as nicely.

As of v3.811 setup is now simple enough: download the ARpiCADE disk image, flash onto an SD card (I use ApplePi-Baker), copy game ROMs onto the SD, and insert into the Pi. It’s now so straight forward that I really wonder what the hell I was messing with for all those hours many months back. But then I remember all the ways it needed help, like modifying scripts to force 240p over its 480i default (now a menu option), and spending far too much time getting wifi and ssh working (now both on by default). Very recently I noticed a mention at the bottom of the v3.7 documentation explaining how we finally got wifi working by modifying the blacklist.conf file, a solution that should really be credited to “ktb” on the Pi forums. And even easier than tweaking files through ssh was having the Pi appear in Finder as a shared device. But in the end, dealing with permissions and the slow speed of copying ROMs this way wasn’t really worth it. Though tweaking config files on the fly and sudo reboot is certainly quicker than shuttling the SD card between the Pi and a computer.

Other than maintaining a vertical and horizontal build of working ROMs across two SD cards (at least for now–there must be a one-build solution), the biggest issue that remains after flashing a new disk image is resizing the boot partition in Ubuntu (which seems to fail for me half the time). If the ARpiCADE disk image is smaller than the SD card, you’ll need to resize the partitions in order to take advantage of the extra space. Raspi-config alone will not resize the boot partition. If you’re working on a casual build it may just be easier to use the same size SD card and not expect to be able to load entire libraries of games. If you know of a simpler method please leave a comment.

At times this project nearly drove me to the point of throwing it out the window, but it’s also been interesting to work with the Pi, Linux, and a bit of Ubuntu. It’s kind of amazing to see what a $35 computer can do. I’ve also been testing out a Raspberry Pi Zero ($5) and Zero W (wifi, $10) in hopes of programming a Python script which can blink Atari cone LEDs when credited, effectively replicating Atari’s logic which was built into most of their early 1980s games. If you’re a programmer or know one willing to help, send them my way!

A more detailed walk through can be found in my ARpiCADE notes, which are pretty up to date as of v3.811, and my ROM compatibility list which is not so up to date (also see the official ARpiCADE ROM compatibility list).

Vacuum Fluorescent Emulation

Posted March 26, 2018

Joining Internet Archive’s Arcade collection in your browser–over 600 games and growing–they now have a handheld game section:

This collection of emulated handheld games, tabletop machines, and even board games stretch from the 1970s well into the 1990s. They are attempts to make portable, digital versions of the LCD, VFD and LED-based machines that sold, often cheaply, at toy stores and booths over the decades.

The effort involved in recreating these vacuum displays as vector art is a notable achievement indeed, even if it meant losing one of each along the way. A few that I remember:

  • Donkey Kong, Coleco, 1982
    I wanted one of these so bad! There was something about a miniature “replica” of a fancy, coin-operated box of mystery that mesmerized me. Even the joystick seemed cool. Looking at it now though I’m kinda glad we were poor.
  • Speak & Spell, Texas Instruments, 1979
    When I saw these in grade-school classrooms I could care less about spelling. I just wanted to hear its synthesized voice.
  • Simon, Milton Bradley, 1978
    Another iconic learning device that I’d only played with at friend’s houses. Notable for having been co-designed by Ralph Baer.
  • Merlin, Parker Brothers, 1978
    Finally, a game we had, though I rarely played, probably because I didn’t have the focus to read the manual.
  • Championship Football, Tandy, 1980
    I inherited this from my step-dad, but had zero interest in how football is played.

Time Off

Posted January 5, 2018

Truxton Cabaret Part 3

Posted April 9, 2017

Somehow it’s been seven months since an update on this project. Last fall it felt close to being done, then I ran into monitor issues, and then the winter rains flooded my workshop. It’s a 90-year old basement with lots of cracks allowing for the soaked ground water to rise, initially just the corners, as has probably happened for decades. But this season it nearly covered the entire floor, which doesn’t make for a particularly safe space to work on monitors. Once the rain stops the water seeps back out within a day, but this pretty much paused work for a couple months.

Red t-molding finished the cabinet work, then I focused on the control panel, drilling holes to mount the joystick and three buttons (a cheap set of hole saws and a block of wood behind the panel did the job), and moving the player two Atari cone button up and right of player one.

Next I replaced the mess of an existing Atari-to-JAMMA harness with a fresh one from Twisted Quarter. Having these labeled and separated into groups was quite helpful. As this was going to serve as a standard jamma cabinet, I mounted a volume knob and three-button panel for credit/service/test just inside of the coin door. The 6×9 4 Ohm speaker looked rather fragile, so that got replaced.

It was around this point when I pulled the K7000 chassis out to swap the yoke wires around in order to flip/reverse the image for an Arcadeshop board. After mounting the chassis back the image wouldn’t sync. Whether there was a short, a cold solder joint, or some failing part I wasn’t sure, so I pulled it out again but things never got better. After endlessly wrestling with Galaga’s monitor last year I wasn’t feeling capable of entirely fixing the issue, so I sat it aside and looked for someone who could repair it. I ended up finding a rebuilt chassis on eBay which, oddly enough, also wouldn’t sync the two boards I was using for testing. Soon I realized that neither board would sync in any of my cabs, so during my testing I must’ve fudged them up good, terrific. I tried a third game and that one worked fine. While I still had the monitor pulled I calibrated it and was fairly surprised to see it spring to life as well as it did.

Still, I was frustrated and concerned about larger issues in my rewired power supply area, so I unplugged everything and essentially started over until I was as sure there were no major oversights. Slowly I went over every connection, not finding anything wrong, except for the anode connector’s small round plate not quite sitting flush with the CRT, which had resulted in some very disturbing sounds coming from the tube. Alas, all monitor issues seem to have been resolved.

Finally over the past few weeks we’ve seen the sun come out, the rains let up, and so I started spending more time in the workshop again, cleaning up from last season and working on wrapping up this project. Really, it’s almost done!

Egret II Tube Swap

Posted March 4, 2017

After having a spare tube for the Egret II in my workshop for several months, I finally swapped it with what I’m guessing was the original, which was rather dim, and with a fair amount of burn-in. I kept putting it off as I somehow imagined the rotation mech was going to be a hassle to deal with, that maybe I’d have to take it apart, or get stuck halfway through, or break something. Fortunately none of those things happened, as it was simply a task of unplugging, removing four nuts, and finding a second person to help pull it out, unless you’re large and strong. Another misunderstanding I had was thinking that it was putting its weight on removable bolts, while it’s really supported by four stationary pegs. Of course don’t forget to discharge, but this is also pretty easy and safe if done correctly.

What did take a few hours, if you’re picky, was fussing with all the pots afterwards. Arcade Otaku has a basic guide that’s as good as any, and there’s more specific examples of tweaking MS9 monitors and schematics if you need it. Only having a couple years experience with all this jazz, I can still become frozen and almost talk myself out of doing it simply because I can’t get it “perfect”, which is pretty funny because analog is anything but perfect, which I like (but then that, and then back again). Finding a nice medium seems key, since what looks amazing for one game may look washed out for another. At some point I had to just walk away, though honestly it could use a couple convergence strips to work out some issues in the corner.

Many thanks to my arcade friends for the tube and the, “You’ll be fine,” encouragement.

Holidays

Posted December 31, 2016

As Christmas 2016 passes by I’m inevitably lost in snowy memories of childhood. My mom coming home from the recently opened Children’s Palace with stories of toys from floor to ceiling. Where we would later buy our Commodore 64, and Congo Bongo, and Load Runner.

Every December I would load up the Christmas Demo and hope that someone may randomly stop by to share in the festive synth beeps.

Years later, during my TurboGrafx-16 run, I noticed a couple rectangular presents under the tree, and became obsessed with the idea of it being a game I could play now, today. One afternoon alone I peeled back a bit of wrapping and saw China Warrior looking back. It ended up being a terrible game, which gave me time to practice my surprised and happy look I’d soon need.

Bostrom

Posted November 1, 2016

Truxton Cabaret Part 2

Posted September 21, 2016

This has been an interesting project. Unlike previous restores which became what they already were, this is a shrunken-down conversion in need of reviving, with a few alterations. I’ve also taken my time a bit more, because there’s nothing more dull than a workshop with no work. I mostly go down on the weekends, turn on KALX, play a few credits of Robotron, then settle into a couple tasks.

As was established in the first post, the control panel began as Centipede, and then somewhere along the way an operator drilled new button holes and crudely patched the gap where the trackball had been. Before stripping it, I’d made a quick mockup of a one player panel with three buttons, which I thought better suited its new life as a jamma cabaret. More on that later.

With the cabinet and metal parts painted, I reassembled the coin doors and installed new locks. The Truxton marquee fit nicely into place, secured by six allen bolts, which look like security torx if you blur your eyes. Actually I liked them well enough to affix the speaker grill, replacing the kind-of-ugly original rivets.

Next I turned to the bare interior and added a new switching power supply, and then it occurred to me there was no AC line filter or fuse block. After a couple unsuccessful stops around town (actually Radio Shack did have a fuse block, but not much else, the poor neutered bastard), I emailed Bob Roberts who had the missing parts in my hands three days later. Using Bob’s article on AC wiring as a guide, I cut a 12″x12″ board and mounted the monitor’s isolation transformer, AC filter, fuse and distribution blocks, and new power cord.
The simple diagram really tells you everything you need to know. Using 18g wire, I ran an earth ground line across a few components and up to the monitor frame, which will extend to the metal control panel. It powered up and voltages tested accurately.

As a side note about what not to do, for maybe the third project now I accidentally turned the power on with the monitor anode cap off. Unlike the beautiful arc I saw last time, this was fairly uneventful but dumb. Just never leave the cap off. After cleaning or repairs, stick the thing back on and be done with it!

While some cabarets had a backlit marquee, Centipede apparently did not. I had a cheap florescent light fixture on hand and a couple brackets that placed it directly across from the rear of the marquee. I pulled AC directly from the power supply and tucked away the wiring. What I thought was going to be challenging was a rather straight forward fix.

Back to the control panel — originally I considered having the holes welded shut, but the prohibitive quote made me turn back to my old JB Weld ways. Initially I grabbed some washers, but I ended up using thin sheets of aluminum cut with tin snips. This provided the backing, and JB Weld filled the surfaces. After 24 hours you could press your finger into the mend with no resistance, and in two days it felt nearly as hard as the metal. After some sanding and more leveling out, it should be in good shape for the overlay to come.

Truxton Cabaret Part 1

Posted August 23, 2016

Cabaret and mini cabinets are cute-as-a-button shrunken arcade cabinets that Atari and other game manufacturers created in the early 1980s. Shorter, lighter, and noticeably narrower than the standard cabinet, the cabaret was less menacing with its stoic wood-grained vinyl sides, likely designed for being tucked away into restaurants, corner stores and dens. Atari turned some of their classics like Dig Dug, Tempest, and Centipede into iconic cabarets with 19″ monitor squeezed in. Their size makes them ideal to collect if space is a concern. I’ve wanted to find a Robotron cabaret but they’re fairly uncommon and I restored a full-sized version earlier this year. While there are several others I’d like to own, I’ve been more interested in finding a scrappy cabaret for general jamma use. It turned out that our Mike, once again, found an ideal candidate. A Truxton conversion in what was originally a Centipede cabaret.

The cabinet is in pretty good shape, probably more so than the first three restores I’ve done. The original wood-grained vinyl sides are intact with just a few small gouges. A few rips in the black textured vinyl on top means the rest will have to be peeled off and painted over — not really seen anyway. Someone had installed a huge metal lock bar across the coin doors which should be easy enough to remove and bondo over the holes. The original Truxton cardboard bezel is a bit faded but otherwise fine. Initially I wondered if Romstar, the US publisher of Toaplan’s Tatsujin, created both full size and mini conversion kits. This would be a surprising effort considering how unlikely Truxton’s popularity would’ve been in the US at the time. If there was a mini conversion kit, the control panel overlay didn’t make it on this cabinet. And the marquee was trimmed down from a more common size. The inside is pretty economical since it had been converted to jamma and ran off a switching power supply. The K7000 monitor seems in decent shape and without too much burn. To recoup half the cost of the purchase, I sold the Truxton PCB, as I already had a Tatsujin in my collection.

It was a tad tempting to just slide it in next to Galaga and Robotron, but what would be the fun in that. There’s a lot of potential here I didn’t want to waste. As I stripped it down I considered converting it back into Centipede, but a Truxton cabaret seems more unusual, and better suited to the shooters I’ll play in it. While vacuuming out the bottom, I saw signs of another past life, a Sky Shark sticker, confirmed later when stripping the control panel. Centipede > Sky Shark > Truxton. I put the cab on its back and made a slight alteration to the already modified marquee cutout to allow for more light to pass through. The speaker grill needed flattening so I had to drill out the rivets to get it off. Next I stripped the paint off the metal parts and control panel, the latter taking my usual 2-3 hours — the next time I may swap Citristrip for a more lethal paint stripper. Finally I gave the front of the cab and metal parts a few coats of primer, then my standard Rustoleum Satin Black for the wood and Flat Black for the metal, with a little textured paint first for the coin doors. Painting kinda sucks, but I’m always amazed at the difference it makes.

A smallish list of basic parts remained: leg levelers, power supply, 6×9 speaker, t-molding, service panel button and a joystick and buttons, and a couple coin door locks. Someone really should sell an arcade restoration kit for the essentials. A larger task needed sorted though — I decided to give the cabaret a different control arrangement by moving the joystick off-center and creating a three-button layout. This was going to require filling in a variety of now unneeded holes, including the whopper that held the original Centipede trackball, then drilling two new button holes, and lastly making a new overlay from a scan of the bezel art. Certainly the most customization I’ve done so far, but nothing too crazy.

Robotron Restore Part 3

Posted July 26, 2016

With most of the hard work on Robotron finished, what remained was largely painting, a few small details, and reassembly. I started by sanding the front, top, and back of the cabinet. A bit of bondo repaired the bottom/front which was a crumbling mess. Once smoothed out I hit it with three coats of Rustoleum Satin Black, but the next day it almost looked better off before I touched it. It must have also dried too quickly in the cold basement, as little spots had formed. A few days later I took Mike’s advice and laid down three coats of black primer which began to give it a cohesive finish, and then several layers of Satin Black. Once the cabinet was vertical and away from the harsh work light it looked rather nice.

Painting continued with the coin doors, brackets, and a few bolts. For these I used a matte black, with a couple coats of textured paint first to give it a bit of its original surface. The temptation persists to have these parts sandblasted, and to buy paint guns and setup a little booth, but to maintain my sanity I’m trying to avoid looking for perfection in these projects.

The original speaker was, well, 30 year old paper, so I replaced it with a 4 ohm Jensen Mod 6-15. The speaker grill, which sits above the screen and runs the width of the game, was missing on mine. A KLOV member was selling beautifully machined reproductions which fit snuggly in place. I ended up swapping the original glass bezel, which had considerable scratches and gouges across the paint and screen, with another unexpectedly polished reproduction. Generally I try to stick to original parts, but when they’re not really available, it’s excellent that people are out there making this stuff. As a last tweak and suggestion from Mike, I replaced the incandescent bulbs under the player one and two buttons with blue LEDs which significantly helped the brightness.

Carefully I wired the PCBs together, plugged it in, and nervously waited for the startup sequence. Shazam! No pops, smoke or errors. I never would’ve guessed I’d own a Robotron, especially one in such decent shape. And now here it is, Vid Kidz’s code still glowing since 1982.