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.

Astro City

This addition slipped in about four months ago from my Egret II source. After a few days with the Egret, despite the rotating monitor, I realized I wanted to find a way to fit in a second cab. It’s like salt without pepper, DoDonPachi without Progear. And beyond monitor orientation, playing one game while attract flickers on the other is joy. But considering the costs and space, and idiocy, I tried to push it out of my mind, but every time I rotated the Egret the thought came back.

At some point I measured again to be certain two cabs wouldn’t fit in my office. I’d wanted to move the Egret into the corner anyway, which seemed like the ideal spot for two cabs. Somehow I’d originally miscalculated the dimensions and found there was indeed 70″ free after rearranging some bookshelves. An Astro City was available, looked good, and once delivery was offered it was all over.

When my friend flipped the switch the Nano MS8 lit up in the middle of the day with bright, punchy colors and sharp pixels, making me a little sad when I looked over at the Egret’s softer, more worn MS9. Side-by-side they were truly a handsome duo. I spent a few hours cleaning it up with magic erasers and vacuuming out the prerequisite cobwebs. Luckily like the Egret it needed almost no work other than a bulb and some replacement Sanwa sticks and buttons, and an extra Sega 5380 key.

Only three of my 14 PCBs are yoko, though if you count all the Neo Geo games I guess that makes it about even. Gokujou Parodius alone makes it worthwhile, but it’s really the Neo Geo that lives in the Astro the most.

The Gyruss Wrap-up Part 2

Finally a Gyruss PCB popped up on eBay which I watched for several days, assuming the price would be driven past what I’d be willing to pay. In the end I got it for $57, quite a lucky break for an original Konami board in such great shape. I stood the cabinet back up and was happy and almost surprised to see the game actually working for the first time. I risked that luck by installing the high score save kit. I desoldered the existing RAM chip but the thing wouldn’t budge. A little solder wick loosened it the rest of the way. Next I soldered on the socket and pressed the new NVRAM into place. But when I powered up the board I saw a strange pattern on the screen. Eventually I realized I’d scratched a trace, and should’ve just cut the legs on the RAM rather than try to save it (as Matt points out). At least I gained a little trace repair experience.

Now it was time to apply the repro control panel overlay. I nervously taped it in place then started peeling off the backing and smoothing it down. All good, though I did notice a slight gap between the metal and the overlay in the back bend. Using the schematic I wired up the new buttons and Monroe stick, wiring it wrong twice before looking closer at the leaf switch placements. The leafs also required some straightening out to smooth the transition from one direction to another.

After talking with Mike, the hobby store dude I bought the cabinet from, I decided to change directions with the paint and try Rustoleum Canyon Satin Black, a spray paint rather than rolling it on. I’d seen his Gyruss restore in person, and photos of his Popeye which had a similar smooth black front, both of which turned out quite well. Two coats within an hour, then repeat 48 hours later. I went ahead and painted the top and back and various parts: marquee bracket, control panel hinge, vents, bolts and screws. For the coin door I used Rustoleum hammered spray paint, then a couple coats of Rustoleum semi gloss black spray paint. I needed to partially sand and repaint the coin door a few times to try and remove some bubbles that kept forming. It probably would’ve worked the first time if I had removed all of the original paint, but I wasn’t overly concerned since one day I’d like to replace it with a Centuri coin door.

While it was on its back I ran new t-molding down the grooves, using liquid nails glue on the bottom to hold it in place. Now that everything was dry I fastened the control panel on the cabinet, reassembled the coin door, then put in the blackout cardboard, original bezel art and smoked plexi. Slowly I realized that these were the last steps and it was more or less finished, after many months of slow progress and a variety of mistakes. After plugging it in I turned off the lights and put a new high score on the board, which beautifully remained once powered off and on.

I’m still looking for a top marquee bracket and replacement speakers, as both the originals have a rip in the cones, though they sound fine. A tube with less burn would be nice, but with the dark plexi in place it’s not too noticeable. The sideart is fairly worn but preferable to a modern replacement, plus I really like the graffiti.

Well, it’s been fun. I’m already missing having a project in the workshop to spend time wtih. Thanks to John’s Arcade videos and forum which have been incredibly helpful, Mike the hobby store dude who’s provided lots of advice along the way, and KLOV.

The Gyruss Wrap-up Part 1

Back in January when I picked up a Gyruss to try and restore, our basement space I’d hoped to use as a workshop had no electricity other than a dim ceiling lightbulb and was full of discarded paint cans, unused bookshelves, a 100lb bathroom sink and a few spiders. The old, handmade workbench along the back wall held dusty blinds, a rusty mattress frame, and wooden shutters from some depressing far away time.

A few months ago I ordered two LED ceiling lights and brought back the electricians, who rewired several of our knob-and-tube outlets, to install the lighting and add an outlet to each side of the workbench. This motivated me to spend a few nights cleaning and a trip to the dump. Then I slowly started buying the tools I’d never really owned before: Molex crimpers, actually good wire strippers, a soldering iron, a hand sander, and a Fluke multimeter. That was a start.

The Gyruss itself had its own list: a better marquee, a Monroe joystick, a control panel overlay, t-molding, a new power supply, and of course to either fix the original PCB or find a replacement. When powered up both the audio and video were scrambled, and after checking voltages and looking for basic, obvious problems, a few forum posts confirmed it was likely beyond my abilities for the time being.

While waiting on a replacement PCB I cleaned the cabinet, added coin return lamps, Centuri 25 cent decals, a new lock, then tidied up the marquee light fixture wiring and did a tube swap for a less burned Wells Gardner K4900. A few hours alone went into restoring the Monroe stick to its original 360° glory. One night a moment of clarity made me slow down when I plugged in the cab and, having forgotten to put the monitor anode cap back on, created a lovely blue arc between it and the monitor frame.

Somewhere around this time I found another Gyruss PCB. Anxious to install Matt Osborn’s high score save kit, I practiced desoldering and soldering a 40-pin chip on another board, but when it came time to attempt the real thing I realized the Gyruss I had was a bootleg. I returned it and soon found a third board. This one wasn’t cheap, plus shipping from Canada, but it looked nearly new for being 32 years old. Sadly this one turned out to be a dud, so back it went.

Next I began working on the control panel, first using a heat gun to strip off the old artwork, then applying that beautiful pink citrus solvent to remove the remaining adhesive goop. After many messy rounds I sanded it down to its former factory glory, then primed and painted it black with Rustoleum enamel spray paint to prepare it for the overlay.

It was time to tip the game on its back and start sanding the front, as well as fill that extra security lock hole many cabinets end up with near the coin door. A little wood dowel and glue filled it in, then bondo smoothed it and a couple other spots. Now came what I thought would be one of the easier steps, painting the front of the cabinet. My first attempt was to use Rustoleum oil paint with a brush and roller, but this dried exactly as it looked, with lots of orange peeling and little bristle swirls. I tried again with just the brush, and again it dried with all the original brushstrokes.

I was starting to become frustrated with my progress, considering the game itself didn’t work and how hard it had become to find another board, that the front of the cabinet looked like a hand-painted shed, and knowing I still had to sand and paint a pile of metal parts. My lack of experience and limitations were bumming me out. Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion.

Easy Fixes

Arcade gaming at home seems to consist of four components: exhaustively researching a game and its origins, tracking it down for a price you’ve told yourself is reasonable, playing them in a repetitious state to eventually possess it in its entirety, and finally fixing things when they break. Equally enjoyable for me, though I certainly wish I had a special talent for the last two.

I accept that I’ll never know the intricate entanglement of hardware and software like these guys, probably for the same reasons I’m not a programmer. Fortunately, simple repairs seem to solve the most common issues with arcade hardware. This stuff is 20-30 years old, repairs are just part of the deal, and rewarding when it works out.

The first PCB that gave me problems was Strikers 1945. I bought it from an eBay seller I’d had success with, and I really didn’t want to mail it back without at least looking for obvious solutions. All of the sprites were represented by white blocks, like a censored unclassified document. I reseated the ROMs with no change. Next I tried putting pressure on chips to see if one sparked up the missing sprites. It didn’t take long to find one that responded, working 100% when bridging the corner pin to the solder on the board. Cold solder joint! I’d barely heard the term before watching hours of repair videos on YouTube over the past couple years. I didn’t even own a soldering iron at this point, though I’d had a regular cycle of tools arriving from Amazon for the Gyruss restore. A few days later one arrived, I made some quick test solders on a bootleg Puzzle Bobble MVS board, then freshened up the Strikers 1945 surface mount chip. Fixed, and pleased with my first small victory.

Soon another PCB required work when Twin Cobra showed up with a very faint and flickery picture. After some basic poking and prodding I turned to the forums for advice. Within an hour Emphatic and System11 pointed out that it was a bootleg, and required a missing video ground. I took a tiny piece of bare wire and soldered it from pin 14 to the ground plane. Now the image was bright and flicker-free, but somehow the player one stick would only move up and right, and player two controls threw up a strange “tilt” message and reset the game. Looking closer I realized the wire I used was too thick for the JAMMA harness, so I desoldered and tried again with a thinner wire. Fixed, and didn’t need to send back to Japan via YJA, which would’ve never worked out anyway.

One last recent update was to replace a CPS2 A board fan, which are notoriously noisy. Even with the cab door shut and the attract on you could hear the thing whirring away like an old Dell desktop was shoved inside. There’s plenty of how-to videos on this one, though finding the right fan took a few searches to narrow down. The consensus seemed to be an ebm-papst 612FL, and since you only need one of them unless you have multiple A boards, it seemed well worth $25. Maybe a fan isn’t even necessary for home use, obviously engineered to deal with the hot conditions of running all day on location, but I’d rather just do it and forget about it. Since the fan arrived with two exposed wires, I cut the existing fan’s wires leaving the original connector in place. Then I twisted the wires together in parallel, added a little solder, and whoops! don’t forget to add heat shrink tubes first. Even with the A board without its shell the fan makes virtually no noise. I’m on a roll, at least until something, like, complicated breaks.

David Letterman

Knowing there would come a day when David Letterman retired was a sad reality that surfaced in my mind less and less, though that didn’t really ease the pain when it finally happened. I must’ve started watching Dave when I was 10 or 11, latching on to this trojan horse manchild who carved my first lasting impressions of comedy and subversion. He was my private thing, as most longtime fans would say. Like early Conan, Dave’s show was scrappy, honest and brave. And unlike Carson, his irreproachable network television father figure, Dave opened up the format well beyond the desk, searching further into America’s indifferent psyche than most viewers cared to examine.

I watched his NBC days until his departure in 1993 for CBS, the year I graduated high school. The new format was shiny and his Adidas were now long gone. On and off I caught the show, but it wasn’t the same as those early years spent watching alone in my room. Fantasies of interning for show, writing for the show, guest hosting the show, evaporated as I grew up and let it go.

In October of 2012, after writing in for tickets 25 years prior with no response, I was in New York and called to request standby seats at Justin’s insistence. That night we sat in the second row, freezing, and watched as Dave and Chris Elliott bantered. My memory of that night was the long buildup to finally taking seats in the studio, a very trim and energetic Dave running out, the bursts of activity off camera between segments, and the show close arriving sooner than I’d hoped.

Egret II

When I started getting back into video games, I wasn’t sure how long it would hold my interest, and I didn’t really anticipate how far it would go, despite laying it out in my first post on the topic. I had images in my head of picking off all my childhood consoles, like an obsessive lover resetting the clock, but the time, space and idiocy required seemed beyond what I had energy for. And since I was delightfully late to the gaming nostalgia party, prices weren’t going to be in my favor. As it turns out, they made a lot of these things, and there’s still plenty stacked in people’s closets looking for new owners, and my energy for time wasting apparently knows no bounds.

After moving to the country, the extra space rekindled the notion of having some arcade hardware. While a dedicated Gyruss was in the basement for a long-term restore project, I’d hoped to find an Egret or Astro City for playing various PCBs on. A supergun would’ve solved that without the bulky cabinet, but I’d come this far, and I didn’t want to blow up our tv infrastructure which was already overflowing with 12 consoles. In Japan finding a candy cab probably wouldn’t be so difficult, I imagine it much like stumbling across avocados in California. In the US, tracking down the wooden cabinets that once saturated our malls, pizzerias, and truck stops isn’t much further than a Craigslist search, though to find them cheaply takes patience.

Arcade forum group buys seemed like the best bet, splitting shipping costs with other hobbyists that live nearby. Even better is knowing someone who’s more nutty for this stuff than you are, and has the background and contacts to guide you straight to the madness. That someone was my friend Eric, who I should add, had nothing to gain from helping me out. Thanks man! The text came that there were a couple Egret II cabs coming over, and now was the time to decide if I wanted in. A week later we loaded one onto a truck I rented, while he took the second one for himself, squeezing it into his Gulf. Getting it up a few steps into our home was another matter entirely. While the thing’s on wheels, it’s 230lbs. I wouldn’t do it again without a third person or appliance dolly.

I’d like to say the first thing I did was play DonDonPachi DaiOuJou, which I’d borrowed from Eric. And I did for a while. But I spent the next thirty minutes trying to figure out why the coin mech wasn’t passing coins, even though you could still credit by hand. I wanted the full Japanese arcade experience, the one I was robbed of by my American midwestern parents. After grasping how it worked, I made a few adjustments, polished off the rust, oiled it and was dropping yen like a salaryman in Kabukicho. Then like any good candy cab owner I gave it a thorough cleaning, stopping short of a full break-down.

The power supply and monitor chassis seem in excellent shape, and the jamma harness is intact and tidy. The 29″ Nanao MS9 is 15kHz bliss, though reasonable bliss — it does have some burn-in and perhaps a little faded. I followed Emphatic’s handy guide on tweaking the colors and black/white levels which helped punch it up. Adding a 20″ fluorescent bulb brings the marquee to life, giving your face that pink shmup glow. And replacing the worn Sanwa sticks and buttons with Seimitsu LS32s made DOJ somewhat more manageable. The first week I felt like game center staff, repeatedly getting in and out of its locked doors. A faint, sweet tempura smell wafts out whenever the main door is opened to swap games, which is certainly a bonus over nicotine.

Rotating the Egret II can take two minutes or ten, if you try to rush and scratch your head, dropping bolts into its belly. So far all but one PCB I’ve picked up is vertical — well, two if you count the Neo Geo MV1FZ, you need at least one weeknight with Puzzle Bobble bouncing around in the background while you make dinner. This is of course the conundrum that two cabs solve, one oriented yoko and the other tate. Like replacing favorite DVDs with Blu-rays, I’m trying not to buy games I already have good ports of, but considering what a difference the experience is, the temptation is strong.

The hunt for PCBs without ball-busting prices is quickly becoming addicting and can rival the pleasure, and effort, of getting good at a game, which is all wrong. Playing one game for an hour and then going to the shelf for another, the tactile satisfaction of handling the actual hardware, is tempting as well. Along with occasional board fixes and cab maintenance. And carefully unwrapping new arrivals.