DonPachi

I’m going to start cataloging PCB pickups here because, well, I enjoy the look of the hardware, and it suits this site’s journaling characteristics. While this wasn’t my first Cave board, it’s my first of the series, and Cave’s first arcade release. DonPachi isn’t terribly hard to find — certainly not as rare as its sequel, the pricier DoDonPachi — and I do like origin stories.

Published by Atlus in 1995 and based on Cave’s first generation 68000 hardware, DonPachi hits that mid-90s sweet spot for me in terms of hand drawn sprites, semi-complex animations, cinematic music and well balanced gameplay and ramp-up in difficulty. In the more frantic moments it seems to struggle to overlap audio, and the slowdown of the action, which is not too common here, is a welcome second or two of relief.

Initially I opted to use ship Type-A, which is the fastest, and seemed well suited in setting the pace. Chaining, the key element of killing enemies and scenery in quick succession for huge bonus points, felt well controlled by this ship type. But I also found myself constantly dying in area two and three and realized this ship may be better left for now to the experienced players. I became curious about Type-C after watching other runs but had a hard time adapting to the much slower speed. It played like a different game. Soon I was progressing further and scoring higher and haven’t turned back.

The weapons are limited, essentially focused on upgrading its power, and alternate between fire and laser by holding down the shot button at the expense of a slower ship, which became a classic shmup tradeoff. Bombing, the last resort oh fuck savior, modifies rank, along with losing a life. Keeping rank from making things too difficult is tempting, but bomb your way through a complex scene and you’ll never learn it. The controls are simple and effective and yet offer plenty of opportunities for your own play style.

Besides the addiction of returning to a game that constantly threatens to kill you, the draw of chaining, collecting each area’s hidden bee items, and pure score, ramps up DonPachi‘s replay value significantly. After a couple months I’m finally reaching near the end of area four (out of five) — even with all the progress it’s hard to imagine clearing the first loop on a credit, let alone the second. I give it a few attempts most days, and it offers an awful lot of fun in return.

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 found a second Robotron in Los Angeles. Though this one lacked the original side art and 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, 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 slick 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 cabs it had been dragged around in its later years without leg levelers, and the bottom showed 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, rather bright and colorful, though with traditional Robotron burn.

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

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 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.

Gyruss Restore Part 3

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.

Gyruss Restore Part 2

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.