Easy Fixes

Posted May 25, 2015

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.

Egret II

Posted April 19, 2015

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.

On the Inside

Posted October 6, 2013

Like many kids, I took my toys apart, stared at the guts, and then nervously attempted to reassemble them before my parents walked in. I loved the look of the exposed boards and chips, tidy wiring and the dozens of tiny transistors that did who knew what. I guess I also wanted to hack it, to make it say something it wasn’t designed to say, to somehow subvert the vast, invisible industrial mechanisms that brought it to life. Instead I settled on crude Rube Goldberg-esque bedroom contraptions which relied more on imitated Pee Wee’s Big Adventure concepts than any real electronics knowledge.

In high school I built my first PC, and by built I mean I picked out components from computer catalogs using a credit card and pushed all the pieces in place until it worked. I understood the basics of a motherboard, Intel 386 and 486 processors, RAM, and sweet Sound Blaster 16 cards, but had no idea what the various other chips did or what code made it run. While my friend studied BASIC and created fractal screensavers (which we later copied to desktops at Best Buy to, probably inaccurately, speed test the new Pentium chips), I played Sierra games and, actually, I’m not sure what else I did do. I fiddled. I tried to comprehend programming, but I could already tell it was going to be complicated in a way that wasn’t fun or easy for me. My brain just didn’t work that way. We traded pre-email messages on 3.5″ disks, sometimes using batch files to trigger Simpsons audio samples.

At the same time, I was entranced with arcade games, wondering what kind of magic were in those big boxes, how it differed from my home game consoles, and why the games looked so damn good (though recently after coming across Street Fighter II at a movie theater I realized how low-res those CRTs were). All of this was before YouTube of course. Now you can find a video of someone taking apart and explaining almost anything, with narration spanning the gamut of incredibly proficient autodidacts to chatty weekend hobbyists. From Game Boy Advance and SNES enhancement chips to Raspberry Pi clusters and endless arcade PCB videos. Watching the guy who is RGB modding my TurboGrafx-16 tirelessly repair old game consoles is endlessly fascinating.

Recently I picked up a copy of Inside the Machine by Jon Stokes and by page 20 I’m already struggling a bit. To simply grasp the fundamentals of computer architecture would please me. One day I’d like to play with a stack of arcade PCBs and a candy cab, and like owning an old car, it would be swell to know how to make minor repairs myself. But, realistically, I know my limitations; maybe reading and watching is enough for me. Playing with other people’s creations goes a long way.