So to tide you readers over, I'm going to take this opportunity to repost (with annotated comments) the last of the articles I did for Game Head back in 2012. It's a little off the beaten path. If you don't care about coin-op, skip this article entirely and I'll see you next week!
Home Runs to Gem Attacks: Converting an Arcade Game
by Michael Bahr
Originally published on Game Head, August 29, 2012.
[July 2015 commentary in brackets and italics.]
Greetings! I am the managing partner at Desert Sky Games in Gilbert, Arizona. My law degree and day job in government health care make my primary role with DSG as book keeper, but the role I enjoy most is curating DSG’s Vintage Arcade!
Back in the 1990s, I owned a “vending route” that at one point consisted of about thirty arcade games that I located in Phoenix-area game stores, laundromats, and other small businesses. The money was good enough for an unmarried, childless guy in his twenties, and the work was mostly great fun. By 2003, the arcade fighting-game furor had died down and the vintage retro fad was still in its infancy, so I sold out and headed to ASU Law. Still, I always wished and hoped to return to the arcade game craft. It requires both physical and mental aptitude. It lets you work with tools. It allows you to create and destroy. It allows you to be carpenter, electrician, luthier, and engineer. It gets unwieldy handling huge wooden cabinets weighing hundreds of pounds, and deadly electrical hazards lurk in every glitchy monitor tube, but it is a rare joy to take a non-functional cabinet and see it light up for the first time after restoring it – and that makes it worth it many times over.
Today, I will step you through a project I recently completed for the Vintage Arcade and that I get to do fairly often: converting an unwanted arcade game into a popular one. [In the years since writing this, I have gained a greater appreciation for restoring vintage gear to its original state and preserving its value, but in the case of this piece, it was already pretty far gone and it would have cost more to restore than just finding an Ikari Warriors that was in better condition.]
DSG General Manager Mike Girard and I found a Relief Pitcher on eBay for a reasonable price. Relief Pitcher was an early-1990s baseball game that would not be a good fit for the Vintage Arcade. However, I noticed that this particular RP was installed in a late-1980s Dynamo cabinet, which in the arcade world is a very good thing. Dynamo cabinets tend to last a long time and have excellent accessibility, solid durability, and well-designed wiring and mounting features. We made the buy and picked up the game as-is, which is normal in the arcade hobby. I cleaned out about a dozen dead spiders and assorted crud from inside the enclosure, and then the true work began. Alas, I did not take a photo of the game while it was still working as a RP, but here it was after my initial disassembly of the marquee and control panel:
The first thing you’ll see is that the drilling of the cabinet is not similar to the “Street Fighter” layout of six buttons and a joystick per side. That disqualifies this cabinet from being used as a MAME multicade or home-use game for the most part. Instead, I needed to install some software that would be optimal with two joysticks and two buttons per side, with the option to make both sides play ambidextrously (identical buttons on either side of the joystick). A few games fit the bill, mostly puzzle games such as Tetris and Bust-A-Move. I happened to have a PCB (what you might think of as a “motherboard” or “game board”) for Capcom’s Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. I hoped that Relief Pitcher would convert directly to Puzzle Fighter with a minimum of fuss.
The RP control panel overlay, or CPO, was adhered to the metal and was a lost cause, as was the side art. However, most of the Relief Pitcher components were perfectly salvageable. DSG will likely sell the RP conversion kit on eBay for a modest price, as the game would have play value in somebody’s mancave/rumpus room or at a bar pub that it would never have in a more traditional arcade like ours. Here were the RP parts after disassembly:
The marquee, monitor bezel, game PCB, interesting three-sided buttons, joysticks, start button, and mounting hardware all survived in good shape. The manual was even sitting right there inside the cabinet!
Now it was time to get to work. With any arcade game to convert, the first and most critical element is the electrical system. If the game has a poor electrical system, it doesn’t matter what you do with it; the game will be constant trouble and you may even blow out PCBs or other critical components. Or, you know, kill yourself with an electric shock. Since the game powered up, I was not too surprised that the power supply was in good shape:
There are three main electrical components: the switching power supply (the top item in the photo), the isolation transformer (the block under it), and the filter/grounding wiring (next photo). The switching power supply is common in arcade games. It accepts A/C from the wall and passes it through to the monitor and marquee lighting, and then provides additional outputs of +5v for the game CPU, -5v for coin door mechanics and lighting, +12v usually for sound, and sometimes other voltages, such as +3.3v for newer games based on console architecture like the Sega NAOMI system (Marvel vs Capcom 2, Virtua Tennis). In most cases the relevant voltages are passed together to a single JAMMA (Japanese standard) wiring harness to the PCB. The isolation transformer helps prevent power irregularity from the A/C line from blowing up your arcade game. Here is the filter/grounding wiring, which looked to be in decent shape as well with nice, tight connections:
The green wire is ground and leads to the control panel. [From the power block, I should have mentioned. The entirety of an arcade cabinet should be electrically secured to ground for maximum safety.] If you don’t have a good connection there, you could shock and kill a customer playing the game. Admittedly there are some customers you wouldn’t mind killing. But we try to avoid it in most cases so as not to be convicted of negligent homicide. You know how it is.
In modern PC AT and ATX power supplies, the isolation transformer and the filter/grounding wiring are contained within the metal casing along with the switching power supply in a nice, single enclosure. PC AT power supplies tend to run slightly hot on the +5v lead, but those that have +5v adjustment knobs are usually safe to run arcade games and save you some electrical hassle. Right now I have a PC AT power supply running DSG’s Street Fighter II Turbo: Hyper Fighting and it works perfectly. But for most games, the separate switching power supply, isolation transformer, and filter/grounding wiring are what you will see. If they are all in good shape and all the connections look sound, you can power up the game. If it boots, your electrical system is probably fine.
So the electrical system worked. As well, the monitor worked, which is a topic for an article all its own. It was time to strip this puppy the rest of the way down so I could build it back up again into a Puzzle Fighter. First, I needed to get all the baseball materials off the sides and control panel. This was significant work, actually, requiring some scraping tools and elbow grease. Look what I discovered:
Hey, that looks familiar! The gun, the grenade, the 60-degree joystick labeling – I recognized this! A little later the control panel gave up even more information:
It appears this game began its life as an SNK Ikari Warriors cabinet! I felt really annoyed at that point toward the person who converted it into a Relief Pitcher, because Ikari Warriors is a vintage classic and I would gladly have left it intact if I had bought it as such. But these things happen. I even saw a Pac-Man at Encanto Park in Phoenix that had been converted into a Street Fighter II! Don’t get me wrong, I love Street Fighter, but you can convert any JAMMA cabinet into that…it doesn’t make a lot of sense to ruin a vintage classic that’s custom-wired in the first place. But I digress. In any event, Ikari Warriors was long dead, I wasn’t going to be able to find the parts to restore it readily, so the original plan of making a Puzzle Fighter moved forward.
First up, I needed to install the Puzzle Fighter PCB and make sure it all powered up properly. Puzzle Fighter was released on the Capcom CPS2 system, which is an almost console-like arcade hardware standard that allowed operators to buy a single “A” board with CPU and connections, and swap out different “B” boards to change the game. Many games were based on the Street Fighter control panel scheme, so an arcade operator who owned a Super Street Fighter II could upgrade it to a Darkstalkers, then to an X-Men: Children of the Atom, then to a Marvel Super Heroes, then to a Vampire Savior, then to a Street Fighter Alpha 2, and so on, all the way up to the first Marvel vs Capcom game, by changing nothing but the CPS2 “B” board and marquee and leaving the cabinet largely intact. It was an ingenious way to offer arcade hardware because it kept games new and costs down, and featured somewhat beefier hardware specs than SNK’s similar Neo Geo Multi Video System that offered similar flexibility. Other versatile arcade hardware platforms followed, a stark departure from the early 1980s when every game had custom wiring and custom hardware from top to bottom, and conversion kits had to be designed specifically game-by-game, such as upgrading Atari Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back. Here is the Puzzle Fighter PCB in place inside the cabinet:
The black half of the board is the “A” PCB with CPU, while the green half is the “B” board containing the game ROMs. All that wiring you see at the top is the JAMMA standard harness that connects the PCB to the rest of the cabinet. It contains the power leads from the power supply, a group of wires with RGB, sync, and ground for video output to the monitor, assorted contact switch outputs to the coin door and lockout coil and such so that the cabinet knows to give you a credit when you insert a quarter, and then contact switch outputs to the control panel. These are the simplest of all to understand. Every button, and the joystick directions act identically to buttons in this case, is connected to its own contact (signal) wire from the JAMMA harness, and then a common ground wire runs in a series through all buttons and switches. When the button is pressed, its signal wire touches ground, and the game PCB reads it as a button input. It is no accident that you see umpteen vendors offering custom-made MAME controllers and the like online and on eBay – they are very easy to assemble.
In fact, the control panel was the next thing to wire up. I used a black vinyl control panel overlay because I did not have any Capcom “metallic” CPOs on hand, and for Puzzle Fighter in particular it’s not as critical to the aesthetic as it would be for, say, Marvel vs Capcom. I laid out the controls in the ambidextrous format using the pre-drilled holes, and here is how it looked with nice new buttons and joysticks:
At this stage, I had to test everything to see if I had a mechanically functional Puzzle Fighter machine. All the remaining work would be cosmetic if that was the case. Fortunately, the PCB has a test switch on it that puts the game into service mode, and allows every input to be tested one by one for signal, as well as the sound, the monitor color and position, and the coin door. Once I was satisfied that every connection was working properly, I went ahead and attached the marquee inlay to the plexiglass panel at the top, switched on the marquee light, and fired up the machine in normal mode:
Great success! The black CPO sets off the white buttons well – I liked the clean and uncluttered look of it. The monitor, a CRT, was serviceable and the colors good – a fairly critical thing for a game that depends on color for gameplay! Even still, this game definitely is a candidate for an upgrade to LCD at some point in the future, because CRTs do wear out and you can get 19” 4:3 LCD panels that are electronically compatible with arcade PCB wiring and mounting.
All that remained was to install a monitor bezel and some new coin door locks. It probably goes without saying, but if you acquire an arcade game and intend to operate it in public, you should seriously consider discarding any old locks that might be present on the cabinet and installing your own. There are perfectly good shelf locks available at Lowe’s or Home Depot and you can use the keycodes to get them all keyed the same if you so desire – back in the day, an arcade tech was not usually given coin box access, but these days the tech usually does all arcade game maintenance. For home use, just remove all the locks – you won’t need them.
Here is the Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo as it appears today at Desert Sky Games! It is available for public use for twenty-five cents per play, and is available to own for $699 plus sales tax, with delivery available within the Phoenix metro area. [Epilogue: We sold it in 2013.]
I hope you enjoyed this look at converting an arcade game! Feedback is welcomed on what kind of other arcade topics you would like me to cover.
That's it for now, thanks for allowing me this indulgence. See you all next week!