MAME Cab: It begins.


Well, the name diary kind of implies there will be a daily entry and this will be anything but.

Anyway, welcome aboard, here we go.

So, hands up who has never been in a Video Game Arcade as a kid and marveled at the sights, sounds and even the smells therein.

Thought not, so that’s why I wanted to build my very own arcade cabinet, but not featuring just a single game like Space Invaders or Pacman, but every game that I used to love playing in the arcades.

Every year my family would go on holiday to Looe, Cornwall and as luck would have it they took me with them. There in the town, right on the harbour itself was an amusement arcade I would go into and hear the sounds and see the sites that seemed so familiar. All the classics that I loved to play were there; Space Invaders, Pacman, Asteroids, Defender, Donkey Kong, Scramble and Rally X, and I would put 10p after 10p into them, so I wanted to build my own machine that would allow me to play these same games at home.

I didn’t want to just sit down at a desk and use a PC mouse and keyboard to play them though, I wanted the real deal, a complete upright arcade cabinet, so I set about devising a plan.

The build will consist of 2 main parts;
(1) The physical cabinet build itself.
(2) The computer that will sit inside it and run everything.

As of yet, I don’t have a cabinet to use and I have 2 options really.
(i) Build my own from scratch.
(i) Buy an old arcade cabinet that is either no longer in use or is in need of restoration.

The trouble with a new build, either from my own plans or from buying a flatpack kit, is that I want the real feel of authenticity that an original cab will give me, and after all we are on a nostalgia kick here.

The trouble with buying an old one is preservation. If I buy an old one that still has its original game working inside it, I think it should be preserved and restored where possible, so to rip them out and replace them with a PC would be sacrilegious. Cabinets like that should be restored to their former glory, so what I am looking for is either a cab that no longer runs or one that has got no internals left inside it.
One that has its workings but no longer runs would be the better option I think, as some internals may be reusable and of use to somebody, so I could see them go to a new home and be used as nature intended. That is if nature ever built an arcade cabinet. Doubtful.

Before I manage to pick up a cab though, I can be proceeding with the actual PC build as I had a couple of old desktops lying around doing nothing so I wanted to put them to good use. Specification wise the PC doesn’t have to be a high end performance machine as we are only going to be running 20 year old games on it, so an old Pentium machine which is what I had would be fine. Space wise, the build is only going to consume around 8 Gigabytes, so an old hard drive will suffice too. The only prerequisites we really need to worry about are the sound card and the graphics card.

The sound card ideally needs to be a Creative Sound Blaster as they have the driver support we are looking for, and the graphics card is admittedly an optional extra, but using on board graphics may mean that we don’t always get the performance that some games may require. In particular, ATI cards are well supported and will suit our needs. I also happened to have one of those lying around too, so all the more reason to use it.

So how do we go about getting our old beater to run the much loved arcade games?
An emulator is how. One called M.A.M.E.

Emulators are software programs that recreate hardware environments, so for example an original arcade machine would be made of physical hardware such as circuit boards and chips and the games would be hard coded onto these chips and boards. “However, the game Scramble’s board was especially easy to “re-use” and several games were hacked to play on it. A long-running joke with MAME enthusiasts is that anything can be run on Scramble hardware. Ironically, Scramble itself was hacked to play on Galaxian hardware!” [source] but by design many were not interchangeable so would only play one game. The changing of boards was mainly brought about when new games were released, but the arcade owners didn’t want to buy a machine. Instead they would hack a game to run on one of their existing machines.

An emulator recreates all of this bespoke hardware but does it in software, and it recreates all the hardware, so a single emulator can recreate the boards for every cab and allow us to play every game.

The emulator we will be using is called MAME which stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator and is perhaps one of the most used and most famous of all emulators. As such, it is very well supported and documented and has a long history of builds. The beauty of this is that if you want to emulate some of the more modern games you can use a more recent build installed on a higher end machine, but for our purposes here, we will be playing mainly the old classic games so we can use an old MAME build on older hardware.

That is the emulated hardware covered, so what about the games themselves? The game files that the emulator uses are called ROM files (Read Only Memory) and as is customary when mentioning ROMs I’ll now type a meandering an unspecific diatribe about the legality of using them.

Remember when blank audio cassettes first came out? Me neither, but at that time the record industry attempted to have them banned because people were buying vinyl albums and using a cassette tape to record them to listen to elsewhere such as in their car. You had bought the album and owned the album, but the record company wanted you to buy the cassette version as well so they said it was illegal to copy something you owned and took the matter to court.

They lost and people everywhere recorded their vinyl albums to listen to in their car.

The same thing is true of Video Games and other similar technologies like music CDs, though you will be told otherwise again by the record companies. Let’s say you buy a CD and listen to it every day until one day it has got so scratched and damaged that it has become unplayable. You have to buy it again. That’s paying twice for the same thing. Well, here’s what you should be legally able to do.

You buy a CD or a game, take it home and make a copy of it, then place the original in safe storage. You can’t sell it on or give it away, you must keep hold of it as you own it. You now play this copy every day until it also becomes so scratched and damaged that it is unplayable. At this point you destroy the copy, do not sell it or give it away, destroy it and get your pristine original out of safe storage and make another copy of it for everyday use.

Well, the idea is the same with MAME ROMs it’s just that the technology is different. If you own a Space Invaders arcade cabinet, you can own a ROM file for Space Invaders, and the company Atari have even made some of their ROM files available for purchase in the past, but nobody owns every arcade game cabinet, so what about ROMs for games you don’t own?

Well, Wikipedia has this to say about it. The full quotes can be found in this article.

Freely licensed ROMs
The vast majority of computer & video games from the history of such games are no longer manufactured. As such, the copyright holders of some games have offered free licenses to those games, often on the condition that they be used for non-commercial purposes only.

Unlicensed ROMs
While some games which no longer make any profit fit into the category above, the vast majority are no longer available in any form. The legality of obtaining such games varies from country to country. Some countries have special exceptions in copyright laws or case law which permit (or discourage less) copying when an item is not available for legal purchase or when the copying is for non-commercial or research purposes, while other countries may make such practises firmly illegal. There is often a distinction drawn between distribution and downloading, with distribution being seen as the greater offence.

Abandonware
It is often the case that games which are still in copyright are no longer sold or marketed by their copyright holders. This may be due to the perceived lack of demand for the game or for other reasons. Some of those engaged in ROM trading claim that such games should be deemed
abandoned by their copyright holders and that the game, termed Abandonware, can be freely traded by users.

Commercial distribution
Commercial distribution of copyrighted games without the consent of the copyright holder is generally illegal in almost all countries, with those who take part in such activities being liable for both criminal and civil penalties.

24 hours claim
Some ROM websites claim it is legal to download and keep a ROM of a game one doesn’t own for as long as 24 hours, after which it is one’s responsibility to delete it. Although this claim is widespread, it has no basis in the law.

Enforcement
Many have argued that it would be irrational for a company to spend money prosecuting for games that they are no longer making profit from, as there would be no damages to speak of. Even so, this has not deterred Nintendo from pursuing a number of lawsuits against ROM distribution websites via non-profit subsidiaries.

So, now you’re familiar with MAME and ROMs we need to think about what Operating System we are going to run on our old beater, but more importantly how we are going to control it when it is inside the cabinet.

Tune in again for the next gripping instalment and a story so far where we’ll discover just what a ball ache it can be messing around with old computers.

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