How To Set Up a Home Arcade System

Arcade stick

Think back to the arcade days. Simple, yet challenging games, friends competing to get their name on the leaderboard, and wads of chewing gum lodged on the underside of the controls. Wouldn’t it be great to go back to the arcades?

Times sure are tough in the world of console and PC gaming. If it’s not Sega and Gearbox squabbling over Aliens: Colonial Marines, then it’s EA trying to convince us that SimCity is still worth paying for, and even the future of the next generation of games consoles may not be so bright. So what is the busy, modern gamer to?

How to set up a home arcade

Set up your very own home arcade system

Sure, there’s plenty of arcade games available through services such as Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network, and the Apple AppStore but what about all those precious arcade games that fall through the gaps, never to be played again? This simple guide will provide you with the initial steps to get your own home arcade system up and running.

1. Get yourself a dedicated arcade PC

You needn’t access your savings account for a fancy new gaming PC as many of the classic arcade games released up to the 21st century and beyond, work perfectly fine with minimal computer specifications.

For example, I’ve been playing plenty of relatively modern arcade games on a old Pentium 4 with 2GB of RAM and a 40GB HDD. Second hand computers of these specs can be bought cheaply at many pawn brokers and flea markets, you may even have one hidden away in the attic.

2. Download and install the MAME arcade emulator

MAME stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, and is a program capable of recreating PC environments for over a thousand different arcade boards. For example, MAME is a virtual arcade machine, and there are several different versions of MAME, which have different features and OS compatibilities.  However, the basic version can be downloaded for Windows through the official MAME website.

Once downloaded, run the program and select a location for MAME to install to. And once installed, simply enter the newly created directory and locate a file named “mame”. Create a shortcut from “mame” to your desktop, so you can run the program whenever you want. Back in the MAME directory, locate the folder called “roms” for the next step

3. Download arcade games

Arcade games aren’t included with MAME, but must be downloaded separately. A selection of games, known as ROMs, can be downloaded from another section of the MAME website; with many other games being found elsewhere.

The ROMS always come as zipped files which should be dropped into the “roms” folder mentioned above. Leave the ROMs zipped or they won’t work.

How to set up a home arcade

4. Get the authentic arcade feel with an arcade stick

USB arcade sticks are more available now then they have ever been, and due to USB being the common interface for controllers across all home consoles; you can even use an arcade stick designed for the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. Well known manufacturers of USB arcade sticks include Hori, Mad Catz and Datel with a variety of models at several prices ranges.

Personally, I’ve been successfully using MAME on Windows with a combination of Hori’s EX2 Fighting Stick, and a Mad Catz’s Street Fighter IV GamePad, both made for use with an Xbox 360 and both considered “low budget” controllers.

Although you’re fully able to play arcade games through MAME with just your computer keyboard, it’s strongly advised to use a gamepad or arcade stick of some sort. Fortunately MAME is able to recognise essentially all USB gamepads, joystick and arcade sticks, roller ball mice, light-guns and more. So the sky’s the limit in terms of choice and compatibility.

5. Get an old school CRT monitor

Sure they’re bulky, heavy and often make a horrible whining noise, but arcade purists will not be seen dead without an authentic, 4:3 cathode-ray tube monitor to play their games on. As with buying a dedicated PC, such old monitors are found cheaply at flea markets and online. Again, you may just have one lurking in your attic or basement.

Donkey kong 'pauline edition'

6. Go one step further and build a custom arcade cabinet

For some retro gamers, an old PC connected to a USB arcade stick isn’t enough to fully relive the glory days of the arcade style gaming, and they decide to build their own, fully functional, custom arcade cabinet. These are usually in the form of either the classic upright cabinet still found today, or the table top that was popular in the 70’s and 80’s.

Custom cabinets are usually either made from MDF or plywood and are built around a monitor, one or two arcade sticks, speakers, and a dedicated PC running MAME. Alternatively many retro gamers simply buy old, broken arcade machines and salvage the cabinet. Either way, this can be a pricey venture to undertake.

The PCs inside the cabinets usually either run a custom version of Linux that goes straight into MAME, or use a MAME boot disc, like a CD-ROM containing MAME and arcade games that automatically run as soon as the PC is turned on. This disc can also be used to take around friends houses to play games on their computers without having to install anything at all. By far the most well developed and easy to set up MAME boot disc is AdvanceCD, which can be downloaded for free through their website, getting it set up does however require some knowledge of creating and burning disc images.

7. Spread the joy and have fun!

The fondest memories surrounding old arcades is the excitement of meeting new people, playing games with friends and competing for high scores. In a time where most gamers are stuck with only their living room wall and a headset to talk to, a home arcade system will surely tempt people to come around and play their favorite arcade classics and have a crack at that high score just one more time.