Gather 'round, kids.
Once upon a time, there was a magical place known as the arcade. It was the home of the realest video games on earth. Back in the '80s and ‘90s, arcade games were technical marvels, and embarrassed their comparatively quaint console contemporaries. And unlike the increasingly long-winded nature of home games, arcade games were designed as 30-minute thrill rides and built to push players’ skills to their limits. Developers delivered games with unbridled creativity, and had no reservations about pumping out games that were too violent, too tough, or too bizarre for home consoles. But no matter how off-the-wall the games might have been, the goal was always fun. There’s really nothing that gives you quite the same adrenaline rush as a good arcade game. And that’s cool.
So is arcade culture. Back in 'the day, arcades were frequented by degenerates, scoundrels, and the general dregs of society. It was a place where a 10-year-old you could meet high school kids that smoked cigarettes and would beat you up in real life if you did a cheap move in Street Fighter. But it was exhilarating. There was an energy in arcades, and playing at home just wasn’t the same. But, we all know how this story ends. Arcades died out in the West, supplanted by console games with increasingly more impressive visuals and more robust multiplayer experiences. And while arcades still exist in Japan, they’ve slowly been shrinking over the years. Besides – you don’t live in Japan, so what good does that do you? So, what’s left? Just move on to playing Calladuty like everyone else?
FUCK THAT. Arcades, as a destination, might not be in vogue anymore, but that doesn’t mean you should give up the thrill of a good arcade game. Enter the final frontier of video game collecting: buying PCBs, and taking the arcade experience home. There are literally thousands of arcade games that never made the move to a home console, and that’s without taking into consideration the hundreds more that had substandard home ports. Buying arcade games is about as expensive as the hobby gets, but if you’ve always wanted the real deal… well, this is it.
Cool Arcade Exclusives:
Cadillacs & Dinosaurs
Knights of Valour: The Seven Spirits
First, a primer on arcade game vernacular. Arcade games come on PCBs, which is short for “printed circuit boards.” These are large pieces of gadgetry that contain all the tech the game needs to run, along with the ROM, which is the game code, itself. PCBs have a connector on them, called a JAMMA connector, which is a single connection that provides power to the board, provides the video and audio ouput to your setup, and handles the controls for the game. As an added wrinkle, there’s also something called a JAMMA kick harness, which you’ll need for 6-button fighting games. See, the JAMMA standard only supports up to 4 buttons, so for games like Street Fighter II, you’ll need an additional cable that gives you a working button 5 and 6. In practice, it’s easy to accommodate for this, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
Of course, you can’t do much of anything with a PCB, on its own – you’ve got to plug it into something. You’ve got two choices for playing a PCB: a straight-up arcade cabinet, or a supergun.
If you want the most authentic experience, buying an arcade cabinet is the way to go. I mean, you can’t get more real than real. An arcade cabinet is going to come with everything you need to hook up a PCB and play – everything’s wired up so that you can plug a cable into the JAMMA connector on the board, and you’re good to go. The monitors are going to be low-lag displays (ideally CRTs), and the machines are built like tanks. They also weigh as much as a tank. If you don’t have a big enough doorway to fit one of these things inside, and don’t have some very helpful friends to help you lift… maybe don’t bother.
But arcade cabinets are cool, and make you more appealing to the opposite sex. If you do decide to go down this road, look into the Sega Astro City or Blast City cabinets, which are some of the more aesthetically pleasing, adaptable cabinets out there. The Taito Vewlix is a newer cab that’s pretty well liked, though it uses an LCD panel instead of a CRT. But really, as long as it has six buttons and doesn’t look like shit, you can’t go wrong.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that an actual cab is going to be a bit of a pain in the ass if you play the occasional shmup. Vertical-scrolling shmups are generally played on 4:3 monitors that are rotated vertically… so if you have an arcade monitor that’s seated normally for fighting games and the like, shmups will show up sideways. Not ideal. You’ll have to flip the monitor in order to get it to display properly, and chances are that you really, really don’t want to do that. So the real ideal is to get two cabinets and… well, see what a slippery slope this can become?
The other concern with buying a cabinet is that any given arcade monitor is likely to have been in use for thousands and thousands of hours. These displays have a finite life, and are prone to developing issues after so much use. So, bear in mind that there’s some element of risk involved.
This will be the more practical option for most. A supergun is a box that handles all of the functionality that an arcade machine does, but allows you to output the game to a normal TV and use the controller of your choice. A supergun will typically have a JAMMA connector that hooks up to the board, a couple of controller ports that use a DB-15 connection, an A/V output, and buttons for inserting a coin and accessing the service menu for the game. Good superguns will also have a voltage multimeter, and RGB control knobs.
So, let’s break that down. JAMMA connector is, of course, what you’ll plug the actual board into. Superguns will also have a slot for the additional JAMMA kick harness cable that you’ll need for 6-button fighters, like Street Fighter II.
You’ll plug your arcade stick in with a DB-15 connection. That’s the same port the Neo Geo home system uses. But, chances are that you don’t have a DB-15 controller on-hand. Why would you? The good news is that there are converters out there that will let you use your modern controllers and arcade sticks with a supergun. Brook makes a PS3/PS4 to Neo Geo adapter that just so happens to have a DB-15 connector, meaning you can use this to get your current stick working on a supergun with minimal fuss. There are some other alternatives out there that accomplish the same thing, so with a little luck, you won’t need to buy a new controller just for your arcade games.
As far as connecting the supergun to your TV goes, superguns are… a little behind the curve. If you’re expecting a simple HDMI cable, forget it. A lot of superguns have component out, which will be the most convenient option for most. RGB SCART connections are almost always available, as well. Also keep in mind that, because most arcade games run at 240p, they’re going to look like shit if you plug the supergun directly into your HDTV. The overwhelmingly preferable solution would be to use either a Framemeister or OSSC to upscale or linedouble the output. And add scanlines, because, fuck’s sake, you should use them. This whole thing is a conversation and a half, though, and if you’re unfamiliar with it, you should take a look the forum’s upscaler discussions. It’s yet another added bit of complexity, but if you’re going to get into arcade games, you might as well do it right.
Another minor thing to be aware of is that the audio from PCBs tends to be loud as hell. Most good superguns give you the option attenuate the audio and keep volumes in check. Good superguns will also give you a set of three knobs to control the brightness for red, green, and blue colors. Some games will appear washed out without a bit of adjustment, so having controls for fine tuning things is a must.
Good superguns will also include a voltage multimeter, that reads out what the current voltage the board’s receiving is. Generally, you’ll want the board to get around 5V of power. There’s a knob on the supergun that will allow you to increase or decrease the voltage as needed. In practice, this won’t take a whole lot of fiddling, but it’s good to know about.
And that’s about it. There’s some intricacies to superguns, to be sure, but they’re pretty easy to use, in practice. While you can build a supergun yourself with a power supply, a video encoder (the JROK encoder is still the standard), and a couple other odds and ends, it’s a hell of a lot more practical at this point to just buy a prebuilt one. Arcade Forge’s MAK Strike is a relatively inexpensive option that brings with it all the functionality you’ll need.
While most games are simple PCBs that you can hook up and play without a second thought, there have been quite a few specialized systems built for arcades that have their own motherboards and compatible software. The way that these games work is, you hook the motherboard up to the the JAMMA connection in your arcade cabinet or supergun, and then plug the game into the motherboard. The idea was that arcade operators could purchase a motherboard that contained the base hardware needed to run games, and the games, themselves, would be a lot cheaper since they only needed to contain the game code and minimal additional hardware.
While this isn’t an exhaustive list, by any stretch, these are most of the prominent platforms out there:
Neo Geo MVS
This is the one that everyone’s familiar with. The Neo Geo MVS (Multi Video System) is SNK’s 1990 arcade hardware that played host to some of the best fighting games of all time, along with classics like Metal Slug, Windjammers, and Blazing Star. There are several variants of the Neo Geo motherboard, including models with 4 and 6 slots that allow you to plug in multiple cartridges at once and select the game of your choosing via a button on the cabinet.
This is a really good starting point for people new to buying arcade games. Neo Geo motherboards are cheap, and most of the games will run you well under $100. And it’s awesome. Check the Neo Geo thread for more info. I wrote a lot of words about it a few years back, and I don’t care to write them again.
Released in the early 2000s by Sammy, the Atomiswave took up the mantle of the Neo Geo, and ended up being the go-to platform for SNK once the Neo Geo went defunct. The Atomiswave didn’t boast a huge lineup of games, weighing in at only around two dozen, but there were some standouts among them. Most games, like King of Fighters XI, Hokuto no Ken, and Metal Slug 6; did find their way to consoles. But others – notably the fighter, Rumble Fish 2; and Metal Slug-style shooter, Dolphin Blue, remained exclusive to the arcade.
Capcom’s CPS-2 hardware launched in the mid-'90s, and powered some of the best games the company ever developed. Street Fighter Alpha 1-3, the Darkstalkers series, the D&D beat-em-up duo, Alien vs. Predator – all of them ran on CPS-2. The fighters were the apex of 2D combat, the selection of shmups ran the gamut from Mars Matrix to 1944 (almost all of them really good), and the beat-em-ups were top-notch. What’s not to like?
The motherboard is referred to as the CPS-2 A-board, with the games referred to as B-boards. If you’ve ever had an interest Capcom’s games, the CPS-2 is an obvious choice.
While not one of the better-known arcade systems, the Taito F3 was home to a lot of the company’s best arcade games. Launched in 1992, the system powered shmups like Darius Gaiden and Gekirindan, all the way to action-platformer greats like Elevator Action Returns and Bubble Symphony. While a comparatively inessential system, due to almost all the games having been ported to consoles at one point or another, if you fashion yourself a serious Taito fan, it’s worth a look.
Released by Taiwanese company, IGS, in 1997, the PGM was positioned as a direct competitor to the Neo Geo. While the system wasn’t widely adopted, it did have a few hidden gems, like the Knights of Valor series of beat-em-ups and a Metal Slug-style shooter called Demon Front. Cave also released a lot of their earlier shmups as PGM cartridges, though these games were also available as standalone PCBs.
An upgraded version of the PGM, the PGM 2, was released in 2007. It quickly faded into obscurity.
More Awesome Games!
Tetris: The Grandmaster 3: Terror Instinct
Progear no Arashi
The Rumble Fish 2
Alright, so… how much is this going to cost me? I’m a high-roller and always buy the collector’s editions for the latest Ubisoft games.
So… the good news? If you go the supergun route, the supergun itself will cost between $80-300 (depending on how fancy the thing is), and an arcade stick will run you between $80-300 (again, depending on how fancy the thing is.) An arcade cabinet, on the other hand, will cost you anywhere between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars, depending on whether you get some beat-up POS on Craigslist, or if you get a brand-spanking new cabinet from Japan.
If you’re already overwhelmed by those numbers, you might want to just sit this whole arcade thing out. That was the easy part. Now, the games, themselves? They’ll usually run you between $100-300 each. Some of the more sought-after titles – primarily shmups – can occasionally hit $500 or even $1,000+, depending on the game. Neo Geo games remain the most accessible, with prices generally ranging from $50-150.
It’s not a cheap hobby, at all. But, if we’re being real here… that’s kinda part of the excitement. Arcade collecting is a pretty exclusive club, and you’ll be the envy of your (probably very nerdy) friends.
But, where do I even buy this stuff? Does Target even sell JAMMA kick harnesses?
Arcade Shock - Arcade Shock can hook you up with a lot of useful kit, mostly for your arcade stick. They sell complete sticks, levers, buttons, and perhaps most useful for these purposes, all the accessories that Brook makes. So, that PS3/PS4 to DB-15 converter? Yeah, they carry it. They also have some arcade motherboards.
Arcade Forge - Arcade Forge sells a lot of good arcade stuff, the most notable of which is their MAK Strike supergun. They also have boards for wiring up joysticks, and some other tchotchkes.
JAMMA Nation X - These guys carry a lot of random useful arcade stuff. They carry the kick harnesses you’ll need for various games that use more than 4 buttons. They carry some arcade motherboards, too.
For games, your best bet is probably other fans. No, really. Enthusiast forums like the Shmups forum, Neo-Geo.com, Arcade Otaku, and Assembler Games are actually really good places to find PCBs and buy them at a reasonable (relatively speaking, of course) price.
If you’re in deep, you might want to try scouring Yahoo Auctions Japan. Keep in mind, though, that if you buy something through there, you’re going to have to use a courier like Tenso to get it shipped to you. The sellers won’t do it. The Japanese were already sick and tired of us filthy foreigners stealing their womenfolk, and now we’re stealing their games? Unforgivable!
Do bootleg PCBs exist? How can I avoid them?
Here’s a universal truth: If China’s not putting lead in our children’s toys, then they’re making knock-offs of our video games. Yes, bootleg PCBs definitely exist. Usually, it’s pretty easy to figure out whether a game is a bootleg, though – I mean, the PCB kinda lays everything bare. One approach would be to check out KLOV, and look up your game. They usually have an image of the legit PCB on there. Alternatively, you could ask around on one of the forums I mentioned in the above question. The guys at all of those places know what they’re talking about and should be able to help you figure it out.
How should I store PCBs?
The best method is to get an anti-static bag, keep the board in there, put it in a cardboard box, and store it vertically. Some just wrap the board in bubble wrap. As with everything else electronic, keep it in a cool, dry place. Maybe throw in a silica packet. But don’t eat it.
I think my PCB is busted! This fucking game cost me as much as a mortgage payment my wife is gonna kill me!!
Calm down. There’s a lot of potential things that can go wrong – that’s just the nature of the beast. Chances are that if something isn’t working, the fix is pretty easy… provided you’re armed with some basic know-how. Read this: https://forums.arcade-museum.com/showthread.php?t=177192
And if that doesn’t help, then I can’t help either.
This 20-year-old board is filthy! How do I clean it up?
Depends on the affliction is. Dusty? Clean it with a toothbrush. Yellowish residue? Probably solder flux – clean it off with anhydrous alcohol. Corrosion is the thing you really need to worry about, as it can actually damage your board if you let it sit. If you see leakage coming from a battery or capacitor, mix together some baking soda and water, and use a toothbrush to scrub that on the board.
You’d be surprised how nicely these decades old circuit boards clean up, though. For a more comprehensive guide to remedying various problems, take a look at Arcade Otaku’s wiki page here: http://wiki.arcadeotaku.com/w/PCB_Cleaning_101.
What’s the service menu?
The service menu lets you test hardware to make sure it’s working properly, as well as tinker with a given game’s settings, such as difficulty and the number of credits required to play. So, if you’ve ever fantasized about becoming a greedy arcade operator, now’s your chance! Except… you own the game and are the one playing it, so doing that to yourself would just be… stupid.
Arcade joysticks? What? Huh? Howsat?
If you’ve got questions about arcade sticks, take a peek at GAF’s arcade stick thread. Long story short, though, as long as you have a DB-15 connector on it, chances are it’ll play nicely with whatever supergun you’ve got. Provided you already have a PS3/PS4 compatible arcade stick, the aforementioned Brook converter for the Neo Geo should make it easy to sort things out.
What about all the games that use peripherals? Y’know, like light gun games, rhythm games, etc.?
Well, the short answer is: forget it.
In most cases, light guns, rhythm game controllers, racing wheels – they tend to use their own specific configuration for the controller, rather than the JAMMA standard. Even if they do support JAMMA, there’s the issue of calibrating the controllers so that they work as intended. And if you’re trying to play a light gun game on anything but a CRT, you’re going to be SOL due to the way that tech works.
What’s the 1CC Rule?
Arcade games – at least in Japan, were designed with the idea of players becoming skillful enough to finish the game on one credit. This article goes into a bit more depth on the background behind that. The guy’s a bit pretentious, and is sure to upset the hyper-sensitive among you, but he makes some salient points.
So, while a game can be completed in 30 minutes by credit feeding through it like a chump, the whole point is to genuinely master the game. And that can take a looooooong time. But once you do it – once you finally conquer your first arcade game and finish it on one credit – the feeling of satisfaction is like nothing else. That’s why arcade games are cool, and that’s why striving for that goal of the 1CC is important.
Oh, but this totally doesn’t apply to Western games. Shit like Smash TV and Narc? Those are just there to steal your fucking money.
Sooo… why not just use MAME?
MAME has its purpose, and it’s what got me into arcade games in the first place, waaaaaay back. It’s a great gateway into this stuff. But, it’s… not the real deal. There are inaccuracies in the games’ emulations, both major and minor (to be expected when it plays so many games built on different pieces of hardware.) There’s issues with input lag (remedied to some extent by groovymame, but still noticeable.) Different people are going to have different reasons for preferring the real arcade games to emulation. For me? It just feels too much like a cheap imitation. If it’s been a while since you’ve played a real arcade game, try it. Really pay attention to it. I dunno what hocus pocus it is, but it’s a different experience altogether.
Dude, this is one long-ass post that nobody’s going to read.
Hey, fuck you.