The what, why, and how of playing arcade games at home

What

“What” is the easiest part: This is a ramble covering the topic mentioned in the title above – playing arcade games at home, specifically using real arcade hardware connected to an ordinary TV rather than bringing a cabinet into the living room. I will stress this is not a guide as such, more “practical encouragement” with the aim of making you feel like this is something you could do if you want to – because you could. It’s not as easy (or as cheap) as playing on a console, but I promise it’s not half as scary as it looks from the outside either.

[Existing arcade PCB owners: Hi! This article isn’t for you, but feel free to add your own experiences and encouragement to the comments section at the bottom!]

Why

The answer to this question’s different for everyone, and for some – probably most – people the answer to “Should I use original arcade hardware at home?” will be “No that’s silly, of course not.“. I want to make very clear, especially in a pro-real thing piece like this, that is truly a valid choice. Modern arcade ports are excellent, the vast majority of them are indistinguishable from the real thing in play, and they’re infinitely cheaper and more convenient. This is before we consider that buying these modern arcade ports by the likes of M2, Hamster, or whoever else, is what keeps these dedicated champions of retro gaming running, and spending a modest sum on the likes of Capcom’s Arcade Stadium collections shows longstanding companies that there’s real value in making these older titles legitimately playable again.

Looking a little further back, older arcade ports often contain more content than their arcade counterparts including new characters, new levels, and whole new modes, or are so arcade accurate there’s no real difference between the two rendering – from a content/cost perspective – the originals inferior. This is true for the likes of Metal Slug, Strider 2, Puyo Puyo 2 (I’m deliberately listing games I “stupidly” own arcade versions of) and more. But for me at least it’s not really a choice made with your head (or your wallet), but your heart. It’s the gaming equivalent of buying a beautiful classic car – some old Volkswagen Beetle or Fiat 500 – instead of a modern one. It’s not cheaper, or more practical, or easier to maintain, but using it makes you smile. I think arcade PCBs are beautiful objects in their own right, busy little lines between processors, memory, and everything else something you can (carefully) trace with your finger. I think arcade PCBs are beautiful objects in their own right, busy little lines between processors, memory, and everything else something you can (carefully) trace with your finger. I love seeing a collection of silicon and solder spring to life, knowing this isn’t like the real thing, or a new way of playing the real thing, but simply The Real Thing, a tiny little childhood wish made real and kept at home, or the chance to try for real that one game you always wanted to play that never left arcades (Mach Breakers, the vast majority of the Hyper Neo Geo line up, Knights of Valour 2: Nine Dragons, etc).

How

Let me make something clear: There are a lot of different ways to play arcade games at home, countless variations within those methods, and certain lines of arcade hardware – even some one-off releases – have very specific additional requirements. I haven’t a hope of covering them all, but I can cover the most common method – using a “supergun” – in broad strokes, just to try and demystify the process (and to a certain extent, the terminology). I will stress again that exceptions abound and I strongly encourage you to do your own research before buying anything – and please remember that this is all based on my personal experiences, which is not the same as “This is definitely correct in any and all circumstances” – there’s always an exception with arcade games.

Understood? Great! Let’s break the basics – you’re going to need a game, a supergun, a power supply for the supergun, appropriate TV/audio cables, and some sort of controller – down into smaller easily-digested categories then:

  • Supergun

Superguns come in all shapes and sizes (and prices) – some are large metal boxes, some are tiny bare PCBs, some are built into big arcade sticks and hidden from sight. The main thing is they all do the same job – providing the inputs and outputs JAMMA (explanation further down the page) arcade games need to work at home. If there’s one thing you remember from this article, please let it be this: A higher price doesn’t necessarily equate to a better supergun. I’ve owned £300 “beasts” of superguns hand-built by specialist retailers (now closed) that in truth did nothing the £25 one I bought off eBay years ago (pictured just below) and sling in a drawer when it’s not in use doesn’t do just as well. There is a middle ground to be found between these two extremes – there are some nice fully featured examples in smart acrylic cases for around the £80 mark – but the main thing is you buy the one that suits your needs and if, like me, you just want the thing with the stick-stuff-in-here bits and a few arcade-magic-comes-out-here ports, then that’s all you need to buy.

  • Video

Supergun video outputs tend to come in S-Video/RGB SCART/component varieties (some also have composite, although personally speaking that’s not going to be a great way to play an arcade game) and really, you want whichever of those three is compatible with the set you’re planning on using. Inputs willing, you can even use a supergun on an LCD TV if you like, and if that happens to be the biggest and best set in your house and it’s located in the comfiest place in the building then I would absolutely recommend playing your arcade games on that over anything else – yes, even without an external upscaler. A previous LCD HDTV of mine gave a beautifully crisp and sharp arcade image without any outside help (the less said about the “upgrade” we bought a few years later the better). CRT TVs are lovely, bulky, heavy, expensive, and increasingly unreliable – don’t tie yourself up in knots trying to get one if you don’t already have one. Any concerns you may have about refresh rates and resolutions are by and large not something to worry about, as it was always in an arcade game’s best interests to be as broadly compatible and as widely used as possible, so unless you have dreams of owning some unusual hardware – a vector-based game, for example – you’re unlikely to run into any issues.

  • Sound

Sound is usually handled separately through a standard phono socket, allowing you to plug in your own speakers or even a pair of headphones. If I remember correctly (and I might not) the reason for this is that audio tends to come out “raw” – arcade-loud and unconcerned with the frailty of whatever it’s heading for – and built-in TV speakers aren’t necessarily designed to handle that and could become permanently damaged in the process, so don’t try to be clever and work around this apparent limitation unless you’re absolutely certain your supergun’s been designed with this in mind.

  • Controllers

Most of the superguns I’ve come across that aren’t built into a big arcade stick take either standard Neo Geo sticks (or the CD’s joypads, as they’re functionally identical), Mega Drive controllers, or leave you with a neat row of spaces to connect the wires coming from a handmade stick. There are plenty of pre-made alternatives and convertors out there that’ll let you use SNES, Saturn, or even modern USB-powered controllers too, so pick whichever suits you and the games you want to play best. I went with Neo Geo as I’m fond of the stick and I had no intention of grabbing any of Capcom’s six button games (so “missing out” on the additional wiring needed for those didn’t matter), but if there’s something else you’d rather use, go for that instead. There’s no “right” here, especially not when we’ve all seen the absolute state of some commercial arcade cabinets – just having all the buttons working is a vast improvement in some cases.

Also, you definitely don’t want your first few games to be something that requires a custom input – think steering wheels, light guns, banana-shaped analogue sticks, and similar – unless you’re going the whole hog and buying a dedicated cabinet. Keep your first dives into this exciting niche simple and then expand as your comfort/interest does, there’s no rush.

  • Power

My supergun uses a very ordinary PC ATX power supply (pictured below) – just plug and go. I’ll be honest with you, I can’t say too much here – I remember researching the heck out of it once years and years ago, and all I can say is my home and my arcade hardware have been safe while using it ever since. I’m vaguely aware that some games are more particular about their power requirements but I personally haven’t come across them or had any issues with this, and this has powered everything from tiny test boards to the ridiculous metal tank that is the Hyper Neo Geo 64. Make sure you triple-check everything and prioritise your safety above all else, OK? Nothing’s worth introducing an electrical/fire risk into your home.

  • JAMMA

This is the wiring standard used on a supergun, and the one found on the vast majority of 90’s-era (and some later – such as the Atomiswave) arcade hardware. It really is a plug-and-play scenario, in spite of the vast physical differences between games. Take a look for yourself: all of the boards pictured below are JAMMA compatible (although the Soul Edge PCB on the bottom-left needed two wires soldered on from pins the extra little “teeth” on the right to the main JAMMA connector- a five minute job even for someone as inept as me – for the guard button to work on my setup. There’s one of those damned exceptions at work).

And just below you’ll see an MVS motherboard with a supergun attached – you literally just push it on, parts side up (“the side with all the chips, resistors, and other stuff on it”), and that’s it, the game’s ready to play.

Some notable exceptions to this JAMMA-ness include Sega’s NAOMI hardware (“Dreamcast in the arcade”), all of their “Model” series (Virtua Fighter, etc.), and very early pre-JAMMA games like Space Invaders – but even then, there are ways to still play those at home if you really want to (which are in my experience often extremely expensive and honestly not worth the hassle of setting up).

  • Motherboards, carts, and plain PCBs

Some games are complete in themselves, a PCB with everything it needs built in and ready to go (see the green-coloured boards further up the page). Some, such as Sega’s ST-V, SNK’s Neo Geo MVS, Capcom’s CPS-2, Taito’s F3, and IGS’ PGM use a motherboard/cart configuration, and much like a console you need both if you want to play anything. The shapes may be different, but in principle you’re not doing anything more different or difficult than swapping a cart at home – connect the supergun to the motherboard, then slot the game in wherever it’s supposed to go and turn on your power supply. Do remember to turn the whole lot off before removing or inserting another game.

I’ve included a photo of a few carts below. Even though they’re all very different shapes and sizes, they still work in exactly the same way – just insert them into the motherboard and play.

  • Storage

And what do you do with your games when you’re not using them? Plain carts can be stacked like they’re £5 NES games, one on top of the other on a shelf. You can spend extraordinary amounts of money on “shock boxes” (also known as “boxes”) for them if you like, but you don’t need to. For everything else you’ll want to wrap it until it’s completely covered in anti-static bubblewrap (in my experience this usually comes in a pleasant bubblegum-pink colour) and then store it somewhere conventionally safe – if slotted onto a shelf like a load of books is good enough for specialist Japanese stores, then it’s good enough for you and me. Due to space constraints I wrap mine then keep most of them them stacked together in boxes I bought from Ikea, one on top of the other. Sounds dangerous and irresponsible? Most of my PCBs weigh about as much as a slim magazine (if that), so as long as I don’t stack them 10ft high I do as much “damage” to the one underneath as a hamster does sitting on a brick (and obviously – keep anything heavier than that at the bottom).

  • Region locking

Yeah, really. This varies wildly by manufacturer and hardware, and only applies to motherboard/cart combos when it does appear (there’s nothing for the system to reject if it’s an all-in-one PCB after all). Sometimes this is nothing more than “awareness”, rather than locking – a Garou Densetsu cart playing as Fatal Fury on a US MVS – but sometimes these are BIOS-related or even physical lock outs (as is the case with Taito’s F3 boards) that prevent otherwise functional software working with what would otherwise be the correct hardware. There are various (unofficial) ways around these issues depending on the circumstances, including replacement multi-region BIOSs where applicable, but in general it’s something to keep in mind and double-check before buying anything if you’re not certain.

  • Maintenance

Some boards – notably Capcom’s later CPS-1 games and all of their CPS-2/3 line – contain suicide batteries. The term is disturbingly accurate: if the on-board battery loses power – left unplayed in storage for too long, for example –  a small but vital piece of code “dies”, preventing the game from booting. Forever. Well, sort of. This was fixed in the past by sending the board back to Capcom’s arcade department for repair, now there are various unofficial methods of reviving these boards and negating the original “suicide” aspect entirely, usually requiring a little soldering skill and a small parts order to get working. If you don’t have the equipment to hand it’s probably cheaper, easier, and safer to buy one that’s already had this procedure done to it than attempt the repair yourself, the addition of unofficial extras and the benefits that go with them outweighing a board’s departure from “authenticity”.

As far as more general maintenance goes, it’s really just a case of being sensible. Put everything away in some sort of box when not in use. Check if the board has a large battery on there, and if it does check to see if you can snip it out of there as soon as possible (this is something that’s been done on my IGS PGM board, for example – I really don’t need that thing to know what day of the week it is or save my settings) because you don’t want that leaking all over the PCB. Buy a little bag of PCB feet so all of your boards can sit clear of whatever surface you’re putting them on (something uninteresting to electronics – like a wooden table – is generally a safe bet) – they’re cheap and easy to use, and your games will already have pre-drilled holes in the corners for them.

  • Cleaning

Don’t clean anything unless you can identify a very specific reason to do so. Arcade boards, especially decades after they were manufactured and potentially years of callous commercial use  in a sticky, sweaty, smoky, arcade environment – are probably not going to look Instagram-ready. Honestly, the state of some of them is enough to make your toes curl – but they work. That’s the bit you need to stay the same, and poking around tiny traces and chip legs can change that, especially if you’re only doing it because you feel something should look nice. Use a can of compressed air to keep fans clean (where applicable) and get dust out of nook and crannies, spray on some contact cleaner if you feel so inclined, and unless there is an actual problem you have the tools and the skill to sort out, leave it at that.

  • Buying

Sadly, bootlegs are rife – treat arcade game buying the same way you would trying to find an authentic Pokémon cart online. And although there are some exceptions (nobody could produce knockoff GD-ROMs even if they wanted to), the assumption should be that if someone’s cagey about showing clear photos of serial numbers, exposed boards, or dodging simple yes/no questions like “Is this an official/authentic cart/PCB?“, then they’re either selling a fake, or at the very least aren’t completely confident they’re offering the real thing. It literally takes thirty seconds using a standard sized cross-head screwdriver – the sort you’d use for any DIY job – to open up an MVS cart (I even re-checked before writing this to make sure), so don’t let anyone tell you they can’t do that for you.

Avoid anything sold as untested – if you can’t see it working, assume it doesn’t. And squash those daydreams of buying a faulty board as a “project” while you’re at it – the problems can be wide-ranging and may require specialist equipment, donor boards, or more money than the game costs working to fix. Don’t assume anything that’s missing is something you will find online or be able to make yourself – there’s a reason the other person’s selling, after all.

But more than anything, don’t buy anything you don’t want to play. There is no thrill in grabbing a “bargain” that you’re going to put on for five minutes and then leave gathering dust, or going for the “right” sort of arcade hit when you really wanted to see a nostalgic favourite running in your own home. Always buy just for yourself, even if it wold be “better value” – financial or social – to grab something else. Nobody’s buying arcade games because it’s the most cost-efficient way to play, so only spend your money on games you really want.

  • Helpful resources

www.mvs-scans.com: Need to know what an original board or label looks like for an MVS or CPS2 game? Then this is the place to go. Bear in mind that as commercial items it’s not unusual to find a genuine arcade game with a missing label or marker scrawled all over it – they were made to generate money for operators, after all.

www.arcade-museum.com: A vast array of generally useful information on every arcade game you can imagine, and plenty more too. This is a good place to go if you’re not sure what sort of hardware a game runs on, or if there are any special control requirements.

www.system16.com: This is a great site if you’d like to see what particular boards look like, how many games are available on the hardware, or what the hardware in question was capable of.

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