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Piece Together a DIY Mame Cabinet for your Mame Emulator

Hey, guys. Apologies for the long period between updates. Is it just me or does it seem like the past three months blew by? Time gets away from you before you know it. I wanted to cover arcade units on here. Collecting used arcade machines is not for the faint of heart. Not all of us have an unlimited space in our homes or cash in our wallets. Unlike collecting rare video games, collecting used arcade machines for sale usually requires both things in spades. Enter the MAME emulator. In this newest post, we tell you how you can design your very own DIY MAME cabinet using an older, unused PC.

Bring that classic experience from the arcade back to life right in the comfort of your own home. With MAME cabinet arcade machines, all of your friends can play your favorite old games using all of the authentic controls from yesteryear. I’ll tell you exactly how to build that custom arcade machine you’ve always dreamed about using older, spare PC parts. We’re going to describe how we built our MAME cabinet. Hopefully, this guide should help you out with your project.

Bartop MAME Cabinet

MAME Cabinet
Source: Flickr

I chose the Bartop for this guide. It’s really the perfect compromise between all the other types (Upright and Cocktail). The former offers space for a large monitor and room for upgrades but takes up far too much space. The latter provides additional usage as a counter for drinks. However, the Cocktail arcade makes certain games less playable. By comparison, the Bartop cabinet is like a half sized Upright. Also, this cabinet offers the greatest amount of compatibility.

You have a few options for the construction process. I recommend purchasing cheap arcade machines for sale. Keep an eye out for a “for parts” arcade unit or a standalone cabinet.

You can also check out the starter cabinet kits and parts on DIYArcade.

Arcade Monitor

Next, you will need a proper monitor for your Franken-cade project. I highly recommend going with an LED over the more authentic CRT monitor. LED’s have really come down in price and typically have better colors than the older LCD. Side note: if you’re going with a Cocktail (or really any arcade for that matter), bear in mind that side lit LCD/LED monitors tend to wash out from side angles. If you’re playing multiplayer or friends are watching, you may want to spring for a more expensive backlit LED or a more cumbersome CRT.

Installing the lightweight LED is so much easier than the CRT. Make sure your cabinet fits the exact parameters of the monitor. If not, you may have to make adjustments to the cabinet by cutting out the sides. But, this process is infinitely easier if you have a custom cabinet with the exact measurements. In that case, all you have to do is attach the top panel to the the cabinet.

Side note: If you don’t want to spring for a custom arcade monitor, you always use a smaller CRT television. If choose to go this path, trust me, don’t waste your money buying it online. Just head out to your local Goodwill or Salvation Army. These places are typically flooded with older style TV’s. My local thrift stores won’t even except CRT TV’s at this point. The best part about this route is that this option will cost the least amount of money and look authentic compared to a modern, high def LED.

You MUST use a bevel or else this project will look like crap. A bezel is a plastic (or cardstock) frame used to hide the unsightly edges of your monitor. You can make your own DIY bezel by cutting a black cardstock frame to fit around the monitor. Or, pick up a custom plastic bezel that fits your monitor size. Arcade Controllers/Buttons

This all-in-one USB controller kit from DIY Arcade includes all of the buttons and joysticks needed to get you started.

For the joystick, you’ll need to choose between a 4 or 8 way joystick. Either option has 4 microswitches on the base. The stick presses these switches when the shaft moves in a direction. An 8 way stick presses two buttons at once which is far smoother. For the newer arcade games (especially fighting games), you definitely should go with an 8 way stick so you can move the controller diagonally. Keep in mind, retro arcade games such as Joust can’t handle these diagonal inputs and may not respond as well to an 8 way joystick. The link above includes 2 Japanese style 8 way sticks. Japanese sticks have a ball at the top and American joysticks have more of a bat shape.

Here are some tips for designing a clean control interface for your MAME machine:

  • Design your control scheme around the games you primarily plan to play. Is this machine primarily for Street Fighter Alpha? You’re not going to use a trackball as a control scheme. You’ll also need 6 buttons instead of 4.
  • Don’t go overboard. There’s nothing worse than an unsightly arcade with every controller known to mankind. Stick to one controller layout the covers the widest amount of games you plan on playing. Worse case scenario, you design a second machine in the future for different games.
  • MAME is a highly configurable system. You won’t need a ton of buttons for every feature. Instead trying binding certain features such as the insert coin to the shift and one of the control buttons. Your controller will look clean and uncluttered.

Arcade Guts/Hardware

This MAME project is really nothing more than a fancy enclosure for a PC emulating retro arcade games. Luckily, MAME is not difficult to run and system requirements are very low. If you updated your PC in the past 8 years, you probably have all of the parts to run MAME without spending another dime at this stage. Here’s what we recommend:

If you choose to go with an older Arcade style CRT monitor, make sure you invest in a special ArcadeVGA graphics card. It’s a specialty part that will send the correct signal to the monitor in your MAME cabinet. A stander GPU will fry these older monitors by sending a 31Khz signal. Do yourself a favor: skip the Arcade CRT and go with an LED/LCD or CRT television. These arcade cards cost more because they’re less common and the authentic Arcade CRT really doesn’t provide you with anything you’ll be missing from a TV from 1994.

Finally, you’ll need a keyboard encoder for the arcade buttons. This encoder is wired to all of the microswitches, and to your computer through the USB. This device translates any microswitch signals into the proper keyboard stroke for your PC. This part is, of course, included in the aforementioned kit.


The arcade cabinet has an unfortunate tendency in that it traps unwanted heat. I recommend placing the mobo at the bottom of the cabinet (either in some sort of tray or directly in the bottom of the cabinet). A tray will ensure the mobo doesn’t flop around when you move this behemoth.

You’ll obviously want to hear your arcade games once you fire this sucker up. Drill small holes in the bottom of the case. Next, hot glue a pair of flat PC speakers facing directly toward the holes.

This bad boy needs powah. So, glue a power strip onto the inside of the case. Connect the mobo, monitor and speakers to this power supply. Then, run the power supply cable out through a hole in the back.

For the cabinet, you need a panel to install your controls. If you build yours yourself, use 5/8” MDF or plywood. To ensure accuracy, print out a diagram of the control panel, tape this diagram to the panel, and cut through the lines on the paper.

Mounting the buttons is dead simple – you need a hole big enough for the button to fit through, and the corresponding plastic nut to lock it in.

The joysticks prove to be a bit more difficult. Cut a button-sized hole for the joystick, mount the joystick assembly through the underside of the board, and feed the joystick shaft through the hole. If you opt for a wooden control panel, you need an overlay to make the panel look and feel nicer.

Next up is the wiring. Every microswitch needs two wires: one wire runs from the middle prong to an input slot on the keyboard encoder and one runs from the bottom prong to the encoder’s GND input.

Software Installation

Mame Cabinet
Source: Flickr

For the next step, we cover the installation and configuration process for MAME and MaLa. These two programs serve as the emulators to actually play the old games. MAME stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator. To play a game on MAME, you need the actual ROM. A ROM is the file containing the data dumped from that arcade game’s main circuit board. The MAME homepage contains a selection of lesser known ROMs which the copyright holders have released for free. You could opt to contact game companies directly about purchasing a ROM from them.

MaLa stands for MA ME La uncher. It serves as the “frontend” for MAME. A frontend displays and organizes your ROMs. Although originally designed for MAME, MaLa can actually launch games with any emulator that runs from the command line of the OS. This means you can manage every retro arcade game from this single program.

After testing various front loaders, I decided that I prefer Maximus Arcade. You can read about it on Arcade Controls – Hiding Windows. It is super easy to configure and to navigate your ROMs using a joystick. If you need a free front loader, I recommend AtomicFE.

There are other thing you’ll need to do for a smooth installation (such as downloading audio files and control settings for your ROMs). You can find out more about this process at the MAME website and its corresponding Wiki page.

So there you have. Now it’s time to start enjoying some games! The best part of this entire process. Have you recently completed a custom MAME project? Tell us about it in the comments below. Better yet, send us images of your project and I’ll upload them here. If you’re considering undertaking a project like this, we’d love to hear about that as well! As always, here are some interesting arcade related items floating around eBay at the moment:


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