Nintendo Vs. System: Recreating Old Arcade Design Concepts

 
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For many of us who grew up in the golden age of arcades, it seemed like those amazing machines were everywhere. For example:

  1. A local grocery store had a Knuckle Bash cabinet by the customer service desk.
  2. My childhood dentist had both a Donkey Kong Jr. cocktail cabinet (later swapped out with Mr. Do's Wild Ride) and a Nintendo Vs. DualSystem.
  3. The two public laundromats in my neighborhood had 2-3 cabinets each, including Altered Beast, Centipede, Chase HQ, and Bad Dudes.
  4. It was almost a certainty that every local and/or chain pizzeria would have a Neo-Geo 4-game cabinet.

During this time, one didn't have to go to an arcade to experience the intense endorphin rush of the frantic haptic feedback as your car careens off the road in Chase HQ, or feel every meaty punch in Final Fight.

As time wore on, many of these cabinets were simply thrown away as technical issues arose, and now, these amazing machines are all but extinct or permanently DOA.

For those with time and resources, organizations like the Arcade Restoration Workshop have arisen with the goal of restoring these old cabinets to their original glory. For the tinkerers and builders looking to up their repair game, they also perform mods like using a PSOne LCD screen as a portable arcade work bench solution.

But what about those who simply want to play their favorite old school games at home that mimics the original cabinet as opposed to dropping thousands of dollars into a restoration? Here are five popular cabinets of the past and how you can recreate their respective experiences at home.

Rotary Joysticks

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If you're a fan of Ikari Warriors and/or Heavy Barrel, their unique control scheme that employed an 8-way rotary joystick proved very popular upon release, but was not widely employed in later releases. As a result, there are only a small handful of games that utilized it.

Both games featured a rotary joystick and two action buttons on a 2-player control panel. Simultaneous 2-player arcade action was still an exciting new concept in 1986, made only more immersive considering the frantic action on screen coupled with an 8-way joystick that also rotated on a circular plane in 12 different directions using a rotary box.

That was a mouthful, huh? So how could one possibly recreate this experience at home?

The Easy Route

For those who are adverse to wiring and are looking for the simplest solution to their rotary woes, getting a Suzo Happ 8-way Joystick with a 12 position rotary switch would be the way to go.

The cool part about this joystick is that it includes the wiring harness and connector, which plugs right into the Ultimarc rotary interface board. The board also supports a second player for those so inclined.

Once everything is all hooked up, the PC will recognize the joystick(s) as a USB keyboard, which makes mapping controls in MAME a cinch. The Ultimarc link above provides easy-to-follow setup instructions as well.

The Hard Route

If you're a little more daring, there is proof of concept that standard joysticks could be hacked for rotary use, but it's rough and there have not been any clean solutions published at the time of this writing.

There is also a more modern solution from Uxcell that even features a button atop the joystick, but this one doesn't come with a connector and would require some wiring knowledge to hook up to a modern PC via USB. 

If you or anyone else has successfully recreated either of these hacks, please let us know in the comments below.

Spinner Games

And speaking of rotary controls, have any of you ever play Arkanoid or Blasteroids? Trying to do so now in MAME using a standard joystick is a less-than-stellar experience to say the least. When these games were released in the arcades, they were designed to be played using an optical rotary spinner and 2 to 3 action buttons, respectively. Both require precision controls that not even the best 8-way joystick can accurately recreate.

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Seeing how this is a pretty straight-forward addition to any custom control panel, there really is no complicated way to add a spinner to your setup. If you're looking for a quick solution that's easy on the budget, this USB multimedia controller from Griffin will get the job done. The only problem with going this route is mounting it to your control panel in a way that's aesthetically pleasing.

For a more permanent solution that cleanly mounts to your control panel, this SpinTrak spinner from Ultimarc comes with an onboard USB encoder. Some minor woodworking skills are required to punch a hole into your control panel to accommodate this solution, but is the best way to ensure durability and ease of use during multiple spirited rounds of Tempest.

Regardless of which path you go to recreate that awesome spinner goodness, their recognition as a USB device on any PC means less mess for you when it comes to using either with MAME.

Neo-Geo Cabinets Reinvigorated

Anyone who's ever popped into a Pizza Hut in the mid 90's knows these bright red cabinets very well. Not only did they feature up to 4 games on a single cabinet, but they also had awesome stylistic cues such as multi-colored action buttons and a custom marquee that lit up the various game's respective art one by one as they were selected. The player could cycle through these by hitting the Game Select button, and the backlight would scroll between titles from left to right.

Popular titles from Neo-Geo's heyday were Fatal Fury, King of the Monsters, Magician's Lord, and Sengoku, and every cabinet I ever encountered always seemed to have a crowd gathered around it.

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Recreating the design elements of the control panel itself are not that difficult with the right 8-way joystick and multi-colored buttons, most of which come in a kit that includes a USB encoder (there are even some that include translucent buttons and LEDs that light them up). The cool part about these kits is that all necessary wiring is included and easily plugs into the included encoder.

The only downside is trying to recreate the LED credit counter within MAME, but the discussion has been raging since 2008. We imagine that anyone with some electronics and programming chops can come up with a solution, but we've not been able to find a working solution at this time.

Alright...but what about that awesome backlit slotted marquee that was featured on the original cabinet? Unfortunately, the original panel was not built with longevity in mind and are costly to repair. To alleviate this problem, a more modern solution published by Retro Rich uses Surelight EL panels that can easily fit the Neo-Geo's custom marquee, and uses easily replaceable parts. 

He even made a video documenting the restoration progress of his build (shown).

Thanks to the efforts of a passionate community, the stylistic cues of old don't have to go the way of the dinosaur, and easily obtained parts can generate similar (and sometimes, superior) results.

Nintendo Playchoice-10

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Everyone who's been to the arcades in the 90's remember these cabinets. The Nintendo Playchoice-10 was first released in 1986 that featured as many as 10 different games to play within an allotted time. One quarter would buy players 300 seconds of game time, and they were allowed to exit a game and enter a different one at any time.

The Playchoice-10 came in multiple configurations including:

  • Dual Monitor (shown above)
  • Single Monitor conversion kit for Popeye, Donkey Kong, etc. cabinets
  • Tabletop

In single screen configurations, the hint/game select screen could be toggled off and on with the push of a button, where the dual monitor would display both screens simultaneously. The latter can be recreated in MAME 0.152, with options to select top-bottom/side-by-side screen configurations in standard or vertical orientations.

Some builders have even been able to recreate the dual screen setup with modern LCDs using a vertical orientation. It's just a matter of futzing around inside MAME's in-game options, which can be accessed by pressing TAB. Whichever configuration you decide to go with, recreating the thrill of beating a game within the purchased time can be done with a few simple parts.

 
 

Regardless of configuration, the Playchoice-10 is a 2-player scheme that features two pushbuttons and one joystick per player, and five menu interaction pushbuttons. Whether you choose to go with reproduction parts or a modern 2-player American control kit with multi-color buttons, the real magic in creating a Playchoice-10 inspired cabinet really comes down to proper MAME configuration, and loading up the games that were originally made available on the Playchoice-10.

Nintendo in 1986 had truly provided an excellent way to market their console games to the then-robust arcade scene, but the Playchoice-10 was not the first to get there...

Nintendo Vs. Systems

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First released in 1984, the Nintendo Vs. System came in multiple configurations that could accommodate simultaneous play for up to 4 players, depending on the title. In total, the configurations that were released include:

  1. The Vs. UniSystem
  2. The Vs. DualSystem
  3. Cocktail cabinet, aka The Red Tent (shown right)

The charm of these cabinets were its easily swappable hardware and various enhancements from their NES counterparts.

For example, who hasn't fantasized about shooting the dog in Duck Hunt? Well, in Vs. Duck Hunt, you totally can!

Is the standard Super Mario Bros. home experience getting you down? Vs. Super Mario Bros. forces you to retrain your reflexes by employing a more difficult level design throughout.

 
 

Trying to recreate these cabinets is vastly more inexpensive than restoring an original (though we strongly condone it where available), and either requires a 2-player configuration with 2 buttons and a start button per player, or a 4-player configuration with 2 buttons each and 4 start buttons. FYI: both the Nintendo Vs. System and the Playchoice-10 use an 8-way joystick, typically with balltops.

A Few Notes on Programming

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For those who are curious, MAME is distributed under the GNU General Public License, and can be run on anything from a high-end PC or Mac to the humble Raspberry Pi with a high degree of accuracy.

The root of this entire article is to replicate the experience of playing old arcade games the way they were intended to. Certain cabinets like the Neo-Geo MVS and Playchoice-10 require their respective BIOS files in order to function properly. Bear in mind that these files along with their respective ROMs are proprietary, and we're unable to provide support on where to find them. We'll just say that your favorite search engine is your friend.

Aside from that, the use of emulators themselves is, and always has been, perfectly legal.

Once you've acquired the necessary ROM and BIOS files, they can either be placed in the "roms" subfolder located in your root MAME folder, or placed in a dedicated BIOS folder, whichever is applicable.

With all that out of the way, it's time to configure your controls within MAME. That page also has detailed instructions on how to configure more advanced games like Killer Instinct and 2-player Sunset Riders to work with your particular setup.

Just imagining playing Sunset Riders on a 4-player UniSystem cocktail replica has given us the vapors!

Original vs. Newer Hardware

In the video above, you'll find steps on recapping the old CRT monitors that you'd typically find in a standard Nintendo arcade cabinet. Unfortunately, if a full replacement is needed, you'll quickly find that CRT monitors are no longer being manufactured and will soon become extinct, with more eco-friendly LCDs and LEDs left to fill the void.

Smaller cabinet builds like bartops typically go with a mounted LED monitor that's 19-24", but full-size cabinets may want to either get a bigger monitor (if you want the screen to take up most of the real estate on the front of the cabinet), or a mount-in LCD with CRT brackets if you happen to find an older cabinet that you'd like to restore with newer components.

On my own build, I was able to remove the casing from an old CRT television and drop it into my gutted Golden Tee arcade cabinet. The only problem with this approach is that the tube lacks mounting hardware, which means that a simple forward tip will send that tube crashing towards Earth. Anyone going this route will need to consider adding compatible mounting brackets before dropping in the tube, and always, always, make sure that your monitor is secure before transport.

Finishing Touches

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My own arcade cabinet is still a work in progress, but if you're looking to add some flair to your own, other considerations include:

  • Marquees
  • Backlighting
  • Power Supplies
  • T-Molding
  • Sound Systems

I've found that the first three can typically be found on sites like DIYArcade and SuzoHapp, but considering that MAME is typically ran on a PC, your existing sound system will suffice, though it can be permanently mounted inside the cabinet if you choose. It's just a matter of removing the speakers from their housing.

And lastly, custom graphics and overlays can be found on sites like Arcade Overlays and Label-Aid.

In the end, the amazing concepts that these cabinets presented do not have to disappear forever. Whether they used a rotary controller or a light gun, anything is possible using components that are easily found today. Now it's time for me to go play some Night Slashers...