Ever since I was a teenager in the 90’s, I always wanted to own my own arcade machine. I loved going to my local arcade to play Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, NFL Blitz, and many others. When the Super Nintendo was released, it essentially was the beginning of the end for local arcade businesses. Home versions of Mortal Kombat II and Street Fighter II felt “good enough” to compete with the real thing.
For nearly two decades, the arcade industry dwindled away to practically nothing. Sure, there were a few places that hung on, but many of them relied on ticket dispensing and prizes, and it was often hard to find a single fighting game. Recently though, something happened that suddenly made the interest in arcade machines spike.
I’m not exactly sure what happened, but lately, there has been a sudden growth in local arcade businesses and “barcades” that offer a wide collection of games from the 80’s and 90’s. Around the same time, a company called “Arcade 1Up” started selling 3/4 scale arcade machines to own for a very cheap price.
Arcade 1Up Modding
When these at-home dwarf-sized arcade machines were announced, I immediately wanted one. They were priced between $300 and $400, which still felt a tad expensive for what it was, but my wife spotted one on clearance for nearly half the price and that felt like a steal. It was a Rampage machine that also included Gauntlet, Joust, and Defender. Unfortunately though, I became bored of it after a few weeks.
I started looking at lots of teardown videos and discovered that the cabinet wasn’t too difficult to mod. You essentially just have to replace the internal guts with a new controller board and mini pc (or Raspberry Pi). Details of how I modded my 1Up cabinet can be found here.
I enjoyed using my Arcade 1Up for a good while. It’s a bit on the small side, but it felt more like a full-sized cabinet once I picked up the riser stand for it. Once one of my friends saw it, he started looking into buying a “full-sized” arcade cabinet. He went online and paid $4000 for a 4 player cabinet with all of the bells and whistles. It had a menu in place with hundreds of games installed to it.
Modding a 4 Player Cabinet
My friend was sort of disappointed with his new arcade machine and he asked if I could “upgrade” it for him. I took a look, and I noticed it had a really old motherboard and everything ran kinda sluggish. My friend wanted to be able to play modern Windows games on the cabinet also, so I decided to gut the cabinet and make it as awesome as possible.
I replaced the marquee on top with a super-stretched LCD panel that could dynamically display artwork for any game you were playing. I installed color changing RGB buttons that could light up specifically for each and every game. For example, if a game only used 2 buttons, only 2 would light up. Here is what the finished product ended up looking like:
I basically used my experience from modding the Arcade 1Up cabinet and decided to “go big” with this build. My friend said he only wanted the best of the best and he insisted that price wasn’t an issue. It was kinda scary how much money he wanted to invest into this thing. To put it this way, if he were to ever part with it, he would probably list it for over $7000.
I loved the process of modding this cabinet though. Sure, the guts inside of this thing were pretty much garbage when he bought it, but the build quality and large size made me look at my Arcade 1Up as if it were an Easy Bake oven. My machine felt like a toy for babies in comparison. That’s when I started looking into what it would take to build a cabinet of my own.
The Beginning of the Build
Just like with any project, the two most difficult parts are starting it and finishing it. I had a good idea of what I wanted though, so I started combining elements of multiple machines that I liked and rolled everything into one. For starters, I knew I wanted something that was “full sized” but I wanted to take a more sleeker approach. Why does a cabinet need to extend so far from back to front? The main reason was because of how large the arcade monitors were. A thin profile was going to be the starting point with my custom layout.
I loved the dynamic marquee that I installed in my friends machine. Why just have it display a single game or something generic when you can make it automatically change to anything? The only problem was the price for those “super stretched” LCD panels. You can’t order those at your retail store unfortunately. When I modded my friends cabinet, I had to research the specific dimensions of the existing marquee area and find a display that was an exact fit. The price for the panel was $350 plus $200 shipping from China. Ouch.
The other problem with those super stretched panels is the way they work. The bottom 2/3rd’s of the monitor has literally been cut off, so your Windows PC will still think it’s a full-sized 1920×1080 display and you will only see the top 1/3rd of your desktop. You will have to use special software and photo editing tricks to work around making each marquee image fit properly. I figured there has to be a better way to have a dynamic marquee that is more user-friendly and also affordable. Luckily, I found a really good candidate.
I picked up an LG “UltraWide” 29″ monitor and it was less than half the price of the imported “cut down” display that I ordered from China. My Windows machine can also display a full image to it without having to use any software or photo editing tricks. Sure, it’s a tad bit taller than a traditional marquee, but it is still much wider than a traditional monitor, and there are many marquee images that fit into its 21:9 aspect ratio perfectly. As a bonus, I will also be able to play double-screened games such as Punch-Out!! with it.
This monitor was the final piece I needed to laying out my side panels. Since the upper marquee section will be a bit taller than a traditional marquee, I just measured how tall the monitor was and added a couple of inches for some wiggle room. Laying out the rest of the side panel was easy. I just measured the height of my Arcade 1Up control panel while it was on its riser stand, and the height was very comfortable. So in a nutshell, I based my measurements off of my Arcade 1Up machine, the LG Ultrawide monitor, and I made the side profile a bit thinner.
For the material, I just went with 3/4″ MDF. It’s solid, smooth, and the weight will help keep the cabinet planted firmly when standing. I’ve seen many people debate between what material to use, but they all have their pros and cons. The main problem with MDF is that it is extremely sensitive to moisture. I sweated on it several times and it would immediately puff up where my sweat would drip. I learned the hard way to prime and paint everything asap! The other annoying thing about MDF is how dusty it is when cutting. It is like baby powder when cut and extremely toxic to breathe. Always wear a mask!
Now that I made the side panels, I automatically knew the width. The LG Ultrawide monitor helped determine the width for me, so I just gave about a 1/4″ of wiggle room and made the width around 28 inches. To keep this cabinet from being insanely heavy, I decided to not use MDF for the top and bottom panel. The front of the arcade 1Up machine used a thinner 1/4″ board, so I figured why not do the same thing? That worked out just fine for me.
The control panel was something I put a lot of time into researching. I ended up seeing a really cool “NASA Arcade” control panel and I loved the shape of it. I asked for a quote to buy one of their fully wired control panels and he told me $3500! NOPE! I just ended up finding some plans and decided to build something else from scratch. I was able to print up a layout that someone shared online and I just taped all of the pages together. This was going to be a very important template moving forward.
Once the pages were taped together, I cut the template out with scissors and traced it onto an MDF panel. I then used a jigsaw to cut out my outline and sanded everything until it looked smooth and even.
Once that was done, I framed out the control panel box and began putting that together. This part was definitely challenging, due to the many angles of the control panel. “What did I get myself into?!” I thought, but I just kept pressing forward and everything fit together. I started piecing the side panels and control panel together and now it’s starting to look like a cabinet!
The rest of the cabinet was starting to feel more and more like a piece of cake, or so I thought. I installed the upper and lower monitors and bought a few sheets of plexiglass. I went to Lowes to buy mine, and they offer to cut down the panels for you, which I highly recommend. I wanted to put plexiglass in front of my monitors and I bought some spray paint to darken the areas outside of the monitor. Once those were ready, I was feeling more comfortable bringing the machine inside (where it is much cooler to work).
It’s starting to look even more finished now. At this point, I was getting excited and started to forget to take pictures (oops!). I bought another sheet of plexiglass for the control panel and decided to take a risk with making a custom cut piece that matched the curves of the control panel. This part scared the crap out of me, I won’t lie. I did lots of practice cuts using my jigsaw and I kept chipping and cracking my practice cuts. I first went at a slow speed with the saw, but that ended up making things worse. I finally figured out to just let the jigsaw go at full speed while moving forward slowly and that seemed to work best.
After making it to the final cut, I breathed a sigh of relief. I managed to cut the entire perimeter of the plexiglass to match the control panel. Now for the other scary part, which was drilling the many many holes for the buttons. I found this awesome tutorial from a guy named “Chuck” that runs a YouTube channel called “Maverick’s Arcade“. He is a really nice and down-to-earth guy and he gave really good advice to drill the pilot holes for each button into the MDF and plexiglass at the same time. When you go to finally drill each hole, everything will line up perfectly.
Once the holes were drilled, I sanded down any rough or sharp edges that I could find. Everything looked good, so I decided to decorate the control panel with a “carbon fiber” vinyl wrap, and it was finally time to start installing all of the joysticks, arcade buttons, and trackball.
Most of the parts I ordered were from Ultimarc. I originally thought about ordering buttons from Amazon, but I couldn’t find a good 4 player board that supported RGB lighting. The board I ended up using is called the “IPAC Ultimate I/O“. It allows 48 button inputs and 32 RGB LED outputs from a single board. It’s a bit expensive for this type of button setup, but I found it to be well worth it for all of the cool customization options per game.
For the computer, I just used a Windows-based PC motherboard and mounted everything to the inside walls of the cabinet. You can also put a desktop tower inside if you wanted to, but I had a spare motherboard without a case, so I figured I would just go with that. The inside of the cabinet doesn’t have to look pretty, but it does help to tidy up as much as possible to make life easier if you ever have to make adjustments or repairs.
The Final Stretch
At this point everything was pretty much ready. Everything was installed and wired on the hardware side. The next step was to power everything up and to start configuring games, emulators, apps, controls, and everything else on the software side. This part can take longer than building the cabinet itself, depending on what method you decide to go with.
Some people just order “hyperspin” drives for a few hundred dollars and call it a day. I decided to just install a front-end program called Launchbox, which allows you to quickly organize your gaming library. You can mix and match your Steam library with your emulator roms from one interface. There is also a really cool premium front-end that you can unlock for it called “Big Box”, which gives Launchbox more of an arcade-friendly look. It also has built-in support for the dynamic marquee monitor that I installed, as well as support for all of my RGB LED buttons. Can’t recommend it enough.
One of the final cosmetic touches that I added was some chrome t-molding. As I was building my panels, I used a router to cut a slot along the edges of my side panels and control panel, which allows the t-molding to fit into place. The final design has a “black and chrome” look to it. I decided to not install side art, because I wanted the arcade to have a neutral theme that changed its marquee art and button colors for the game currently playing.
Here is the machine compared to my Arcade 1Up cabinet:
Everything turned out exactly how I envisioned it. Thankfully, I had a little bit of practice from modding the 1Up and my friend’s cabinet. The only skill I didn’t quite have was with woodworking, but a jigsaw was pretty easy to learn and I was able to sand down any imperfections or mistakes fairly easily.
If you don’t feel too confident about building a cabinet or don’t want to invest in buying expensive tools, don’t give up on the idea just yet. This Australian guy named Abs Delfuego on YouTube is hilarious, brutally honest, and makes some awesome videos of him building arcade machines from start to finish. I highly recommend watching his video: How to Build an Arcade Cabinet with Basic Minimum Tools and No Experience
Overall, it took me about a month to build this machine from start to finish. It’s understandable if you simply don’t have the desire or work space to build a cabinet on your own. There are other options as well, such as buying “flat pack” kits from online. Either way, it’s really fun to own an arcade cabinet and I found it surprisingly fun to build as well.
I don’t mean to sound so harsh against the Arcade 1Up either. I completely understand the appeal of it. You can now find them on clearance for as little as $75 and be able to have a fully modded system for next to nothing. That is certainly the quickest and cheapest way to own an “arcade machine”. I don’t regret buying and modding mine, because that is what opened the door for me to move onto bigger projects. It’s definitely a great way to get practice if you do eventually decide to go for an upgrade.
Feel free to send me a message below if you have any questions!