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Assembling a Virtual Pinball Cabinet

A friend of mine asked me to build him a virtual pinball cabinet and I wasn’t very sure where to begin. I’ve built standard arcade cabinets before, but pinball was something entirely new for me. With an arcade cabinet, there isn’t really a single standard layout. There are typically 2 player and 4 player designs, and putting one together felt like a balance between function and style. When it comes to pinball, however, the layout doesn’t vary nearly as much between cabinets.

I was debating between building the cabinet from scratch or ordering a kit online. The problem with cutting out panels yourself is you can run into problems if you don’t get the standard dimensions exactly right. You also have to hunt down and order all of the hardware for the pinball cabinet as well, such as the legs, glass panel, lockdown bar (the silver plate that goes in the top-front area), plunger, buttons, and other random parts. I decided to go for the safer and easier approach and ordered a kit online.

There are several companies out there that provide virtual pinball cabinet kits, but the one I decided to order from was Recroom Masters. I have no affiliation with them, I just picked them because they provided everything that I needed and the cost seemed fairly reasonable. When I was pricing out hardware myself to build a cabinet from scratch, I might have saved a few hundred dollars, but at the same time, it would have been nearly impossible to have a cabinet that looked nearly as clean and professionally made.

That’s a lot of bubble wrap.

When the cabinet kit arrived, it showed up in 3 separate boxes that could have easily fit into one box if they excluded all of the bubble wrap. There was an absolute ton of bubble wrap intertwined around everything, which is good! I am sure they might have dealt with complaints of packages being damaged during transit in the past, so they clearly decided to go the extra mile to pad the hell out of everything to avoid dealing with replacement costs.

Once I finally got all of the bubble out of the way, I was ready to start building! Their instructions are fairly easy to understand and it was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other until everything was finished. The outside finish is smooth and scratch resistant, which I really liked. The only downside is that the panels are made out of particle board, which isn’t the most durable. To compensate for this, they provide several extra pieces to brace any potential weak points. Once put together, the cabinet felt like a tank and nearly weighed as much as one.

The Control Panel

Because I wanted a traditional pinball control panel, putting one together was probably the most tedious part of the build process. I didn’t like the control panel option that Recroom Masters provided. The one they provide has a weird button layout with buttons designated for arrow directions. I am not sure why you would need arrow directions at all, because the excellent Pinup Popper front end and Visual Pinball X don’t require them. The menu on a virtual pinball cabinet can be navigated with the flipper buttons, and you can select what to play with the start button. The other thing their control panel doesn’t have is an actual pinball plunger for launching the ball. They instead just rely on a standard button to launch the ball. That doesn’t feel like pinball to me, because pulling that plunger is part of the fun.

Genuine arcade plunger combined with an analog-to-digital controller board. These custom parts are not provided by Recroom Masters and you will have to order them from elsewhere.

Luckily, Recroom Masters does provide a front panel that is pre-cut to accommodate a plunger, coin door, and start/exit buttons. What sucks though is you have to go on a hunt to find those parts yourself. It would have been cool if they offered those parts or, you know, just provided a pre-assembled control panel with a standard plunger in the first place.

I couldn’t put the rest of the cabinet together until the front control panel piece was pre-wired and assembled. Otherwise, it would be much more time consuming to put the cabinet together first and decide to wire everything after. The plunger install would have been especially difficult, since it has to be screwed into place from the inside. I also had to install an analog-to-digital plunger controller board which was a bit complicated to install. So, in summary, it’s highly recommended to install your plunger, buttons, and wires ahead of time or you may regret it.

It’s much easier to wire everything ahead of time.

Now that the control panel wiring assembly is out of the way, you then have to install a 40″ HDTV before putting the final side panel back on. This part is a little weird for me because it mounts the tv a little bit on the low side. You will have about a 4″ clearance between the tv screen and the top glass panel once everything is finished. Some people prefer to have the tv mounted a bit higher. What really kinda sucks though, is that you can’t adjust the height once it’s all together. You will have to take the cabinet partially apart and come up with your own creative solution to raise the height. I wasn’t sure what to do to raise the height, so I just went with what was there. The end result didn’t look as bad as I initially thought, and some people thought it looked perfect. I guess I’m happy if they are. It does help with the illusion that it’s a real pinball table when you see the space between the glass and screen.

The process for putting the final side panel back on was kinda difficult. I would highly recommend having an extra person or two to help line everything up. There are dozens of alignment pegs on every particle board panel, and you have to make sure everything is lined up perfectly or it won’t go together. Some of the boards are wobbling around slightly and some of the pegs require a ton of force to go into the tiny pre-drilled holes. I was fighting it and then later realizing something was a bit off and it was hard to not get frustrated. Everything eventually came together though.

Lining up the holes on this side panel with the pegs underneath was not easy.

The next step was attaching the legs, which wasn’t too difficult. The hardest part was screwing the internal plates from the inside, because you can’t easily see what you are doing. Once the legs were attached, I was able to finally stand the cabinet up. It’s starting to resemble a pinball machine!

It stands!

Putting together the upper portion wasn’t too difficult. It’s much lighter and you just have to remember to attach your speakers, television, and electronics ahead of time to avoid headaches. You should even attach your video cable to the tv as well, because there won’t be any way to easily access the back of the tv once it is mounted in place. I decided to cut an access hole just to be safe and I’m glad I did. One stupid mistake that I originally made was that I forgot to install the plexiglass before I put the last side panel on. The panels are notched so that the glass slides into place. I had to take it partially apart and it made things a bit difficult. It wasn’t entirely my fault though. The instructions they provided forgot to mention when to install the plexiglass, which irritated me. Hopefully they will revise their instructions.

Recroom Masters provides two options for the upper backglass box. You can install a speaker mount with a digital dot matrix (DMD) display cut out in the middle, or you can install a speaker mount with just the holes for the speaker. Both panels are included in the box, so you don’t have to commit to anything when ordering. I went with the PinDMD digital dot matrix display and it’s pretty cool looking, but it’s also kinda expensive. The DMD panel fit perfectly into the cabinet panel though. It runs off of a USB connection and is powered from a standard PC power supply connector.

The dot matrix display and tv’s have power!

Once the upper portion was mounted and in place, it was time to mount the giant plexiglass that goes on top of the 40″ tv. This part made me nervous because it had protective film on both sides of the glass and I had to avoid getting finger print smudges and dust on the glass and on the tv itself. I didn’t want to have to deal with installing it and noticing an imperfection later, so I just took extra care and triple checked everything every step of the way.

The cabinet was nearly finished. I had to order my coin door from an outside source and it was the last part to arrive, so it felt like putting a star on top of a Christmas tree. I found a coin door on eBay that had everything pre-assembled with all of the lights and “25 cent” stickers on the coin slots. There are some sellers that don’t include those and you will have to hunt down those parts yourself. I didn’t plan to have this cabinet run off of quarters, but I thought it would be neat to install switches into the coin slots so that it puts in a “virtual coin” when you push in on the coin return. It works like a charm!

You can insert virtual coins by pushing either the coin eject button

So what are my thoughts about this cabinet now that it’s all together and that I had some time to play some games on it? It’s awesome! Once it’s all together, it looks and feels like the real thing and it also feels extremely solid. Some people I showed it to couldn’t even tell it was a virtual/digital pinball cabinet.

The first game I installed on it was a Visual Pinball X table called “Stranger Things: Stranger Edition” and I kinda wish I picked that one last. For me and everyone I have shown it to, it blows every other pinball game away. Never mind that it has an awesome presentation, 80’s soundtrack, clever clips from the show that sync up with what you are doing, and has a story mode that can be completed to unlock an ending… it is simply just incredibly fun to play. I was never really a fan of pinball before, but this masterpiece of a game converted me. It’s insane that this is exclusive to digital pinball and there isn’t a real physical version of this game. It made me feel like I was living under a rock, because I had no idea pinball games like this were even possible. Once I played this game, I wasn’t nearly as impressed with the other tables I installed.

Stranger Things is one of the best pinball games ever.

The cabinet install wasn’t as quick-and-easy as I had hoped, but that was mainly because I went with genuine pinball parts, such as the coin door and plunger. If you opt for the control panel that Recroom Masters provides, it is literally plug-and-play and will save you a few hours from wiring everything up. I checked out some build guides from various sources on the web and this build leaned toward the more “premium” route in terms of cost. It can be hard to have a low budget for a pinball cab that can play demanding games. When it was all said and done, this build probably ran around $3000 in total. When you include the price of building a PC and purchasing the extra bells and whistles to make the cabinet feel more genuine, things will add up quickly.

This is technically a more modest build as well. I’ve seen people invest closer to $9,000 on a cabinet! They will install all kinds of crazy gadgets and toys, such as force-feedback solenoids, light strips, rotating siren lights, and a 3rd monitor to display additional videos. So in that regard, maybe this build isn’t as “premium” as others, but in the Arcade1Up era we live in, you can certainly go cheaper.

The finished product looks like a genuine pinball cabinet

Overall, I had a great experience with building this Recroom Masters cabinet and I would recommend them if you are on the fence between cutting out your own cabinet and assembling a kit. I was worried that it would feel cheap, but it is extremely heavy and durable feeling once it’s all together.

Edward Hyman

Besides gaming, I'm really into technology in general.