Friday, March 30, 2012

Star Wars woodworking

I haven't posted for a *really* long time, but rather than bore you with excuses and apologies, let's get right to something I have been working on in the arcade. Every now and then, an old game will die, and sometimes someone will decide it is easier to convert that game to MAME rather than fix is up properly. This was the sad course of events that led me to purchase a Star Wars upright that had been (poorly) converted to a MAME machine. (This shouldn't be confused with the earlier Star Wars cab I blogged about--one that was entirely trashed had had been MAMEd Street Fighter style..) I ended up polishing up the MAME conversion a bit, but it always irked me to have a Star Wars that wasn't running the original hardware. It had the yoke, and looked like a Star Wars on the outside, but it didn't have any soul. After playing my friend Jay's Star Wars a few times, I decided I had to take the plunge.

One major obstacle that I had to overcome was the fact that the guy who had MAMEd the machine originally had ripped out the entire monitor frame. This is no small feat. He wanted a VGA monitor in there, so he cut out all of that custom woodwork. After a few trips to Jay's house to take pictures and make *many* measurements, I came up with a computer model (in Google sketchup) of what the wood I wanted to make looked like. Eventually I cut out the frame, routed it in places, inserted T-nuts in other places, and placed it back in the cab. Check out the results:

The new frame is made out of high quality plywood, and is shown with the mounts for an Amplifone tube, which is what Star Wars originally shipped with.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

I got bored and built an NES clone bartop

I recently got bored and decided to attempt to merge some console and arcade technology in a twisted experiment. A friend of mine (Jay) had a spare Taito Arcade Classics bartop gathering dust: Other friends of mine (Dan and Gabe) talked me into buying a Yobo FC3 NES/SNES/Genesis clone (pictured below) at PAX East last year. You might be saying to yourself--stop now! Why hack two pieces of gaming technology that are cool in their own right? Well, the bartop had no game circuit board. As it turns out, those boards make for really nice multi Taito arcade cabinets, and someone had already removed the board. The Yobo FC3 is a cool little system, but the controllers it came with were absolute junk! One of mine was nonfunctional out of the box. The other died shortly thereafter. It plays cartridges fine--but without controllers, no joy. That being the case, I set out to graft these pieces of tech together. The FC3 would serve as the gaming powerplant and the Taito bartop would be the control platform. First off, I removed the existing 13 inch monitor from the bartop and replaced it with a 13 inch TV. The tube bolted right up to the existing mounts without an issue. While I was inside the cab, I yanked the existing speaker (right) and replaced it with a much beefier 'arcade' speaker (left). The bass on the new speaker really kicks: Wiring up the controls required a bit of circuit tinkering. Simple pad hacks were not in the cards, since the pads themselves were DOA. Ultimately I went with the circuit from this site, adapting it slightly for my use. It was really cool learning how NES controllers work from a circuit perspective. Since the Taito bartop already had two 8 way joysticks with two buttons each, a menu select and a two start buttons, it was an almost perfect match for the button layout on two NES controllers! I ended up mounting the FC3 to the top of the bartop cab using four carriage bolts. This allowed me to cut a slot in the top of the cab to use for swapping out NES cartridges: Here is a shot of the machine in action with Mario Brothers (the arcade classic) up and running: Right now this rig is working really well. For a while I was toying with the idea of cutting more slots in the top of the cabinet (to add SNES and Genesis capability), but that would also require creating swappable control panels. That might be a fun project for the future, but for now I'm enjoying the current setup. The art on this cab is not bad, but I think it might benefit from a Nintendo themed facelift at some point...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


It's officially winter in New England, and you know what that means--trying to grab one last game before your basement gets snowbound! A local collector recently rescued a Vanguard and a Phoenix from a barn in New Hampshire. The story on the machines was that they were put away working. I've been keeping my eye out for a Vanguard, and fortunately for me the rescuer decided to pass the games along to other collectors. With a storm baring down on me, I managed to wheel this game into my basement just before Jack Frost hit us with 17 inches of powder.

I received the Vanguard complete, and pretty much unhacked (except for some wires hanging out through the coin door lock hole--obviously because there were no coinups available when this machine was stored). The game was pretty filthy (it had been living in a barn after all) and I had to extricate a wasp nest and several larvae of unknown origin. The manual (complete with schematics for the game boards and monitor) was in an envelope in the bottom of the cab.

After checking the connections, I plugged it in, and immediately got monitor crackle and speaker hum. The marquee blinked to life. Initially, there was practically no image on the monitor--it was a super dim bluish haze; the brightness control didn't help. I hooked up my trusty Heathkit rejuvinator, and all the electron guns in the CRT tested fine. At this point the game would not coin up or play bind, so I figured there was something up with the boardset. I checked all the DC voltages and they were fine.

I pulled the boards, reseated the ribbon cables, reseated the CPU, and cleaned the edge connector with a pencil eraser. At this point I could see some Vanguard like junk on the screen (still dim) and in a triple (overlapping) image. It looked like the attract mode, sort of. It still wouldn't coin up--then I realized that someone had twisted some of the coin switch inputs together (perhaps as a cheap attempt at a free play switch). These wires were sticking out in through the lock hole in the coin door. With this input shorted, the other (unhacked) coin switch would not activate. After separating the wires, the game coined up, and I was able to hear sounds, music, and speech.

At this point I set about adjusting the monitor (Wells 4600). Since the brightness control wasn't doing anything, I figured the dimness might be solved by a cap kit to be performed later. I really wanted to get rid of that triple image. I played with the adjustment a bit, and then started to work the horizontal oscillator coil (L351) on the XY board. That adjustment requires a plastic tool, since it is a bit recessed and not readily accessible. Upon turning this coil a bit, all of a sudden an nice saturated image flashed on the screen--yes!

At this point I had to adjust the vertical hold (which I had fumbled with earlier) and had to turn down the brightness a bit. The game plays, but it does have a graphics glitch on some of the sprites. I'm going to check the ROMs next and see if there is an issue there.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Rock solid!

One of the toughest things about this hobby is dealing with the little things that are amiss with a game. My Asteroids Deluxe has always been a great playing machine, but the screen never really looked right. Asteroids Deluxe has a neat screen setup, where the picture you see is the combination of the vector monitor output and a blacklit 3D background. The two images are combined by a partially silvered first surface mirror. This mirror reflects some light (from the monitor) and transmits some light (from the fluorescing backdrop behind it). The problem with my screen is that you could see a dim white rectangle the full size of the monitor. There was no way to adjust this out.. and it totally killed the 3D background effect. You want to see ships and rocks floating in midair, not on a dim white screen that is interfering with your view of the cool 3D stuff!

My screen was also missing the blue 'gel' that goes in front of the monitor. That didn't bother me so much--I figured experiencing the game in white lines wasn't that much different than experiencing it in blue lines.

Then I got thinking about this a bit more. (For this next bit, you need to bear in mind that during my day job, I do a bit of spectroscopy, which deals with the interaction of light and matter.) What if it was the black light that was causing the screen to show up as a white box? As it turned out, the ultraviolet (UV) light from the black light was making its way through the partially silvered mirror, straight down to the picture tube. The UV was then causing some of the phosphorescent material on the tube (that is supposed to be lit up by the CRT electron beam only) to glow. As it turns out, air doesn't block UV very well. Glass (i.e. the mirror) doesn't block it very well either... but plastic, well, plastic is another story! Plastic is very good at blocking (absorbing) UV rays, and guess what the blue gel that is supposed to go on an Asteroids Deluxe monitor is made of.. You got it, plastic. With the blue gel in place, the UV from the black light does not have nearly as big an effect on the picture tube:

It's not perfect, but the effect is a heck of a lot better than it used to be!

Another small issue popped up what I was tinkering with the machine--intermittent power failures, accompanied by nasty audio buzzing, graphics flickering, and high scores getting wiped out. This machine has a (relatively) fresh big blue capacitor, a rebuit AR board, and a recapped/rebuilt monitor. Upon further investigation, it turned out that by jiggling the cables on the power brick, I was able to reproduce the effect. I figured it might be a bad molex connection on the brick, but the pins looked factory fresh. Things on the AR board looked great too--no loose pins or cold solder joints anywhere. Then I pulled on a few wires that were leading into the power brick (through the hole on top). These wires went to the (fresh) big blue... but they were the culprits! As it turned out, the end loops on the wires were loose where they were screwed on to the big blue. I had replaced that big blue a few years back, and apparently the replacement I got had screw holes that were a little bit too shallow for the factory screws that were used on the original big blue in this machine. The machine had worked fine for many years, but apparently the jostling the machine has seen over the years (including a coast to coast move!) had slowly loosened the wires. I pulled the screws and washers and cleaned them with a wire brush. Then I sourced a few more washers (to make up for the fact that the screws were a tad too long) and securely screwed the wires in place. The machine is now rock solid! The moral of the story--even if you know the big blue is good, check those connections! There are lots of wires going into and out of that capacitor, and they are all vital to smooth operation of your power supply.

One interesting side note is that these power issues wiped all of the high scores on this machine--high scores that were there when I bought the machine (I tend not to clear out high scores on my games). These scores were ridiculously high scores set by some guy named 'DAN'. DAN, I wanted to beat you the legit way, but it just wasn't in the cards. Now to *finally* put some scores of my own on there.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Two pack of cutesy games

<-- Here's my Ranger doing what it does best. I've been looking for a proper Q*bert and a Frogger cab for some time now. I have a bootleg Q*bert machine (in a generic cabinet) that I enjoy--but I have been keeping my eye out for a dedicated cabinet from Gottlieb. Frogger is another staple of the golden age, but for whatever reason, they are hard to find (at least in New England). A lot of Froggers were made, and I am sure that many are still out there.. but as everyone says, people tend to hold on to them. My friend Jay has the lowdown on where to find games around here and he recently clued me in on the location of a converted Q*bert cab. We cruised to the location, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a converted Frogger cab as well! Sweet--two birds with one stone. Both cabs are converted to Merit Trivia Whiz. Fortunately the conversions were relatively clean--the original power supplies and monitors were left intact, and a Trivia Whiz conversion doesn't Swiss cheese the control panel as much as a standard 'classic to JAMMA' conversion does. (Check out my Dragon's Lair conversion for an example.)

Some parts are on the way, and I have started cleaning and stripping these cabs. I'm considering swapping the guts from my Q*bert bootleg/generic into the Gottlieb cab, but that decision can come a little ways down the road. Now to find a Frogger boardset!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Donkey Kong restore

It has been a really long time since my last post, probably because I have been too busy fixing up games and the like. I've been taking some pictures along the way, and figured now is a good time to post something.

A while back I grabbed a converted Donkey Kong (DK) that was sitting on Craigslist. It was advertised as a Konami basketball, but the pictures showed it was in a converted DK cab. The cab didn't look that great online, but it appeared to have potential when I saw it in person. It still had the original Sanyo 20-EZ monitor, and the original Nintendo harness was intact. $100 and some driving left me with this in my garage:

I figured I would have to buy most of the replacement parts, but when I looked into the upper back, I thought I saw one of Donkey Kong's eyes in the marquee area. As it turned out, the marquee had just been covered over with a sticker, and the original marquee was quite well protected:

Unfortunately, the control panel had extra holes drilled in it, and the original overlay was long gone. I set to work on filling the conversion holes with bondo, then painted the panel, and lastly added a screen printed overlay from TNT Amusements:

Half of my control panel carriage bolts (the tiny ones) were missing, so I had to order a set from Mike's Arcade--kinda pricey, but those things are hard to find! The original buttons were discolored and some had cigarette burns, so I replaced them with reproductions from Mike's. Someone replaced the stick with a rather worn out 8-way, so I ordered a reproduction Nintendo 4-way (once again from Mike's). I would have gone with a cheaper used stick, but I was impressed with the one I purchased for my DK Jr, and figured DK deserved no less. The control panel wiring was a bit hacked up (for the additional buttons) but I was able to clean it up and get it back to its original state.

I was able to snag a new set of logic boards (2 board set) on Ebay, and also had to track down the small wooden shelf and metal brackets that hold the board in place. These parts took a really long time to find, but I was able to get them from someone who was parting out a badly water damaged cabinet.

The monitor had some bad foldover (see my earlier entry about this exact same issue with my Donkey Kong Junior) so I removed the monitor, ran the chassis through the dishwasher to clean it, and installed a cap kit. The monitor came out looking (and functioning!) like new.

The speaker panel had a bunch of gunk and residue on it, perhaps from tape:

This was cleaned up with some goo-gone, a plastic paint scraper, and a lot of elbow grease. While I was at it, I removed the black laminate above the control panel. It was in really bad shape and couldn't be saved.

I ended up sanding this area down and painted it with satin black. I may choose to cover it with laminate at some point in the future, and I still need to track down an instruction sticker.

Next up, I reinstalled the control panel and installed a replacement bezel that I found on Ebay:

That's looking a lot better than a Super Basketball! I converted the mechs over to tokens, added new connectors for the speaker, and reconnected some missing wires to the second coin mech. The machine needs a bit more cleaning up (I'm anxious to replace the t-molding) and a few decals, but for now it is back in the line next to one of its immediate family:

Friday, July 31, 2009

Token Effort

My latest undertaking is converting my machines to run on tokens. This is part of the metamorphosis that many arcade collectors go through. Once your games are pretty much working, if you want to keep fiddling with them, you convert them to tokens.

The tokens I have chosen are 0.984 inches in diameter. These are called 'quarter sized' tokens, but they're actually just a bit larger than a quarter. I picked up a batch of old Chuck E Cheese tokens on Ebay. One nice advantage about 0.984 tokens is that you can usually convert a quarter mech to run with the slightly larger size. It requires a bit of filing and adjusting, but it is manageable. Plus, I already have a bunch of quarter mechs in the machines. It is possible to buy token mechs, but they can get pretty pricey in a hurry ($10 to $15 or so each on ebay). If you have the patience, converting your quarter mechs is the way to go.

In my case, this has been an interesting task, since many of my machines have different coin mechs, and many require different adjustments. It's a lot like solving a puzzle at times. Here is a basic rundown on a run of the mill metal mech:

Depending on the mech, you may have to file down the area where the coin enters just a bit to get the clearance needed for a 0.984 token.

Then comes adjusting the cradle. On this mech, I actually ended up removing one of the cradle pieces in order to get the tokens to pass the cradle area:

Then came adjusting the bar that decides whether to accept or reject a token after it has traveled through the mech. A screwdriver is used to loosen the bolt and then slide the bar back and forth until you find the sweet spot. This ends up being a trial and error game, so get ready to put that token through the mech about 50 times in order to get this right:

I may follow up with a post detailing some of the more challenging token conversions I encountered.. the Nintendo and Bally/Midway machines in particular required a bit more work.