As someone growing up in the heyday of arcades, it's always been a dream of mine to have at least one actual arcade machine in my home. It has nothing to do with saving quarters of course, it's about the pride of having a great showpiece and a larger-than-life display of my love for gaming. Beginning my quest to make this little dream a reality, I started poking around into different options, originally planning to build my own cabinet from scratch. I admit that I ended up taking the easy way out and writing a check when I saw a pre-made unit at a price I couldn't ignore, but during my searches I came across Chuck McGee, a
man with a similarly obvious love of the great big boxes, and who actually went the distance and built his own units—twice. Envious of his beautiful creations, I took the opportunity to get to know Chuck a bit and pick his brain for knowledge and tips. You can view his efforts at his website, www.leafstation.com
Please tell us about yourself, Chuck.
My name is Chuck McGee. I am a 32-year old technical professional. Over the past 10 years, I have held high-level positions at both large and small organizations, but regardless of the job's importance and my need to be a polished professional, my hobby and recreational was still gaming. Like many other thirty-somethings, I grew up in the 80s watching every episode of Tom and Jerry there was, and finding my way to the local arcade after school with every quarter I could bum off of friends and family.
Obviously, you're a big arcade fan. Tell us about your gaming background.
Arcades are where my interest in gaming first began. Gaming at home wasn't really popular yet and people were lining up to play the local Pac-Man machines. An arcade opened up near to where I went to Middle School and I was finding my way there with every free moment I had (and sometimes not-so-free moments).
Eventually, the Atari 2600 hit the scene and all of my friends who had more money than me got one. It was one summer when my parents finally broke down and purchased the Magnavox Odyssey2 to help my constant ramblings about home and arcade games. It might have also been the steady audio stream from my cassette player of "Pac-Man Fever" by Garcia and Buckner that told them I needed to channel that energy somehow.
Through to my graduation in high-school, and as a three-sport athlete during that time, I never had money of my own and had no time for a job, so my purchases would always stagger the official releases of some of these consoles and games by months, which was a painful process and a primary motivator to what I am today—a gamer in a professional's body with enough recreational income necessary to stay on the edge of my gaming interests and to express myself creatively.
Today, I own a PlayStation 2, an Xbox, and a high-end PC for gaming. I spend an equal amount of time among all three playing games, mostly in sports, racing, first-person shooters, and strategy titles. But it feels like I try and play them all, regardless of genre, simply because I am fascinated by where the gaming industry is headed.
Where did you get the idea to make your own cabinet?
It was early on in my professional career, around 1998, that I was able to discover the wonderful world of MAME. For many years, I was satisfied to try out different MAME games that would take me back to that time as a middle-schooler [when] I would be dumping quarters into arcade machines.
(Editor's note: MAME stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, a means of allowing people to enjoy arcade games at home, although the main stated purpose of the project is to document the hardware (and software) of the games themselves. GameCritics.com does not endorse emulation, and provides this information for the purpose of this interview. More info can be found at http://www.mame.net/)
I eventually lost interest in MAME the more I realized that these games I was once in love with, were not the technical marvels I once remembered them to be. So I turned my attention to other PC and console games for the next couple years, until one day, cleaning up my home office, I found a CD of all the MAME games I used to play. I started to search the Internet to see what was new with the organization and found a site that demonstrated many examples of people building their own arcade cabinets.
The more I looked into this possibility, the more I realized that I had the motivation and skills to do something like this on my own, with one twist. I was also very interested in art—which drove me even further to create very elaborate artwork to cover the control-panel surface, side panels, and marquee—completely satisfying the right-side of my brain.
How did you gather the general knowledge on how to do it?
From that one site with all of the examples, I read page upon page of people's step-by-step instructions, and asked a lot of questions by email of those people, until eventually I knew enough to make me dangerous. I collected people's Word documents, JPEG images, AutoCad drawings, you name it.
Approximately how much time and money did it take to build?
Having built two cabinets now, MameStation I and II, and constructing three arcade panels, I would estimate that it takes approximately three weeks for someone like me who works 50-60 hour work weeks and has a family which includes a wife and two little girls. I would typically spend 2-3 hours a night (after dinner, etc) and most of my weekends. It should be mentioned, however, that with better carpentry skills and a freer schedule, this estimated project time could be cut in half. MameStation I was my first ever construction project built by some of the cheapest and incorrect tools I could get my hands on. It was surprising to me and others to have that cabinet come out as nice as it did.
What kind of knowledge would you recommend? For example, electronics skills or woodworking, etc.? Have your machines needed any repairs so far?
To date, there has been little need for repairs, and any repairs that have been necessary so far have been the result of wiring snafus. To be self-sufficient at not only building a solid cabinet, but maintaining it, you need an average skill in woodworking, and a minor skill in electrical. The interfaces that are available to connect your control panel to an ordinary computer are simple to connect at best. They do not require an extensive knowledge of electrical knowledge.
Were there any mistakes you made? Do you have any anecdotes to share, or danger spots to watch out for when building?
For someone like me who started out in carpentry while doing these cabinets, I found it most difficult to have symmetry in the side pieces after the first cuts. I would spend a LOT of time sanding my mistakes away with two pieces clamped to each other. My only advice is to take your time with your measurements and cuts and it will save you a lot of time in the end.
Besides that, any other general tips?
Be patient. Be patient. Be patient. If you are anything like me, you are driven to do this because of the draw of the finished product. You picture yourself playing the cabinet with friends and family with it in your rec room and it grabs you. For me, I was really seeing this thing get closer and closer and I was starting to get anxious to get it completed and play it. The hardest thing to be patient with for me was the priming and painting of the wood. Wow, that was tough to be patient.
What's the impression from people who see you have a cabinet?
Their impressions of my cabinet both in person and from my website have been what makes these projects worth while people's reactions range from amazement and excitement. I must still receive about 3-4 emails a day (after releasing the site in the summer of 2001) from people who have questions (much like I did when I started out) and from them telling me how great the cabinet is. The feedback has been overwhelming.
If money and materials were no object, what would be your dream cabinet?
What's interesting about this question is that I think I have built my dream cabinet with MameStation II. Where I really have fallen short of my goals is in regards to budget constraints. I have designed, to me, what is some elaborate artwork for the side panels, and have never had the several hundred dollars to have it printed and applied properly. What makes it worse is that I have given my artwork [freely] to others who were able to use it in
their side art. I am always flattered and honored when people ask me for the art, but there is that piece of me that would have really liked to have had the chance to at least apply it for my own projects.
What sites apart from yours would you recommend?
As far as I am concerned, there is only one real resource for all of this information and that is BYOAC (www.arcadecontrols.com). There are tons of examples on that page that link back to others' home pages for instructions, pictures, plans, etc. You will also find some outstanding forums where people in the community get their questions asked and answered.
What hardware or materials are required for those itching to get started?
This list is extensive and the step-by-step instructions on my home page for MameStation I cover most of them. I will list some of the tools that I would consider essential:
- Table saw
- Router with slotting bit
- Circular saw
- Drill press or drill with a hole-saw
- Cordless power drill
- Sander (both small and large depending on the job)
- Wire cutters/strippers
Finally, any last bits you want our readers to know?
I think it's important to read a lot from other people's sites and experiences, and don't be afraid to ask questions of the people who have already done this. It is how I got started and how others do it as well. It is difficult to keep this all straight when you are doing it on your own, and it's always nice to reach out to others with experience to get their opinions and input.
The most important thing to keep in mind through the whole thing, however, is that this is fun, and fun is why we do these kinds of projects. Be patient and careful during the construction, and you will be very happy with the final product.