Buy or Make Classic MAME Controllers





Buy or Make Classic MAME Controllers

Get the full retro experience from classic control boxes.

Tired of playing classic arcade games under MAME using only your keyboard or a tiny game pad? Want a controller that mimics the original arcade experiencebut don't want to shell out the cash and living-room space required for a six-foot-tall arcade cabinet [Hack #30]? If this sounds like you, what you need is a standalone MAME controller that hooks up to your PC. This hack will explore how to buy prefabricated controllers as well as a few tips on how to create, then build, your own custom design.

Buy a Classic MAME Controller

By far the easiest option (at least for those of us not particularly technically inclined) is to buy one of the pre-made MAME controllers offered by a few different manufacturers. Although they may look virtually identical, you'll want to know some details about the devices before you decide which one to purchase.

HotRod.

A manufacturer called HanaHo Games offers this joystick (http://www.hanaho.com/products/HotRodJoystick/). The large casing features two full sets of real arcade-style eight-way joysticks and buttons. Each side features eight buttons: a start button up above, six arranged in the standard two-by-three style used by most Street Fighter type fighting games, as well as an extra button on the lower left, which allows you to play the four-button Neo Geo games by using the bottom row only. Two buttons on the sides of the unit function as flipper controls for pinball-style games.

What sets it apart from the X-Arcade is that the HotRod connects to your PS/2 standard keyboard input. If you are using a PS/2 keyboard, you don't have to unplug it to connect the HotRod, as a jack on the HotRod's included PS/2 cable lets you hook up both at once. The price is $99.99, which includes a disc of classic Capcom arcade games [Hack #25].

X-Arcade.

The X-Arcade (http://www.x-arcade.com) is identical in many respects to the HotRod, but differs in some significant ways. It is available in both single-and dual-player versions, which retail for $99.99 and $149.99 respectively. The joystick setups are nearly identical, but the X-Arcade features an extra button on each side.

What truly sets the device apart, however, are the various adapters available for it that allow you to use the X-Arcade not only with the PC but also the Dreamcast, Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube consoles by using adapters that cost $19.99 each. (One adapter of your choice is included when you buy either model of the joystick.)

USB adapters that let you connect the X-Arcade to the Mac (or PC, if you'd rather not use your keyboard port) are available for $29.99, or free by adding the "Mac Kit" joystick bundle into your shopping cart if using the X-Arcade home page to buy the controller. If you'd rather see one in a brick-and-mortar retailer, the sticks are available at Fry's Electronics and J&R Computer World stores.

SlikStik.

If you want an even more detailed arcade joystick setup with options like trackballs, dual joysticks for both players, or even spinners for games like Tempestand aren't afraid of shelling out the big bucks to get exactly what you wantthe company SlikStik (http://www.slikstik.com) might be worth checking out. The controllers are priceya two-player "Fighter" joystick with a layout similar to the X-Arcade's runs about $240, and the trackball-enhanced "Classic" model a whopping $479.95but you can customize your order on the web site in practically any way you can imagine, changing the button colors, layouts, and other options. They even offer a four-player setup. And if you're interested in building your own controller, you can order the same arcade-quality parts they use to build their machines. And speaking of which…

Make a Classic MAME Controller

Buying a MAME controller is certainly an easy way to have an arcade-quality control setup at your fingertips, but what if you want a cheaper solution? Or, for that matter, a custom setup that puts the joystick and buttons right where you want them? Homemade MAME controllers are surprisingly simple and inexpensive to make, and can greatly improve your MAME gaming experience!

Many different step-by-step tutorials written by hackers who have made their own custom MAME controller designs can be pored over at www.arcadecontrols.com.


Planning your controller layout.

Planning is the most important step. Is your controller going to support one player, or two? Are you going to set it on your desk or on your lap? Is your favorite game Pac-Man (a game that uses a 4-way joystick and no buttons) or Mortal Kombat 3 (which requires an 8-way joystick and six buttons per player)? There's no reason why you can't design a controller that will work with both, but it'll never work out if you don't plan ahead! If you're a computer geek, pull up your favorite illustration program and keep moving circles around until you like what you see. If you're more the hands-on type, try cutting some circles out of paper and moving them around until you like the way it feels. I've seen many controllers completely assembled out of cardboard before a single piece of wood was ever cut. Don't forget while laying out your buttons that for MAME, you may want to include player start buttons and coin-up buttons.

Once you have a general idea of the size and layout of your controller, it's time to get some wood and start cutting! The type of wood you choose depends on the look you want and how you plan on finishing the controller. I've used both ½" and ¾" wood and had good results. If you want to save yourself a ton of frustration, pick up a couple of extra drill bits at your local hardware store. Arcade buttons need a 11/8" hole, while joysticks generally require a 1 ¼" hole.

Arcade quality joysticks, buttons, and other necessary parts can be purchased from Happ Controls (www.happcontrols.com).


Wiring your buttons.

Now comes the less-fun part. You've got to get all those buttons and joysticks talking to your computer. If you want to go the quick and easy route, pick up an encoder such as the I-PAC (http://www.ultimarc.com/ipac1.html). All the wires from your joysticks and buttons will hook directly to the encoder, which then connects to your PC. Most encoders ship pre-configured for MAME, so once your wiring is done you're ready to go. Most of the new encoders have USB connections, which will allow you to easily disconnect your controller when not in use. These encoders are generally available for under $40. Figure shows these components wired up.

The I-PAC, all wired up


But if the ultimate goal of your controller is to keep prices down, you may want to make your own encoder by hacking a keyboard. This involves soldering a wire from each button on your new controller to a contact point on a disassembled computer keyboard. It's inexpensive, but it takes a lot of time, patience, and frustration to get it just right.

Additionally, many keyboard hacks experience what's known as "ghosting" and/or "blocking". The next time you're at your computer, open up a text editor and, using your entire hand, press down as many keys as you can at the same time. Chances are you won't see more than three or four letters appear. Keyboards weren't designed to take in a lot of input all at once and if that's the heart of your MAME controller, neither will it. Also keep in mind that if you use a PS/2 keyboard, that means you'll be unplugging your normal keyboard in order to use your controller.

If you plan on making a MAME controller for only one player, a better option would be to hack an existing PC joystickMicrosoft Sidewinder and Gravis Gamepad seem to be popular donors. The idea is the same as a keyboard hack: open the joystick and solder your wires directly to the contacts on the joystick's circuit board. Most of these controllers are USB, which is convenient.

Finish Him!

Once you've got your controller assembled, it's time to decorate it! The only limit here is your imagination. The simplest solutions involve simply painting your controller. I've also seen the tops of controllers wrapped in $1 sheets of contact paper that turned out looking really nice. Slightly fancier controllers may end up covered in Formica. Even fancier ones may end up with graphics printed on top of them, covered by a layer of Plexiglas. Many MAME controllers end up with T-molding around their edges, just like their arcade-dwelling big brothers. Like I said, the sky's the limit here.

Even starting from scratch, you can build a really nice looking MAME controller for $50-$100, depending on the number of controls and the finish you decide on. With just a little bit of elbow grease, you can build yourself a one of a kind controller and save yourself some money in the process.

Rob O'Hara and Chris Kohler



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