Arcade Update: The Controller

When we decided to pursue the idea of actually building an arcade machine, we started off doing some research. I have a little experience with the insides of stand up arcade machines, having owned a Ms. Pac-Man and a Spy Hunter machine purchased from an auction. Of course, buying is slightly different from building.
There are two prevailing thoughts within our team. First, it would be amazingly cool to build the machine totally from scratch. Second, if we build from scratch, there’s probably no way we’ll have something ready by MAX 2009.
So we’ve decided to take a few shortcuts for this first cabinet and buy a custom built cabinet and controller. We’ll still do all side art, marquee and controller art ourselves, but this will get us started so we can concentrate on things like the software.


Anyone searching arcade machines will eventually stumble upon MAME. I played around with MAME 5-10 years ago and its great to see how that community has grown. There are a number of people who have documented their build process and lots of forums for discussion.
We eventually settled on North Coast Custom Arcades (http://mameroom.com/) for our cabinet and controllers. They’re a bit on the pricey side, but when you add up the price of the components and the amount of time it would take us to build it ourselves, it seems worth it.
Instead of buying the whole kit all at once, we decided to first just buy the controller so we could start testing the software side to make sure it would do what we want. They offer the ability to fully customize your controller layout, but the “Classic Controller Unit” seemed like a good place to start (and probably has more than enough buttons then we’ll ever need).
We removed the overlay option (we’ll design our own) and went with red moldings and a red and white button scheme to highlight the Adobe, Flash and AIR color schemes. We did upgrade the trackball to the Illuminated Red version — very cool indeed. We did not get the plexiglas cover as this time, we’ll see if we change our minds on that down the road.
If you’re really interested, the Color Code we used is: AAAHHHFFFG-FFFHHHFFF-GHFBFFAFF-BFFAFFSJI-0O
We ordered the controller using the website and then….nothing. The website shows and order number, but we didn’t get any confirmation email or any shipping notice. After a couple weeks, we started calling to see what the status was, but by the time we got around to it, it would be after 5pm on the east coast and we just got voicemail. No matter though, the controller showed up the next day!
Most reviews I found on the web about North Coast Custom Arcades were fairly positive, though there was one common complaint. Almost everyone I saw complained about their boxes being damaged during shipment. People were quick to point out that NCCA was very quick to replace anything damaged in shipment, so that eased my mind slightly when ordering. Our controller box was no different, having arrived with a huge gash in the side:
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Fortunately, the controller itself was packed deep enough in the box there was no apparent damage. This does mean we want to get our order for the cabinet in a little sooner then we planned, just to make sure we get all the pieces in good shape and give us some extra time should we need to send anything back.
Here is the full controller, in all its glory. I was surprised to find that the controller is completely enclosed. I had expected to find the bottom open with all the wires exposed, but appears to be held on with two phillips screws (I haven’t tried opening it up yet, but will have to eventually).
Without the overlay or plexiglas, fingerprints show up quite easily:
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The controller connects to a PC or Mac quite easily. In our setup, there are three cables that come out of the controller. A USB for the trackball that is detected as a mouse (the three mouse buttons are to the left of the trackball in white). A second USB cable is connected to the silver spinner, which is also detected as a mouse but one that only moves along one axis (horizontal). The third cable has both a USB and a PS/2 Keyboard connector, allowing you to choose how it is connected. This is the I-PAC controller (http://www.ultimarc.com/ipac1.html) which lets any button or joystick press show up as regular keyboard inputs.
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A few more shots:
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I hooked the controller up to an old laptop we had lying around the office:
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