Things I learned building a retro games arcade cabinet

I’ve got a software development background and I own zero skills in building physical stuff. So the idea of building a wooden cabinet with circuits inside was quite intimidating but fascinating. After a couple of months spent watching tutorials and playing with drill and saw I came out with a satisfying result. Here you find what I learned thanks to this geeky experiment.

1 Building a physical product present unexpected challenges: weight, balance, stability are all issues you don’t think about since they don’t get in the way. You need to prototype a lot before being ready for the final release. 3D modeling software is helpful to get an idea of your product shape and size, but cardboard is your best friend when it comes to physical interaction. When you play videogames you want your hands to move comfortably, you need the right amount of space for buttons and joystick. Cardboard allows you to easily iterate design using glue and a cutter. With some practice you could even build a shippable product with cardboard, think about Google Cardboard..

Arcade games cabinet cardboard prototype, I used plastic caps to decide were to place buttons.

2 Building a physical product is rewarding. I realized how rewarding it is once I had my final piece up-and-running. Playing videogames with a proper arcade stick is much more pleasant than playing with a PC or a touchscreen device. The physical feedback of buttons, the clicky sound of joystick, the solidity of the cabinet, they all add something to the nostalgic games experience.
The cabinet is also a nice piece of forniture. I decorated it with flat blue paint and contrasting red controls. Watching it in the living room on our modernist buffet is pleasant even when the cabinet is turned off. It is surprisingly appreciated even by people that have nothing to do with videogames (like my mum).

The Arcade cabinet in the living room

3 Raspberry PI is a piece of cake. The core component of my game cabinet is a Raspberry pi model b. I knew that software set-up would be the easy part, but it was ways easier than I thought. It’s just a matter of downloading RetroPie image file, installing it on a SD card, put the card into the Pi and turn it on! Raspberry Pi is a really great piece of hardware to experiment with Linux, emulators, IOT. online you find all the tutorials and downloads you can ever need.

Early test of RetroPie with joystick prototype and Sonic

4 Classic arcade games were really hard. I tested my cabinet with many classic 80s games. Generally speaking games from that era were much harder than nowadays games. From late 90s the 1st stage of a game is usually a learn-by-doing guide that introduces gameplay and explains how to avoid obstacles and blast enemies. In the 80s, before you could even understand how to play you already died 3 times. I guess that was designed specifically for arcades, where the main aim was to get as many coins as possible in the cabinet. There was no room for time wasting explanations!

Wooden chassis after the 1st painting

Overall this handicraft experience taught me that adding physicality to digital products opens up many opportunities, physical objects brings different communication channels, in my case it was critical in bringing a fun, nostalgic experience. Getting started with DIY can be daunting but thanks to easy-to-use, cheap components such as Raspberry Pi everyone with a developer mindset should definitely give a try.
After this successful experience hundreds of ideas came to my mind, now I’m playing with a Raspberry Pi Zero W a new board ridiculously small and cheap (10$) and I’m also willing to experiment with discarded Android devices and recycled materials. I’ll see you for the next mission.