DIY: Build A 'MAME Brain' For Under $150
By James Grahame
MAME is an arcade game emulator that is frequently used to build multi-game home arcade cabinets. It simulates popular arcade system harware from the 1980s and 1990s, right down to the graphic display engines and sound systems.
Many enthusiasts have built MAME cabinets around old PC motherboards, but here's our guide to building your own Linux or Windows based 'MAME Brain' for less than $150. This tiny system includes an Intel Mini-ITX (6.75" x 6.75") motherboard with built-in processor, a 4 GB solid state drive, and a programmable arcade controller interface that allows you to connect real arcade buttons and joysticks for an authentic gaming experience.
All-in-One Mini-ITX Motherboard + 512 MB RAM: $98.95
A battle is brewing at the low end of the PC motherboard industry, where Intel and VIA are jockeying to provide extremely low cost components for the "sub-value market segment." The heart of these systems are tiny low power motherboards with built-in processors, such as VIA's PC-1 boards and Intel's Atom-equipped desktop boards, which retail for under $80. These motherboards consume very little power, and fanless versions are available if you're using a well-ventilated cabinet.
I selected Intel's $89 Atom-based Mini-ITX motherboard for the MAME Brain. It includes a fan-cooled dual core 1.6 GHz Atom processor and basic Intel GMA 950 integrated video, along with stereo audio. I was able to pick up 512 MB of DDR2 memory on sale for a mere $9 from a local store. If you like your systems to run as quietly as possible, it's worth investing an extra $49 to get the silent power kit, which includes the tiny picoPSU-90 AC-DC power supply. If you use your own power supply, it must have a P4 12V 4-pin power cable in addition to the standard 1x20 pin main power connector.
This board includes comprehensive "wake from USB/keyboard/mouse" functionality that is well suited to a home arcade rig. It definitely isn't a high-end gaming rig, but it's more than capable of handling a game of Galaga or Joust.
4 GB Solid State Flash Drive: $24.98
Yes, you could use an old 30 GB drive for storage in your MAME cabinet, but I chose a solid state solution: A Compact Flash drive from Computer Geeks. The trick here is to use an IDE to Compact Flash adapter that plugs into a 40-pin IDE hard drive connector, allowing you to use a standard Compact Flash card as storage. ComputerGeeks sells the adapter for only $4.99, and 4 GB Compact Flash cards can be found for under $20 these days.
I-Pac VE Arcade Control Interface: $35.00
The I-Pac VE USB interface is the missing link between a computer and your arcade cabinet buttons, joysticks and even a coin mechanism if you wish. This tiny board supports a total of 32 inputs and connects to your MAME Brain motherboard using a USB A-B cable. It can be used with WinIPAC panel design software to lay out your controls however you wish.
Operating System: $0 to slightly more...
A lightweight Linux distro would be the logical choice here. I'm planning to use Xubuntu, which incorporates the Xfce desktop and offers surprisingly zippy performance on modest hardware. There's even an installation-free Desktop CD available as a 566 MB ISO file. That said, I admit I'm using an old license of Windows XP Home for my initial testing.
MAME Arcade Emulator: $0
MAME originated on the PC, but there are a number of Linux ports including XMAME and AdvanceMAME. I recommend MameUI for Windows 98 / ME / 2000 / XP / Vista, since it integrates a graphical front-end into the application.
like MAME development has stagnated a bit in the Linux world - XMAME hasn't been updated for a year and a half. [Update from qim: SDLMAME is the up-to-date replacement for XMAME. I look forward to trying it under Xubuntu.]
All you need to turn a 'MAME Brain' into a full-fledge arcade console is a smattering of authentic arcade buttons and joysticks from Happ Controls, along with a standard CRT or LCD monitor, a power supply and the arcade cabinet (click here for some interesting plans).