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UK Mike (miner2049er)

The Bi-Weekly British Backtrack – MAME Cab Part 1

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Over the coming weeks I’m going to serialise the conversion and renovation job that I did on my MAME Cab, going from an empty shell in a dusty old stable to the finished article running thousands of games. So hands up who has never been in a Video Game Arcade as a kid and marveled at the sights, sounds and even the smells therein. People of my generation are lucky in that we were kids when the arcades had their heyday. They still had the early classic games in such as Space Invaders, Asteroids and Pacman and there were some interesting new games out too with different control mechanisms, such as driving games featuring full sit down controls with accelerator, brake and clutch pedals and gear levers. These newer games were more expensive to play but back then it was still quite reasonable, unlike today where a simple driving game lasting a couple of minutes depending on your skill level will cost you anything up three pounds.

How I long for those days when ten pence was all it cost to immerse yourself in some foreign, and usually alien, world and that’s why I wanted to build my very own arcade cabinet, to recapture those long lost days. However, my cabinet wouldn't just feature a single game like Space Invaders or Pacman. Oh no, my cab will play every game that I used to love playing back then in the arcades.
Every year when I was a young child my family would go on holiday to Looe, Cornwall and as luck would have it they took me with them. Right there in the centre of Looe, on the harbour itself, was an amusement arcade, and while my family walked around the shops looking at the same old slate engravings, sea shell ornaments and tin souvenirs, I would venture in armed with my fifty pence piece and try to decide which machine would be divulging me of my Dad's hard earned.

I would wander around taking in the sights and sounds that would become so familiar like the proverbial kid in a sweet shop. All the classics that I loved to play were there; Space Invaders, Pacman, Asteroids, Defender, Donkey Kong, Scramble and Rally X, and I would put ten pence after ten pence into them, playing for what must have been a relatively short time as I profess to be no great games master, especially at that tender age.

So I wanted to build my own machine that would allow me to play these same games at home, without having to ask anybody for just one more ten pence piece, or having to get up at ridiculous o'clock and drive for six hours to the south coast. I didn’t want to just sit down at a desk and use a PC mouse and keyboard to play them though, I wanted the real deal, a complete upright arcade cabinet that we all know and love, so I set about devising a plan.

The build would consist of two main parts:
(1) The physical cabinet build itself.
(2) The Computer that will sit inside it and run everything.

Obviously at first I didn’t have a cabinet to use and there were two options open to me really:
(a) Build my own cabinet from scratch.
(b) Buy an old arcade cabinet that is either no longer in use or is in need of restoration.

The trouble with a new build, made either from my own plans or from buying a flat pack kit, is that I want the real feel of authenticity that an original cab will give me, and after all we are on a nostalgia kick here. I want to look at my cab and picture it being kicked by a wide eyed eight year old on the Cornish coast, angry because his last ten pence has gone and that the little triangular ship in the centre of the screen has been blown apart by a fast moving piece of Asteroid for the fifteenth time that day.

The issue with buying a genuine old cab, perhaps apart from price, is one of preservation. If I buy an old one that still has its original game working inside it then I think that it should be preserved and restored to its original state where possible, so to rip the internals out and replace them with a PC would be sacrilegious. Cabinets like that should be restored to their former glory so what I'm looking for is either a complete cab that no longer runs or one that has got no internals left inside it. One that has its workings but no longer runs would be the better option I think because then some of the internals may be reusable and of use to somebody. That way I could see them go to a new home and continue to be used as nature intended. That is if nature ever built an arcade cabinet.

Doubtful.

Before I managed to pick up a cab I began putting together the computer that would potentially be going inside it and running M.A.M.E. (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator).

So what is Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator? Put simply, emulators are software programs that recreate (emulate) hardware environments, so for example an original arcade machine would be made of physical hardware such as circuit boards and chips and the games would be hard coded onto these chips and boards. That meant that a cabinet was hard wired by design to play one game. If you wanted to play a different game you bought a different machine. There are examples of game boards running in other machines but for the most part, and for the sake of this article, it was one cab one game.

What M.A.M.E. Does is recreates all of this bespoke hardware but it does it in software which runs like any other program, and that means our single program can enable us to play every game. M.A.M.E. is perhaps one of the most used and most famous of all emulators, and as such it is very well supported and documented and has a long history of builds. The beauty of this is that if you want to emulate some of the more modern games you can use a more recent build installed on a higher end machine, but for our purposes here, we will be playing mainly the old classic games so we can use an old M.A.M.E. build on our older hardware.

That is the emulated hardware covered so what about the games themselves? The game files that the emulator uses are called ROM files (Read Only Memory) and as is customary when mentioning ROMs there will now follow a meandering an unspecific diatribe about the legality of using them.

Remember when blank audio cassettes first came out? Me neither because I wasn't born but I know people that were, and at that time the record industry attempted to have cassettes banned. The reasoning behind this attempted ban was that the Record Labels felt they were being cheated because people were buying a vinyl album, and then making a copy of it using a cassette tape. They could then listen to this cassette tape in places that they couldn't listen to a vinyl album such as in their car, in the kitchen or in the bathroom, and in later years on the move with the advent of the portable cassette player.

You had bought the album and owned the album but the record company wanted you to buy the cassette version as well so they said that it should be illegal to copy something you owned and took the matter to court. They lost and people everywhere recorded their vinyl albums onto cassette and were free to listen to them in their cars or even in the bathroom.

The same thing is true of Video Games and other similar technologies like music CDs, though you will be told otherwise again by the record companies. Let’s say you buy a CD and listen to it every day until one day it has got so scratched and damaged that it has become unplayable. You have to buy it again. That’s paying twice for the same thing and the record company would love for you to do just that, well, here’s what you should be legally able to do.

You buy a CD or a game, take it home and make a copy of it, then place the original in safe storage. You can’t sell it on or give it away, you must keep hold of it as you own it. You now play this copy every day until it also becomes so scratched and damaged that it is unplayable. At this point you destroy the copy, do not sell it or give it away, destroy it and get your pristine original out of safe storage and make another copy of it for everyday use.

Well, the idea is the same with M.A.M.E. ROMs it’s just that the technology is different. If you own a Space Invaders arcade cabinet it contains the game in hardware, so it follows that you can also own a ROM file for Space Invaders. In fact the company Atari have even made some of their ROM files available for purchase in the past. Now that is fine for those games that you already own in hardware or have bought the ROM for, but nobody owns every arcade game cabinet and Atari didn't sell the ROMs for all of their games, so if you want to play the ROM file of a game whose cabinet you don't own or which you haven't bought what is the situation there?

Wikipedia has this to say about it.

Freely licensed ROMs

The vast majority of computer & video games from the history of such games are no longer manufactured. As such, the copyright holders of some games have offered free licenses to those games, often on the condition that they be used for non-commercial purposes only.

Unlicensed ROMs

While some games which no longer make any profit fit into the category above, the vast majority are no longer available in any form. The legality of obtaining such games varies from country to country. Some countries have special exceptions in copyright laws or case law which permit (or discourage less) copying when an item is not available for legal purchase or when the copying is for non-commercial or research purposes, while other countries may make such practises firmly illegal. There is often a distinction drawn between distribution and downloading, with distribution being seen as the greater offence.

Abandonware

It is often the case that games which are still in copyright are no longer sold or marketed by their copyright holders. This may be due to the perceived lack of demand for the game or for other reasons. Some of those engaged in ROM trading claim that such games should be deemed abandoned by their copyright holders and that the game, termed Abandonware, can be freely traded by users.

Commercial Distribution

Commercial distribution of copyrighted games without the consent of the copyright holder is generally illegal in almost all countries, with those who take part in such activities being liable for both criminal and civil penalties.

24 Hours Claim

Some ROM websites claim it is legal to download and keep a ROM of a game one doesn’t own for as long as 24 hours, after which it is ones responsibility to delete it. Although this claim is widespread, it has no basis in the law.

Enforcement

Many have argued that it would be irrational for a company to spend money prosecuting for games that they are no longer making profit from, as there would be no damages to speak of. Even so, this has not deterred Nintendo from pursuing a number of lawsuits against ROM distribution websites via non-profit subsidiaries.

All clear on ROM usage then? Good.

Next time we’ll get on to the cab that I rescued from a stable in Yorkshire.

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