Choosing Your Cabinet
The first step to building a MAME cabinet is aquiring an arcade game to convert. Good places to start are arcade auctions and your local classified ads. www.superauctions.com has a listing of arcade auctions in America, although there are many others as well. rec.games.video.arcade.marketplace is a newsgroup that may help you out a bit as well. You may also want to check your phone book under "coin op" and see if any of the companies listed have any empty cabinets. Your mileage will vary on this, the first place you call might have 30 of them, or you may end up calling fifty places and being laughed at fifty times. The rest of this writeup is going to assume that you are purchasing at auction. When buying other places most of the same rules apply. Except that you are more likely to be buying a working game.
Get to the auction early. Look at all the machines. Try to ignore all those cool games that actually work. Concentrate on the ones that don't work. Those are the ones you will be bidding on.
Examine the cabinets of the non working games very carefully. Be extra careful in examining the bottom half of the machine, which is where structural damage is most likely to occur. You may want to see if the game will smoothly lean either forwards, backwards, or sideways without flexing. If it can, then it is probably solid. Write down the lot numbers of the ones that are in good shape. You are probably going to want a standard upright cabinet. Nothing with light guns or steering wheels on it. Ignore all the cockpit and sit down cabinets, as they are really only usable for specialty projects.
Most of the cabinets that you will be looking at will have gone through several conversions. They might be labeled Street Fighter 2 now, but chances are good that they were Dig Dug, Galaxian, or some other classic game when they rolled out of the factory. It is worth your while to figure out what the game used to be, because not all cabinets are created equally, and some are more suitable for MAME conversion than others. Galaxian, Galaga, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man and other "swoopy" Namco-Midway cabinets may be pretty, but they are a real pain to work with, and they tend to be easily damaged. I would avoid these unless you want to reproduce one of these titles, and be aware that monitor installation is a hassle in these cabinets (the Pac-Man and Galaxian cabinets are more solid than the Ms. Pac and Galaga ones, but all of them require you to mount the monitor at a 45 degree angle, which can be a pain in the butt). Nintendo cabinets such as Donkey Kong and the Nintendo Vs. Unisystem are even worse, avoid these at all costs, as they are weak structurally, and will require significant extra work to convert. Atari cabinets such as Asteroids tend to be very solid structurally, but they are prone to being damaged at the lower corners. These often have metal control panels that hold up very well, but they may look like swiss cheese underneath the overlay, because you often have to move the joysticks every time you convert a game. Williams cabinets such as Defender should be your first choice. These cabinets are rock solid, are not prone to any common damage, and often have control panels that are simply a square wooden rectangle (which is good, because you can just pop down to the hardware store and get another one. These cabinets also have a nice monitor shelf that is already in the perfect spot for a standard 19" PC monitor, or a Wells Gardner VGA open frame monitor.
Some auctions may have a few rows of video poker machines. Watch these carefully. Some of these cabinets are excellent for Mame. These cabinets are often a ten to fifteen years newer than most cabinets, and are in better condition because of it. The downside to these is that they rarely have separate marquees, and will certainly require an all new control panel. These games often have newer 13" monitors in them, which can often be resold on eBay for nearly enough to pay for your cabinet purchase.
One note about cocktail machines. Cocktail machines make great Mame cabinets. The 13" monitor models are especially good for this because a decased 14"-15" PC monitor will fit in the exact same spot as the original monitor. This will keep your monitor cost very low. But the downside to cocktails is that they are usually very cramped, and you may have trouble fitting the PC inside. You may have to resort to mounting the PC externally and running the monitor cable and control cable up through the bottom.
The auctioneer will usually start the bidding out at $100, but he will drop the price if no one bids. I suggest waiting for him to say $25 before bidding. (The dead ones will often drop this low). If you find that there are few dead machines at the auction then you should also start bidding on the crappy games that do work. Most older sports games, and unpopular side scrollers go for cheap.
Do not pay more than $125 for your cabinet, you can get a working game for that price. You should try and pay $50 or less if at all possible.
What Not To Do
Do not, under any circumstance use a "Classic" game for your project. (Dig Dug, Pacman, Asteroids, Etc). Games that used to be classics are fine, but you need to pick a different game if yours still says Joust on the marquee.
- Do not use any game with painted sideart. Games with painted sideart that hasn't been painted over are rare. Do not ruin one. Somewhere someone will be sitting with a pile of parts looking for that cabinet, and they will usually gladly trade you a generic one for yours.
- Do not use a dedicated machine for your project. (One that never been converted into another game). The auctioneer will usually announce if a game is a dedicated one.
All of the above are usually fairly valuable, often rare, and should not be hacked up. There are too many junk cabinets floating around to tear apart an original working Moon Patrol just to use for MAME.
There are a few exceptions to the "don't use a dedicated cabinet" rule, but they only apply to non-working games. Dead Pole Position and Asteroids/Asteroids Deluxe machines are usually safe to convert to MAME. Pole Position machines have circuit boards that tend to blow up, and there are literally thousands of non-working ones that people already can't get going, while Asteroids/Asteroids Deluxe machines are very common, and suffer from X-Y monitor failure. There are thousands more cabinets than working monitors.