What’s the killer app for FPGAs? For some people, the allure is the ultra-high data throughput for parallelizable tasks, which can enable some pretty gnarly projects. But what if you’re just starting out? How about 1980s style video games?
The MiSTer FPGA project created a bit of FPGA hardware that makes it easy to build essentially any old school video game or computer platform. That’s a massive clean slate. Of course, you can simply download someone else’s Atari ST or Commodore 64 setup and load it up, but if you want to learn FPGAs while recreating old-school video game machines, you’re going to want to get your hands dirty.
[Mister Retro Wolf] started up a video series last winter (trailer embedded below) where he’s embarked on a project to recreate a classic video game machine from the ground up using the MiSTer FPGA platform. In particular, he’s going to recreate the Namco Tank Battalion arcade game, from the schematics, in Verilog.
This is literally building a 6502-based video game machine from scratch (in gateware), so if you’re interested in retrocomputing or FPGAs, you’ll have something to learn here. He’s gotten through the CPU, screen, tilemap graphics, and memory so far, but it’s not done yet. To follow along, get yourself some hardware and you can probably catch up.
We’ve covered the MiSTer FPGA project before, of course, because we think it’s cool. And if a video game arcade machine is going to be your gateway drug into the seedy world of programmable gates, then so be it.
It was just this year that Sega left the arcade business for good. A company synonymous with coin-op games for over a half century completely walked away from selling experiences you can only get on location. No more Outrun or Virtua Fighter machines, because arcades these days tend to resemble The House of the Dead. Arcades still exist to a degree, it’s just that headlines like that serve only as a reminder of an era gone by. Which is what makes raw footage like the video [Jon] posted of an Aladdin’s Castle arcade from the 1980s so compelling.
The raw VHS footage starts with a sweep around the location’s pinball machines and arcade cabinets. There’s an extended shot of a rare TX-1 tri-monitor sitdown cabinet. The racing game was the first of its kind to feature force feedback in the steering wheel, so it’s no wonder it received the focus. The arcade’s lighting tech was also a point of pride as it allowed for programmable lighting cues. A far cry from the flickering fluorescent tubes no doubt in use elsewhere. Eventually the employee filming takes us to the back room where it the owner has made it abundantly clear that they are not a fan of Mondays, judging by the amount of Garfield merchandise.
Bally’s Aladdin’s Castle was a chain of arcades and had nearly 400 locations across the US at its height in the mid 1980s (at least according to their brochure seen above). Those neon red letters were a mainstay of American shopping malls throughout the decade. Namco, the Pac-Man people, acquired Aladdin’s Castle in 1993 and the brand faded away soon after. Although there is a lone location in Quincy, IL that is still open for business today.
If there’s anything you can guarantee about a video game system, it’s that in 20 years after one suffers a commercial failure there will be a tiny yet rabid group of enthusiasts obsessed with that system. It’s true for the Virtual Boy, the Atari Jaguar, and of course, the Nokia N-Gage. For those not familiar, this was a quirky competitor of the Game Boy Advance that was also a cell phone. And for that reason it had more buttons than a four-player arcade cabinet, which has led to things like this custom controller.
Most N-Gage gaming these days takes place on emulators, this build is specifically built for the emulator experience. The original system had so many buttons that it’s difficult to get even a standard 102-key keyboard mapped comfortably to it, so something custom is almost necessary. [Lvaneede], the creator of this project, took some parts from an existing arcade cabinet he had and 3D printed the case in order to craft this custom controller. The buttons he chose are a little stiff for his liking, but it’s much better than using a keyboard.
In the video below, [Lvaneede] demonstrates it with a few of the N-Gage’s games. It seems to hold up pretty well. With backing from Sony and Sega, it’s a shame that these gaming platforms weren’t a bigger hit than they were, but there are plenty of people around with original hardware who are still patching and repairing them so they can still play some of these unique games.
The idea is a wooden box hung on the wall that folds up when not in use. [Alex] starts with Baltic birch plywood cut into the panels. Next, he applies edge banding (a thin veneer with some glue on the backside) so that all the exposed edges look like natural wood. Next, a screen hole is routed into the face frame, allowing an LCD monitor to sit snuggly in. A combination of pocket holes and biscuits allows [Alex] to assemble everything with no visible screws or fasteners.
With the help of a 3D printer, he quickly fabricated a locking mechanism to keep the front panel attached when it folds up. The hinge is also 3D printed. The typical Raspberry Pi 4 powers this particular machine. Two french cleats hold the box onto the wall, and once the system is on the wall, we have to say it looks incredible.
When [Nicole Express] got her hands on the logic board for the 1986 SNK arcade game Athena, she ran into a rather thorny problem: The board expected to be fed negative five volts! [Nicole]’s analysis of the problem and a brilliant solution are outlined in her well written blog post.
[Nicole]’s first task was to find out which devices need negative voltage. She found that the negative five volts was being fed through a capacitor to the ground pins on the Mitsubishi M151516L, an obscure 12 W audio amplifier. After finding the data sheet, she realized something strange: the amp didn’t call for negative voltage at all! A mystery was afoot.
To fully understand the problem, she considered a mid-1980’s arcade and its cacophony of sounds. How would a manufacturer make their arcade game stand out? By making it louder, obviously! And how did they make their game louder than the rest?
The answer lays in the requirement for negative five volts. The amplifier is still powered with a standard 12 V supply on its VCC pin. But with ground put at -5 V, the voltage potential is increased from 12 V to 17 V without overpowering the chip. The result is a louder game to draw more players and their fresh stacks of quarters.
How was [Nicole Express] to solve the problem? ATX PSU’s stopped providing -5 V after the ISA slot disappeared from PC’s, so that wouldn’t work. She could have purchased an expensive arcade style PSU, but that’s not her style. Instead, she employed a wonderful little hack: a charge pump circuit. A charge pump works by applying positive voltage to a capacitor. Then the capacitor is quickly disconnected from power, and the input and ground are flipped, an equal but negative voltage is found on its opposite plate. If this is done with a high enough frequency, a steady -5 V voltage can be had from a +5 V input. [Nicole Express] found a voltage inverter IC (ICL7660) made just for the purpose and put it to work.
The IC doesn’t supply enough power to get 12 W out of the amplifier, and so the resulting signal is fed into an external amplifier. Now [Nicole]’s arcade game has sound and she can play Athena from the original arcade board, 1986 style!
Arcade machines have a distinct look and feel with large imposing cabinets and smaller bartop machines that try to keep the look and feel of a traditional upright arcade cabinet while taking up less space. An entirely new aesthetic has been given for this engineering marvel of a bartop arcade that [DIY Engineering] has made. Gone is the expansive angular box, and in its place are sleek and slender curves. The key piece that makes this build work is the curved monitor.
He started with a detailed design in Fusion360 that really focused on the tools and techniques that [DIY Engineering] knew would work. The backbone of the device was formed from wooden dowels around which 3d printed parts slid on. To the sides of the dowels, two pieces of acrylic are screwed on to act as an LED diffusor. To that acrylic, two pieces of CNC’d red oak are attached with two arcade buttons for pinball-style actuation. Over the top, cast acrylic was heated and then bent into the desired shape with the help of a two-part mold press. The screen slotted right in perfectly. Part of the display at the top was reserved for a marquee, and the look is extraordinary with the dark acrylic. Ten arcade buttons and an eight-way joystick offer an array of options for input.
Internally, a temperature-controlled fan and a Raspberry Pi are running the show. Controls are wired as GPIO and read by the Pi. So naturally, the games on the SD card tend to look best on a long vertical screen: vertical shooters and the like.
Arguably, the best thing about this project isn’t just the execution (which is fantastic) but the look behind the curtain at the process. So many potential problems were solved in the modeling stage, and fabrication went fairly smoothly as a result (or so we think youtube hides a multitude of sins). The results speak for themselves, and we think this is an enviable arcading machine. [DIY Engineering] has mentioned providing files in the future for you to build your own. If perhaps it seems a little intimidating, why not give a smaller 3D printable bartop a try?
Having an arcade cabinet of one’s own is a common dream among those who grew up during the video game arcade heyday of the 80s and early 90s. It’s a fairly common build that doesn’t take too much specialized knowledge to build. This cabinet, on the other hand, pulled out all of the stops for the cabinet itself, demonstrating an impressive level of woodworking expertise.
The cabinet enclosure is made with red oak boards, which the creator [Obstreperuss] sawed and planed and then glued together to create the various panels (more details are available on his Imgur album). The Mario artwork on the sides and front aren’t just vinyl stickers, either. He used various hardwoods cut into small squares to create pixel art inlays in the oak faces. After the fancy woodwork was completed, the build was finished out with some USB arcade controllers, a flat-panel screen, and a Raspberry Pi to run the games.
While the internals are pretty standard, we have to commend the incredible quality of the woodworking. It’s an impressive homage to classic arcade machines and we wouldn’t mind a similar one in our own homes. If you’re lacking the woodworking equipment, though, it’s possible to get a refined (yet smaller) arcade cabinet for yourself with a 3D printer instead.