What to look for that makes a great bartop arcade machine
Retro gaming nostalgia is big and the marketplace for buying and selling new and second hand in-home arcade machines continues to grow as does their popularity. While we are in Melbourne - Victoria Australia, irrespective of your location what's on offer in the arcade machine scene varies dramatically.
From old to new, refurbished, repurposed and everything in between. Then you have numerous styles of arcade cabinet from standup to table top, cocktail and coffee table arcade to wall mounted, barrel and bartop arcade cabinets to name a few.
Given the industry isn't regulated components used along with build quality be it from a specialist, reseller or an enthusiast, style and finish vary dramatically as does price.
So, how much does a modern arcade machine cost?
Old school original arcade machines like MK or SF depending on condition can range from $4,500 and upwards. Modern remakes can range from $600 for a barebones bartop machine, $1,600+ for a tabletop and then you have full size arcade machines from $1,600 up to the $7,000 mark for a full size arcade 4UP cabinet with light guns that play games like house of the dead, Time crisis etc.
Needless to say options and budget vary dramatically.
As choosing the right arcade machine can get tricky, one of the first things you'll need to decide upon is...
Old VS New arcade machine
If you're wanting to tinker, repair and possibly modify or upgrade then an old arcade cabinet might be for you. While the build quality is commercial grade, old machines have been in service for easily over a decade and with unknow history and parts its hard to tell life expectancy and when it happens what exact component has failed - this can become timely and costly.
On the other hand new machines also vary in design and components, so you need to know what you are buying as price isn't always effective measure of quality. With so many components going into these gaming machines, we wanted to highlight key areas you should consider when reviewing an arcade gaming cabinet.
Building your own cabinet
This is also a worthwhile consideration if you have the time to tinker. You can buy a DIY arcade cabinet flat pack kit or purchase an empty pre-made arcade carcass ready to be fitted out with your choice of arcade components or drop on/in a pandora box which simplifies the process dramatically.
If you're looking to go all in, you can find a free or pay for an arcade cabinet plan that you like. You can then either have it CNC cut from a local cabinet maker from plain or coated MDF, melamine or using a jigsaw, drill and/or router cut out and assemble your own arcade cabinet from raw materials you source locally . While a lot more hands on, you can refine the cabinet to your exact needs and dimensions. Either way for a smoother look whether you are going to finish the cabinet using vinyl print or not, we highly recommend MDF with melamine or veneer finish as it results in a smoother more refined look that's also easier to wipe down and keep clean.
You will definitely learn a lot during the research and build process and improve your woodwork and electronics skills. In the end this will definitely influence what your next arcade purchase looks like.
If you're wanting to build for the experience by yourself, with friends or with the kids, then it's definitely a lot of fun. If you're going down the DIY build path to save some money and already have a spare monitor and miscellaneous parts, then this could be a worthwhile project and you may end up with a cheaper arcade arcade cabinet. Keep in mind if you need to buy all the components, there might be an already assembled solution for a similar budget ready to play - be sure to weigh up your arcade cabinet project options and desired experience you want out of this before commencing. Afterall we want less surprises and more enjoyment pre and post build if that's your chosen path.
Portability and safety are a big bonus
Big and bulky machines have a short term appeal as they take up too much space with limited ability to be moved and in many cases have ended up sitting in a garage be it yours or your parents collecting dust.
A portable arcade machine that can be easily moved around the home, office or to a new location with ease is highly desirable. If you can match portability with a solid cabinet without thin weaker panels and full size arcade components then you're off to a good start.
Bartop cabinets in essence are missing the bottom half of a full size arcade machine. They still deliver the same experience with the benefit of being placed on a shelf, table or anywhere safe.
Some bartop arcade machines have the option of a stand. When doing so safety is key as you should consider where the machine is placed to reduce it potentially being knocked over.
To further increase safety having a stand with raised sides is beneficial as is having a matched stand and bartop with removable anchor bolts that create a single structure.
Arcade machine cabinet differences
Arcade cabinets vary in size, style, panels, construction and weight.
Once you have decided on what style of arcade machine you would like, a good indicator is weight and ease of access to internal components.
Using the same thickness of panels for the whole cabinet will increase weight but also result in a more sturdy case.
When needed, you wont have to worry about where or how you pick it up in order to avoid breaking a weaker panel.
While not a deal breaker having a cabinet constructed in a fashion that avoids any visible screws also adds to the visual appeal and ensures your vinyl print doesn't have screw holes cutting through.
Cheaper cabinets will avoid doors and hinges and opt for thinner screw on panels making access more cumbersome. While Arcade1Up takes this approach, there is a product match for everyone.
Having a hinged and lockable rear access door and the same on the front control panel makes service and upgrades so much easier. Keep in mind buttons do break and components along with cables can fail - so you might find yourself accessing the internals sooner than you thought.
All displays are the same?
Second to components the display is a big part of the experience.
While size is important, games from the 80's and 90's era used 4:3 aspect ratio CRT screens. These were big and heavy so the modern day equivalent is either a 17" or 19" screen. Widescreen is not needed however updating to a more expensive IPS screen is beneficial.
IPS screens deliver ultra wide viewing angles without sacrificing picture or colour clarity. As the picture does not fade or lose color when viewed at different angles, its ideal for arcade machines. Given adults and children will view the screen at different angles be it higher, lower or side on, with an IPS screen your experience wont be sacrificed.
Perspex, Acrylic or Glass?
Nothing looks cleaner to look through or is easier to clean and maintain scratch free visibility. However glass costs more and means more care during packaging ultimately costing more.
Glass is the only thing that should be protecting your screen. Anything else can fade, scratch and impact visibility and your experience. As an example flicking an Arcade1up acrylic screen cover to check if it was plastic or glass resulted in a scratch that is now a permanent resident :-(. Going glass will give you an arcade like experience and reduce the chance of visible marks from cleaning over time.
Quality arcade controls
Does latest, greatest, best product description mean toy or arcade quality? Joysticks and buttons are clearly critical to your experience. Apart from quality there are different types of buttons from screw to click in and external switch to inbuilt switch. Joysticks also vary in size and performance. A lose or clunky joystick or buttons that respond badly or feel cheap is going to leave you underwhelmed as you struggle to pull off those killer moves. In addition not using arcade spec components will mean replacing or upgrading isn't going to be easy due to size or installation methods. As an example Arcade1Up buttons are soldered onto cables instead of plugged and joysticks have glue over the screws for that hair pulling moment...
Full vinyl Wrap
Commercial machines didn't come with a half wrap or only select panels with printed vinyl. They went for the whole experience using high quality printed vinyl with killer arcade cabinet artwork that lasted. But that wasn't it, they included scratch resistant control panel print and for upright cabinets a light up marquee.
While care should be taken when using your arcade machine, the vinyl and print used on your cabinet should hold up to reasonable use. Artwork should hold well onto cabinet and you should not experience fading or wear on the control panel artwork/vinyl. If your cabinet has paper print behind the glass, then expect this to need replacing sometime due to fade.
$5 speakers anyone?
Upgrading from base speakers is always recommended, however you don't necessarily need to see big metal or plastic covers. Hidden speakers in the right place add to the visual appeal of your cabinet.
Sound and volume characteristics vary per game. Being able to quickly and easily adjust volume along with treble and base without moving or opening your cabinet each time is highly desirable. It will keep everyone at home happy and ensure uninterrupted anytime play.
Accessible yet inconspicuously placed sound controls are a good thing and can be achieved by upgrading to a smaller colour coded amplifier that's visible opposed to hidden inside the machine.
External ports, controls and access
Easy access for day to day usage without opening your cabinet is key. That said should you need to access the internals of the cabinet, it should be quick and easy.
Sound controls, power switch, LED light switch, removable power cable, USB ports should all be placed conveniently and accessible without opening the cabinet.
External USB ports will allow you to easily plug in supported gamepads or fight sticks turning your 2 player into a 3 or 4 player machine or even let you sit back and play with a gamepad.
Maintenance or upgrades are greatly simplified if you have a lockable hinged rear door and lockable hinged front control panel.
We highly recommend having a light up marquee at the top of your arcade machine. This usually uses LED light strips with an acrylic panel that holds in place and protects the printed artwork. Removal of a few screws and a newly printed design should enable you to replace the visuals down the track if desired.
Coloured LED underbody light strips can also add to the visual appeal, however we recommend they cycle through colours instead of flash. Having them on their own switch is also ideal so that you can turn them on/off as needed.
Optional coin nostalgia
Free play or coin, nothing takes you back to the corner store, or local arcade than entering coins and hearing that sound.
Add your sample coin be it 20c, $1 and set to coin play and the machine will require a coin that is inserted into the mechanism and collected.
Over the nostalgia? simply access settings and select free play mode.
Wired for easy maintenance or future nightmares?
As arcade machines are modular, there's a lot of parts and wires that go into the design and assembly. As the internals are hardly seen, wiring and component placement techniques vary widely. We believe the inside should look as nice as the outside and recommend asking for internal photos of a cabinet before making a purchase.
Clean and nicely placed and mounted components along with easy to follow wiring will make any future access/maintenance and/or upgrades less painful.
We've left the big one till last.
When thinking of an arcade machine, you need to consider what games you plan on playing. Some of the entry level game boards like 60 or 90 in 1 or the lower spec Pandora Boxes with around 1600 or 3000ish games will play Pac Man, Galaga, Space Invaders, Moon Patrol and so on. However will struggle with any newer or more demanding games.
In addition, considering how long you keep this arcade machine and family members and friends that end up playing it, is it worth buying something that has a little more oomph under the bonnet?
Once you've decided on the above, making up your mind on what Gameboard is right for you becomes a tad easier ;-).
Arcade machines typically run on one of the below;
- 60 or 90 in 1 arcade classic game boards
- Varied Pandora boxes which are closed arcade consoles
- Raspberry Pi which are small single board computers
- Small form second hand PCs
- PC components including mother boards, AMD CPU and separate power supply
60 - 90 in 1 gameboards are in essence an entry level Pandoras Box and play most of the old classics like Frogger, Pac Man, Galaga etc. These boards are sub $100 and usually found in budget or old school refurbished arcade machines.
Pandora boxes offer best bang for buck, however come in many flavours and vary in performance. Some will struggle with arcade while the better boards will play console games including Dreamcast, PS1, N64. That said the fastest Pandora boxes will not play all titles at this level to their best. They are a no maintenance plug and play product and hard to break.
Raspberry Pi is heavily customisable with similar performance to a leading Pandoras box, however due to the ability to tinker and finetune the downside is it can be broken easily. Upside is you can configure almost everything down to the minute detail.
PCs range from second hand HP, Dell small form factor repurposed machines to dedicated new boards. Depending on CPU these can emulate more and reach PS3 emulation along with the greatest flexibility with accessories and settings. The down side is the PC can cost in excess of an arcade machine running a Pandoras box.
If its classic retro gaming up-to PS1 a PC will be overkill. If you want PS2 then you will need to go a PC.
In summary the gameboard can be upgraded so isn't a fixed item, however what you need to ask is...
What do I want to be able to play? and do I have any specific requirements?
This will help drive you in in the right direction and have the required conversations pre purchase opposed to after you've handed over your money.
Enjoy the infographic below and reach out if we can help.
Feel free to suss out our arcade machines and arcade console stands sold and shipped from our Melbourne HQ;