Prototyping the Future of Arcade Cabinet Emulation (draft)


This paper is a background research piece into the development of an interactive installation that prototypes a possible future trajectory for arcade videogame emulation. The project aims to explore how the experience of interfacing with complete arcade videogame cabinets can be recreated in virtual reality space. As an interactive experience it is intended to not just authentically recreate the aesthetics of the videogame input and feedback mechanisms, but also the full physical design of the cabinet, including the appearance of the enclosed game circuitry.





Emulation as Platform Augmentation:


An emulator is a software or hardware system that recreates the system architecture of a computer system on another platform. Through the virtual machine of an emulator it is possible to experience a computer system transplanted as a subroutine of a more advanced platform, whether it be hardware of software based. They are computers within computers.


Emulation is a legal grey area, and is tolerated to an extent by the owners of the emulated system. Upon boot up the MAME emulator presents a splash screen upon reminding the user that they must legitimately own a copy of the game rom they are about to load. However in practice, most users don’t actually own the rare and costly game PCBs that physical contain the game code. Instead they simply use an online search engine to obtain the required rom files illicitly.


Emulators replicate the functionality of a past platform while also leveraging the additional affordances offered by the emulation host. For example, MAME features a memory editor and dissembler that allows users to edit a games code as it runs, viewing changes of the end user experience immediately. In this case the emulator takes a system that was designed purely for the ‘play only’ consumer space and augments it with a developer level interface. With the additional use of an assembler package and an eprom burner, it is possible to transfer this new code creation to an eprom chip, and in turn to an arcade PCB, thus allowing the hacked game to be played through the original arcade hardware platform.


When a game originally designed for playback on a cathode ray tube display is presented through the clear viewfield of an LCD or LED display, its gains pixel sharp clarity, but also loses part of the original monitor colouration that was taken into consideration by game designers. The CRT filter built into the Atari 2600 emulator Stella addresses this issue, allowing for image ghosting and colour mixing that helps to partially mask the systems high level of sprite flickering. Similarly, the SLG-1000 hardware device by Arcade Forge recreates the scanlines of bulky CRT tubes on flat panel HD displays, improving aesthetic authenticity when playing classic games by embracing an outdated display limitation into an essential feature.





The Physiology of an
Arcade Cabinet:


In comparison to their home computers and videogame consoles, the underlying technology powering arcade videogame platforms is lesser known. Each arcade PCB is a standalone computer. These devices range from bespoke PCBs for single games such as Pong, to standards based upon home console technologies like the Sega Naomi which is closely related to the Sega Dreamcast console, to adapted PC compatible machines.


One main unifying standard between the disperate hardware types is the JAMMA standard. It is not the only standard of its kind, but it is the most prolific. Up until 1985 arcade game manufacturers used a variety of different wiring systems in the design of their cabinets. This lack of hardware interchangeability led to increased costs for arcade owners, who had to replace entire cabinets each time they bought a new game. The JAMMA standard agreed by the Japanese Arcade Amusement Manufacturers Association introduced a 56 pin connection for connecting game PCBs to cabinets, allowing the exchange of JAMMA PCBs between compatible machines in a manner similar to the process of swapping a game cartridge on a home console system. These pins allow the connection of a power source, speakers, monitor, coin-slot switch, and the action buttons and joysticks or other controller peripherals.


Structurally arcade cabinets are unglamorous, built from the same materials as their kitchenware namesakes. Indeed, Atari’s Irish operation in the 1970s bought a local furniture manufacturer to produce arcade cabinets for the European market [ link ]. Wear and tear on these wooden frames in the arcade environment has led to high collectors prices for well preserved originals. This battle damage adds character, but is also a problem for their preservation. Rust, chipped fiberboard, and split veneers all add up to heavy restoration projects worthy of a Discovery Channel show.


An arcade cabinet is a host shell for the game logic contained on the arcade board, and in many cases the design of this enclosure adds an additional level of atmosphere and immersion to the game that is difficult to recreate outside of it’s natural environment. At the most basic level, these enhancement typically amount to cabinet artwork and an illuminated title marquee that seek to sell the game narrative to prospective punters. At the high end of the market arcade games move close to simulator territory, adding enhancements such as hydraulics and force feedback. Many of the arcade cabinet designs by Yu Suzuki for Sega meet this level.





Recreating the Arcade Cabinet as a Digital Artifact:


While working at Sega Japan, Yu Suzuki was responsible for the design of several of Sega’s arcade hits, including Hang On (1985), Afterburner (1987), ThunderBlade (1987), and Out Run (1986). Each of the cabinets featured simple stand-up (SD) and also sit-down deluxe (DX) models. The deluxe models of all these videogames all brought a high level of technical and aesthetic polish to their cabinet design. For instance, the deluxe model of Hang On takes the shape of a 500lbs reproduction of a Ducati motorcyle, which the playermust lean left and right upon to steer. It is a game that demands the player to move their whole body weight to control it.


Suzuki’s emphasis on the physical design of the arcade game recognises that the physical design of the cabinet is the most immediate part of a games ‘attract mode’: “with arcade games, the cabinet is the most important thing. When you see a cabinet, that’s usually when you decide whether you want to play a game or not… The form is the most important thing when you buy a car, right?” Yu Suziki, Sega (Ashcroft, p.131-132).


In the pioneering 3d sandbox games Shenmue (1991) and Shemue II (2001) on the Sega Dreamcast console, Yu Suzuki recreated a number of his coin operated arcade videogames in the virtual space. The interactive 3d renderings of his deluxe arcade cabinets including the aformentioned Hang On and Out Run, in addition to Space Harrier (1985), which is widely credited to be the first sit down arcade cabinet. Each game is a full emulation of the original system, and the player can walk around the virtual space and inspect the design and artwork of the the arcade cabinets from different angles, all while sampling the ambiance of a 1980s Japanese arcade amusement centre.


Upon starting each virtual arcade game, the player viewpoint switches from a 3rd person perspective to completey replacing the playfield with the arcade monitor view. The design decision to momentarily switch out of the surrounding environment and allow the diagetic onscreen space of the emulated system to take over the host games screen space is understandable, since these sub games are not critical to the overall narrative. Also the 1998 Dreamcast hardware was already pushed to its maximum when emulating the aforementioned arcade games, so adding any image filtering or other graphical embelishments would have been beyond its capabilities.



This perspective on the monitor is developed a step further in the arcade games included as part of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. When a player steps up to a coin-op to play either Let’s Get Ready to Bumble, Go Go Space Monkey, or Duality, the screen is taken over by the coin-op, except that unlike Shenmue the view takes a step backwards. GTA:SA acknowledges the medium of the CRT screen, showing the tubes curvature as well as the surrounding plastic bezel.



GTA:SA modder ThePaddster has modified the arcade machine textures from San Andreas, replacing them with the artwork for Bally Midway’s Mortal Kombat (1992). Unfortunately the modification does not change the subgames, but the effect of changing the cabinet graphics is interesting and a tangible step towards a customisable, virtual arcade, where game roms manifest as digital game cabinets in a 3d space instead of 2d images in a folder.



In a visual and touchscreen interface style common to mobile and tablet conversions of arcade and console titles, Capcom’s Mega Man II on iPhone uses an onscreen representation of the arcade cabinet facade to frame it’s emulated Nintendo Entertainment System game. This style of virtual arcade machine takes a further step back from the monitor than GTA:SA, incorporating a joystick control panel as well as the game logo embedded into a representation of an arcade cabinet marquee. The additional graphics also form a necessary visual filler between the games original display ratio and the widescreen aspect of the iPhone.



The next logical step in improving experiential and aesthetic experience of the virtual arcade machine is to take an additional step back in perspective to encompass both the onscreen space and the peripheral vision of the player. While this expanded view adds distractions to the subgame experience, it can be argued that to block out the ambiance of the immediate environment causes existing virtual coin-op gaming experiences to lose a level of reality and authenticity.






Prototyping a Virtual Reality Arcade Machine Emulator:


A prototype aims to provide the experience of using a technology, whilst not necessarily using the same technology as the envisioned end product. It is intended as a demo of an arcade emulation style that goes beyond displaying the arcade artwork in a 2d form, instead actually wrapping it around a 3d model of the particular coin-op machine, while allowing the player to view the inside of the arcade machine.


At the time of writing, the powerful and affordable Oculus Rift development kit has made virtual reality a viable option over two decades since the first commercial attempts at immersive VR. By using a virtual reality headset the user can experience the playfield from a real-world perspective.


If used as part of the digital arcade prototype this would allow momentary glances at the digital arcade cabinets control panel and frame during gameplay. The player could also opt to move away from the screen and inspect the cabinet internally, viewing the PCB from the perspective of the arcade operator while accessing information on its hardware specifications.


The ComputerSpeilMuseum in Berlin has a Pong cabinet with plexiglass fitted to the back so that visitors can view the circuitry of the machine. This is an important consideration as the electronics of this artifact are as noteworthy a part of the interface as the controllers and audiovisual feedback. A complete VR arcade cabinet simulator should include an option to view the internal structure of the cabinet itself.


This internal view of the digital arcade cabinet serves three purposes. Firstly it provides an operator level interface for the user beyond the game calibration screen that allow operators to change in-game variables such as the default number of lives and difficulty levels. Secondly it demystifies the internal structure of the arcade machine, presenting the internal aesthetics of the wiring and circuitry as a visible and essential part of the overall cabinet build. The third advantage is that it provides an historical and educational document of the machine hardware that is impervious to wear and tear.


A real consideration for if this concept prototype were to become an actual emulation system is the workload involved in sourcing and producing 3d models. Emulation software relies on community effort for the continued updating of the source code, as well as the procurement of the less legal items such a rom files, game artwork, instruction manuals. For a 3d arcade cabinet emulator to succeed, it would need an open format that allows the community to create their own 3d cabinets, complete with exterior artwork and interior game wiring and PCBs.


In an exhibition setting, the VRAME installation could take the form of a minimal pedestal containing a harness for the VR headset along with a control panel using physical game controls. A square outline on the ground could signify the object now built in virtual space. The second option is to remove the controls, instead using a wireless gesture capturing system to match the players hand movements to a 3d representation of their hands in 3d space, registering collisions with the digital renderings of the control panel. Both options have their pros and cons. The gesture based version keeps the physicality of the emulated control system purely digital, allows for it change and adapt dynamically. On the other hand, the tangible controller adds a grounded, solid, yet distant link between the playing human and the cyber arcade cabinet.


(draft version 1.1, Oct 4th)

6 thoughts on “Prototyping the Future of Arcade Cabinet Emulation (draft)

  1. Hi Kieran, interesting interest you have here. Are you aware of these people:
    atm I am not sure if/when the place is open, but I think that they are trying to restorate and run the original machines, and I think they are extremely knowledgeable about the engineering of old arcades.

    I am wondering what this emualtion or VR representation of arcade hardware brings us? Besides a kind of poetics in computer games that contains arcades, you also mention the possibility of modding and an educative experience. Where are the limits of such poetics and experimentation – e.g. in relation to the material of the monitor, its coloration, etc.? And what kind of (material) knowledge do you think the engagement with the machines, that you obviously have, hold in relation to your prototype?

  2. Hi Christian, many thanks I’m glad you like the idea behind it. I hadn’t heard of but I’ll read more about them. It looks like a great resource, both online and the proposed museum.

    As far as the limits of this virtual take on of the physical structure of these machines (I hope I’ve read into your question correctly), one limit is that while visually complete it is still without physicality. Haptics (gloves perhaps?) can signal boundaries but the user can still pass through them, ghost like. The addition of more and more physical constraints could the experiment into something from the Lawnmower Man (although not necessarily a bad thing…).

    I think a plain control panel could be the best compromise, either with real joysticks or something like the leap motion (or both). If presented to the public on its own sans the cabinet, it still communicates it use. The challenge with this configuration is that if the control panel is stationary, the system should be able to pick up the position and height of the user(s) in relation to it.

    With this prototype, the pcb just symbolises the game rom, so it’s really just an enhanced icon. If this were at a very advanced level (with plenty of computing power) each part of the game pcb could be a visual representation of part of the emulation code, so if the memory chip was removed, the memory would stop working…

    Also the geographical type of interface slows down some functions (when comparing sweeping gesture commands to the command line or a more constrained gui)

    There also could be scope to reconfigure the arcade cabinet inside the prototype too, designing new takes on the cabinet format in virtual space…

    1. The arcade museum people used to have a barn outside of town where you could visit and play the games, but they have relocated. As far as I have heard, they are ‘purists’ and strongly oppose the ‘fakes’ in Berlin. They only want the real machinery, not the emulations.

      I’ve also come across some arcade fanatics who have formed a club here in my town, and am pretty taken by their enthusiasm. I was actually unaware of this quite large living community (not just museums) before I met them. I thought it had all died out. They actually travel around to visit arcade halls (… but you probably know about all this :-)

  3. I have read a little bit about the Heart of Gaming centre in London that was mentioned in that link, but havn’t visited any of these new old-style arcades. I think it’s great that people are getting together to set these kind of places up. It’s a bit like the vinyl record (or cassette) collecting / preservation culture meeting the resource pooling of the hacker/maker-space movement. I think emulation is ok though, just like digital music is, and how the remodelling of an analog synth digitally sounds exactly the same. Just like with these reproductions of old synths with USB connections and new software elements the control surface makes a big difference. Some of the modern cabinets sold with MAME emulators in them don’t look great. And of course it’s nice to have an original authentic cabinet and / or PCB too.

    A problem with collecting computer games is actually housing them (and affording it in the first place). Collecting ‘complete’ digital computer / console reproductions that still hold some sort of mass or form outside of their (virtual) monitor display area could part address that

  4. Just briefly before tomorrow: I wonder what a post-digital emulator would be like or indeed is this a kind of emulation per se? If you adopted some of Annet’s discussion on the document, how would your examples operate at the level of performativity of code? What is really being emulated/simulated?

  5. Hi Geoff, thanks for prompting me to link into another of the papers… My take on the post digital ‘emulator’ after reading Annet’s paper is that possibly it is as much about preserving human ritual as onscreen pixels and game logic. It’s a fuzzy approximation because of its large digital / etherial component (the ‘noise’ )…

    By ritual I mean the aspects like inserting a coin (bitcoin?), acting as the operator / technician, and playing/performing in the user in a space other than their actual physical locale. Suspending disbelief in immersing not just into the (inner) diegetic space, but also the surrounding virtual environment framing it. Maybe its a more experience facilitator rather than emulator…

    As far as I understand the examples as been performances in code, I see Shenmue is as much about allowing the user to experience the atmosphere of a 1980s Japanese arcade, enjoying banter with the locals and even the ability to change the jukebox music while checking out the arcade. The GTA arcade is a reminder that the in-game gangster enjoys the simple pleasures of computer games, while the GTA modification to an extent allows the user to possess ownership of run down arcade in San Andreas. Also the Mega Man iphone game feels more like a miniature toy replica because of its edges and a solid form since it’s trapped inside that tiny glass screen and phone shell.

    I enjoyed the point about the procedural as performance, and how that relates to wear and tear of the physical and how that relates to digital reproductions. Perhaps a time based ‘random cigarette burn and key scratch’ filter for a virtual coin op would fall into this category :)

    Reminds me of how Disney made ‘Fix It Felix’ arcade machines to promote the ‘Wreck It Ralph’, purposely scratching them to make them seem as if they were in operation since the 1980s. In doing so they used original Donkey Kong Jnr cabinets as source materials, desecrating a true rarity to manufacture another!

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