Prototyping the Future of Arcade Cabinet Emulation (v1.5a)



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 audio visual 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. This virtual arcade cabinet exists in a digital construct that emulates the ambience of a videogame arcade, filtering the the situated experience of coin-op gaming to the user complete with its original surrounding environment.




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 reminding the user that they must legitimately own a copy of the game rom they are about to load. In practice however, most users don’t actually own the rare and costly game PCBs that physically 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 (McCormack). 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 (ブライアン・アッシュクラフト and Snow 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 space1. 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 Andreas2. 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)3. 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 iPhone4 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 blocking out the imediate ambiance environmental ambience causes existing virtual coin-op gaming experiences to lose a level of reality and authenticity.





Post-Digital Emulation: Reproduction, Ritual, and the Third State:


A post digital emulator is as much about preserving human ritual as it is concerned with the reproduction of interaction aesthetics and game logic. By expanding beyond the glass space of the screen interface to include the situated play environment of the arcade coin-op as part of the interface, VRAME enables extra performative layers of interaction unique to the arcade game centre environment.


The VRAME prototype allows the user to start and continue games by inserting virtual coin tokens to start and continue games. Games are changed by exchanging JAMMA pcb boards through the engages with the machine by inserting virtual coin tokens to start and continue games, while adjusting their viewing angle to a comfortable vantage point, and plays while surrounded by the ambience of the arcade gaming space. This style merges the arcade environment of Shenmue with it’s separate arcade screen view.


Emulation by nature is a fuzzy approximation because of the noise that separates its etherial digital component in terms of fidelity from its real world source analog. Even in the case of an emulation platform that perfectly reproduces the sonic and visual properties of the legacy system to the end user, the underlying computational technology imitates rather than replicates.


The Fixed Gate Programmable Array chip is a chameleon component that can be reshaped by code to mirror the schematics of classic platforms. The FPGA based MIST console emulates the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST home computers while adding the affordance of using flash memory storage. However the miniature form factor reduces the physical appearance of the machine to becomes a nondescript box without any of the outward design character of the original 16 bit computers. The user of an emulator receives ease of use and new nondiegtic operator acts such as a pause function (Galloway) while sacrificing constraints that defined the nature of the original system.


The Third State refers to the experience of using an emulator for someone who has never experienced the original artefact. For the ‘experienced’ user, their memory fills in the gaps of imperfection in the user experience, it is colourised by their sense of context. Similarly, a lack of linkage to the source experience creates a new situation. The gaps in comparison between the analog and digital versions of the given experience are less obvious, leading to the flaws in resolution becoming features. We can see this in the use of pixel sharp imagery from the 8bit era. The sharp right angles of pixel art in its post digital context contradict the blurry phosphor tinged images viewed by gamers during the early years of videogaming, yet are accepted as authentic by the 8bit revival audience. 





Considerations in Prototyping a VR 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.


The VRAME environment is a virtual shell through which MAME or a similar emulator is experienced while embedded into a 3d representation of an arcade cabinet. It uses the open source 3d engine and game creation tool Blender, along with the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Blender allows the use of VNC sessions as textures. VNC stands for Virtual Network Client, and is a system that allows a user to view a computer desktop remotely through another system. In VRAME the texture that represents the arcade screen connects to a system running the MAME emulator. All input commands sent to the interaction built in blender are rerouted to the MAME system, which broadcast all audio visual feedback back to the user through the virtual screen running VNC session texture.


In an exhibition setting, the VRAME installation consists of a minimal pedestal containing a harness for the VR headset along with a control panel using physical game controls. Visually appears as an arcade cabinet that has been significantly minimalised. A square outline on the ground is used to reflect the immaterial object now built in virtual space. When the user steps up to the pedestal, they don the VR headset, and find themselves standing in front a full arcade cabinet.


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, in a maleable, etherial digital state. On the other hand, the tangible controller adds a grounded, solid, yet distant link between the playing human and the cyber arcade cabinet.







Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis [u.a.: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. Print.

McCormack, Jamie. “Atari and Ireland.” Game Developers Ireland. N. p., 13 Nov. 2008. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

ブライアン・アッシュクラフト, and Jean Snow. Arcade Mania! = ゲーセン・マニア: The Turbo-charged World of Japan’s Game Centers. Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International : Distributed in the United States by Kodansha America, 2008. Print.









2 thoughts on “Prototyping the Future of Arcade Cabinet Emulation (v1.5a)

  1. Hi Kieran. Thanks for an interesting read. You are proposing some nice routes for creative development in the emulation scene. My main point in regards to your paper would be that it would be helpful to see you expand some more on how the concepts and emulation practices discussed in this paper could be read through a lens of the post-digital. It feels like such a reading could be made from several different angles and it would be interesting to see your own take on whether or not this interesting terrain of machines emulated within machines can be read as post-digital in any particular way.

    As mentioned at the workshop, one reference that might be of interest in this regard is the origin story of William Gibson’s eventual coining of the term cyberspace (explained in this interview with Gibson:, and how it all started to crystallise for Gibson the moment he walked into an arcade in the early 1980s and saw just how physically involved the players were and the sense in which “it seemed to me that what they wanted was to be inside the games, within the notional space of the machine.” In the examples you give of machines emulated by machines, how might the digitisation of the actual materials and hardware surrounding the gamespace change the sense of digital space in such cases? Is it still a kind of virtual or notional cyberspace, with just an added layer of detail, or would such additional levels of detail (with their strong focus on many non-digital materials and hardware that surround and create the arcade gaming experience) significantly change the sense of the digital here?

    James Bridle (of the New Aesthetic fame) has been highlighting this Gibson quote on notional space and compares it to the earlier days of mainframe computing, which by their very size and bulk could be understood as machines one lived inside, and also to the contemporary moment of networked and increasingly ubiquitous computing which could be experienced in a possibly somewhat similar sense: “We used to posit this space, the network, the notional space, as being elsewhere, the other side of the screen. But increasingly we have these images of the machine as something that surrounds us, that we live inside, within. As something that enfolds us” ( Maybe there is something interesting in these examples of living inside the machine descriptions that could be contrasted in relation to your own proposals of entering virtual arcade spaces.

    Otherwise I appreciated your descriptions of existing examples of arcade cabinet emulation and also your mention of “The Third State” and how users who have never never experienced the original arcade artefact might engage with this experience. Perhaps this could also be elaborated on, especially as in the same paragraph you begin to touch on how things like the 8bit revival might be read both in a post-digital context and in relation to your specific work on emulation.

    One other thing, the Game Room virtual environment that Microsoft created for Xbox Live seems like it might be another quite helpful example to include in your discussion (


    1. hi Kieran. I see I had some similar thoughts to Eric – although a little less developed.
      It makes an interesting read but is too much of a project description and not enough addressed to the notion of the ‘post-digital’ for this context. Another version might try to draw out some of the discussion around this: for instance, the issue of materiality. This would add an extra dimension to the discussion of the physicality of the cabinet and the coded environment, and make the connections more complex between digital and non-digital objects. As it is, the argument is perhaps in danger of emphasizing simple distinctions at the expenses of more complex assemblages of experience (the section describing Third State begins to help with this). When specific games are introduced I also think there could be more attention to spatial issues – especially in the example where there is a game within a game – and a recursive element is demonstrated. This could also help in drawing out issues of spatiality in being both inside and outside the game – something the actual cabinet helps to establish. On this, how much is there a media archaeological premise at work here? It could be made more explicit what these reenactments/emulations (re)produce – not authenticity of course but a further translation of some sort that corresponds to emulation. Certainly this aspect should come through more strongly in the final section where the post-digital discussion emerges. There are some style issues too: the titles of games need to be italicized, check referencing as MLA style, pay attention to apostrophe (should be “its” not “it’s”), and delete colons in subheadings.
      cheers, Geoff

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