Monday, 26 June 2017

Setting down my tools...

So I guess this is it.

After three years, four locations, and five (or was it six?) CRT monitors I've finally completed my quest.

I own a working bartop MAME cabinet that was built, in its entirety, for under £50.

And here she is:

First things first, a breakdown of the costs.

£00.00 - MDF: Donated by my boss
£00.00 - Screws and fixings: I do a lot of working with wood so my stocks are usually high
£00.00 - Glass: 'Re-purposed' from an old picture frame
£00.00 - Paint: Leftover from renovating an old chair
£00.00 - PC: Sourced from an old business acquaintance
£00.00 - Monitor: From Freegle
£00.00 - Speakers (Stereo): From Freegle, an added bonus with the monitor
£00.00 - Speaker (Single): A spare I had knocking around that some extra bass
£00.00 - Cooling fans: Recovered from an old laptop tray
£00.00 - LED Power button: Gift from +Dave Whiffin the guy I can blame this whole project on
£00.00 - GTX750 Graphics card: An unexpected, last minute, bonus addition - see below for more
£05.10 - Paint Primer: A necessary expense to get a decent finish when using MDF
£13.18 - Joystick and Buttons: From Ultracabs
£10.18 - USB controller for controls: From Ebay
£04.17 - Amplifier: From Ebay

£05.50 - Total Shipping

£38.13 - Total

I should have said under £40 - just to give it the James Bond finish.

You can see that, with the exception of the primer, all the costs can be attributed to items that are very specific to this kind of project. Everthing else is either more standard or re-purposed from bits and pieces I had lying around.

I should also mention that the listed cost for the amp is for a replacement. The original was £6.99 but I blew it up trying to figure out how to power it from the motherboard.
So although the above is the true value of parts that made it into the final build, you can add the extra seven quid to the cost of making it if you're feeling harsh.

The final push to finish was fairly straightforward. I had the whole thing assembled and finished for a day when a friend mentioned in passing that he'd found a stash of old graphics cards while moving and offered me the best of them - a GTX 750. So everything had to come apart again to fit that - but there was a fortunate bi-product of this.

Previously I had a couple of small conundrums with the fans I fitted to the rear of the cabinet.
Firstly, the usb power cable wasn't long enough. Fortunately a quick rummage in my cables box turned up a short extension lead; problem solved.

Secondly, it turned out the fans stayed on even after the machine was powered down.
After trying different sockets and playing with the power management settings in Windows to no avail I googled the issue.
Apparently this is a standard feature and most people, those that weren't saying something a bout a jumper, suggested a bios update and a tweak to the settings within.
My bios was up to date. I played with the settings I could find: No luck. The fans still purred away when the power was off.

I resolved that I'd just have to power off at the switch whenever possible. A less than ideal solution.

Fitting the graphics card was the first time I'd really looked at the motherboard since first attaching the power button years before. I had to fiddle with the clamp holding the cards in place and in doing so dropped the tiny screw that held it in place. It nestled on the mothered next to tiny jumper. I picked up the screw and the words 'USB 5v' were etched underneath.

So, having moved the jumper from the second and third pins to the first and second I now have cooling fans that power up and down when the rest of the machine does.

The final hurdle was cleared.

The machine was reassembled.

The project was finished!

So what's next?

Well. My father in law gave me a PC steering wheel and peddles a while ago. They're stored away somewhere, never used.

I'm thinking I might - with the budget restriction now lifted - build a pedestal for the unit and build them into it... we'll see.

But for now this last picture is for +Jeremy Riley - the closest thing you'll get to a "big grinning selfie" from me. Cheers for the support along the way!

Monday, 5 June 2017

Setting up the controls... for realsies!

 As I said last time; the next part of the construction was to assemble the control deck proper.

I’d had the majority of the buttons attached to a random lump of timber I had kicking around from way back when they were first delivered – this had allowed me to test out some games and better understand what I wanted from the button layout.

Check out this old post for more on that:

Now, with the paint fully dry on new deck, it was time to remove them from the prototype and into position on the real deal.

I’m not going to lie: This felt like a big moment.

I don’t think I could possibly be happier with the way it looks. The red looks class against the dark grey mid-sheen finish and it just in general looks the real deal.

Some initial concerns about cramped connection were allayed by pointing the terminals of the back row though the gaps of those in the front.

I’m fairly sure I don’t have them connected up in the same order as before but that’s a simple fix in the MAME configuration when it comes to it. Need to screw that pcb to the case somewhere too but that's no problem either.

So only one thing left to do - put the pieces I have together...

Now that's proper progress right there!

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Setting up a guide-jig...

With the three smaller sections of the front of cabinet all painted up and finished I gave the same treatment (Sand > Seal > Prime > Sand > Paint > Paint) to the main frame.
Considering it had been in a bulky, part-built state in the in-laws garage for 3 years it was remarkably free of damage.

The two layers of MDF I had glued together to use for sides were coming apart very slightly in a couple of places but nothing that didn’t disappear under three coats of paint.
This left just the main speaker and housing unfinished and, truth be told, generally in a bit of a mess.
Previously I had mounted the speaker into a piece of MDF and given it a coat of primer.
It looked pretty tatty but worse still it seemed as though the paint that had been in holes of the mesh had fallen through and dried solid – give it a shake and it sounded like it was half full of rice – not good.
I made the rather drastic decision to open up the speaker front and shake the bits out – I started with a drill hole but struggled to get much joy. So I resorted to the tin-snips.

Obviously this meant I had to do something about the new mess I’d made. The free sample of speaker cloth I got for the smaller speakers was quite a course weave, so to match it I cut a square from a hessian shopping bag and attacked it with the some leftover black paint I found in a tester pot tucked away in one the better half’s craft drawers.
Finally, I needed to create a new, neat front plate.
At some point in the preceding three years the remainder of my MDF stash has taken some water damage. Luckily I found a couple of pieces that were big enough but, at only 5mm thick, I was presented with a new problem when it came to routing a neat finish as the routing bit guide wheel is 3mm on its own.
I tried cutting a square out, clamping extra MDF as a guide underneath, and routing around both -  but there was too much movement and the result was a total disaster.

Plan B was to build a guide jig using two scraps of MDF and my workmate.

With the piece of MDF for the panel clamped firmly on top of this I drilled a hole big enough for the router bit through the centre and then ran the router out to the edge and followed the guide-jig around.
It was quick, easy, and worked perfectly.
After the usual prep and paint it was simple case of assembling the pieces and standing back and admiring the results.
The whole affair felt like a victory – just the sort of win I need to keep me moving forward.

Next up – getting that control deck together.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Setting up for the big finish

So I figured a quick "Previously on..." was in order, thanks to the big gap in posts.

The aim was to build a M.A.M.E. Bartop arcade cabinet for less than £50. The cabinet, the computer, the screen; the works.

I already had wood glue, the paint for the final finish, an array of tools, various screws and fixings, and a cool led power button donated by my mate Dave.

When it came to major components I then - through Freegle, fortune, and foraging - had managed to get the 14" CRT screen, a pile of MDF scraps, and an old PC at no further cost whatsoever.
With my £50 budget still not touched I still had to acquire a set of controls, some sort of audio system, undercoat for the paint, and anything else unexpected that might come up.

My theoretical costs broke down like this:
  • £15 for a Joystick and Button pack from Ultracabs.
  • £10 for a USB encoder for the Joystick and Button from eBay
  • £8 for amplified speakers
  • £10 for hard finishing filler
  • £7 F-factor

But in actuality the budget has ended up looking like this:
  • £11.99 Joystick/Buttons
  • £6.99 Amp
  • £1.19 single button
  • £10.18 for a USB encoder for the Joystick and Button from eBay
  • £4.17 amp from eBay
  • £5.50 total shipping

The hard finishing filler wasn't needed following the acquisition of the MDF and there are two amps because I blew the first one up. The rest of the sound system I put together from an old speaker I had kicking around and a pair of PC speakers that came as a bonus with one of the 4 CRT screens I sourced through Freegle.

And so we come to now, as the project wheezes back to life after a 3 year gap I still have just under a tenner to play with.

The first thing I need to add to that is primer. I'm not sure if I  mentioned it in previous posts or not but since a couple of the component parts already had a coat of this applied I must have bought it before 'the gap'. The open tin is also evidence of this.

I know I picked it up locally and checking online it's available in B&Q for £5.10 - so that's the number going into the budget.
That's £45.17 spent so far.

With the sunny spring evenings being one of the main drivers to restarting the project I began small.
I worked on the marquee section, the control deck, and the front panel.
I pulled the three sections of the marquee apart as I wasn't happy with the existing join. I re-glued an and left them clamped in my workbench overnight then sanded the join down the next day.

All the parts were first covered in glue-size to seal the MDF then I gave them a good coat of primer. When the primer was fully dry I sanded it back smooth with some 240g sandpaper.

It was nearly 10pm when I finished

Having researched what was required I was fully aware that an ultra-smooth mirror finish to my paint work was beyond both my budget and my skills - but I was very keen to have a quality finish.
I'd be using the remnants of a tin 'Slate' coloured paint that I had leftover from previous projects on some DVD racks and a posture chair. 
Experience has taught me that consistency is the key to making anything look well designed so I decided to roller the paint on - this would ensure the same finish all over and eliminate any opportunity for ugly brush marks.

After a couple of quotes I'm very pleased with the results, roller fluff was a bit of a problem but not a big one and the colour - once fully dry - is a pretty stylish dark grey.

The marquee, front panel, and control deck drying amongst the chaos of my shed

Next up, a little sub-section assembly.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Setting the scene...

This is the first entry I've made to this blog in just short of 3 full years.

It began as a way for me to document a project to build myself a 'bartop' style M.A.M.E. Arcade Cabinet with the self imposed constraint of a £50 budget.

That's the cabinet, the controls, the computer - the whole thing for under fifty quid.

There were a few bumps in the road, I had long delays waiting for MDF and then waiting for a PC - then I was forced to move house at short notice.

I filled a lot of these gaps in progress by writing about obscure - but excellent - games I found while curating a collection to go in the finished machine. It was this part of the blog that seemed most popular with readers.

The two parts of the blog ran on, supporting each other, until early August 2014.

And then, for reasons I honestly can't fathom, it all stopped.
A year ago I moved house again - but there's still a two year space prior to that where I did absolutely nothing to a cabinet that was well on it's way to completion.

Since moving the majority of my time and money has gone into the house and garden. As things have gradually become more organised around the place the in laws decided, a month or so ago, that it was high time we relieved them of the last few of our possessions they had cluttering up their garage.
This included my partially build cabinet.
It, among other things from the purge, was piled at the back of the spare room waiting for the loft-conversion to be completed.

Earlier this month I had a couple of friends to stay for the weekend, the spare room clutter was temporarily hidden in the main bedroom and the M.A.M.E cabinet found itself squeezed between my wardrobe and the bed.
The guests came and went but the cabinet stayed where it was - completely in the way - obstructing my morning routine by it's very existence.

I was at a loose end on a sunny evening recently and found myself looking at a small section from the top of cabinet and noticing that the speaker holes I'd made were not in line with each other.
I took it outside and soon enough I was digging a piece of MDF out of my wood store (an old outside toilet) and remaking the section.
Even as raw MDF it looked good, simple but effective.
I found somewhere online that provided a small free sample of speaker fabric and temporarily attached them inside.
It looked very good... I wonder what it would look like painted...
For the next few sunny evenings I found myself sitting in the garden, painting, sanding, re-painting various components of the cabinet just to be doing something outside.

Curiously, organically, the £50 M.A.M.E. cabinet project had come back to life!

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Setting a precedent...

So yeah, on Friday night I broke another monitor...

...and by midday Sunday I have a replacement.

I had put the old monitor on top of that blue bin while a rubbed down my sized MDF. I was just finished and stepped back to take a picture of my handy-work and... well... you can see what happened next.

I said this very early on in this project but it bears repeating: Freegle is your friend.

In desperation after this latest calamity I checked every available option:

Ebay - Two 14" monitors listed, the closest being in Nottingham (200 miles away) with a £10 'collection only' price

Friday Ads - Closest was Kent (50 miles), only wanted a fiver but wasn't sure it worked, also, possibly 17".

Gumtree - Nothing. Not a single CRT monitor listed in the area.

Local paper - Nothing.

Freecycle - Posted on Friday night, heard nothing as of time of writing.

But Freegle... on Freegle I had a response less than 24hrs after I posted my 'Wanted' ad and I had collected the new monitor, from a guy who lives 6 miles away, less than 12 hours after that. My sixth monitor (I think, I have genuinely lost count). All from Freegle.

Also, the guy also gave me these as a bonus:

I'm not actually sure I'm going to be able to use these - certainly not in their current form anyway - but I'm going to pry them apart and seeing if it's worth doing anything with the innards - it would be nice to have stereo sound after all, albeit with the slightly bittersweet realisation that I would have wasted more than a tenner on amps... We'll see.

I haven't been back to the garage to check how the new monitor fits in my skeleton cabinet yet but all signs point to it being pretty much a like-for-like replacement. I know it's exactly the same width - and that alone means that it's very unlikely I'll need to any fundamental rebuilding. Which is a great result.

That's all I have for now. After I broke the monitor I went inside and sulked for the rest of the evening, so in real terms I haven't really made any progress - even though it feels like I've dodged a bit of a bullet.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Punk is Dead - Suda51 - The rise and fall of an iconoclast.

In 1994 Goichi Suda announced his arrival in the world of videogames with a bang;
The unmistakable sound of a self inflicted gunshot to the head.

Super Fire Pro Wresting Special was a Japanese-only entry in this long running franchise.
The game sees your unknown protagonist ascend the ranks of sports-entertainment in the kind of story mode you just won't find in this kind of game anymore.

In fact, you didn't find stories like this at the time either - or before for that matter.

During the course of the campaign you are dogged by failure; your manager is mysteriously murdered, you accidentally kill one of your closest friends in the ring, your girlfriend leaves you just before the climactic battle - the build up for which see's your final opponent kill your tag team partner in the ring before announcing that it was he who murdered your coach too.

Bra-and-panties at Summer Slam this is not.

Ultimately, our hero is victorious, however, consumed by the emptiness of glory with no-one to share it with, he shoots himself 3 days after winning the crown.

This story was only Goichi Suda's second credit on a video game, but its tone and refusal to conform to expectations were a precursor to the values he would eventually bring to a worldwide audience.

For the ten years after his work on Fire Pro, Suda remained in the employ of Human Entertainment and directed three games in the Japan-only Syndrome series. He then struck out on his own with the creation of Grasshopper Manufacture, the studio to which he acts as CEO to this day.

At Grasshopper, Suda concentrated initially on the Japanese market with two idiosyncratic Playstation games; The Silver Case, and Flower, Sun, and Rain. The company then lent its services to the more mainstream appeal of two games in the Shining Souls series on the Game Boy Advance. Then came the first Grasshopper game to be released outside of Japan.

Michigan: Report from Hell was directed by Goichi Suda's contemporary at Grasshopper, Akira Ueda - and, despite an interesting premise, it was (and remains) a terrible game. As such it disappeared without a trace upon launch in Australia and Europe, and failed to secure a publisher in the United States.

A year after that, and 11 years after Fire Pro made his name in Japan, Goichi Suda directed his first international video game.

Killer 7 - conceived for Nintendo's Gamecube as part of the ill-fated 'Capcom Five' - was a game that divided opinion with the press and with consumers. Bewitching as many people as it confused, it had been branded with the (very nineties) 'cult classic' misnomer even before it was released.

Some believed it to be esoteric in the extreme, others complained of over simplicity.
Killer 7 was a game about culture, national identity, and east-west relations - as told via the analogy of undead suicide bombers, wheelchair bound assassins, multiple personality disorders, and chess playing deities.

To its fans it was mesmeric; a convoluted jigsaw puzzle of disparate pieces hanging together from a barely visible tread.  To others it was a nonsensical mess.

Killer 7 is clearly the work of an artistic mind - conceived and realised with complete creative control over every tiny detail. The result is a final product in which even the flaws seem meticulously planned. The gameplay and story are woven effortlessly through each other - rather than existing as separate, juxtaposed entities, as is the case with the vast majority of videogames.
Its mechanics represent a distillation of gameplay that verges on abstract. Everything unnecessary is stripped away to leave only your actions and their impact.

It was during the marketing phase of Killer 7 that Goichi Suda first expressed the motto of Grasshopper Manufacture: "Punk's not dead".

It was the perfect sound bite to accompany a game with such a fearless, anti-establishment identity from a creator who insisted on conducting interviews wearing a luchador mask. This was undeniably a gimmick, but one that nevertheless made a statement about the relationship between creativity and publicity.

‘Punk's not dead’ was a rebellious rallying call to those consumers who had tired of the relentlessly iterative nature of more mainstream videogames - particularly pertinent considering that, at the time, Killer 7 was still slated as an exclusive to a Nintendo console that was home to the 11th entry in the Super Mario series.

In the wake of mixed reviews and a limited marketing budget, Killer 7 was only a moderate sales success. Capcom had projected worldwide sales of £330k and, while sales in Japan were particularly weak, they were offset by better numbers in Europe and America.
There were a number of contributory factors to this, not least the collapse of the exclusivity arrangement with Nintendo, just a month after it was announced, that ensured the game released simultaneously on Sony's sales behemoth; the Playstation 2.

Extra sales were doubtless garnered through a degree of notoriety. When IGN's Dan Cassamina spuriously asserted in his review that the game featured "full-blown sex" it caught the attention of the videogames industries pantomime villain of the time - activist Jack Thompson. Thompson immediately demanded that, due to the sexual nature of the game, the rating in America should be increased to Adults-Only. Typically, he had not played the game or even seen it running, and I doubt he has to this day.
Nevertheless, the old cliche that 'there's no such thing as bad publicity' is more relevant in this medium than any other, and Mr Thompson's tirade played no small part in ensuring that Killer 7 eventually made its money back.

Grasshopper's next releases returned them to the Japanese market, with two anime tie-ins released in the year following Killer 7, Blood+ One Night Kiss, and Samurai Champaloo: Sidetracked were both released to mixed reviews but decent sales in Japan.
Following these was Contact, an RPG with a clever ‘forth wall’ breaking narrative device that was an early release for Nintendo's DS hand held system.

Despite a fairly positive reception in the games press, however, Contact was a sales failure. Disastrously released in Japan on the same day as massively anticipated Mother 3, it couldn't recover from this early loss of momentum.
None of these games, however, were directed or designed by Goichi Suda. He was working on a game that would be released early into the life of still another Nintendo platform.

No More Heroes is a video game about videogames. It's about making videogames, playing videogames, loving videogames, and - most importantly of all - hating videogames.

No More Heroes is, in this writer's opinion, the finest videogame that has ever been made.

It is the only example of an 'art' game that also manages to be enjoyable to play.
Its existential realisation of the players mindset within its game-world is seething with irony and introspection. It features representations of the games that players want, the games an artist wants to make, and the compromises they have forced upon them.
In its finale it insulates heavily that games and their creators are locked in an endless battle with no meaning, and that any attempt to add meaning will result in failure for both of them.

It's uniquely subversive; a complex game that bemoans the over simplicity of the audiences needs whilst itself hiding behind a mask of over simplicity.

There is a saddening bitterness to No More Heroes, it plays out like a response to a career where the best games have struggled, and the worst have thrived.

That No More Heroes is still the last game directed by Goichi Suda is of no small consequence. That I believe it might be the last game he will ever direct, is a monument to both the product and the man.

In a twist of painful irony, No More Heroes was a massive success.
As with Killer 7, slow initial sales in Japan were offset by good numbers in the West.
A HD re-release for both the Xbox 360 and PS3 was created and sold well, and then,
finally - most tellingly - a sequel was announced.

There are moments in No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, where the pen of Goichi Suda is evident but, sadly, in reality, he had very little to do with this pale shadow of the original. It's still fun to play and there are moments where a little introspection is clearly encouraged, but it is uneven, and unclear of vision.

Since No More Heroes, Grasshopper have revealed 5 games to be released to the full retail market. Desperate Struggle, Lollipop Chainsaw, Shadows of the Damned, Killer is Dead, and Lily Bergamo.

Each and every one of them has been introduced to the games press as the work of Goichi Suda. Each and every one of them, it has later transpired, has been directed by someone else.
These games each have their own merits and their own issues. Taking each in isolation, the quality is wildly varying. Their only consistency is the Grasshopper Logo -
the extravagant filigree butterfly wings, the flame haired face, the moto emblazoned somewhere nearby...

Ever since completion of his masterpiece, Goichi Suda has faded further into the background at Grasshopper, other than making an appearance at TGS or E3 to promote whatever game someone else at the studio is making. He and his partners seem well aware that his face and, more importantly his name, are worth their weight in column inches for any new release.
With the possible exception of Lily Bergamo, all of the above games were claimed to be under the directorship of Goichi until after their release. His name still appears on the credits in some supervisory capacity, and a couple of them do a fine job of mimicking the shallower elements of his approach to game design. But not one one of them carries the narrative genius of Killer 7 or savage satire of No More Heroes. They don't even match up to the power and subversion of Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special.

By the announcement of Lily Bergamo at E3 2013, Goichi Suda was no longer a visionary leader. He had become a trademark, a mascot. A name that once conjured up images of great auteurs from other mediums such as Fran├žois Truffaut or Jean Luc Goddard, now brings to mind powerless figureheads like Paul McCartney, Muhammed Ali; icons robbed of their relevance and dignity, wheeled out for the masses to fawn over, to point at, and to remember when they were once great - all the while desperately trying to ignore the faded echo presented before them.

On January 29th 2014 Grasshopper Manufacture was acquired by Gung Ho Online Entertainment.
Their first action of consequence to the outside world was to take Lily Bergamo - the single player hack-and-slash game that Goichi Suda had announced at E3 2013, rename it Let it Die, and turn it into a free-to-play MOBA title.

Grasshopper Manufacture retained their name in the deal. It appears they also managed to keep all off their staff and the ownership of their existing IPs. This is great news for the employees in what must have been a worrying time. At the time of writing, and as far as I can tell, there is only one casualty of the take-over.

Punk is Dead.