For the arcade game fan who plays arcade games at home, "MAMExpose" presents you with the many joys - and pitfalls - of emulation, specifically those found while using our favorite program in the universe: MAME.

by Rob "Flack" O'Hara

Even though MAME plays the exact ROMs that actual arcade machines play, no one could ever confuse the feeling of pumping quarters into a real arcade cabinet with playing a quick round of MAME on your home computer. It is simply two completely different experiences. That being said, there are things you can do to make your home MAME gaming sessions a bit more “arcade-like”, from the extreme (like building your own MAME cabinet) to the bit more tame. One of the simplest and most inexpensive ways to enhance your MAME playing experience is with the addition of a MAME compatible joystick.

Cheap and Quick - USB Gamepads

Let’s face it, there’s nothing authentic about using your keyboard’s arrow keys to move Pac-Man around the maze. Surprisingly, there are several joystick solutions available for under $20 that will be a great improvement over using your keyboard. 

For those of you who haven’t gone joystick shopping in a while, the days of crappy old 15 pin sticks are long gone. Almost all joysticks for the PC these days are USB compatible, which means most of them support plug and play. Some of the more advanced joysticks on the market will require drivers (especially those with more buttons), which will most likely be included on a CD inside your package.

Gravis makes some of the most inexpensive game pads on the market. That being said, the term “you get what you pay for” comes to mind. Hardcore gamers may find the pads cheap feeling, and the buttons may not hold up to long-term mashing sessions. Microsoft's Sidewinder Gamepad is close in price and slightly more rugged.

Another cheap alternative are “Gamepad to USB” adapters. These adapters allow to gamers to plug almost any type of joystick into their PC’s USB ports. If you have an extra PS2, Xbox or Gamecube controller lying around the house, these adapters can save you some money. Most of these adapters sell for around $20 (including shipping) on eBay. There are even adapters that will allow you to plug an Atari 2600 into your computer’s USB port, although keep in mind this will only allow you to play games in MAME that require one button. The general joystick rule of thumb is, if Windows sees it, MAME will see it.

More Authentic, More Money - Control Panels

While using a gamepad might be more fun, it’s not any more authentic. If you really want to enhance your MAME experience, you might look at one of the larger arcade panels available on the market.

The X-Arcade advertises itself as a “industrial quality arcade game controller”. If you’ve never seen one, they look a lot like an actual arcade control panel. There are actually several different X-Arcade configurations, so you can pick up the one that best suits your needs. The single-player version comes with one joystick, eight player buttons and a start button for $109.99 from their website. They also offer 2-player versions and one with a trackball for different prices. X-Arcade also offer different adapters that will allow you to plug your X-Arcade stick into a Playstation, Xbox, Gamecube, and even a Dreamcast.

SlikStik offers similar type units, but their business model is slightly different. Along with six different models including ones set up for one, two and even four-players, SlikStik also sells completely custom units, allowing gamers to choose everything from the layout of the panel to the colors of every button and the unit itself. SlikStiks represent the high end of consumer-level control panels and the price reflects that, with units starting around the $200 mark and reaching $700 for their loaded top of the line quad control panel.

The Ultimate Solution - Build Your Own Control Panel

If you’re a bit of a handy man, one final choice for you is building your own control panel, which is actually easier and cheaper than it sounds. You’ll need some basic woodworking skills to build the container, and some basic wiring skills to hook it all up, but if you take your time and do it right you can create the perfect joystick to meet your specific needs. Joysticks and arcade buttons have two leads, one for the hot wire and one for the ground. One method of creating your own MAME control panel involves taking opening up a spare computer keyboard and running wires from those button contacts to the exposed keyboard’s circuit board. That way, when you press “up” on the joystick, the wires would lead to the “up arrow” button on the keyboard. Even thought it would feel like you were using an authentic joystick, in reality the computer would read the input from the hacked keyboard. While this method is cheap, it’s very time consuming and involves a lot of detailed soldering to do. An easier but slightly more expensive solution is to use an encoder like the I-Pac, which is a small circuit board with contacts (for your wires) on one side, and either PS2 or USB connections on the other side. Simply run your wires to the I-Pac, plug it into your PC, and you’re ready to go. I wired up my MAME cabinet in less than 30 minutes using one of these. My personal opinion is that the few additional dollars compensates for the headache of keyboard hacking.

For more about MAME controllers, join us in the Arcade Alley section of the Digital Press Forums!

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Last updated: Monday, February 13, 2006 01:44 PM