This is still a work in progress. I hope to have it finished by this weekend. Skim through and let me know what you think so far.
Guide To Buying An Arcade Cabinet
Like many of you, I spent many hours of my childhood in local arcades. I have many fond memories of playing arcade games, like the time I spent nearly twenty dollars worth of tokens mastering Gauntlet. I also have memories of going home, usually broke, and trying to recreate those gaming experiences at home. Home consoles and computer gaming have come a long way over the past twenty-five years. We've gone from console versions of videogames that, at best, "resembled" their arcade counterparts, to 100% accurate arcade translations for your PC or next-gen gaming console.
Despite how well the games themselves may have been converted or emulated, they'll never be the real thing. Four guys sitting on a couch playing Gauntlet on a Playstation 2 and a television screen is not the same as four guys huddled around a Gauntlet game in an arcade. Never will be.
This article is for people that need to go that extra step. Maybe you love one particular game, or maybe you just loved the entire arcade experience itself. Whatever the case, if you've decided it's time to take the plunge and purchase a video arcade game, this guide is for you.
[ Factors to Consider ]
Arcade games are relatively expensive. They're heavy. They're a pain in the ass to move. They take up a huge amounts of space. They could require maintenance or repairs. In short, they're a lot less practical to own than a cartridge or a CD. Why on Earth would anyone want to own their own arcade game?
Because they're COOL.
Nothing can replace the experience of owning a game you grew up playing. Not even MAME, the PC emulator which plays thousands of arcade games, most of them perfectly. Is there a place for MAME? Sure! Is there a place for MAME cabinets? Definitely! I even own one! BUT, there's something about owning a complete machine, an entire package complete with artwork and marquee, that makes owning an arcade game worth the time, money and effort.
[ Choosing a Game ]
The key to purchasing a good video game is research, research, research. Always wanted a Tempest game? Go into any vendor's shop and see how many broken ones they have. Was Shinobi your favorite game? Double check the one you're looking at and see if it has sound. Many arcade games have known issues. Tempest cabinets are notoriously high-maintenance monsters. Likewise, Shinobi sound problems are caused by a dead battery that is encased in a lump of glue on the motherboard. Good luck fixing that. A little research can save you some big bucks and bigger headaches down the road.
[ Parts of a Game ]
Unless you buy a brand new arcade game, chances are you will be performing some repairs on your machine. Arcade cabinets have a certain amount of mystique to them. They're almost magical due to their flashing lights and sheer size and weight. Most people are disappointed and underwhelmed the first time they look in the back of a cabinet. For the most part, they're empty! The main parts of every arcade game include the power supply, the printed circuit board (PCB), the controls, the monitor, the coin slots, the marquee and bezel, and the cabinet itself.
Cabinets: Cabinets are mostly made of plywood (older) or MDF (newer). Depending on what you want to do, you can leave the cabinet alone, you can fix it up a bit, or you can completely restore it. For minor repears, you can do things like touch up paint (simple on a black cabinet, tougher for colored ones). For major repairs, again it depends on if you just want a good looking cabinet, or an ORIGINAL looking cabinet. If you have no interest in staying original, a coat of paint, a layer of formica, or even a covering with contact/shelf paper will do wonders! If you're leaning towards restoration, the first thing you'll be doing is sanding everything down and filling in any problem areas with wood putty. If the side art is missing or damaged, you can buy replacement ones online -- if the side art was painted on (ie: Ms. Pac-Man), you can order stencils as well.
The classic arcade cabinet style is called an "upright". The small, flat games that you look down on to play are called "table top" or "cocktail" style games. For a game in the same condition, expect to pay 2 to 2 1/2 times more for a cocktail cabinet vs. an upright.
Coin Slots: Coin Slots will most likely either work, or they won't. If the lights are burnt out, they can be easily replaced. If you're not going to set your game to "demonstation mode", you'll want to make sure the slots work. In demonstration mode, games always act like they have one credit and don't need coins to play -- very popular for home machines, but usually disables the "attract mode". If you don't put your machines in demo mode, you'll want to do two things: one, learn how to trip the coin hopper with your finger (usually either a small piece of wire or a plastic tab). The second thing is, you'll want to disable the security tab (if there is one) around the coin door. If your machine still has a security switch enabled, the machine will power off whenever you open the coin door.
PCB: The PCB is the motherboard of the game. PCB's can be repaired by pros and swapped out by amateurs. PCB's are usually mounted to the side of the cabinet wall, and have wires running to all the other parts of the cabinet. In 1986, the JAMMA (Japanese Amusement Machine Manufacture's Association) standard was adopted. JAMMA boards all use the same harness, so JAMMA boards are easily interchangable. The original JAMMA standard used a joystick and three buttons per player -- later JAMMA boards use additional boards to expand the amount of buttons (most often seen in fighting games). It's not plug and play, but most JAMMA PCB's can easily be swapped into other JAMMA cabinets with minimum effort. JAMMA adapters exist for many classic games as well, so classic PCB's can be quickly and easily installed in JAMMA cabinets.
PCB's usually have dip switches, jumpers, or a test button which will allow you to configure the game to your liking. Settings for the number of lives, number of coins needed, and sound levels are found here. The most common problems with PCB's are missing/bad chips, or cracks in the PCB itself. PCB cracks usually come from a machine getting too hot or too cold (stored in a warehouse, for example). With a multimeter, documentation, and enough knowledge, PCB problems can be located. With enough money, they can be replaced.
Power Supply: Just like your computer, arcade cabinets have a power supply with (usually) 12v and 5v lines. Many power supplies also have a "piggy-back" outlet. It is not uncommon to see the light fixture from behind the marquee to be plugged in here. The power supply also has fuses, so if you're not getting any power at all, this is a good place to check. Many games work erraticly or not at all without the proper power voltages, so a multimeter comes in handy here as well.
Monitor: The Monitor is pretty important, as it's the part you're going to be staring at the whole time! Monitors come in various brands, sizes, and mounting orientations, but all of them have two main problems: burn-in, and old capacitors/solder. You're going to have to live with burn-in -- it can't be fixed. When looking at games, keep in mind that burn-in always looks worse when a machine is turned off. If the video is overly bright, dim, or just fuzzy, it may be the sign of old capacitors or old solder. Due to heat and sheer age, the capacitors on the back of a monitor and the solder that holds them in place tend to wear out over time. The fix for this is to replace them with a "cap kit". Cap Kits run under $10 for almost every brand of monitor, and can be installed in an afternoon. NOTE: Here is where I mention the fact that monitors retain a LOT of electricity for a LONG period of time. Before working or touching a monitor you MUST discharge it. If you don't you run the risk of harming the machine or more importantly, yourself.
Marquee/Bezel: The marquee is the sign above the monitor. It consists of a custom graphic, stuck to a piece of plexiglass and backlit by a florescent light. If it's not lighting up, it's most likely a light bulb that needs to be replaced. If the plexiglass is broken, you'll eventually want to replace it. You can purchase replacement ones, or you can make one by downloading a scan of the marquee and having it printed out on clear film at Kinko's. The bezel is the piece of plexiglass that goes in front of the monitor and the paper that surrounds the monitor. Replacing that plexiglass costs under $10 and can really improve the look of a scratched up bezel!
Controls: Controls are something that most people worry about, but in reality are one of the easiest things to fix on an arcade cabinet. Buttons are inexpensive, can be ordered in practically any color, and swapped out in a matter of seconds. Joysticks can also be easily repaired and/or replaced. Joysticks and buttons connect to microswitches, which are wired up to the PCB. If all the buttons on one side of a cabinet aren't working, check the ground wire, which is usually a common wire and may have come disconnected. Most control panels are held in place by latches. By opening the coin door you can stick your arm up and disconnect the two brackets, which will cause the control panel to open towards you. The control panel will also have a CPO (control panel overlay) on the top of it. Just like the cabinet itself, if this is damaged you can fix it easily with some contact paper, or by simply ordering a replacement one.
Some games had unique controllers. Things like spinners, knobs, and trackballs are all easily replaced. Unique controllers, like Tapper's controls, 720's spinner/joystick, Roadblaster's steering unit or Paperboy's handlebars may cost a little more, but can still be found fairly easily.
[ Prices ]
Prices are determined by two factors: the shape of the cabinet, and the age of the machine. For my own convenience, I have come up with my own personal arcade machine rankings: Classic, Common, and Money-Makers.
Classic: Classic games are highly desirable and relatively expensive. Classics date from the mid-70's until approximately 1983. If your mom has heard of it, it's probably a classic -- Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Asteroids are prime examples. For games in decent condition, expect to pay at least $500. For games in excellent condition, plan to pay a grand or more. The market is growing every day for classic games.
Common: If the game you are looking for falls into the common category, you're in luck! It's probably worthless -- at least to vendors, that is. Let's face it, people buy arcade games to make money. When they no longer make money, they are either converted into something else that makes money, or they're sold. I bought my Mat Mania machine in decent condition for $25 at a local auction. My Shinobi, complete in its original cabinet with side art and everything, was purchased for $100. Common games go back to around 1983 or so, and stretch to "whatever doesn't make money anymore". As you can guess, this category is constantly growing. Mortal Kombat I and II have slipped into this category, but III and IV still bring in money, depending on the market. I've seen MK2 machines sell for $100, where MK3 machines will bring in a couple hundred, and an MK4 might bring in $300-$400.
Money Makers: These are games that are still bringing in money in arcades. Most people do not own one of these machines unless they are very lucky or very rich. Looking for Virtua Fighter 3? Be prepared to pay $2,000 or more -- and that's used. Those Namco reissues are $3,000 or so. It's not uncommon for games to cost tens of thousands of dollars. If you are wanting to purchase a game like this, you had either be willing to shell out some serious cash, or wait.
Along with the popularity, the condition of the game you are looking at will play a large part in the price. As stated earlier, most parts of an arcade cabinet are easily swapped out, and most problems are easy to diagnose. If the monitor doesn't come on or looks distorted, you've got a monitor problem. If power comes on but nothing happens, you probably have some sort of PCB problem. If nothing comes on, you have a power supply problem (at least). My advice to those new to the hobby would be to pick up working games, at least in the beginning. They don't have to be perfect, but at least you'll know where you stand. A terrible looking monitor is easier to troubleshoot than a dead one.
Another cost factor is whether or not the cabinet is a "conversion" cab or not. Remember all that talk about JAMMA PCB's? If an operator had a JAMMA compatible machine that wasn't bringing in any money, all he had to do was swap out a marquee and a PCB and voila, new machine! It is not uncommon at all to find games not in their original cabinets. I always thought my sister's Bloxeed cabinet looked familiar -- come to find out, it began life as a Donkey Kong Jr. machine! I knew that shade of orange looked familiar! To some collectors, the original cabinet is everything -- to others, it's not important at all. The more unique the cabinet was (Burgertime, 720, etc) the more the game will be worth. Some games were sold as upgrade kits only, and were never available in a cabinet at all.
[ Where to buy? Buying Recommendations ]
There are four main places to buy arcade games: auctions, from other private owners, from vendors, and everywhere else.
Auctions: Auctions are one of the best and one of the worst places to buy arcade games from. Depending on the auction and the other bidders, you can either get great deals, or a great laugh at the prices. I got Mat Mania for $25 at an auction in December, when the roads were icy and very few people were in attendance. At the closing of Lion's Fun Park here in Oklahoma City, I saw a Ms. Pac-Man cabinet that had half the graphics faded and the other half sanded off go for $1200!!!
Videogame auctions always have a "preview period" that lasts 1-2 hours before the auction begins. At that time, people are allowed to plug in and play all the games for sale. If you see any games you are interested in, you'll want to make sure they work (or try and figure out why they won't). At every auction, I bring an extension cord (sometimes games are far from outlets), a flashlight (the inside of games are dark), a clipboard, two pens, business cards, and cash. Eavesdrop on every conversation you can. Find out who's interested in what. You may also find out problems with certain games. If there's a problem with a particular game, write it down -- they will eventually run together and you don't want to bid on one with a problem (speaking from experience). To transport your game back, you'll need rope or tie downs, a truck or a trailer, a dolly, and some masking tape (just in case).
Private Owners: Private owners are people just like you and me, who at some point in time decided one of these monsters would be fun to own. Depending on why they are getting rid of the game, you may be able to get a good deal. If you can find someone who is moving and needs to sell in a hurry you may get a better deal than from someone who is selling one game to buy another. Privately owned games tend to be in better condition overall, but better condition equals more money.
Vendors: Vendors own games because they bring in money. Vendors sell games when either they aren't bringing in money anymore, or they're broken and would cost too much to fix. To most vendors, games represent money, not memories. It's pretty tough to find a good working game from a vendor at a decent price, but it does happen.
Everywhere Else: Put the word out on the street that you're looking for games -- you will be surprised how quickly word gets out! Ask laundromats and supermarkets that have games in them if they are interested in selling. Carry business cards (you can print them cheaply) and hand them to arcade owners. I mentioned to my realtor that I was looking for some games, and had two different people call me the same weekend. You never know where your next game will come up, so always keep an eye open!
No matter who you buy from, you're likely to hear, "I could get more for that on eBay." For the most part, it's a bluff. Who wants to pallet, wrap, and transport a videogame to the nearest airport? Nobody, that's who! Or at least not very many people. Whenever people say that to me I always nod and smile and then tell a horror story about how much work is actually involved in shipping a game. They almost always drop their price (and that bluff) immediately.
Like tattoos, arcade collecting is very addictive. It's pretty rare to find someone who only has one game in their collection. Their "one" game is usually quickly renamed their "first" game.
[ Other Advice ]
For beginners, I'd recommend one of the following: A Neo Geo cabinet, a JAMMA cabinet, or anything that works and uses standard parts. Neo Geo cabinets use MVS cartridges which can easily be swapped out and are readily available through many channels (eBay). JAMMA cabinets are always a good choice because if you get tired of the game you can always buy a new PCB and have a new game! JAMMA compatible PCB's can be picked up pretty inexpensively, and can easily be changed in a matter of minutes. In the end, any game that works is okay, but just remember: the more unique or specialized a game is (Dragon's Lair), the more expensive it may be to maintain or repair. Also, you are more likely to be able to find information/help online for a more common game than an obscure one.
If you have money to play with, I'd recommend buying ANY working game that you can get for under $100. Games can always be fixed, changed, and/or sold.
Another piece of advice: do your homework. Began lurking on RGVAC (rec.games.video.arcade.collecting). Use KLOV.com. Use Google.