The age of sleek consoles and high-definition TVs makes it easy to forget that video games used to be played on elaborate pieces of public furniture. In the 1970s and '80s (a time often referred to as the golden era of arcade video games), games such as Space Invaders, Ms. Pac-Man, and Missile Command were packaged inside "cocktail cabinets" that you could sit down at and rest a drink on as you played. These were not as common as the upright cabinets usually found in conventional arcades, but they provided an excellent Trojan horse in which to sneak the 8-bit classics into bars, thus combining two great American time wasters—drinking and playing video games—in one device.
Now original cocktail cabinets are prized collector's items, with restorers elaborately tending to their dusty circuit boards and flickering CRTs. Likewise, building gaming cabinets has become a hobby in its own right. Arcade-game enthusiasts have coalesced around the MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) platform—a software simulator that makes it easy to play hundreds of classic games on a modern PC. A MAME cabinet is little more than a computer and a monitor in a box with a joystick attached, so building one is as hard as you want it to be. Some builders make do by simply cutting a hole in the top of an Ikea table and putting the components inside. Others build elaborate rigs with laser-cut tops and custom decals.
We've long wanted one of these things for the PM office, but when we sketched out our plans, we couldn't help notice that, if you use modern computer components and a flat-panel screen instead of an old-fashioned tube TV, there's a lot of space left over inside. In fact, if you choose your components wisely, there's just enough room to fit a miniature-keg fridge. As we thought it through, it felt like the holy grail of gaming.
• ASRock AD2700-ITX mini motherboard/CPU ($85)
• Seagate 500 GB 3.5-inch internal hard drive ($60)
• Power supply ($18)
• Two DDR3 SO-DIMM 2 GB RAM ($30 each)
• ViewSonic 27-inch LED screen ($300)
• Power strip ($10)
• X-Arcade Tankstick + Trackball ($58)
• 2 x 4s ($20)
• Plywood ($15)
• ¾-inch-thick white plexiglass ($225)
• 0.22-inch-thick clear plexiglass ($58)
• Pegboard ($50)
• Neon tube lights ($10 each)
• Logitech X-140 speakers ($28)
• Black spray paint ($15)
• Avanti Portable Party Pub ($275)
• Beer tap ($75)
We started with the structure itself: a simple box frame made from 2 x 4s, with extending supports to hold a joystick array.
Building our frame from scratch allowed us to suit the dimensions of the structure to the components we wanted to fit inside—up to a point. We knew we wanted something around the height of a desk (about 27 inches) and big enough to fit a widescreen monitor, but not so big as to become a behemoth. That ruled out a conventional kegerator. Instead, we went with a miniature kegerator (Avanti Portable Party Pub, $275), designed to fit 5-liter minikegs such as the Heineken DraughtKeg. We also found a Goldilocks-style sweet spot by using a 27-inch LCD monitor that was big enough to provide a satisfying image, yet small enough for a reasonable-size table.
The resulting frame measured roughly 30 x 30 inches and was about 28 inches high. We connected the 2 x 4s with L-brackets and screwed a plywood base directly to the structure.
If you're going to throw a refrigerator and a bunch of electronics into an enclosed box, you need to dissipate the heat. At first we thought we'd need fans, but we ultimately opted for more passive cooling—painted pegboard sides, which let the electronics breathe naturally.
As we test-fitted the components, some unexpected challenges arose. We initially assumed the monitor could lie flat within the case, but we were surprised to find the viewing angle with that arrangement made for an unwatchably dim image. It turns out monitors are optimized for side-to-side and top-down viewing. The solution: Tilt the monitor 20 degrees and mount it upside down.
Our table was designed for drinking as well as gaming, so we needed an impermeable top. We dismissed laminate as too ugly and granite as too expensive, and settled on a sheet of ¾-inch white acrylic, with a separate rectangle of clear acrylic above the monitor. Ideally, you'd cut these with a laser cutter, but we don't have one in the office. We do, however, have a bunch of jigsaws that the home department recently tested, so we used one to cut out the basic shape, creating a mess of static-charged shavings in the process. Here in the PopMech tech department we are the first to admit our limitations when it comes to furniture building. We had created a ruggedly handsome table, but it needed a bit of finesse to pull it together. We gladly surrendered our nearly finished product to furniture designer Robin Hiner, who trimmed the corners and base, then routed out a bevel for the edge of our plastic top.
After all that, our table was still just a table. We needed to get the gaming system running. The good news is that old video games don't require much horsepower: Almost any computer made in the past 10 years will do. We considered simply throwing an old laptop in there but dismissed the idea as technologically lazy. Instead, we used an ASRock combination motherboard/CPU, plus a Seagate hard drive and 4 GB of RAM.
We used Windows 7 as our baseline OS (although MAME also runs on Linux, for those willing to dabble), but we didn't want to see Windows every time we booted up. To make the machine start directly into the gaming interface, we installed MAME along with Maximus Arcade, a front loader.
Getting the games themselves is easy—a simple search for a title followed by "ROM" will yield results—but it's a bit trickier from a legal perspective. The MAME developers say their software is designed for historical preservation, and the fact that it lets you play ROMs is "a nice side effect." In theory, if you own, say, a Nintendo cartridge and want to play the game on your computer, that should be just as legal as videotaping a TV show. Some video-game manufacturers beg to differ, saying you can't time-shift video games the way you can TV shows. To play it safe, use eBay to buy original cartridges of the ROMs.
The final—and arguably most important—step in our project was to plumb out a working beer tap on the top of the table. Beer taps and beer lines are easy to find and purchase; we got ours for $75 on Amazon. We drilled a hole in our acrylic top, threaded the beer line through it, then mounted the tap directly to the acrylic with screws. There is, however, one unfortunate incompatibility between 5-liter-keg systems and traditional beer equipment: The hoses are different sizes, and no one sells adapters. We improvised and shoved the smaller, 5-liter line coming out of our fridge into the larger-diameter hose to our tap, then cinched it with a hose clamp. There are no obvious leaks, but the beer tends to come out a bit foamy. We're going to have to work on that—right after this game of Space Invaders.