Part 1 – Raising The Dead
I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like to build arcade cabinets from the ground up on a factory production line back in the early 1980s. Rumour has it that those employed by Atari in California to hand build the classic cabs we know and love, were largely low-paid, permanently stoned hippies and Mexicans (am I allowed to say that?!). Some even go as far to say that the unique musty arcade “smell” you get when you switch on a thirty year old arcade cabinet is part weed, infused into the wood of the machines by the workers smoking on joints all day on the production lines.
Whatever the truth, and having gone through the experience of restoring one of these monoliths over the summer (and seen first hand some of those stoned workers’ handiwork), I can well imagine that to do it for a living would require copious amounts of class A and B drugs just to get you through the day.
I knew nothing when I decided that I was going to embark on an arcade cabinet restoration. I quickly discovered that the process is insane - frustrations come at every corner, and god help you if you don’t have an eye for detail, a willingness to learn, and sleuth-like research skills.
Deep pockets are a prerequisite when you are a Brit (as I am) attempting the restoration of a cab that spent most of its life in the USA. Flying bits of metal and artwork over the Atlantic Ocean is as expensive as it is hazardous.
So right from the start, I was up against it. I don’t have an eye for detail and I’m too stubborn to learn new stuff. Add to that a dreadful habit of being hopeless at finishing things (you should see my console games collection – a wasteland of half finished, and in some cases still shrink-wrapped games) and a hatred of spending money, the prospects of actually completing a restoration were slim from the outset.
I should also point out that I was very much a “noob” (is that the phrase the kids use today?) when I undertook this. So if you were hoping for a detailed, in depth document here about the right way to perfectly restore an old arcade cab and how to repair circuit boards and the like, then you are reading the wrong article daddio. That said, I’ve owned a number of cabs over the years: Defender, Robotron and several candy cabs. Oh, and a Missile Command I think. So whilst I wouldn’t profess to have a particularly deep technical understanding of these things, I do have half an idea of how they work and what all the parts actually do.
But I wanted one of these Nintendo machines. The design is almost toy-like. Back in the day I never saw one over here, although I’m told a handful did make the journey over the pond. I’ve read the articles about how Nintendo’s first forays into the arcade world weren’t particularly successful. Radar Scope, their first game to be placed into one of these iconic cabs, was a massive flop in America. Myamoto was brought in, worked his innocent youthful magic, and Donkey Kong was born and of course was an immediate hit. The rest is history. The geeks on KLOV can tell deeper stories than I about how the cabs went through several different iterations and manufacturing processes. That said, the iconic design was a constant throughout the range of releases on Nintendo’s arcade platforms. Radarscope, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, Donkey Kong 3, Popeye and then the Playchoice games, all were housed inside this particular shaped cabinet.
If you have never been to the Funspot arcade in New Hampshire, you will have never experienced what is known as Nintendo Alley - a particular corner of the arcade which plays host to a row of 7 or 8 Nintendo cabinets, each housing most of the games listed above in a variety of colours. As a classic arcade player, a more beautiful sight you are unlikely to see. I stood in awe at this “bucket list” sight back in 2006, and at that point I knew I had to own one of these beautiful machines.
But of course, real life took over, I was busy with other distractions, like working, paying mortgages, procreating and the like. So the acquisition would have to wait. Until last year, when a friend pointed me to an eBay auction in Germany. Sure enough, it was for a non-working generic Nintendo arcade cabinet. His note read something like:
“Oi Tony you big fanny – get this cabinet bought. You always wanted one so now’s the opportunity. No more excuses!”
I sat and thought about it. The chances of getting a Nintendo cab over to the UK from the USA were slim. These are big, heavy monoliths. It’s one thing slipping a pair of cheap Nike trainers back to old Blighty in my suitcase from the outlets in Atlantic City; it’s another convincing the nice customs people of Great Britain that a full size Nintendo cab is actually the latest design of Samsonite luggage and I could carry it into the cabin without any trouble. Any cabs over here already are probably restored and will command top dollar prices – that is if you can find a collector willing to part with one.
So perhaps now was the time – after all, getting this from Germany to the UK was far easier than any attempt to import from the USA. The arcade gods were indeed tickling my nutsack.
But of course I had to get over the first hurdle - The Warden.
Now don’t get me wrong - my wife is great. Seriously. She’s put up with a husband whose hobby requires that a grizzly bear-sized lump of wood sits in the corner of our main living room. At one stage there were four of the damned things. What’s more, the artwork on the sides of most of these cabs is pretty garish (it plays havoc with the colour scheme choices in the room I’m told – Jesus, what do I know?). So it was with a certain amount of trepidation, that I broached the subject of acquiring yet another cabinet. I struck while my chances were good. In other words, I’d just taken the trash out, loaded the dishwasher and mowed the lawn.
“So what do you think?” I asked, after a great five minute detailed diatribe about how a Nintendo arcade cabinet would do wonders for our marriage, our kids health, the European economy as a whole and the general stability of mankind for the next 100 years. I gave it my best shot and pictured Hitler’s Nuremburg address somewhere in my head as I did it. The Warden rolled her eyes, and replied “Here’s the deal. You can have as many cabinets as you like, so long as you get them out of the lounge downstairs, and upstairs into the spare room”.
“SOLD!”. She bought it. Such small victories are rare. I fired up the laptop and browsed to ebay.de before she could change her mind.
I suppose we should talk a little about the prices of classic arcade games at this stage. It’s hard for collectors over here in the UK to imagine what it must be like to be able to acquire most machines for well under $500 as our American counterparts can. Decent cabs in decent shape will currently attract prices of around £800-£1,200 here in the UK. An original Donkey Kong in nice condition will fetch £1,200 or more. (Did I mention about needing to have deep pockets?). I’m sure those prices seem absolutely insane to the average US collector. And the trouble is, in order to get machines into that sort of decent shape, you also need to spend money acquiring parts. Most of the time, the only place these are available are in the US. This results in even more expense. Shipping costs are crippling, and most US sellers know they can milk the UK crowd – we are a captive audience. There are very few deals to be had.
So here’s my advice – don’t try and make a living at this. It’s difficult.
So I knew I was in for a good wallet emptying experience when buying this cab. But hey I thought I’d try my luck and emailed the seller through their website to enquire about the cab and it’s price. Much to my surprise, he came back and offered me not one, but two cabs at a decent price. I went a little lower again, and a deal was struck.
A week later, a grubby looking Polish bloke knocked at my door and mumbled something in broken English at me about a delivery. Sure enough, an huge pallet was offloaded from his truck and was placed in my garage. “Goodbye my friend!” he shouted as he drove off, leaving me standing there holding a tatty invoice for several hundred Euros. It was like the opening scene of some bad comedy film.
My excitement was soon evaporated when I unwrapped the pallet. Staring back at me like two broken giants, were two tatty, beat up Nintendo cabinets in light blue colour. One had no marquee or any sort of identification at all, and the other looked a lot more sorry for itself than the photographs I saw before purchasing it would have me believe. Both were damaged to varying degrees, and it was clear that both had been raided for parts over the years. To be honest I wasn’t sure what I was expecting – perhaps two mint, shiny arcade cabs with full side art, a golden handshake from Mario himself, and a chorus line of Japanese Geisha girls fanfaring their arrival down my road in front of the delivery truck, with the entire street cheering and waving as the cabs rolled by - that would have been nice. But alas, it was not to be. I tried to be positive, and plugged them both in to the mains socket.
At that precise moment, the enormity of what I’d taken on hit me between the eyes. Somewhere far off in the distance, I could hear the distant mocking sound of a German arcade collector guffawing over a bratwurst and a pint of beer that he’d paid for with my fucking Euros.
The arcade game gods shook their head disapprovingly at what I had done.
Shutting the garage door and gingerly opening it the following morning didn’t make it all go away either. I really was going to have to do something with these cabs.
So I did my sums. Clearly Mr German eBay seller wanted these two cabs gone – they were the last ones he had, and he said that if I took the second, it would be shipped for free on the same pallet. Even beat up, these cabs were worth at least £500 each I figured. Why make life difficult for myself – I’d sell one of them to make up some money, and I’d have a nice slush fund to purchase any parts necessary. So sure enough a deal was struck on a UK forum and I sold on one of the cabs straight away and made a few pounds. My buyer was happy and so was I – and more to the point, I now had one less liability to worry about, plus the cab I had remaining now only cost me half of what I’d originally been willing to pay.
I now felt a corner had been turned – I wasn’t going to be beaten by a stupid lump of wood and electronics.
Next up was to work out exactly what I was going to do with the cab I had left. I guess the obvious thing would have been to convert it to a Donkey Kong. There was a lot of interest since the release of King Of Kong, and DK was probably the most iconic Nintendo cabinet out there.
But then I stumbled across a different looking cabinet on some forums. Donkey Kong 2 had been released. DK2 for those of you who don’t know is a ROM hack by Jeff Kulczycki. Released in 2009, it adds several new playable levels to the Donkey Kong structure. Men much cleverer than I have burned this new code onto chips, and you can now upgrade your current DK game so that it will play the original Donkey Kong and this new Donkey Kong 2 game (as well as a bunch of other useful enhancements, like a freeplay mode and a high score save feature). Simply removing one chip, and replacing it with a different one was all you needed to do. I was seduced. Like a lamb to the slaughter.
But the real attraction wasn’t just the enhanced game, it was the artwork. The clever dedicated people at www.thisoldgame.com produced a full set of artwork – this consists of sideart, marquee, bezel and control panel. All to coincide with the release of the new game. A recommended shade of blue was issued, so that should players want to, they could upgrade their entire cab to accommodate the new game in a consistent fashion.
Interestingly, Jeff approached Nintendo with the intention of seeking their blessing, but nothing official came of the approach, and presumably they decided to turn a blind eye to the whole project. Which I suppose is one better than trying to sue.
So I placed an order for the complete artwork set with Thisoldgame and set to work at the cab.
Well when I say “set to work” I really mean took the whole thing apart. I stripped everything. It made me feel all clever and technical, like I knew what I was doing. Well it seemed that way to the neighbourhood kids who popped by to stare at what I was doing for 10 minutes at a time (as they do). Truth is, I was making it up as I went along. The only thing I consciously did was not to touch anything on the monitor. Those things scare me to death. It was clear it wasn’t working, so how much danger it actually represented to me I’ve no idea. But I removed the thing carefully and placed it in the corner of the garage. Rather than get clever, I ordered a complete replacement chassis for the monitor from a nice man called Chuck from Texas. Chuck also had a fully working Donkey Kong board, which he was willing to sell too. What the hell I thought, and purchased both. I consoled myself with reassurances that I was helping a broken American economy. That, and I was reassured by what a great wholesome American name “Chuck”was.
Anyway, a few days later, after being informed by the nice people at Her Majesty’s Customs & Excise offices that I owed them an additional payment for clearance fees (the bastards), I handed over the cash and the parcel was delivered.
This all coincided with a visit from my mate Jims from up North. Jims is a bit more confident than I around monitors, so between us I figured we should be able to fix up the monitor and replace the chassis with this new one I had acquired. Maybe we could get the thing working and play a game of Donkey Kong! Yay!
See, that was our mistake. We expected things to go well and for everything to work. Word to the wise: NEVER assume this. We pulled one chassis out, and started reconnecting the replacement. After transplanting the new chassis, and placing the new board in the cab, Jims told me to switch on around the back whilst he watched up front for signs of life.
“OK Tony – 3-2-1 – GO!”
“No. No, no no no. NOOOOOOOOO! SWITCH THE F*****G THING OFF! OFF! NOW! OFF OFF OFF OFF!! OH S**T!!!!!”
Oops. I didn’t like the acrid stench of burning components that now hung in the air. The black smoke rising from the main PCB I figured wasn’t good either.
So we had managed to fry the working board imported at great expense from Chuck in Texas.
“Hey, maybe there was something wrong with the board?” I stupidly said.
“Yeah maybe” said a sheepish looking Jims. And without thinking it through, we decided to get the other board out and plug that into the cab too.
You remember the movie Halloween with Jamie Lee “Boobs” Curtis? Well throughout that film is a recurrence of the classic horror scenario. Something scary in the next room, or back in the house, and of course the heroine of the film just has to go back there and take a look, when we the viewers are all screaming “DON’T GO BACK IN THERE JAMIE! NO! DON’T DO IT!!” But of course she does.
Hell, there’d be no movie if she didn’t do dumb stuff like that.
Well that scenario is exactly what Jims and I did. We now know that it was just plain fucking stupid to plug ANOTHER board into a cab that had just fried similar circuitry some two minutes previously. But hey, in our defence, we were punch drunk at the prospect of playing Donkey Kong. If only we could get the thing working, we could play a game of doubles! In my garage! How cool would that be??
“OK Tony – 3-2-1 – GO!”
“No. No, no no no. NOOOOOOOOO! SWITCH THE FUCKING THING OFF! OFF! NOW! OFF OFF OFF OFF !!!!!!”
Groundhog day had come to my garage.
At the post mortem, it turns out we’d managed to put two wires in the wrong place. One was sending electrical current, the other was sending audio signals. It turns out that inadvertently switching these two wires produces a heady cocktail of voltages to places they were not meant to go. Seesh. Who knew? There were actual flames and everything. Whoopsie.
Once we’d worked out what we’d managed to do, we felt more than a little stupid. So near and yet so far. Another bump in the road of this cab’s resuscitation. But it was a sound lesson. You simply cannot take any short cuts with this stuff. It will bite you in the ass.
Jims (probably out of guilt more than anything) took the boards home with him and offered to replaced the two parts that were burnt out. Maybe that would fix them. Maybe not.
I started to think about what else I’d need to get these cabs into shape. More internet research ensued and parts were chased down, leads were followed and favours were asked.
One particular part was the coin door. Now the one on the cab was simply unusable. I wanted my cab to look as smart as possible and the one on my cab was a complete mess.. Another collector from NYC had a coin door in nice shape that he was willing to part with. He took some persuading to agree to send the item to the UK, but he came through. Unfortunately, when the box arrived, it was very clear that most of it’s contents had fallen out. The box was damaged, and the two coin mechanisms and faceplates were missing.
Another bump in the road – thanks US postal workers. Still, I had to suck it down. Shit happens. But I did start to think that maybe this cab was jinxed in some way.
Fast forward a few months. Real life had taken over again, and I’d done nothing significant with the cab at all. (This was my “useless at finishing things” trait coming out). I found myself in the USA on vacation. I’d made a note of the paint type I’d need, and figured I could pick some up while I was over there. I found a Home Depot store in Nashua, New Hampshire; walked up to the paint counter and told Jean that I’d like a litre of Sapphire Sparkle Blue Paint by Behr Paints.
She had no idea what I was talking about. After much discussion, she finally figured out that the paint had to be mixed in store. After a multitude of questions about what viscosity and finish I wanted, she finally started concocting her witches brew of colours and the paint began to be stirred by the machine. Of course I had no clue about finishes and viscosities. I smiled and said “yes please” to every question, and Jean wrote things down.
Jean then decided to tell me her life story, focussing particularly on her visit to Stonehenge back in 1965. She asked me if I knew London. Oh and what about Princess Diana? I must’ve been soooo upset. I was respectful, and feigned interest for as long as I could whilst pretending to look at paint brushes like my life depended on it. Finally the paint was ready and Jean insisted on walking me to the tills and introduced me to the bemused woman holding the scanner, as if I’d never experienced the world of commerce before. “This is Tony. He’s from England you know,” she said. I looked at checkout lady. Checkout lady looked at me. I felt a blip in the Matrix.
It was an odd moment, but one of many during my trips to the US. Walmart, now there’s a hotbed of all sorts of weirdness – perhaps I’ll write about that next time.
So after I was told for the umpteenth time that day to “have a nice day”, I took my paint and was pleased that I’d managed to source the authentic paint mix from the very store recommended by the guys at Thisoldgame. Out in the car park I distinctly remember trying to get into several SUVs that looked exactly like the one I’d hired. That was fun. How do Americans even find their own cars?
The weirdness continued. I thought that the best way to get the paint back to the UK was to send it to myself rather than carry it on a plane what with the liquid restrictions that had been introduced on transatlantic flights. I found a local UPS centre in Nashua, walked in and enquired about sending my small tin of non toxic water based blue paint to the UK.
You’d have thought I was Osama Bin Laden walking in with a tin of volatile plutonium. The UPS man looked visibly shaken that I’d asked him for advice about my paint. “You can’t send that Sir. We won’t touch it”. And sure enough, he wouldn’t touch it. In fact he could barely bring himself to look at it.
“Are you sure?” I asked, “It’s paint. Not Semtex”.
That went down well. He remained firm and unhelpful.
I sought out the local post office also and enquired there. Same answer. “It’s not us Sir, it’s the Airlines. They won’t allow paint on their planes”. I found this hard to believe, so decided I should call American Airlines myself.
You can probably guess the rest. After 30 minutes on the phone in America to some call centre in Mexico from my UK cell phone, I was still none the wiser (oh and had built up a phone bill that required a second mortgage when I got back home). Three people gave me three different pieces of “advice”. Not helpful. So in the end I thought what the hell, and put it in my hold case, wrapped in a plastic bag and duct tape.
It was only when I got home that I realised that this little package had an uncanny resemblance to a pipe bomb of some sort. And sure enough, the locks had been broken on my bag, and there was a note placed in my luggage from the US Homeland Security TSA people advising me that they had entered my bag, as was their right. They’d torn open the plastic wrapping, opened up the tin, looked inside and put it all back in my case unscathed. I guess it showed up as a liquid on an x-ray?
Whoops. I guess I was lucky that they didn’t confiscate the paint. Anyway – no point dwelling on it – another hurdle was overcome! We had paint – and more importantly, the correct shade – Sapphire Sparkle by Behr.
So back home, it was clear that I had to start actually doing something to get the cab ready for the paint. I did some reading and decided the first thing to do was to fill the holes in the cab. And there were lots. Bondo is a messy product. Don’t do what I did and mix the entire lot in one go (no laughing at the back please). It only stays supple for about 5 minutes. After this time you are left with a solid lump of useless gunk.
So two tubs of Bondo later, I was ready to sand down the sides to a smooth finish. The voices in my head told me that the best place to do this messy job would be on our back lawn. When The Warden arrived home and saw that her garden had taken on a rather attractive shade of light blue sparkly paint flecks, she wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as I was about the sanding. To this day, we still pick off tiny flakes of light blue paint from the carpet in the house, and from between the kids’ toes.
I tried to explain to The Warden what collateral damage meant, but she wasn’t buying it. Honestly, she just doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a serious classic arcade cabinet restorer. Mind you neither did I to be fair.
So, one coat of white undercoat paint later, the cab was ready for it’s first lick of Sapphire Sparkle blue paint.
After much reading on the web, it appeared there were two choices here – spraying the paint on would give the smoothest most authentic result. It also requires a certain amount of skill, which in case you’ve not already established, I don’t have much of. So that option was out. The alternative was using a small roller. I decided this would be the route to take.
Painting was never my forte – The Warden has a better eye than me for this sort of thing. (Yeah I did try asking, but after the back lawn incident, she had washed her hands of the whole project by this stage and wanted no part of it). I figured it couldn’t be that difficult, so armed with paint that had travelled over 3,000 miles, several sheets of light sandpaper, a tray and a small roller, I made a start transforming the cab.
I figured I should be meticulous. It was a huge mountain to climb, but I was determined to conquer the task ahead.
That was coat number one. Two more to go I figured. And so one whole summer afternoon and three coats of Sapphire Sparkle later, I stepped back and admired my handy work.
Not bad. Not bad at all. For the first time during the process, I had a feeling in my gut that this project would get finished – it actually started to look like an arcade cab!
There were small parts of the cab that required black paint – both gloss and matt. I cracked these parts off in short order, and started to have a bit of swagger now – this cab wasn’t going to beat me. I powered through the painting, and left the cab to dry in the garage.
With hindsight, the painting I suppose was the easy part of the process. I was now faced with the various components of the cab. Wires, plugs, transformers, capacitors, joysticks, buttons, PCBs. Many of these were old and worn and needed cleaning, restoring, repairing in some cases, and piecing back together again – together with the new pieces of artwork to turn this cabinet into a Donkey Kong 2.
Now of course you didn’t expect me to meticulously label everything that I’d taken off the cab months previously did you? No of course not. Just checking. So there I was, in the garage, staring at a pile of junk parts. I had no idea what most of it did, or where in the cab it came from. Internet to the rescue again. Bit by bit, piece by piece, I identified what most of this stuff was and where it went.
Surprisingly, the more you tinker with arcade parts, the more you understand. Something as simple as a joystick is actually quite complex, and as you disassemble one, it becomes clear what goes where, and why springs are where they are etc.
My confidence grew further. When the coast was clear, I took apart the control panel, scrubbed the 30 year old gamer grime from the base of it in the kitchen sink (ewwww) – this was long after The Warden had long previously disappeared to watch that week’s episode of Homeland (thanks HBO!). Then dried it out, and started to repopulate it with my scrubbed joystick, new artwork, and new buttons (more purchases from the USA – yay Paypal enabled e-commerce!).
It’s hard to explain the feelings of satisfaction when a minty restored part stares back at you. Especially when your cack handed self put the thing together. I was spurred on by the sight of my new control panel. It all started looking a bit real and I felt in my gut that I was going to finish this thing and end up with something I was going to be really proud of.
PART 2 Coming SOON.