Skip to main content

“and now for something completely different…”

A few weeks ago, I had a crazy idea. As with most of my crazy ideas, it began like this “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”. I didn’t think that it would turn into more than an idea, but then I decided to start researching what it would take to actually build a full size arcade machine.
After only about 10 minutes of research, I found that it wasn’t really that far fetched of an idea, and not nearly as complicated or expensive as I would have imagined. As you can imagine, this is a pretty big project, so I’m going to be breaking it into several posts. It’s going to be a long term project and will likely take a while.

Before I get started, I want to stress something that has come up in several Facebook comments lately.


No matter of your computer experience, the pieces that you need to build this portion of the project have already been built and are provided to you for FREE. This is stuff that I DID NOT INVENT, but it sure made this stage of the project easier 🙂

In this post, I want to cover the “brain” of the machine and I have to say, it’s EASY!!! It’s simplicity is mainly due to the work of Shea Silverman. I’ll get to Shea’s work in a minute, but first, let me outline what’s happening and what you’ll need.

The Pieces

There’s a piece of software (and LOTS of different versions of it) called Mame, which emulates the systems that ran arcade games. The games themselves are copyrighted material and I WILL NOT HELP YOU FIND ILLEGAL CONTENT for your system..  please don’t ask.  There ARE free, legal games that run on Mame.  I’m more concerned with the building of the system & cabinet than the games used on it.

You’ll need a computer to run this software and a monitor to view what’s on the computer.

What You’ll Need

For the computer, you could find any old PC and run MAME on it, but I decided on using a Raspberry Pi, which is a $41 COMPLETE COMPUTER!

If you don’t know about the Pi, it’s a great little machine that is open and accessible that runs Linux… more info here.

The Pi needs an 8GB SD card ($10) to run, and I opted for a USB WIFI Adapter ($12) 

I had an old USB keyboard and mouse laying around that I used for setup. They’re not pieces that you’ll need after it’s up and running, so you could borrow them from another computer if you don’t have extras.

I was also fortunate enough to get a small free TV from a friend, but you could also find something small, used, and old at a thrift or pawn shop. In this case, the more retro, the better! For this stage of the build, I was just hooking the Pi up to a computer monitor that I have via HDMI.

So far, I’ve spent $63 …  not bad for a fully functioning (albeit low power) computer, right?

You don't need much.

You don’t need much.

The Software

I’m not going to rehash the software setup guides that others have made. I’d much rather point you to their work and just explain how it’s used.

UPDATE: After spending several weeks with PiMAME, and dealing with lots of different issues, I decided to just try one of the other Linux distributions aimed at retro gaming on the Pi. I came across RetroPie. While I still think PiMAME is awesome, RetroPie is a cut above.  The emulators seem smoother, the audio seems better, and biggest of all, the user interface is miles ahead (although I know Shea and his team are currently working on an upgraded interface). If you’re interested in trying out RetroPie, you’ll follow the same basic steps below, but the specifics are found here.

Someone also put together a config file for the I-Pac controller here (which you’ll need once you setup a control board.)

If you were to ask me today which one to install, I’d say RetroPie, hands down.


As I mentioned above, Shea Silverman has done almost ALL of the work for us.  He compiled a version of Linux with everything that you need to run Mame on the Raspberry Pi. Literally.

  1. Download the newest version of his PiMAME distribution. (Quick Start Guide)
  2. Follow these instructions for “burning” the image onto your SD card. (I followed the “Flash an SD Card With an App in OS X” portion.)
  3. Stick the SD card into the Raspberry Pi, and power it up.
  4. You’re done.


The system is ready to use, with no coding, no configuration.

You’ll see a loading screen

This is what you'll see if the Raspberry Pi starts successfully.

This is what you’ll see if the Raspberry Pi starts successfully.















Then the main menu

If you see the menu, you're pretty much finished!

If you see the menu, you’re pretty much finished!















Then if you go into a menu, you can play a test game that is bundled with PiMAME, called Gridlee.

Gridlee is a free game that is bundled with PiMame

Gridlee is a free game that is bundled with PiMame

The Games

Like I said before, there are free games (called ROMS) that you can download and install. PiMAME comes with an ftp server already up and running, so you can upload the games to it through your web browser (awesome, right??)  All of those instructions are in the laid out nicely in the Quick Start Guide. For reference, it looks like this.

PiMame comes with a web interface for uploading game ROMS.

PiMame comes with a web interface for uploading game ROMS.

So, what?

I know, so far, this doesn’t seem like much. A bunch of  “get this, plug this, install that..” but look at it this way, the body of a car is pointless unless you build an engine, and that’s what this is.. the engine/brain for a fully functioning ARCADE MACHINE!!! The next step is going to be mocking up some arcade buttons and joysticks, and get them controlling our brain! The real fun will begin when I get to designing and building the arcade cabinet. I’ve got lots of cool extras planned for it 🙂

It’s going to be fun to have in the house, but also just a blast to build!

Thanks for reading, stay tuned.