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RetroBlast Review of Project Arcade Book

All of (in Convenient Book Form)

I get a lot of emails from people looking for help on building their first arcade cabinet, and sometimes I point them in the direction of the web site if they haven’t already discovered it. You can almost hear their jaws hitting the floor all the way across cyberspace — one reader wrote back to me and said “wouldn’t it be neat if someone took all of that great information and put it into a book?”

I then had the great pleasure of further blowing his mind by telling him that someone had done just that: Project Arcade, Build Your Own Arcade Machine. The book is the result of an awful lot of hard work by John St. Clair, the creator of the website, and is published by Wiley Publishing as part of their “ExtremeTech” line of books.

From Selling the Wife to Buying Your Way to Gaming Nirvana

To say this book is comprehensive is an understatement — encyclopedic would be more appropriate. John St. Clair manages to cover nearly every aspect of building an arcade cabinet, including looks at a large number of retrogaming products.

John takes you by the hand right from the very beginning, guiding you through deciding what cabinet style is right for you, planning your cabinet, designing a control panel, budgeting, even selling the idea to your wife (gotta love that! ;-)

John helps you decide which cabinet style is best for you

Think of this book as an extremely detailed 476-page set of plans (two full sets of cabinet plans are included on the CD, by the way!). John covers everything imaginable, including what tools you’ll need, assessing your woodworking skills, even what to do if you decide you’d rather just buy your way to gaming nirvana (there’s a whole chapter on pre-fab cabs, from the SlikStik cabinet to the X-Arcade cab.)

Monitors and Trackballs and Joysticks, Oh My!

If it’s detailed information about the different components of an arcade cabinet you want, this book has it. For example, John provides a very in-depth (yet easy to read) explanation of how arcade monitors work, as well as what the differences are between PC monitors, televisions, and arcade monitors, and even includes photographs to illustrate the differences in screen appearance.

Clockwise from upper left: arcade monitor, television, computer monitor,
and arcade-VGA hybrid display

Everything is covered in much the same way – for each piece of hardware used in a PC-based arcade cabinet, Project Arcade provides both the theory of how the hardware works, a comparison of existing products on the market, even examples of “home-built” versions.

I especially liked the in-depth looks at the homebrew versions of controllers: ever wanted to “hack” a keyboard to use as an encoder? It’s in there. Build a spinner from a hard drive? In there. Convert an arcade steering wheel for MAME use? Yup — in there. All the tips, tricks, and ingenious hacks that have come from the arcade controls web site have been clearly explained and illustrated.

The Hard Drive Spinner Hack

If you’d like an example of how thorough John is in explaining how things work, ExtremeTech is currently hosting Chapter 8 of the Project Arcade book The chapter, entitled “Using the Keyboard Connector for Arcade Controls,” delves into the theory of a keyboard matrix, hacking your own encoder, and even a detailed look at the different keyboard encoders on the market, from the Hagstrom encoders all the way up to the brand new Ultimarc Mini-PAC. That’s 28 pages in the book devoted just to keyboard encoders!

Soldering a keyboard encoder hack

Online Resources

The book is packed full of URL links to online resources, from cabinet plans to instructions on creating your own Star Wars yoke. There’s even an chapter listing web sites that you’d want to visit (including RetroBlast — thanks, John!) Since web sites come and go, and site-specific links vanish overnight, John’s set up a web site to keep the book up-to-date:

The Project Arcade site has a full table of contents and even has chapter 1 in its entirety (if you’ve been reading carefully, that’s two of 18 chapters that are available online!)

But Wait – There’s More!

What’s a tech book these days without a CD? Well, John St. Clair has compiled a very nice collection of plans for arcade controllers and hacks, color versions of the pictures in the book, and clickable links to resources on the web. There are shareware, demo, and freeware programs on the disc as well, including such great front ends as MAMEwah and MAME32.

One of the biggest surprises on the disc was to find out that, in addition to the LuSid cabinet plans that were used in the making of the Project Arcade cabinet, Saint has also included the full Ultimate Arcade II plans from! This is a $30 value in and of itself, and it’s almost like getting the book for free!

Final Thoughts

John has a very nice writing style – breezy and informal yet complete and thorough. Everything in the book is sprinkled with a very offbeat sense of humor (don’t even get me started on the misadventures of poor Mario in the book!) It’s an easy read, and never gets boring, even if you already know much of the material being presented. Nothing feels glossed over or skipped, and the scope of what is covered is enormous.

The book seems aimed at cabinet building beginners, but even as a seasoned veteran I found a lot of interesting details and useful tips. Call me strange, but I read this book from cover to cover, staying up late to finish it as you would a good novel.

While you used to have to scour the web on your own to piece together scraps of information when planning your cab, this book easily serves as the “Encyclopedia of MAME Cabs.” It’s a great resource for anyone who wants to build an arcade cabinet, and will be my first recommendation to any beginner who asks for a good place to start.

Project Arcade sells on for $20.39, and that is a bargain for everything you get. I can’t recommend this book highly enough — whether you’re a seasoned cabinet-building pro or just getting started, Project Arcade is a resource you don’t want to be without. Highly recommended by RetroBlast.

Project Arcade Home Page

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