Building an Arcade Cabinet

Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to have my very own arcade cabinet. I, much like all of you, spent many a days watching my older brother play video games while I held the controller that wasn’t even plugged in. Visiting the arcade was always a special treat and I wanted to be able to have that treat whenever I wanted. Thus began the pursuing of a dream.

The Catalyst

There’s a bar in town I frequent that has a Mortal Kombat 3 cabinet. Mortal Kombat was always the game I gravitated most to on the SEGA Genesis, so naturally I sunk quite a few quarters into that puppy. Then one day I realized that recreating this machine is something that is actually possible now that I am in my adult life.

So I started taking pictures and measurements. Here’s the arcade from the bar.

MK3 at Skeletunes

The Planning

The Cabinet

I sketched out the design for the cabinet, but I wasn’t sure what to use for the actual material. I thought about using MDF, but I figured I might as well go the extra mile and get some nice finished plywood instead. The couple extra bucks per piece made it worth it in the end.

Plywood used for arcade cabinet

The Guts

I wasn’t sure what I was going to use for the actual computer components for the inside. I didn’t have any spare computers laying around to use. After some research, I decided to go with a Raspberry Pi 3. People have already used it as an emulator before, it was small, light weight, and cheap. Perfect.

The next step was figuring out what buttons and joysticks to use. Checking out Amazon, there were quite a few sellers for arcade buttons and joysticks, but boy was I surprised at the price for them. I ended up choosing a blue and white button/joystick set from china. I think the total for that came to $75, so not HORRIBLE, but kind of surprising.

Package with buttons and joysticks

Creating the Cabinet

Forgive me, I didn’t take pictures at EVERY step of the way, but most is here.

I started by cutting the sides to the correct height, then attaching support to the back.Creating the arcade cabinet sides

I knew I needed a shelf inside for the Raspberry Pi, the speakers, and the button boards to rest upon, so that was added next along with a foot well at the bottom, so you could really get up close and personal for those intense games. As you can tell, this shelf does not extend all the way to the back.

Next step was adding a bottom for the cabinet that would rest just above the foot well and extend all the way to the back.

Now I got the button layout. This was something I was really worried about. Obviously, earlier consoles don’t require many buttons to play the games, but if I wanted to emulate newer consoles like N64 or Playstation (surprisingly, the Pi handles both remarkably well), I needed quite a few more buttons.  I decided to go ahead and put all the buttons that came in the kit on the board. It ended up being a little cramped, but as long as you aren’t playing for 3 hours straight, it’s not too big of a deal.

Next step was adding sides to the button board and supporting it with the cabinet, adding front panels, and cutting out the curve on the upper part of the cabinet. Style points! Also, you can see I’m getting anxious and testing out how the buttons fit in the holes. The buttons were a little tight and the inside of the holes needed to be sanded down a bit. The face of the cabinet just underneath the button board fit snug enough that only two screws were drilled at the bottom, allowing it to hinge open. This ended up being a lifesaver when I was installing the buttons and wiring them all up. Also added the marquee box to the top as well as a top shelf. Not many progress shots at this point as the day was getting late.

The joystick installation was a little tricky. I wasn’t sure exactly how the manufacturer intended them to be installed, but resting them on top of the wood didn’t seem right.  I ended up chiseling into the wood a bit so that the metal would sit flush, then added a metal plate over the top to cover the holes. Probably not the best solution, but the only one I could come up with at the time. Fortunately, the metal doesn’t hinder any of the stick movement.

Arcade Joystick cover

The monitor mount was a bit tricky. Decided to make a sort of bracket on the interior side of the cabinet that the monitor would rest on. If the cabinet tips forward, the monitor would fall out, but I don’t foresee that being an issue.

Monitor brackets for arcade

Installing the components

Finally get to add the guts! Here you can see how that opening hinge was an enormous help as I was sitting down and wiring buttons and attaching them to the board. The monitor brackets work perfectly. I’ve got the pi running something in the background to a second monitor on the ground. There were some issues getting the pi to recognize the monitor I wanted to use in the final build and I had to make some changes to a config file.

By the default wiring, the buttons would only light up when pressed. By contacting the manufacturer, I was able to determine a way to wire the buttons that would allow them to stay lit at all times.
Adding buttons to the arcade machine

Oh yes, LED goodness. I found an LED light strip on ebay for around $20. It came with a little remote that you can use to change the color of the LEDs too. I drilled a hole in the back of the marquee in the bottom left that runs down into the back of the arcade cabinet to the power supply.  The LED strip had adhesive on the back, so I was able to stick it directly to the wood.

Arcade Cabinet Marquee LEDs

The Software

I decided on using Emulation Station on the Raspberry Pi. The interface is clean, simple, and customizable enough for my needs. There are also theme options you can choose if you don’t like the default way of scrolling through your different console emulators/ROMS. It definitely took some tweaking to get everything running properly. Button controls needed to be programmed for each emulator. There were a couple games that I programmed the buttons differently than the emulator that ran them, namely the Mortal Kombat games.

Arcade Machine Still configuring


The Finishing Touches

I ended up adding in a set of nice computer speakers inside on the middle shelf that also has a sub-woofer. Midi sounds so good with more bass, doesn’t it?

I also added some nice rubber trim to the sides of the exposed plywood. This was really hard to find. Local hardware stores didn’t have anything, and if they did, it was t-mold, meaning that to install it there needed to be a groove cut into the wood for a piece of rubber to secure into it. Something like this:

I found a seller on eBay sold automotive wheel well molding. There was a contact number, so I called and found out it was the exact width (3/4″) I needed and it also used adhesive backing, so it was flat on the other side. I took a risk and ordered it and it turned out perfect. I installed it bit by bit, with a nasty cut halfway through installation, and used gorilla glue and clamps to make sure it glued down properly.

I decided to leave the outside a wood look for now.

For the marquee, I had to make sure that this arcade cabinet was a true tribute to my favorite childhood game. I created the design in illustrator then had a sticker of it cut out in vinyl.

Then I took a piece of plexiglass, adhered the graphic to the front, and taped some tissue paper to the back to diffuse the glow from the LED lights. Here is the final result:

Arcade Cabinet Completed Mortal Kombat Marquee


She’s my pride and joy and there’s quite a bit of time spent on it. It was quite the project, but now a childhood dream has been achieved.

I also created this intro that plays when the arcade boots up.

Bonus shot of another Mortal Kombat enthusiast sporting some awesome MK attire