Monday, July 18, 2005

MAME cabinet: my kids love the control panel

The ultimate goal with my MAME cabinet is to create something that my kids will enjoy. I want them to enjoy some of the same feelings I used to get playing these games.

When I was growing up, I never got to spend as much time in arcades as I wanted to. In fact, until I hit university, I don't think I'd ever been to an arcade as such--more the local 7-11 stores and laundromats that had machines. There was one place in downtown Winnipeg, Magicland, where you paid a flat fee ($5 per hour, I think) and all the machines were set on free play.

I used to go there from time to time in my teens, but it was not the same thing: the games lost their magic when they were on free play. You tended to get hold of a good game and play it to completion, using guy after guy. Or, if the good machines were all taken, you tended to snack: wandering around, taking a nibble at this game, then that game, for just a few minutes each time.

When I was younger, the idea of arcades was also out of the question because, for one thing, my parents didn't view them as a safe place for a 10-year-old to hang out--and rightly so.

At that age, I'd often only see arcades (or just arcade machines) when out somewhere with my parents. I would gaze at them for the longest time, either watching the attract screen or watching someone else play, or just gazing at the vast array of all the machines, if it was an arcade.

It felt like I wanted nothing more in the world than to play those games. I fantasized about my parents noticing and asking me if I wanted to play a few of the games. It never happened, but I dreamed about them handing me a few quarters and telling me to go try some of the games.

Keep in mind that they weren't deliberately stopping me from playing. I suspect if I had asked them for money to play, the answer would have been no, but if I had produced the quarters myself, they might have let me.

That was the other problem, which sounds silly now. Fear. I was nervous about trying these games. I was always a pretty shy kid, and somehow I found it hard to imagine myself boldly walking up and playing. What if someone said something? What if I got kicked off for playing so badly?

So any chance I got to play these games--usually whenever I had a few quarters and could find a place with only a couple of machines--less fear in the smaller places... I played. And really enjoyed it, except for not being very good, due to lack of practice.

When I got to university, and there was a non-smoking arcade in University Centre, and very boring physics classes (it was a repeat of the I.B. physics I'd taken in grade 11) every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, I spent a lot of time in that arcade. At least, I did whenever my buddy Wayne was also inclined to bail out on physics. If he wanted to go to class, I usually tagged along. I'd sit there listening for a while, and once the professor got to a particularly boring part, or said something I, in my infinite 18-year-old wisdom, found asinine (such as "We're finished now with the meat and potatoes of this course, and we're moving on to the dessert"), I'd extend my hand to Wayne, and say "Book!" and he'd hand me whatever book was in his bag that he was currently reading. I worked my way through Margaret Weis's "Star of the Guardians" trilogy in that class, along with Wayne's entire Time Wars series.

Now that I've rambled on, let me renew my focus. I want my kids to be able to play these video games in safety and comfort. I also want to be able to set reasonable limits on their playing, through use of tokens rather than quarters. And I like the idea of a dedicated arcade machine that they play in the rec room downstairs, rather than a game console that they lock themselves into their room with and play nonstop.

The two boys are only 2 and a half and 1 year old at the moment, but they've already shown a propensity for MAME. While the control panel was plugged into the desktop computer (for "testing" purposes), they were forever pushing buttons on it, causing random keypresses during my attempts to use Windows, with the requisite hilarity ensuing.

So with the leftover laminate, and some pieces of 1/4" panel I had kicking around, I decided to do something fun for them. I got a bunch of switches, some that I had sitting around, and some that I picked up from Radio Shack The Source, and a few different types of LEDs (clear, red and blue) and wired them all up to a little 9V battery. So now the kids have this laminated panel with 6 buttons of various types on it. Toggle, rocker, momentary, push-on, with each wired up to a different LED. They love it. The 2.5 year old played with it for almost an hour the first time. The 1 year old loves it too, but after a few minutes of playing, he always wants to turn it over and look at the insides to see how it works.

Must be a second son thing: my dad's an engineer. I'm the second son and I became one, and now my second son looks like he's heading the same way... not that it's a problem, just interesting.

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