Retro Role-Playing, Arcade Style

It seems crazy to me that it's already been over 25 years since I last dropped a few dollars into Dragon's Lair at my local arcade. Having grown up in a small town, the Pirate's Cove was about the only place a group of kids could go for after-school and weekend entertainment. I also spent a lot of time in front of a PC, and this, along with the success of home console systems over the last couple of decades, is what eventually led to the demise of arcades (save for the ticket-spewing varieties) all across the world.

As a father of three, though, this doesn't sit too well with me. I want my kids to experience the games that I grew up with in the same manner that I experienced them and, luckily, they can. Thanks to MAME, Daphne, and a host of other console emulators, the classic games we played during the 80's and 90's are still very much a reality. And while you can certainly make use of these software-based feats of genius sitting at your computer desk, the way these emulators and their games really play as intended is to put them to use inside a custom-built arcade cabinet. That's where things get a little tricky, as most of us don't possess the right tools and parts, nor the skill in carpentry, to get the job done right.

Thankfully, there are a handful of arcade enthusiasts that specialize in such an endeavor, including Scott Glazer of NorthCoast Custom Arcades/Mameroom Designs. I've been working with Scott for several years now, having set up a couple of his earlier Ultimate Arcade cabinets for a couple of friends. He's definitely perfected his craft over the years, having started out by selling construction plans and basic, unlaminated cabinet kits before moving on to fully built arcade machines with pre-installed high resolution monitors and advanced control panels that feature everything from illuminated buttons capable of 48,000 different colors to flight sticks and steering wheels. I've even been able to see his current work firsthand, as I recently contracted him to build a custom GameBanshee-branded system at his warehouse in Ohio. You know, for the kids.

The cabinet itself is built out of pre-laminated black melamine, giving it an attractive, professional finish that doesn't require priming and painting (as the previous cabinets I've worked on did). To give the cabinet an even more authentic look, the edges are covered with one of several colors of T-molding, though I went with black to keep things simple. A backlit marquee and two-speaker sound system come pre-installed in the cabinet, and you can even opt for a fancier subwoofer-driven system if you want to wake the neighbors. There are a plenty of options for the cabinet's side art, too, but I decided to hold off until I had time to create a GameBanshee theme that did the cabinet justice. For the display, NorthCoast installs a 29" high resolution (1024x768) Makvision CRT monitor, which is exactly what you want when playing arcade and older console games (see this excellent article on aspect ratios and scanlines to understand why).

And then there's the computer. Unless you plan on playing graphics- or processor-intensive PC games on your cabinet, this is one component that doesn't necessarily have to be state-of-the-art. The machine I received was an older Dell tower running Windows XP with a modest Pentium 4 processor and 80GB hard drive, which is really all you need for virtually any of the games you'll be playing on a system like this. The most important element is the software NorthCoast pre-installs the popular HyperSpin frontend and the 20 licensed games that come with the Midway Arcade Treasures compilation pack, and then configures it all so it's ready to go on first boot-up. Since I'm more familiar with it, I went ahead and installed the Maximus Arcade frontend too, but which frontend you use ultimately comes down to personal preference. NorthCoast also tidies up the internal components by neatly arranging and securing all of the necessary cables, a power strip, and the PC itself. Everything is then hidden behind a lockable coin door at the front of the cabinet.

So once the system is up and running, what can you do with it? For RPG enthusiasts like myself, an arcade cabinet actually has a lot to offer, as there are literally hundreds of role-playing games across the many platforms that can be configured in the aforementioned frontends. The most prominent of these is MAME, which actually features several action RPGs within the 8000+ games it currently supports. Among these are Cadash, Crossed Swords, Dungeon Magic, Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara, Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom, The King of Dragons, and The Super Spy. There are also many other fantasy games with very light RPG elements, including Dark Seal, Gauntlet Dark Legacy, Gauntlet Legends, Magic Sword, and the Rastan trilogy. And although they wouldn't typically be considered RPGs, the Daphne-powered laserdisc games Dragon's Lair and Dragon's Lair II: Time Warp are most likely fondly remembered by Dungeons & Dragons fans that spent any time in arcades during the 80's.

But a frontend like Maximus Arcade actually supports 57 different systems, so you also have the staggering number of role-playing games that span the realm of console and early PC emulation. For the sake of example, here's a quick list of some of the stand-out titles that are worthy of a spot on an arcade machine:
  • NES: Faxanadu, Wizards & Warriors (and its sequel), The Magic of Scheherazade, the first three Final Fantasy games, and ports of many popular PC titles from the Might and Magic, Ultima, Wizardry, and Bard's Tale series.

  • Super NES: The very first Shadowrun video game, Chrono Trigger, more Final Fantasy titles, additional Might and Magic, Ultima, and Wizardry ports, and ports of Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Master.

  • Sega Genesis: Another Shadowrun RPG, Sword of Vermillion, Dungeons & Dragons: Warriors of the Eternal Sun, a few Shining Force titles, and ports of the original King's Bounty, Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday, and Might and Magic II.

  • Sega Saturn: Virtual Hydlide, Wizardry: Llylgamyn Saga, and an assortment of JRPGs.

  • Intellivision: The first two Advanced Dungeons & Dragons video games ever released - Cloudy Mountain and Treasure of Tarmin.

  • TurboGrafx-16: Dungeons & Dragons: Order of the Griffon and Dungeon Explorer.

  • Amiga: While many games are not really suited for arcade controls, the popular WinUAE emulator works great with your favorite frontend and the system sports a virtual jackpot of RPGs Autoduel, The Crescent Hawk's Inception, The Keys to Maramon, as well as numerous titles from the Gold Box, Silver Box, Bard's Tale, Might and Magic, Ultima, Dungeon Master, and Ishar series. Just be prepared to use your pull-out keyboard or manage a different key configuration for some games.

  • DOS: If built-in support for the Amiga isn't enough for you, you can even configure a frontend like Maximus Arcade to run batch files at the touch of a button on your control panel. Coupled with DOSBox, this means you can run virtually any classic RPG on an arcade cabinet. Like the Amiga, though, many games aren't really suited for arcade controls unless you do some tweaking.
Of course, all of this assumes that you're legally able to use the games inside such a cabinet. No matter how you break it down, it's technically illegal to play classic arcade ROMs and abandonware titles without actually owning the original games. It's a big obstacle for someone who experienced these games during their youth and wasn't able to keep them packed away for 20+ years, but luckily for me, I actually do own a massive library of old RPGs that I happily install on the cabinet. Digital Leisure, the current rights holders to Dragon's Lair, Dragon's Lair II, Space Ace, and a number of other laserdisc games, have made things a little easier. If you own a copy of virtually any of the many recreations these games have been subjected to over the years (including modern day versions), you can legally download the files necessary to play the original arcade games directly within the Daphne emulator. I'd really like to see this sort of support for a lot of other games that developers and publishers have seemingly forgotten about over the years, but unfortunately there's no reason to think that will be happening anytime soon.

NorthCoast's fully built systems will set you back quite a bit (they start at about $2600), but you can always purchase just the components you need (the cabinet alone is only $450, for example) and then build the rest yourself. In any event, I'm very pleased with the final product, as I now have the means to conveniently fire up many great classic RPGs and a much friendlier way to introduce my kids to the games of yesteryear.