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MAME vs. Real

Category: MAME'd Millipede :: 1. Background

Back when I was collecting classic arcades I spent quite a bit of time playing with MAME. For the arcade collector MAME makes a superb reference tool. It can help check the behavior of a game you might be repairing. In more than one case it became the source for ROMS to use on my EPROM burner while repairing various games (BurgerTime springs to mind). It was also a great way to preview a game you were unsure about when the opportunity presented itself to purchase said mystery game.

MAME definitely appeals to the arcade collector because it is all about authenticity in emulation. The members of the MAME project are incredibly dedicated to not only preserving arcade history but doing so with the utmost accuracy, even if the emulated game is rendered virtually unplayable to achieve some level of accuracy in the inner workings of MAME itself. While this may sound counterintuitive if you view MAME simply as a means to classic arcade gaming, it is a sign of the dedication to their purpose shown by the MAME authors and they should be thanked for it profusely. These guys are historians... geek historians... but preservationists nonetheless. It is rather odd to think that we're already at a point in modern computing technology that historians and preservationists are already playing an active role...

Anyway, at the height of my arcade collecting I viewed MAME as a tool and certainly something fun, but one must realize that if you're after the arcade gaming experience, seeing Pac-Man on a modern PC monitor - even the real Pac-Man ROMS running in near-perfect emulation - while moving the little yellow bugger around with the cursor keys only gets you there at the most basic level. Yes, it's more like playing Pac-Man than, say, playing Yahtzee or Backgammon... but it's not the arcade experience of your childhood.

Now you could hook up a joystick... that's closer. But chances are you're still sitting down, that joystick doesn't really feel like the red ball-topped 4-way leaf stick you remember and that monitor... it's too... sharp? Square?

I'm not knocking MAME here in the least... quite the opposite since it's the single most important piece in the equation. Besides, my statement above that the MAME authors are gods among men (and women) is absolutely true. What I'm pointing out here is that MAME perfectly addresses the content side of the equation... it's just that it's all wrapped up in the wrong package when it's running in a window on your PC.

[Editorial Comment: Some people reading this will agree with me completely at this point. Others - if they have read this far - have just written me off as some kind of twisted geek stuck in the 80's. Well, no... I'm not. But the heart of any hobby, especially one that involves some form of collecting or restoration, is authenticity. I didn't say I was writing this in an effort to convince people and lobby for legislation mandating aesthetic authenticity in classic gaming... I'm writing it for those that have already crossed that line and who might get a kick out of the process. I never said it would cure cancer or hasten the end of the Bush administration, though I suppose anything is possible with a little wishful thinking.]

Aside from the fact I was surrounded by the real things, part of the reason I never tried to put MAME on a PC, hook up a monitor, slap it in a cabinet and stand in front of it rather than sit at my desk was the fact that, in the end, it just wouldn't look or feel right.

After a long absence from fiddling with MAME and having recently sold off most of my collection of machines, I discovered AdvanceMAME while poking about for an arcade-related project that wouldn't fill my house with behemoths again. The Advance project's focus on driving an authentic, fixed-frequency arcade monitor for the accurate look and feel of a classic arcade game caused me to revisit the concept of building a single machine for many games rather than owning a ton of originals.

A bit more research proved that an entire industry - albeit a small grassroots one glued together by the Internet - was springing up to meet the needs of building such a beast. This includes interface hardware, controls, and lots of information to meet precisely the needs of the 80's arcade refugee looking for a project.

So how does Millipede on a MAME-based system compare to the real thing? Well, Millipede is just one of a few thousand games that could run on my cabinet. The MAME version, though, is running in the original cabinet, hooked to the trackball that came out of the real machine, playing sound through the speakers of the original, and (most importantly to me) being displayed on the same kind of monitor as the original (gnarly scanlines, low resolution and all). I can swap back and forth from the original game board (it's still in there and simply unplugged when not in use) and the emulated version and it's a nearly dead-on match.

This brings me to a key goal of my project. I wanted to make use of a classic cabinet because it was available to me, looked nicer, had an air of the authentic about it, and took a lot less work than building a cabinet from scratch. That was just my preference. It might not be your preference and either approach is perfectly good.

I did NOT, however, want to harm the original cabinet. I realized fairly quickly, though, that all of my MAME-based prosthetics for the machine could be designed to mate with the original machine without so much as drilling a hole in it. I wanted the challenge of building the electronic side and looked forward to the final product... but I did not want to do it at the expense of a fully working, original Millipede. Besides, as I stated before, my fiance' protects the machine with a nearly religious zeal. She's pissed enough as it is that I changed its appearance on the surface... the only thing getting holes drilled in it or its parts sawed off was me if harm came to the machine. Her disturbingly protective nature regarding Millipede has its upside, though... she could test the crap out of the MAME version of it when I was done and tell me if was accurate. More on that later...

Back to the MAME vs. The Real Thing issue: If the controls are built for arcade use, the monitor is driven at the same (or VERY close) resolution and frequency, and the whole thing is in a properly proportioned cabinet of the era you're going to be hard-pressed to know it's not original. You could argue that it is 100% original from a software persective, of course.

One key factor is whether the monitor is horizontally or vertically mounted. I chose vertical since the core classic games I care about were taller than they were wide. Fortunately, AdvanceMAME does a marvelous job of scaling horizontal games to fit the screen very nicely (albeit formatted very much like letterboxed movies on your TV). No, that isn't authentic... but it's part of the reason why I will likely build a sister machine that sits next to this one with a horizontally mounted monitor. That's the next project... in the meantime let's focus on the one I've actually managed to complete...