This paper is a background research piece into the development of an interactive installation that prototypes a possible future trajectory for arcade videogame emulation. The project aims to explore how the experience of interfacing with complete arcade videogame cabinets can be recreated in virtual reality space. As an interactive experience it is intended to not just authentically recreate the aesthetics of the videogame input and feedback mechanisms, but also the full physical design of the cabinet, including the appearance of the enclosed game circuitry.
Emulation as Platform Augmentation:
An emulator is a software or hardware system that recreates the system architecture of a computer system on another platform. Through the virtual machine of an emulator it is possible to experience a computer system transplanted as a subroutine of a more advanced platform, whether it be hardware of software based. They are computers within computers.
Emulation is a legal grey area, and is tolerated to an extent by the owners of the emulated system. Upon boot up the MAME emulator presents a splash screen upon reminding the user that they must legitimately own a copy of the game rom they are about to load. However in practice, most users don’t actually own the rare and costly game PCBs that physical contain the game code. Instead they simply use an online search engine to obtain the required rom files illicitly.
Emulators replicate the functionality of a past platform while also leveraging the additional affordances offered by the emulation host. For example, MAME features a memory editor and dissembler that allows users to edit a games code as it runs, viewing changes of the end user experience immediately. In this case the emulator takes a system that was designed purely for the ‘play only’ consumer space and augments it with a developer level interface. With the additional use of an assembler package and an eprom burner, it is possible to transfer this new code creation to an eprom chip, and in turn to an arcade PCB, thus allowing the hacked game to be played through the original arcade hardware platform.
When a game originally designed for playback on a cathode ray tube display is presented through the clear viewfield of an LCD or LED display, its gains pixel sharp clarity, but also loses part of the original monitor colouration that was taken into consideration by game designers. The CRT filter built into the Atari 2600 emulator Stella addresses this issue, allowing for image ghosting and colour mixing that helps to partially mask the systems high level of sprite flickering. Similarly, the SLG-1000 hardware device by Arcade Forge recreates the scanlines of bulky CRT tubes on flat panel HD displays, improving aesthetic authenticity when playing classic games by embracing an outdated display limitation into an essential feature.
The Physiology of an
In comparison to their home computers and videogame consoles, the underlying technology powering arcade videogame platforms is lesser known. Each arcade PCB is a standalone computer. These devices range from bespoke PCBs for single games such as Pong, to standards based upon home console technologies like the Sega Naomi which is closely related to the Sega Dreamcast console, to adapted PC compatible machines.
One main unifying standard between the disperate hardware types is the JAMMA standard. It is not the only standard of its kind, but it is the most prolific. Up until 1985 arcade game manufacturers used a variety of different wiring systems in the design of their cabinets. This lack of hardware interchangeability led to increased costs for arcade owners, who had to replace entire cabinets each time they bought a new game. The JAMMA standard agreed by the Japanese Arcade Amusement Manufacturers Association introduced a 56 pin connection for connecting game PCBs to cabinets, allowing the exchange of JAMMA PCBs between compatible machines in a manner similar to the process of swapping a game cartridge on a home console system. These pins allow the connection of a power source, speakers, monitor, coin-slot switch, and the action buttons and joysticks or other controller peripherals.
Structurally arcade cabinets are unglamorous, built from the same materials as their kitchenware namesakes. Indeed, Atari’s Irish operation in the 1970s bought a local furniture manufacturer to produce arcade cabinets for the European market [ link ]. Wear and tear on these wooden frames in the arcade environment has led to high collectors prices for well preserved originals. This battle damage adds character, but is also a problem for their preservation. Rust, chipped fiberboard, and split veneers all add up to heavy restoration projects worthy of a Discovery Channel show.
An arcade cabinet is a host shell for the game logic contained on the arcade board, and in many cases the design of this enclosure adds an additional level of atmosphere and immersion to the game that is difficult to recreate outside of it’s natural environment. At the most basic level, these enhancement typically amount to cabinet artwork and an illuminated title marquee that seek to sell the game narrative to prospective punters. At the high end of the market arcade games move close to simulator territory, adding enhancements such as hydraulics and force feedback. Many of the arcade cabinet designs by Yu Suzuki for Sega meet this level.
Recreating the Arcade Cabinet as a Digital Artifact:
While working at Sega Japan, Yu Suzuki was responsible for the design of several of Sega’s arcade hits, including Hang On (1985), Afterburner (1987), ThunderBlade (1987), and Out Run (1986). Each of the cabinets featured simple stand-up (SD) and also sit-down deluxe (DX) models. The deluxe models of all these videogames all brought a high level of technical and aesthetic polish to their cabinet design. For instance, the deluxe model of Hang On takes the shape of a 500lbs reproduction of a Ducati motorcyle, which the playermust lean left and right upon to steer. It is a game that demands the player to move their whole body weight to control it.
Suzuki’s emphasis on the physical design of the arcade game recognises that the physical design of the cabinet is the most immediate part of a games ‘attract mode’: “with arcade games, the cabinet is the most important thing. When you see a cabinet, that’s usually when you decide whether you want to play a game or not… The form is the most important thing when you buy a car, right?” Yu Suziki, Sega (Ashcroft, p.131-132).
In the pioneering 3d sandbox games Shenmue (1991) and Shemue II (2001) on the Sega Dreamcast console, Yu Suzuki recreated a number of his coin operated arcade videogames in the virtual space. The interactive 3d renderings of his deluxe arcade cabinets including the aformentioned Hang On and Out Run, in addition to Space Harrier (1985), which is widely credited to be the first sit down arcade cabinet. Each game is a full emulation of the original system, and the player can walk around the virtual space and inspect the design and artwork of the the arcade cabinets from different angles, all while sampling the ambiance of a 1980s Japanese arcade amusement centre.
Upon starting each virtual arcade game, the player viewpoint switches from a 3rd person perspective to completey replacing the playfield with the arcade monitor view. The design decision to momentarily switch out of the surrounding environment and allow the diagetic onscreen space of the emulated system to take over the host games screen space is understandable, since these sub games are not critical to the overall narrative. Also the 1998 Dreamcast hardware was already pushed to its maximum when emulating the aforementioned arcade games, so adding any image filtering or other graphical embelishments would have been beyond its capabilities.
This perspective on the monitor is developed a step further in the arcade games included as part of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. When a player steps up to a coin-op to play either Let’s Get Ready to Bumble, Go Go Space Monkey, or Duality, the screen is taken over by the coin-op, except that unlike Shenmue the view takes a step backwards. GTA:SA acknowledges the medium of the CRT screen, showing the tubes curvature as well as the surrounding plastic bezel.
GTA:SA modder ThePaddster has modified the arcade machine textures from San Andreas, replacing them with the artwork for Bally Midway’s Mortal Kombat (1992). Unfortunately the modification does not change the subgames, but the effect of changing the cabinet graphics is interesting and a tangible step towards a customisable, virtual arcade, where game roms manifest as digital game cabinets in a 3d space instead of 2d images in a folder.
In a visual and touchscreen interface style common to mobile and tablet conversions of arcade and console titles, Capcom’s Mega Man II on iPhone uses an onscreen representation of the arcade cabinet facade to frame it’s emulated Nintendo Entertainment System game. This style of virtual arcade machine takes a further step back from the monitor than GTA:SA, incorporating a joystick control panel as well as the game logo embedded into a representation of an arcade cabinet marquee. The additional graphics also form a necessary visual filler between the games original display ratio and the widescreen aspect of the iPhone.
The next logical step in improving experiential and aesthetic experience of the virtual arcade machine is to take an additional step back in perspective to encompass both the onscreen space and the peripheral vision of the player. While this expanded view adds distractions to the subgame experience, it can be argued that to block out the ambiance of the immediate environment causes existing virtual coin-op gaming experiences to lose a level of reality and authenticity.
Prototyping a Virtual Reality Arcade Machine Emulator:
A prototype aims to provide the experience of using a technology, whilst not necessarily using the same technology as the envisioned end product. It is intended as a demo of an arcade emulation style that goes beyond displaying the arcade artwork in a 2d form, instead actually wrapping it around a 3d model of the particular coin-op machine, while allowing the player to view the inside of the arcade machine.
At the time of writing, the powerful and affordable Oculus Rift development kit has made virtual reality a viable option over two decades since the first commercial attempts at immersive VR. By using a virtual reality headset the user can experience the playfield from a real-world perspective.
If used as part of the digital arcade prototype this would allow momentary glances at the digital arcade cabinets control panel and frame during gameplay. The player could also opt to move away from the screen and inspect the cabinet internally, viewing the PCB from the perspective of the arcade operator while accessing information on its hardware specifications.
The ComputerSpeilMuseum in Berlin has a Pong cabinet with plexiglass fitted to the back so that visitors can view the circuitry of the machine. This is an important consideration as the electronics of this artifact are as noteworthy a part of the interface as the controllers and audiovisual feedback. A complete VR arcade cabinet simulator should include an option to view the internal structure of the cabinet itself.
This internal view of the digital arcade cabinet serves three purposes. Firstly it provides an operator level interface for the user beyond the game calibration screen that allow operators to change in-game variables such as the default number of lives and difficulty levels. Secondly it demystifies the internal structure of the arcade machine, presenting the internal aesthetics of the wiring and circuitry as a visible and essential part of the overall cabinet build. The third advantage is that it provides an historical and educational document of the machine hardware that is impervious to wear and tear.
A real consideration for if this concept prototype were to become an actual emulation system is the workload involved in sourcing and producing 3d models. Emulation software relies on community effort for the continued updating of the source code, as well as the procurement of the less legal items such a rom files, game artwork, instruction manuals. For a 3d arcade cabinet emulator to succeed, it would need an open format that allows the community to create their own 3d cabinets, complete with exterior artwork and interior game wiring and PCBs.
In an exhibition setting, the VRAME installation could take the form of a minimal pedestal containing a harness for the VR headset along with a control panel using physical game controls. A square outline on the ground could signify the object now built in virtual space. The second option is to remove the controls, instead using a wireless gesture capturing system to match the players hand movements to a 3d representation of their hands in 3d space, registering collisions with the digital renderings of the control panel. Both options have their pros and cons. The gesture based version keeps the physicality of the emulated control system purely digital, allows for it change and adapt dynamically. On the other hand, the tangible controller adds a grounded, solid, yet distant link between the playing human and the cyber arcade cabinet.
(draft version 1.1, Oct 4th)