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Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam   The Box: The History of Television

(Where does Mr. Hankey live?
On Kickapoo Road!)

Before we begin, we've got two words. South Park. You watch South Park, right? Rhetorical question. We know you do! And what would be cooler than if you could actually own land in South Park? Nothing! So here's your chance. No kidding — we're lucky enough to own a piece of land in the real South Park, appropriately located on Kickapoo Road. So we're selling square inches of it. Dude, seriously, anyone can afford it, and it's ONLY HERE, this is the ONLY PLACE IN THE UNIVERSE (yup, we checked, the only place in the universe), where you can buy a square inch of South Park. People think the FAQ is pretty cool too. There's ample parking, so buy one now and c'mon down & unwind.

Grail Found -- Film at 11

The Ultimate Arcade Machine

by Andrew and Laura Burt

I (Andrew) should confess at the outset that, being somewhat of an arcade game purist, I've come to the "mame renaissance" only recently. My wife (Laura), on the other hand, has been the mame advocate of the family for years. Which has meant that if I was going to play an arcade game, I wanted to play the arcade game. I don't get into using arrow keys, alt keys, mice, joysticks that don't feel right, or even, for that matter, rocking in an office chair to play instead of standing up and shifting from foot to foot. So, as much as I always enjoyed plugging quarters in the arcade and have filled our basement with real ones, I've pretty much ignored arcade games on PCs.

Until now. HanaHo's Mini-ArcadePC cabinet isn't a simulator--it is Joust and Robotron and Galaga and... and... and...

And I couldn't be more ecstatic or recommend them more highly. Everything is right here, and what few nitpicky things I'll mention are minor and often have little to do with HanaHo's product. Except for only a few specific games, I'd say if you want an arcade game at home, don't bother with a real one--get an ArcadePC.

So, the details. The unit was built by pros. Literally. These guys build cabinets for folks like Sega and Capcom (e.g. Frogger, Dragon's Lair, Street Fighter...) as well as video poker and slot machines for casinos like Circus Circus, and it shows. The unit is solid. The shipping manifest for ours said 240 pounds (though that includes the pallet and a custom base, more about which below). It arrived professionally shipped: plastic-wrapped with cardboard outside strapped to a pallet. I might wish for a little more styrofoam around it to keep it safe in the hands of shipping gorillas, but ours arrived fine. If you've never hauled a real arcade unit around, make sure you have help from friends who can handle the weight (dropping a monitor even a few inches is certain death); the shipping company, Pilot Air, only delivers to your door.

Physically the machine is beautiful. A deep black finish with a lighted marquee. The marquee art is a cool lightening/storm motif, which looks great next to our Haunted House pinball machine. The control panel has an array of evil skull-dudes on it. All the art is of professional quality. They keyboard drawer is of the same finish, and slides completely out of the way underneath during play. There isn't much room for a mouse, so I recommend a keyboard with a built in trackball, pad, or other pointing device. In our case, we went with a wireless keyboard so we can remove it during parties to keep the machine safe from tiny fingers or other aspiring hackers.

It's slightly smaller than a typical cabinet, but this isn't noticeable--except for the matter of playing height. The unit is designed so the controls are playable from standard chair height, thus a little low for stand-up play. I like standing up to play, as well as making it indistinguishable to guests at parties from "real" cabinets, so we had them build a custom, detachable base for the unit for $80 to raise it up six inches. The base came of the same high quality finish and the unit sits sturdily inside it. (For those who want the option of both standing and sitting, I'll note that a 24-inch "counter" height chair is the perfect height for ours.)

The unit is clean inside, all wiring neatly tied up. For power, the speakers, monitor, and PC all plug into an ordinary power strip mounted on the bottom. This works great, providing a convenient power switch, but you have to add a grounded (three-prong) extension cord to reach any outlet. Make sure you have one before your unit arrives or you'll be rushing to the store instead of playing. (And no, we had one on hand, but I want to do my bit to keep the roads safe from over-excited and frustrated arcaders. :-) The video controls are mounted within easy reach (which is a good thing--see below...). It comes without a front door, but we're having them send us one, so we can secure and protect it during parties (or you can order a full blown coin door, if you want to go that way...). The back panel door is like a regular arcade door, with a key lock, and provides good accessibility to the monitor. The bottom area has ample room for a modern PC of most any size (roughly 21"x21"x21"; I doubt an old tower case would fit, but that shouldn't be an issue since I doubt they make fast enough motherboards for any case that wouldn't fit :-). With no front door the PC is completely accessible, and there are very few wires or cables showing besides those for the PC and a couple for power.

The whole thing is wonderfully modular. The monitor, a 19" Wells-Gardner U3100, is bolted in but looks fairly easy to replace. If you're willing to spring for a full size cabinet (possibly double the $999 cost), you can get a 25" monitor. Or HanaHo can ship the cabinet without a monitor and you can install your own. I suppose you could set an ordinary PC monitor in there on the shelf, though I don't know how it would line up (and of course it wouldn't look authentic), but check with them whether the shelf is strong enough. The speakers mounted in the marquee are just regular PC speakers (and the volume control is nicely accessible in a hidden little slot under the marquee). Even the plexiglass screen cover is easily removed should it ever need replacement.

The control panel is nearly identical to HanaHo's HotRod joystick units (which we'd previously bought and liked very much), but with drawer-like sliders and a latch in the back to hold it secure (and credit buttons on the front instead of side). There are no special drivers needed; you simply plug your PC keyboard into the HotRod and the HotRod into the PC's keyboard connector (extra cable supplied; though if your "mouse" is on the keyboard as I suggested above, you'll likely need an extender cable for the mouse cable to reach down to the PC, since those combined keyboard/mice deals usually can't reach to two connectors a couple feet apart; if you have a separate mouse, this isn't an issue). The great thing here is that if/when HanaHo comes out with a trackball, spinner, yoke, etc., you can swap in the new one in about thirty seconds, no tools required. (Or you can even get a blank control panel and build your own.)

In terms of feel, the joysticks and buttons are genuine Happ Controls arcade parts, just as on the standalone HotRod. The joysticks are eight-way, though I didn't find it hard to use on games built for four-way controllers. It's terrific for multi-joystick or two-simultaneous-player games. In Crazy Climber, it felt identical to our real Crazy Climber unit that's sitting next to it. Robotron was its usual impossible self, but only because the dang game's designed that way; the controls felt like the real thing to me. Qbert is a tough one, since the real unit has diagonally mounted joysticks, but playing it this way is no worse than the Atari 2600 version of it, which has the same difficulty. For two player games like the NeoGeo's, this has opened up a whole new world for me. I'd never play those in the arcade because of the extraordinary number of tokens you'd have to plug into them.

A trackball would be nice for those games that need them. I don't consider this a great hindrance since there aren't that many games that need a trackball--I found the play in Centipede to be fine, for example. Missile Command was one where I felt a trackball would be helpful. Likewise a spinner for Tempest. But, okay, so I don't have to play those specific games; given the choice between having the myriad others and not a few specific ones vs. having none at all, well, that's a no brainer. :-) Besides, I suspect trackballs and spinners will be offered in the future as replacement control panel, so this is a very minor criticism indeed. (And I'd rather have it now to play with than wait.)

The HanaHo guys were great about customization, too. Beside the base, we wanted specific button colors (so we can tell folks things like, "Hit the red button"). For only the tiny extra cost of the buttons--$3.50 all told!--we had our desired color scheme. As another example, they worked with us one-on-one to make sure the unit was shipped on a certain day so it wouldn't arrive while we were out of town, and all went well. Their web page lists other custom options you can choose from, and even if it's not listed, try asking.

The Wells-Gardner monitor is an arcade monitor, and it looks very authentic while in the games. It's not expensive, but it is limited in functionality. It gets a little hard to read small font Windows text (blurry), but for games it looks absolutely like the real thing. When I connected the house ethernet and saw Netscape running on it for the first time I sort of freaked out at the concept--it was like, wow, this arcade game runs Netscape! Unfortunately, the monitor only remembers one size/position setting, not one for each different video mode like a more modern monitor, so not every game uses the entire size of the screen; but you can fool with it to get a compromise that works acceptably for everything. I'm happy with it, and I think I'm reasonably picky. :-)

From a software perspective, the ArcadePC is great: You need nothing special at all. No drivers, no particular software, nothing. (It might be nice if it came with a monitor manual, recommended settings or even detailed specs on what frequencies worked with what resolutions, but it wasn't that hard to figure out what looked best.) From a programming standpoint, it might be nice if the HotRod controls were programmable, so you could dispense with the regular keyboard entirely (e.g. to hit F2 to start up games like Joust), but this is fairly minor, and something we plan to solve by getting a little programmable keypad unit. (Besides, you really don't want people hitting F2 accidentally while playing...)

To facilitate play during parties with folks who haven't a clue how to use Windows, I wrote a custom front end called PartyOn! that's entirely joystick/button driven (joystick to move, credit button to start, etc.) that lists the most popular games, as well as mixing in other games (video poker, interactive net-based games, etc.), and acts as a screen-saver also--displaying screen shots from the games, of course! Having none of the necessary keys on the control panel made some of this a challenge (some non-game buttons might be useful to have), but with a little help from a windows key-remapper and some fancy programming footwork, it's one heck of a bullet-proof, user-friendly party machine.

In all, I highly recommend the ArcadePC, not only for personal use where you know the quirks of your software, but even for non-geek, general party use. Or, maybe not: Your guests may never leave...!



About the Authors

In the on-line world, Andrew Burt is a computer purist sort of guy (dozen years as a professor of computer science at the University of Denver; twenty years as a programmer writing things like operating systems, internet protocols, data warehouses, AIs, and computer security systems; and founder of the world's first charitable Internet Service Provider, In the surreal world, he's a science fiction writer sort of guy (click here to read some; and runs Critters, a writers' workshop). In the ideal world, he constructs solutions to all the world's problems as a hobby (fortunately, nobody listens). In the real world, he lives in the foothills of the Rockies with his wife and their three parrots.

In all the worlds, Laura Burt takes care of Andrew and makes sure he doesn't do anything (too) stupid.

Feel free to contact the authors. We'd love to hear from you.