See Alpha Bravo Pinball live on Twitch!

Hi!

The world has changed over the last several weeks, and at least for now pinball nights with friends are a thing of the past. As an experiment and to try to get some human interaction in my pinball playing, I started streaming on Twitch. I’m very pleased with it so far – while not the same as playing with friends, having folks follow along on the stream and interact via chat is a fun thing for sure and adds a certain amount of pressure to play well that can be easy to miss when you’re just playing alone.

If you’d like to join in, head on over to my channel on Twitch. Hope to see you there! And if you’ve thought about streaming yourself, I highly recommend it! I got a lot of good advice on setting up my stream from Deadflip’s guide.

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Arcade “Superbench” Part 2 of 2 – Final Assembly

After finishing the blue paint (see part 1), my Superbench cabinet was now ready for final assembly with artwork, sound and electronics.

The first part I installed is the power connector to the back of the cabinet. This nice unit has built-in fuse protection as well as a power switch in addition to the IEC connector. Definitely gives the cabinet a more professional look vs a power cable dangling out the back!

Next up, parts for the front! I installed the speaker panel vinyl graphics I had printed with Escape Pod Online and it turned out great. They were printed on really nice material which made installation easy without any bubbles. The woofer and the DIN-15 connector panel for the controllers went on next. Looking good!

Speaking of the controllers though, here’s how I tackled those. I started with two identical MadCatz TE sticks bought on Craiglists – they’re nice enough quality controllers built with arcade-grade Sanwa components. They were originally of the PS3/XBox 360 era and connected over USB, but that mattered little since I wasn’t going to re-use their electronics. Instead, I chopped all of it out and wired each switch directly to individual wires of a DIN-15 cable (hence the DIN-15 connector panel on the cabinet).

Before:

After:

This approach wires every switch exactly as it would be on a 90’s-era arcade cabinet.

Back to the Superbench though, I continued along with the two 4-inch speakers and the coin door. Here’s a shot showing the inside – you can see the power supply and the speaker amp is also now in place.

The inside is getting near completion at this point, but there is still one more board to mount – the JROK video encoder I’m using to transform the RGB output from the arcade board to Component Video my TV takes. One of the nice things of this type of video transformation is that it adds zero delay – that’s good because otherwise it would defeat one of the main purposes of playing on a CRT! Here is the right side with all components installed. Note the volume controls are close to the coin door and hence easily accessed from the front of the cabinet.

At this point the front and interior are pretty much done! Still more to do, though – at this point it was safe to install the top panel of the cabinet since no more wiring was needed (as seen below) and the casters on the bottom:

And finally to complete the back, exhaust fans and grills, and a door.

This is also when I installed the T-molding. It was more work than I was expecting to hammer it in, but it turned out pretty good!

Last but not least the side art! I first put down some tape guides in order to be 100% sure they were centered and level.

And the final result with a sheet of tempered glass on top!

Very happy with the final product. At this point I gave the spray paint a few more days to fully cure before putting a heavy CRT on it, and in the meantime fabricated a vertical mount for my CPS-2 board.

The CPS-3 board can stay horizontal as it’s quite a bit smaller. Finally it was time to get the Superbench into my game room and connect it all together with the JAMMA harness – powered it up and it all works great! An excellent addition to the pinball machines.

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Arcade “Superbench” Part 1 of 2 – Design and Construction

I recently bought an old 20″ CRT television for retro gaming – nothing beats the authentic feel of it for playing old games, plus (unlike many modern screens) it is lag-free! I thought it could be also a neat way to play my Capcom CPS arcade boards as those also feel much more “right” on a CRT, too, and I have no desire to have a bulky full-size video arcade cabinet in my house.

The typical term for a device that connects arcade boards to a television (and hence lets you play the game outside of a big cabinet) is a “supergun”. They provide a video output suitable for a TV, as well as sound and controller ports, and finally they a power supply to power the arcade board. While I could certainly go this route myself, I don’t have a TV bench for my new (old) TV, so I thought it would be neat to design a combination Supergun + TV bench – hence the idea of the Superbench was born! Some key ideas that I thought would be interesting for it are:

  • Functions primarily as a TV bench but with a design inspired by a real video arcade cabinet
  • Include a built-in sound system with speakers and an amp which will sound much better than the crummy CRT TV speakers
  • Include all other hookups necessary to play Capcom CPS arcade boards – power, video, etc.

So, I started toying around with some ideas in a CAD program. I’d never used Fusion 360 before, but hey, it’s free for hobby use, so why not? The learning curve was slightly steep as it is a pretty powerful tool, but with limitless amounts of inforomation online it seems like you can learn anything these days. Here was my first pass at putting down in CAD what I had in my head:

A simple box with two small full-range speakers, a bigger woofer for bass, a coin door, and casters to make it easy to move around (CRTs are heavy!). It is really cool how you can visualize and tweak the design so easily in CAD before you ever touch a single piece of material! I played around with a few changes but in the end my final design was pretty close to the above, with the only major change being removing the top part of the front face and changing it from three pieces to two. I decided to model my color scheme on the Capcom Big Blue arcade cabinet – here is the final design render:

Note the addition of a twin DB-15 connector panel at the bottom left. This will let me attach two controllers, but that topic deserves its own post!

So, off to the fancy wood store to buy some material. MDF would be appropriate and has a super even finish for painting, but it is quite heavy and can sag. Plywood would work too and has a great strength to weight ratio, but it is harder to paint without leaving visible wood grain patterns which I didn’t want for this design. I found a product at my local hardwood supply store called Jaycore (in 3/4 inch thickness) which appears to be the best of both worlds – it has a plywood core with MDF faces. Much lighter than MDF, with nice smooth faces and the strength of plywood! Perfect! I calculated I only needed one four-foot by eight-foot sheet for the whole project. Here it is in my driveway ready for the first cut. I used a straight edge and a circular saw as the sheet is WAY too big to handle on my small table saw. Steve Ramsey’s tips came in handy here – his technique of cutting on top of some insulation worked great! Thanks Steve!

That got me down to manageable-size pieces I could cut using my small table saw. As my driveway is my wood shop, my tools need to be small enough to be portable – they are stored under pinball machines when not in use! 🤣

The main box structure of the cabinet will be assembled using wood glue, dowels and pocket screws. I used an inexpensive dowel jig to drill holes into the edges of the boards:

Next I used my router to carve out a recess for the power switch face plate on the right side piece:

I also used the router to cut the groove on the edge of the boards that will get T-molding. Here is a test piece done to dial in the position of the groove, with a small strip of the gray T-molding I will use installed:

In the photo above you can clearly see the different layers of the Jaycore, with plywood in the middle and MDF on both faces.

With the top, bottom, left and right pieces done, I then cut a smaller panel for the back that will have two exhaust fans – something like this:

They’re simply 120mm computer case fans but work well for other random application such as this one and are really quiet.

I then used a circle cutting jig on the router to cut the openings for the fans:

I now had enough pieces to assemble the basic box shape! I drilled pocket holes (not pictured) and put it together. It turned out pretty square and everything lined up well. Woo! I’m sure the experienced woodworkers are rolling their eyes here but this is the biggest woodworking project I’ve ever undertaken so forgive me while I pat myself on the back 😛

Also note my pocket holes are on the inside, pointed towards the outside – not as strong as the other way around. Some (Hi again Steve!) may consider it a no-no, but I did a test piece and given I’m also using dowels the joint ended up being plenty strong. Doing it this way saved me a ton of work filling the pockets that would be visible if I had done them on the outside.

On to the front! I used a jigsaw for the coin door and DB-15 cutouts, and the woofer hole was cut in a similar fashion to the fan holes.

I then created the top speaker panel. It’s construction was very similar to the fan panel, except two of the edges were beveled 15° – this was my first time using the bevel feature on my table saw! A few pocket holes and a reinforcing piece between the two and voilà, my box has a front now.

Although most of the interior wiring and kitting out will be done after paint, I decided to do the 120V now to avoid damaging the finish later. My cabinet is wired with two separate 120V circuits via a dual switch, such that I can turn on and off the power to the sound system and arcade boards separately. This makes it possible to use the Superbench as a sound system only, useful for playing game consoles.

You’ll also notice the small cutout between the two fan holes – this is to allow the passage of video cables from inside the bench up to the TV.

Finally, on to paint! If you’ve never painted MDF before, you’ll find that it soaks up paint like a sponge – this makes it very very difficult to get a good finish. I did some research online and found a product called Zinnser BIN which is supposed to seal the MDF, leading to much better results. I did a small test piece first and it seemed to work, so off I went!

My back yard is not just my wood shop – it’s my spray booth, too! 😬 Dust can be a real problem painting outdoors like this but I’ve found as long as it’s not too windy and the surfaces are all vertical you can still get good results – forget about it with horizontal pieces though, the wet paint will catch every little piece of dust falling from the air. Notice the top piece isn’t on in the photo above and will be painted separately.

A few coats of Zinnser BIN done, with the top piece leaning on the fence in the background. I then sanded it very lightly to smooth out the finish, and moved on to paint. I used “Gloss Deep Blue” by Rustoleum Painter’s Touch 2x. The finish came out pretty nice! Note I didn’t have to worry about the edges of the boards as those will be covered in plastic T-molding.

That’s it for now! Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion in Part 2 in which I will finish the project out with interior wiring, sound, artwork, and trimmings!

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Yo! Taxi! Swap my playfield!

Next up in my queue of games to work on was Taxi. Although playing well, cosmetically it was dirty and worn – definitely due for an overhaul! I started breaking down the game in preparation for the installation of a new playfield, ramps and plastics. See below how dirt is ground in to the surface and how the text of inserts is worn out.

After getting the top side completely disassembled, I took the playfield out of the game and on to a makeshift workbench (aka folding table) to start on the bottom. Everything has to come off! And at the same time I put the new playfield on the rotisserie. Prior to this, however, I had spent some time putting a few games on their backs to free up space in the garage. It’s so much easier to work on a project with the space to lay everything out. Here’s a view of the main work area with the old playfield upside down, new playfield on the rotisserie, and workbench just off to the right.

At this point on the old playfield it’s a matter of unscrewing every bracket, switch, and lamp. On the new playfield I started with pop bumper nails, t-nuts, rails, then GI wiring. Once everything is unscrewed from the old playfield, the whole wiring harness gets transferred off and over to a piece of cardboard for the move over to the new playfield:

Games of this era use unshielded bare wire stapled in to the playfield for GI, and you can see I still have one strand left on the old playfield in the photo above. It’s a lot easier to remove once everything else is off the playfield. I transferred that over to the new playfield and patched areas as needed – one advantage of bare wire is you can see broken strands, and given the amount of current going through the wires it’s important to not have partial breaks in the strands. Once installed, I then tested the circuit and made sure every lamp socket was rock solid. So much easier to replace any as needed now rather than on a fully assembled game!

After this it’s pretty much smooth sailing, focusing first on the bottom side and getting the wiring harness transferred over, and then getting every switch, lamp and bracket screwed back in. Once the back side is done, I can finally get to the most fun part of the whole job which is putting new parts on the top side. Here’s a photo mid-way through the top, focusing mostly on posts and ball guides at the rear of the game up to that point:

Note how I have the old playfield (which is now completely bare) nearby as it is really handy to use as a reference for positioning of parts on the new playfield. Although the new playfield has dimples indicating the position of screws and posts, I have found they should be taken with a grain of salt and parts often won’t fit correctly if the holes are drilled blindly on the dimples.

You know you’re near the end when it’s time to test fit the ramps! On Taxi, both of the main ramps and the spin-out (shooter) ramp need to be installed at the same time in order to get the wires snaked correctly through to the bottom side.

These ramps and the spinout are all new reproductions – shiny! One thing that can be tricky about these is that they are made from thicker plastic. It makes them more durable, but it means fitment can be off from the original. On Taxi the biggest problem I had was the Dracula catapult wireform – it fit fine on the original ramp, but my reproduction ramp one of the prongs of the wireform would end up deflecting the ball on the ramp when it shouldn’t. Unfortunately there wasn’t much wiggle room at all with the positioning of either the ramp or the wireform, so after careful consideration I concluded the best approach was cutting away a small section of this wireform. I didn’t get a photo of the “before” unfortunately, but on the below photo you can see the “after” – the metal wireform circled in red was cut down by about 3/8″ in order to not interfere with the ball on the ramp.

Other than that re-assembly went smoothly with everything coming together as on the original game. The game looks transformed with the new playfield and plastics!

With everything re-connected, I flipped the switch “on” for the first time and it fired right up! It really pays to take your time on the bottom side re-build to make sure there are no shorts. Here are a few photos with the game powered on.

I’m quite happy with how this project came out. There’s still some play testing and tweaking of mechs needed, plus it turns out pop bumpers work better when you install the ring-and-rod assemblies on them, but other than that this project is done!

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Re-Capped Mac SE/30 Motherboard

It’s time once again for something decidedly non-pinball – a quick post about replacing the capacitors on my Mac SE/30’s motherboard. Although computers have used surface mount parts for decades now, all of the soldering work I’ve done on pinball machines and various other projects has been through-hole only, so this was a new skill for me to learn – and a new tool needed!

I picked up a hot air re-work station for 38$ on amazon – an essential tool for doing surface mount work. Instead of heating joints directly using an iron, hot air soldering involves shooting hot air to heat the entire area around a component. This means you can solder (or un-solder!) multiple joints simultaneously, making removing ICs with many joints arguably even easier than with through-hole soldering.

So on to the Mac motherboard. The electrolytic capacitors used on the SE/30 are known to fail, and once they do the computer will exhibit various different problems – mine would often give me a zebra (striped) patter on screen when powered up, and when it did boot up  the sound was very very quiet. Both problems are linked to leaking/failed capacitors.

Here’s a photo of the electrolytic caps before the repair – it’s a bit hard to see in the photo, but the goop inside the caps has leaked all over the surrounding areas of the board.

On to the repairs! I started with one of the caps nearest the edge of the board, and used aluminum foil as a poor-man’s heat shield to protect nearby components. Hot air is great at getting multiple joints melted for easy component removal, but this also means you may melt the joints on nearby components you don’t intend to un-solder. It’s not really a big deal in many cases, but you have to be careful not to move those components when the joints are melted. You also want to protect any components that are at risk of melting such as plastic or nylon parts, as during manufacturing it’s quite possible those were put in using wave soldering and are not capable of withstanding the heat used in hot air soldering.

Here’s a photo of the replacement cap installed. It’s a different type – a tantalum capacitor which has no liquid inside and hence will never leak! Note in particular the stripe on the component indicating polarity is reverse from the original electrolytic ones! I have no idea why this is how they’re marked, but it’s definitely something to be careful of as things will definitely not work if you reverse them.

Definitely not the best soldering work in the world, but serviceable 🙂 I then moved on to the rest of the caps, including the two larger through-hole ones. Compare the “before” photo above with the “after” below: 

The completed board! I checked continuity on every joint before attempting to power up the board, and after re-assembling it into the computer, both symptoms mentioned above were cured. 

As pinball boards move more and more to surface mount components, my hope is some of the skills I learned here may apply to pinball one day 🙂

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Game room carpet upgrade

I undertook a new project recently to upgrade my game room to carpet. One of the main reasons, in addition to the great look, was to cut down on the noise – carpet does a much better job of absorbing noise than hardwood.

So, what carpet to get? I didn’t want to use just “plain” carpet – much too boring! I found a manufacturer, Joy Carpets, that specializes in just the right styles for game rooms – their “Neon Lights” line. The next question I had to answer was exactly what to get an how to lay it down on the floor. I wanted the wall-to-wall look, but without nailing it down to the floor which would damage the nice hardwood underneath. The manufacturer put me in touch with a local distributor, French Brothers Flooring America, which was able to custom-order me a rug made with that carpet but sized exactly to my dimensions! I measured up the room, took off an inch (to account for the room likely not being perfectly square, and sent off my order. A couple weeks later it had arrived (along with a grip mat to lay underneath) and I was off to pick it up.

It took me quite a while to get all the games out of the game room, of course, but I then laid it out and it was just what I was hoping for! It looks great and really gives the feeling of wall-to-wall carpet without the permanent installation. Note the ugly un-covered inch by the right wall will be behind the machines and not visible at the end of the day.

Hoping to cut down on the echoing/noise in the game room even further, I took the opportunity of the room being empty to install some foam panels on the wall. They are the cheap 1″ deep ones, certainly not professional grade, but better than nothing and not pricey.

Of course that’s not the end of this project! One of the cool things about the carpet is that the colored dots are UV (black light) reflective. I thought of installing black lights high up in the room, but I really don’t like the idea of staring into UV LEDs/tubes, so I decided instead to mount the lights underneath the games, but pointed down at the carpet. I bought an 8 foot long piece of pine trim at Lowe’s to fabricate light strips – I made five total, one for each game. Each strip has two black light LED strips each plus wiring long enough to reach the back of the machines.

I then fabricated a daisy-chaining wiring harness to connect all five strips to one power supply. Here are all the strips being tested on the wiring harness for the first time:

Finally, I attached the light strips under the games. I didn’t want to make any permanent modifications to the games, of course, and want to be able to easily transfer the lights to a new game if I sell one and get another, so I used 3M damage-free hanging strips to attach these to the games, as well as wire hangers (not seen here) to run the wires to the back of the games.

The light bars are designed to have one strip of LEDs pointed straight down, and the other pointed down towards your feet at a 45 degree angle.

They work great and light up the carpet fabulously! So in the end, not only does the room look amazing, it’s quite a bit quieter too and the games sound better with less echoing!

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Funhouse Playfield Swapped!

Over the last few weekends, I’ve undertaken a new pinball project – swapping the playfield in my Funhouse, Pat Lawlor’s awesome game from 1990. My game was playing well, but definitely wasn’t the prettiest Funhouse out there. The clock inserts in the center of the playfield, in particular, were particularly worn:

I have a brand new reproduction playfield from Mirco to swap in, so away we go with the teardown! Here is a shot a bit closer in after removing the ramps and some plastics:

Notice how beat up the light inserts are. Also notice the ball lock mechanism – underneath the playfiled it’s actually a flipper mech! Very clever to re-use the mech and simply design a new top side part that can release one ball at a time by rotating (like a flipper rotates). Finally I was a bit surprised to see green tape under the ramp flaps. I’ve heard this came from the factory, but it’s not something I had ever seen before. Interesting!

Like I did with Space Shuttle, every single part I removed had its hardware individually bagged and cataloged. I filled about 60 ziplock sandwich bags of hardware on the top side alone. After the topside was mostly disassembled, I removed the playfield from the game and installed it on my rotisserie.

The playfield is now ready to get flipped over to the backside. At that point, my technique is to start on the new playfield and transfer parts as much as possible directly from the old to new playfield. The first thing to go in on the new playfield are the T-nuts and pop bumper bracket screws, because these parts are much more easily installed with an otherwise blank/empty playfield.

A luxury afforded to me this time was the use of a second playfield rotisserie! I borrowed my friend Marc’s who wasn’t using his at the time. It’s definitely not a must-have for a playfield swap, but I’d call it a very nice to have! Here is the new playfield installed on the second rotisserie. So shiny!

Then both playfields get rotated to the backside, and the transfer of parts continues. After the T-nuts and pop screws, I moved on to wiring harness hangers, other mech brackets, and the light boards. As I’m doing this, every switch and light is also being unscrewed from the old playfield.

At the end of the disassembly on the bottom side, the wiring harness is the only thing left and only gravity is keeping it on the playfield 🙂 I used the same technique as before of sliding in some cardboard pieces to pick up the wiring harness and move it over to the new playfield. Everything then gets screwed back in and mechs are rebuilt. I also took the opportunity to upgrade the flipper return springs to the newer WPC fliptronics style, but everything else about the flippers is stock.

Once everything is screwed back in on the new playfield bottom side, the rotisserie once again rotates back to the topside where re-assembly can start there!

Here is where all the time taken to meticulously catalogue hardware and take photos pays off. It’s pretty fast to take things apart, but going slow and taking a lot of notes makes it way easier at this phase.

The game got all new ramps and plastics, too, but this means some work re-riveting plastics attached to metal bits (which must be re-used). Of all the parts top-side, the step ramp took by far the longest to do – lots of stuff to transfer over! And although very little soldering was needed on this project, the step ramp switch wires are run through small holes and the only way to transfer them to the new ramp was to unsolder & re-solder.

Here’s the new playfield almost complete, just a few parts to go!

The playfield then went back into the cabinet and I went over all the solenoid lugs to make sure everything was clean and nothing was bent in a way that would create a short circuit. I plugged it in and powered the game on – no smoke, hooray! A few adjustments to switches were definitely needed, but fairly quickly the game was playable again, and plays better than ever.

This was my second playfield swap and it definitely went way faster than the first. It’s all known territory at this point, so way less time was spent thinking about how to do it and time spent doing it was very productive. The project took me about three weekends plus a few week nights here and there.

More photos of the completed game can be found here.

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