Importing a classic arcade machine into the UK.

Arcade games of the 80s

Importing a classic arcade machine into the UK has been a life long ambition, I’m in my early fifties and I collect and regularly play video games. I find them relaxing while simultaneously challenging and rewarding. I enjoy the aesthetic of them – particularly their look. I’m not and have never been attracted to those games that are borne of an obsession with the creation of an approximation of reality. Nor am I interested in those games that tell a story. Instead I play games that because of technical restriction, or by design, are abstract.

Abstract games usually age better than those in other genres. They also tend to be , at least outwardly, simpler in scope and are not demanding of the player’s time. This is most likely because in my formative teenage years the video game arcade was in its prime. Modern arcades are pale, shallow imitations of their early 80s counterparts, when a visit was likely to result in the discovery of a new genre, control method, or an original graphical style.

NamcoCompanies like Namco and Atari were the pioneers of that time. I personally found myself attracted to Atari games. They stood out because each game had its own cabinet design and control system used to implement a unique experience. Many seemed simplistic initially, but upon playing, hidden depths became apparent. Above all the feeling imbued by interacting with the machine was pleasurable. We don’t seem to like using words like addictive nowadays, but these early games were; even if for many people this was largely due to the sheer novelty of an interactive experience.

Arcades started to wane as many moved on from what was perceived as a fad, while others, like me, found that home gaming systems started to rival the arcade experience – at least technically. No home system can recreate the atmosphere of an 80s arcade – but commercial forces have done away with them and only a few examples exist now as interactive museums to that era, playing a key role in the small but vibrant classic arcade gaming community.

The Dream

During my teen years, the thought of actually owning an arcade machine was simply beyond my imagination. But, as the years went by, I learned of people who cashed in on the sharp decline of arcades and scooped up machines for cheap or for nothing by rescuing them from the scrap yard. A thriving community now exists with enthusiasts keeping these ageing machines operational. Some do it for the thrill of forever tinkering like vintage car enthusiasts. I’m not like that. I want to be able to just play the games but for a long time I considered only those people with the requisite skills , and room, would be able to own and play these games.

Home console gaming is great, but it doesn’t scratch the itch that I have for the arcade style experience. Attempts at recreating them on earlier consoles was disappointing. And even as time went on and accurate emulation became possible with MAME on PC and modern console ports the experience just wasn’t the same; particularly with games that had a control scheme that didn’t map onto a typical control pad.

This is a particular bone of contention with Atari games. Look at a parade of their pioneering cabinets and you see the use of spinners, track balls, yokes, steering wheels and a mix of vector and raster displays. Any attempt at recreating these experiences has so far been unsuccessful and a great deal of the enjoyment is lost.

Achieving the dream

Over the last few years certain traders have become accessible thanks to the web – companies that refurbish old machines and sell them onto people who aren’t capable of the electronics and decorative restoration work. This got me thinking again about the possibility of getting a machine.
Many of them are US based though. I live in the UK.

So while this seemed possible, there were a number of obstacles in my way.

Availability.

Living in Northern Ireland there isn’t exactly a thriving local market. Even looking over the Irish Sea to GB there are limited options; at least compared to the US. This also makes ongoing support a concern, never mind delivery costs and logistics.

Money.

These things are not cheap; especially refurbished. You can pick up something cheaper sold as seen and take a gamble but you need to be thinking about a couple of thousand if you are going for a classic refurbished machine. Standard JAMMA cabinets can be obtained for a lot less but they don’t look particularly attractive due to their generic design.

Space.

Where do you put it? My house is decent sized but i don’t have a basement or a spare room downstairs in which it could sit without being in the way. I’ve recently extended my property but didn’t have housing an arcade cabinet in mind at the design phase. I have a garage that is filled with junk but the climate in N.Ireland doesn’t make it a good candidate. I have a man cave upstairs but getting something the size and inflexibility of a cabinet up to it would be problematic.

Permission.

I’m a family man. Married with children. Even after getting the green light financially, these things don’t seem to fit in with a lot of women’s aesthetic values.

I was able to overcome these obstacles and got permission in principle. I had a 50th birthday coming up and I had sold 250 games from my 750 console game collection – making a fair hole in any financial barrier. I have a decent job with decent income so these factors came together to sort the money out.

My wife is “very understanding”. She also enjoys video games occasionally at a casual level. Even at that, make no mistake; this is a major obstacle to overcome. We agreed on two or three possible locations for the machine. The game had to have a certain level of attractiveness.

Game Selection

So which game? Even if these obstacles are overcome – which game to get? Bear in mind this can have an impact on the permission and space obstacles. A sit down Star Wars or Daytona may be a gamer’s dream but even with the money – permission and space would become major issues.

I had considered going the JAMMA route. It is far more practical. One cabinet can facilitate any number of games if you get into PCB collecting. I looked at multi-game boards but they all seem to have issues with accuracy and if I’m going this far, why not do it right? There’s the MAME route too but not every game is tenable that way. Collecting genuine PCBs is an option as there appears to be a thriving market online – but can get expensive too. What ultimately went against the generic cabinet were the aesthetics as the agreed locations were downstairs in social and living spaces – not hidden away somewhere – so this thing had to make a bit of a statement and be in acceptable condition. What I’ve seen of generic cabinets they don’t look that great even to me, never mind my wife. Some candy cabs look nice but any room they would sit in would need to have a certain look to them as well.

MAME really is rather good. If you managed to get hold of a CRT monitor and a control panel you could put together a really great collection of highly accurate recreations of raster display based games with a relatively cheap PC. MAME is well supported with some excellent front end software for working in a cabinet. It really is the sensible way to go. However the game I selected settled this argument.

If this was to be one dedicated cabinet then this game had to have extremely high replay value as well as scratching the arcade itch. Having a multi-player option would be nice too – a cabinet in a social space needs to be sociable. If I pick a raster display game then a MAME set-up becomes quite possible and in many cases preferable with the extra features such as high score saving that a lot of cabinets do not have.

I mentioned Atari earlier. What I didn’t mention was that I was a 2600 owner in the early 80s. My most played game on that console by a country mile was Asteroids.

The shortlist

Asteroids in the arcade was an unforgiving tyrant of a game that suffered no fools. The crisp, monochrome look of it made it feel grown up and the needle sharp graphics and forboding powerful bass sound effects were quite an experience at the time. Looking back now it was a technical tour de force with its physics, particle effects and high resolution graphics (1024 x 768) – in 1979.

Dropping a 10p piece into an asteroids cabinet was a thrilling but short lived affair due to the difficulty and for a teen on a budget that was something that resulted in me limiting my plays and admiring skilful players instead (an arcade pleasure that youtube playthroughs are a sorry substitute for). Asteroids at home on the 2600 was a different story. Of course it was a compromised port of the game, but Atari’s craftsmanship was such that it played quite like the original. It had the same feeling and needed the same basic skills. The home game was nowhere near as difficult, and the extra variations added to the playability too. I had that 2600 for 5 or 6 years and Asteroids was a stalwart of gaming sessions alone , with my brother, and during marathons when cousins stayed over and we were booted upstairs to the bedroom and the black and white TV.

The trusty 2600 with joystick and CRT

I would argue for Asteroids to be a candidate as one of the very few perfect games. It remains impervious to attempts at improving the formula. Emulated asteroids just doesn’t cut it either. It needs that vector display with its glowing bullets. The 2600 version was followed up by an excellent update on the 7800 – and it remains the best home console version of asteroids. Clumsy updates such as that attempted by Activision on the Playstation 1 were dull and formulaic, tinkering with the purity of the original and breaking it. So Asteroids was a candidate for a cabinet. Its rival for my affections? Tempest.

Even amongst the Tower of Babel that was the 80s arcade, Tempest stuck out. It’s eye popping colour vector display was the initial attraction, but once I played and experienced the beautifully weighted spinner control I was hooked. Tempest 2000 in the home is a better game simply because it is one of those rare times when a modern remake manages to add more gameplay while retaining the feel of the original, but the original still stands alongside it as a game when experienced through its cabinet. XBL versions and MAME emulations are poor, faded recreations of the arcade experience. Tempest was also a candidate game for me because of the sheer thrill and buzz I got from playing it that no analysis will ever explain to me.

So two vector games that have not been satisfactorily emulated nor are likely to be were the 2 games on my shortlist.

What goes against Tempest is its linearity. It’s a level progression game. Level X will be more or less the same each time you play. For a game that has to last years, that’s a drawback. The game I picked had to be a slow burner – one to return to time and time again. Tempest does allow to you start at later levels allowing you to avoid repetitive , easy early waves – but that linearity is still there.

There are also tales of the Tempest colour display being prone to failure. So that had to be factored in too. These machines are early 80s productions remember – getting on for 40 years old.

Asteroids is one of those rare games were no two levels are the same. It’s like when you break the pack of reds in snooker – it allows for apparently infinite variety. Start breaking up rocks in asteroids and the randomness and physics rules combine to create a constantly changing playfield as you interact with it. So right from level 1 you are in the thick of gameplay – no early repetitive engagements to endure. Asteroids does have one niggle though. Lurking. This was a tactic whereby players could sit with one rock left on the screen and keep taking out the ufos the game would keep generating. This wrinkle in the gameplay put me off the game somewhat.

The perfect game

However MAME allowed me to sample a game I had read about but not experienced in the arcades – Asteroids Deluxe. Scratch what I said earlier about asteroids’ perfection. It did have a couple of flaws – lurking and the luck factor of hyperspace. That panic button you could hit to warp to a random location was an enjoyable feature but it reduced the amount of skill in the game.

Deluxe replaced the hyperspace with a finite shield. You have several seconds worth of shield use per life. It will absorb bullets from ufos and if you hit a rock your ship with bounce off it in a beautifully consistent way, allowing you to survive some seemingly impossible situations.

Deluxe also adds a new enemy – killer satellites. These benign snowflakes drift onto the screen one at a time toward the end of a wave. Their arrival is announced by an audio fanfare but they just float around until hit by your shots when they break up into a barrage of rather nasty homing missiles; the design and behaviour of which seems to have inspired enemy design in the modern twin stick shooter, Geometry Wars.

Deluxe’s ufos are smarter, more accurate and aggressive too. While taking potshots at your ship will they also take out any stray rocks at the end of a wave and hit the snowflake to release the homing missiles thus creating some stressful end of wave situations. Ufos can also shoot aimed wrap around shots so you really need to keep on your toes. You are glad to get a wave over to face the relative safety of a full screen of asteroids.

I played this quite a bit on MAME and even with the shortcomings of playing it emulated, it was obvious to me that it was a great game. Its improvements plugged the original’s minor shortcomings while slightly increasing the complexity and variety of gameplay on offer without ruining the beautifully pure original concept – it is, in my opinion, a perfect video game and the playing experience could only improve with a sharp vector display, a booming sound system, and a cabinet control panel.

Deluxe features a reflected display. Instead of looking directly at the screen as you do in Asteroids you are looking at a reflection of it in a 2 way mirror, projected over a painted background. The image looks as if it is floating above the painted background and it is a highly effective and novel effect. The old 5 digit score that rolls over at 100,000 on Asteroids is replaced with a 6 figure score in Deluxe and the top 3 scores are retained even when powered off. The game also has a free play mode which removes the need for putting coins into the machine, removing the problem of supporting a coin mechanism or modifying the cabinet to add a credit button.

Deluxe only had limited success in the arcades after the blockbuster original. It was too difficult and players stayed with the original. There is a revision of the game with a hard and easy setting that was released in response to the negative reception the launch got.

I never got to experience Deluxe in the arcades sadly ,but after playing it in MAME, experiencing the original in the arcade and the 2600 and 7800 ports, and seeing various pictures and videos of the arcade machine and its attractive form, striking side art, and novel features, I decided on Asteroids Deluxe as my cabinet of choice.

There are 3 cabinet options. The full size upright – a 6ft 300lb brute, a cocktail version which is extremely rare, and a cabaret version which is also pretty rare. Atari released games in cabaret versions which were smaller neater cabinets with no marque topper and no side art – having a classic 70s woodgrain effect instead. Apparently these were aimed at the corporate market so a business could have one in its reception or waiting area without looking too much out of place in a professional setting. Their rarity and dated look means a cabaret was quickly discounted. It was always going to be the full size cabinet for me.

The supplier

So where to get one? While plenty of Asteroids cabinets were made (over 70,000 of them were sold – generating $150m in sales and it’s estimated it took $500m worth of coins), Deluxe cabinets are not as common but they are not rare either. After looking around at different specialist sellers I was compelled to select TNT Amusements in Philadelphia . They are pretty high profile and have an active youtube channel. They do a large number of overseas sales of video games and pinball machines, shipping as far as Australia – so my reckoning was they must be building a quality product to make sure sales are viable while maintaining a reputation. Their active channel content describes in some detail the overhauls they do. Going by their videos they also sell quite a few Asteroids and Asteroids Deluxe cabinets so it was a fair assumption to make that this experience could only further reduce the level of risk. Even if I was able to source one from a UK seller with similar experience, the fact that I was on a different land mass would make support almost as awkward a proposition for any business.

TNT prices seemed to be reasonable too. It’s always hard to compare like with like but from what I saw they seemed to be competitive. I had to build in shipping and import taxes on top of the price, not to mention other factors such as the dollar/sterling rate and banking charges.

So after a fair bit of reflection and weighing up pros and cons I contacted TNT. TNT have a large stock but they don’t have everything – so it was a case of waiting until a Deluxe became available. I emailed them and let them know I was interested. Their site claims if you request a machine they will get back to you when one is available. This didn’t happen with me – I saw a Deluxe in the warehouse in one of their videos and contacted them to make sure it wasn’t an overhaul for an owner and was for sale. It was. My advice is to keep in touch with them – these guys seem to be very busy and going by my experience don’t keep track of requests. I tried ordering by email but that didn’t seem to work so I rang them and spoke to the owner Todd Tuckey. I suspect TNT get a lot of time wasters so I can understand this but their site should be more accurate re how to order – a minor point worth noting.

Ordering and paying

When I rang, Todd was very friendly – he seems to be as genuinely a nice guy as he appears in the TNT videos. The order process was pretty painless and quick. Todd likes to change up the t-molding on cabinets and will suggest an alternative colour to what the original cabinet came with. This can come down to taste – he suggested Discs of Tron blue for my cabinet instead of black so I went for that but you can have any colour you like. They don’t take payment until the machine is ready so I had to wait a few weeks before paying.

The price was $2000 for the game + $600 for packing and shipping. The price includes a voltage conversion. You can check their website for prices and you can also see what they have in stock at any time. When I first asked about a Deluxe the price was $1600 but by the time one came in – it was almost a year – it had gone up to $1999. TNT have a lay away scheme were you can pay money gradually up front and I think that locks the price in – so that would be something worth considering – especially if it’s going to be a good while before a machine is available.

Once the machine is in and you have ordered you need to be patient. TNT are busy and I think Todd is a tiny bit optimistic with his estimations re times! I suspect he is reliant on deliveries of parts etc. It’s not a massive issue – we are talking weeks here instead of months – but I wouldn’t get hung up on getting something ready quickly because the guys seem to have a lot on at any one time. You are in the queue and working with older tech it will be hard to predict how much work something requires. I also ordered late in the year and they would have had a Christmas rush on as well.

I placed my order by phone on the 1st November, 2017. I got a scan of a hand written invoice same day. On the 20th November I was contacted by email to say the machine was almost ready. So less than 3 weeks for the work which is pretty good all things considered. The work involved an electronics overhaul which includes a new power supply and a rebuild of the display circuitry amongst other things. It also included a new control panel overlay and buttons. The sideart was pretty much flawless so didn’t need a lot of work which probably explains the quicker turnaround. Of course at the time it felt like an age as the excitement started to build for me.

There are a few payment options but Todd recommends a bank transfer to keep charges to a minimum – so I went for that. You are emailed various account numbers , SWIFT codes etc. and you then contact your bank. With mine I had to call in and fill out a form so it was a bit low tech but it worked without any hassle. There was a fee of about £20 to do this. It will depend on your bank. I’d check up front about this just in case certain ones have higher charges for this. Also bear in mind the dollar/sterling fluctuation.

One point I would make about this stage in the transaction – email isn’t a secure way to exchange information like this – you could be exposed to a “man in the middle” attack which involves a 3rd party intercepting an email and inserting their own account details into it. The transfer form includes business name and address etc so that ties the account numbers to the business which is an extra security feature – but with this amount of money it is worth bearing in mind. You should call TNT and confirm the codes before sending the money.

The machine is shrink wrapped with several layers and encased in high grade shipping cardboard. It is placed on a wooden panel and then onto a heat treated pallet. Then everything is strapped to the pallet securely. TNT have a couple of videos showing you how they wrap stuff for overseas. It’s pretty robust the way they do it. The $600 charge is a standard fee to any port in the world and it includes insurance. I live in Belfast which is a city with a port so I chose that. I had to pay extra to the shipping company to get delivery to my door but it was only an extra £30 – but – if you live far from a port you will need to factor in paying extra or picking it up yourself.

So I sent the money 21st November and it was with TNT by 23rd November. They acknowledged by email and would let me know when it was ready to ship. You can request a video of your game before shipping. My machine was featured in a couple of the TNT channel videos while it was being worked on and it was showcased the day it was shipped. It meant I didn’t get to approve it before shipping but then I didn’t specially ask for a video so that isn’t a criticism – just worth noting – ask for a video before it is shipped to make sure you are happy with everything and like your t-molding colour choice etc.

The wait commences

I was given an estimate of shipping times. This can take a while. My game was shipped end of November and I didn’t get it until 16th January. I got an email from TNT on 27th December with a revised estimated delivery date with various tracking codes, reference numbers and attached documents. My cabinet first landed in Dublin before it arrived in Belfast. I guess every port will have a different route depending on logistics. The fact that Dublin is not in the UK may have added to the logistics / delivery time etc. but the shipping company contacted me on 10th January.

The taxman

It was then I had to pay import tax. This is important to note. This is 20% of total cost – including delivery. I knew about this and had factored it in (TNT warned me about it so I had made enquiries). So you really need to factor this in. I paid for this over the phone but different companies may have different payment methods. There was an extra £100 for various handling fees and admin to be paid. And then the £30 on top of that for a to-the-door drop off.

Arrival

I was given an estimated time and I got a call on my mobile a half hour before delivery. So I was able to be at home when the game arrived. The delivery guy was great. I was having landscaping work done at the front of my house so the ground was rough but the delivery guy helped me in. Asteroids Deluxe weighs over 300lbs without the packaging. The help was much appreciated but If I was doing this again I’d have a 3rd person in attendance in case the delivery guy isn’t as helpful – you are at the mercy of different handling companies.

Unboxing

The original pallet was broken at one corner and the delivery company had attached another one underneath – so I had a slight concern. But the packaging itself showed no signs of damage. There was a triangle sticker saying the packaging had been damaged and I had to inspect after opening. TNT insure deliveries and there are instructions on their website if there is sign of damage to the packaging like a large hole for example . They say to call them before doing anything. But since the packaging itself was intact with no signs of trauma I went ahead and opened it. Everything was fine. It took a while to get the strapping cut and the cardboard and shrink-wrap off but the cabinet looked great underneath. They had taped the coin door key to the control panel which came away easily.

Welcome reception

This is a US cabinet so it came with a US plug. I was told this by TNT and I had a US-UK adaptor ready. So that’s another £5 or so unless you want to cut the cord and fit a UK plug. I quickly plugged the cabinet in and the marque lit up – I saw the screen come to life.I started a game and played for a few seconds and I powered off again. So it was working OK with the UK voltage. Now it was time to get it into the house. There is

a door into my home from the garage but there is a single step up. As I said before – this thing is heavy. It’s also big. Reading the dimensions of it doesn’t convey the sheer bulk and presence of a thing like this. I’m not a small person – I’m 6’ 1’’ and weigh over 16st – you need a bit of muscle to move these things around. TNT fit adjustable metal feet onto the bottom but they aren’t casters and not really suitable for moving it around too much. So I used my trolley to wheel it to the step. It was too heavy to muscle up the step on my own – I had to put down a piece of strong wood to form a short ramp and I got it up and into my home that way. Again – having a 2nd person for delivery is strongly recommended.

The cabinet looks gorgeous and is in superb condition. However it is not perfect. It can’t be really and one should not expect it to be. There are a few small dents on the metal control panel and some marks on the plexiglass but they are minor and don’t detract from the look of it or the play experience. There’s some minor marks and knocks on the side near the very bottom but you have to look for them. If anything these add a bit of character without making it looking scruffy. It certainly passed the wife test.

I moved it into the downstairs sitting room and powered the game up. Being an old vector display it actually takes at least 30secs – 1min for it to warm up enough for you to see the image. So I played a couple of games. The first thing you notice about this game are the sounds – the glorious deep rich bass of the explosions and the engine thrust of the ship. Then I noticed the display started to flicker occasionally – like the brightness adjusting up and down. I felt a twinge in my gut. I thought maybe it’s cold. January was an extremely cold month in N.Ireland and this thing had been in a container for 6 weeks. So I switched it off , took the back off, opened the coin door and let it sit for a few hours and acclimatise. I now had fears that maybe the game was damaged.

Majestic – but this isn’t the right room for it.

Some problems

Sitting there looking at this thing I then realised the sheer size of this was going to be a problem. Asteroids Deluxe looks quite neat from the front – it isn’t a wide cabinet – but it is deep. All that woodwork to hold the screen in place and the two way mirror etc requires space. I started to wonder where the hell this was going to go. I could tell that two of the agreed locations were probably not going to suit.

After a few hours I powered it up. The image was a great deal steadier but it was still a bit unstable and now the vertical height of the image started to occasionally change at random too. My heart sank. I emailed TNT and described what was happening. It turns out there are image size settings that can be adjusted on the main game board. There are 2 little black wheels – one for height and one for width. I decided to leave it until the next day before messing about. Asteroids Deluxe has a test mode. I flicked the test switch and everything was reported as OK so I took some solace from that.

Another thing was a source of concern was that the cabinet makes some noise. There is “chatter” off the screen and a bit of background hum generated from the cabinet. This was more noticeable with the back off. It isn’t very loud but you start to wonder. If there is any background sound you don’t hear it but sitting in the quiet house with no-one in I could notice it from several feet away. Not as loud as a fridge but noticeable. TNT said that some noise is normal. I have since discussed this with other owners and they confirmed that. I have also since noticed background noise in some youtube videos of Deluxe and other vector machines being demoed.

Next day the vertical image issue had solved itself without me changing any settings so I put it down to the game acclimatising. The brightness problem was still happening but not as often so I thought it would eventually sort itself out. The game itself was playing wonderfully but I was still a bit concerned.

Installation

We moved the game to its agreed position the next day – under the stairs in our hall. It fits into this niche perfectly and looks great there. So a sigh of relief all-round. We had a two seater sofa there and had to move that to make room though there is still room for an armchair. Since we have a decent sized hallway it’s useful to have a seat there so we are still looking for a suitable replacement. Again – an understanding wife is paramount.

Another problem

After another day or so with still occasional brightness changes the game started to malfunction. It was very odd. There were no sounds apart from the explosions and the noise of the ship thrusters. And all the asteroids were placed on top of each other and always started from the same position. Apart from this the game operated normally – but obviously it wasn’t playable. I put the game back into test mode and there was an ominous ERROR message. I contacted TNT and they suggested reseating all of the socketed ICs as they have been known to work loose during delivery. The main board is easy to remove. You just take off the large edge connector, undo one screw and the board slides out. Removing a chip from a socket isn’t as easy as you would think. You have to apply a bit of pressure to prise it out – and you have to be careful not to bend the pins. I managed it OK. So I tried that , refitted the board, but no luck.

The manual (I found a pdf copy online) identified the error message I was getting as a failure in the sound chip so I started googling.

At this point buyer’s remorse had started kicking in. I registered with some forums and started asking a few questions.

My googling bore fruit. It turns out the sound chip in asteroids deluxe, called the POKEY chip, also performs random number generation – so that would explain the asteroids all sitting on top of one another. I contacted TNT and they confirmed that was were the problem probably was. TNT have a 30 day warranty on any failed parts but I had a 7800 game called Ball Blazer that has a POKEY chip in the cartridge. It’s a game I don’t really like so I was prepared to sacrifice it if it meant getting the game working. I checked the serial numbers and checked with TNT if I should try it. They said to go ahead and they gave me instructions on how to seat the chip in the socket the correct way round!! its just as well they did this because the replacement chip serial number was actually upside down when mounted properly which was counter-intuitive.

Resolution?

Unfortunately the replacement chip was soldered onto the PCB in the 7800 cartridge so I paid a local guy to unsolder it for me. Cost me £10. I got the chip home, fitted it – and my game was working again! But now I started to get paranoid. Was this failure a symptom? Was there something else wrong that caused this problem? Anyhow the game seemed fine so tentatively I started playing it again.

Dead game

Then about a week to 10 days after I got the game, it totally malfunctioned. No display, no game. When I powered it up the 1 and 2 player start buttons lit up instead of flashing as they should have and nothing else happened. So I contacted TNT and they asked me to check the fuses. There is a fuse block on the floor of the cabinet consisting of several big glass fuses. They looked OK but how was I to test them? These aren’t normal domestic fuses. Everything inside the cabinet seemed to light up. The neck of the monitor was glowing and the red LED on the game board was lit too – but TNT still said to test them.

Getting under the bonnet

Now we start to get into what basic knowledge and equipment one needs if getting into owning a game cabinet.

First piece of equipment you will need is a thing called a multimeter. These are cheap – prices start at about £10 though you can spend as much as you want on them. I actually already owned one because I had started an ultimately aborted attempt at self-teaching basic electronics several years earlier. So I fitted a new battery into the meter and got some instructions from TNT on how to test the fuses. A multi meter is basically a box with a dial, switches and a readout on it and two probes connected via red and black wires you place at locations in the cabinet to perform tests. It is very easy to use. The guy I used to desolder the POKEY chip also helped via Facebook messenger. The fuses tested OK. I took a few pictures of the inside of the cabinet including the fuse block and emailed it to TNT. They thought they looked OK and my tests confirmed that.

A major wobble

At this point I’m pretty disheartened and am seriously starting to think of cutting my losses and getting shot of this thing. I rang TNT. Todd said it was probably the power supply and that he could send me a new one. He also guessed the POKEY chip problem was probably related to the power supply starting to fail. I asked if he could take the cabinet back. He said he would and he would refund me but I would have to pay for the shipping as per the terms and conditions on the website. I knew about this. To be honest I wasn’t thinking too straight at this point and had messaged some people on arcade forums about offloading it. These communities are great – they said not to be disheartened and it was all part of the joy of owning a cabinet!! I even found a couple of local enthusiasts which was a pleasant surprise. The overall message I got was to hang in there and sort it out as it was probably a simple fix.

The culprit

Keep calm and carry on

I calmed down the next day and decided to follow Todd’s instructions on testing the power supply. Again this is easy to do once you know how. I am extremely hamfisted – if I can do this anyone can. Atari PCBs have voltage test points on them. They are little metal rings that stand up off the board and they either have an N beside them or a voltage (eg, 5v). By the way – messing about in the back of a cabinet means you need a torch or some sort of light – I ended up buying an LED torch that came with a hook so I could hang it inside while working. Another thing – CRTs work at very high voltages – so only approach this sort of thing under direction. I was only ever working on the low voltage parts of the cabinet but a classic cabinet, like an old school TV, isn’t something to poke about at random with.

 

Todd told me to test the voltage on the 5v circuit and he referred to the pictures I took to help me locate it. The readout on the meter showed 3.9v. I was told to locate a blue wheel beside the 5v test point which adjusts the voltage. I turned it but the voltage wouldn’t change. Todd said it looked like the power supply had “taken a dump”. He said it was rare because they rebuild them with new components but it does happen sometimes. So he said he would send me a new one. It was likely that the POKEY chip malfunction was linked to the power supply starting to fail. I have since been told that the original POKEY I replaced might actually be OK and that particular revision of the chip may be intolerant of the dodgy voltage that it was getting at the time. I still have that original POKEY and may test it at some point in the future.

So it was the end of January by the time this had all transpired. You have to allow for the time difference with emails but TNT seem to work long hours – a lot of emails were answered very quickly – within minutes at times. Others were responded to overnight. I really cannot fault the response time and clear advice – back up service is as good as anyone could expect in the circumstances. The replacement board was sent to me free of charge. They had to build a new one and test it for a few days. It was sent to me less than 2 weeks later by 1st class post. It arrived 22nd February. The power supply is easy to fit. There are 2 screws holding it in place and it’s connected by 3 plug-in connections. The connectors are different shapes so you can’t plug them onto the wrong connector but just to be sure I numbered them with a marker and took a photograph. Todd got me to try it with the game board disconnected first. I did that and checked the voltage – it was a bit high at 5.8v. He got me to adjust this with the thumb wheel – lowest I could get it to was 5.5v. He then said to plug in the game board and try again. That reduced the voltage to 4.5v. The game was working. Todd said to increase to just a fraction over 5v – 5.05v at most. I did that.

Success?

The game was working now but the flickering brightness was happening worse than ever. And the sound was working but not quite right on the explosions and ship thrust sounds. They had lost their bass and were scratchy – a bit distorted. The power supply also serves as amplifier so it was affecting this I imagined. After a few more emails I learned from TNT that the monitor has brightness and contrast wheels – so they helped me locate those and I tweaked them back and forth a few times and that stopped the brightness flicker problem. So I was just left with the slightly off sound. I tried tweaking the volume control but that didn’t help – if anything that had become a bit twitchy with the new power supply.

Centipede does not equal Asteroids Deluxe

TNT said they had tested it in a Centipede which uses the same power supply and it worked fine. I then noticed that the replacement supply looked a bit different to the original one. The component layout looked different and some were of different sizes. I checked with TNT but they said it shouldn’t matter. After asking on a forum I learned that Deluxe power supplies are interchangeable with other games of that time but they are not 100% compatible and sound can be distorted a bit. Some UK guys offer a repair service for these boards but TNT said they would repair my original board for free as long as I paid postage.

Replacement board. Note the different component layout from the original

So I sent it away to the US, filling in an export form. This is easy to do – you can fill it in online on the Royal Mail website and print it out. You can pre-pay on the web site too and then drop the package off. I used the excellent packaging TNT used to send me the replacement. They got the board just over 10 days later on the 20th March. They said they had another Deluxe coming in so would wait for that to be in the workshop and test my repaired board in that before returning it to me. Postage for this worked out about £14 each way. TNT repaired and returned the board to me before asking for payment which showed some trust in me to their credit. I paid for the return postage via PayPal.

Patience

It took a good while for this to be returned to me. TNT had to wait until the Deluxe came into the workshop. They worked on my board and tested it for 5 days before returning it to me. I got this board back on 21st May. Waiting this long wasn’t really a major issue as the game was working fine in the meantime. It’s just that the sound wasn’t as satisfying. When the board did arrive it didn’t look like the one I returned – however it did have the same original component configuration. So I’m not sure if they repaired it or just replaced the board for me. I fitted it and the magical sound quality had returned! At last I had the perfect Asteroids Deluxe experience! I also now have a spare albeit not 100% perfect power supply.

Whack-a-mole

A day after that the vertical hold issue that occurred when I first got the game returned! Dealing with issues felt like playing whack a mole! However I tweaked the vertical image size pot and I found a position that so far seems to have solved that problem. I contacted TNT about it and they said if it plays up again to squirt some electrical contact cleaner on the adjustable pot.

Redemption

So my issues with this game really amounted to a failed power supply and some adjustable pots needing a bit of a tweak or clean. However because of the distance between me and TNT, and the fact I had to be schooled in basic testing all added up to taking a few months of to-ing and fro-ing until I got it right. I’m pretty sure I was unlucky with the power supply.

You have shown your quality, Sir

What I do have to say is that Todd and TNT displayed their worth. I have always said that the measure of good service is how someone responds to problems. And really – I cannot fault TNT. Under the circumstances they did as much as they could and I have no complaints – only praise.

I’m starting to really enjoy the game now. More than I anticipated. It really is a great game and I feel privileged to own such a piece of gaming history. One of my teenage daughters has revealed that some of her friends have indulged in occasional late night sessions while I was asleep! It gets lots of admiring glances – mostly from males – though my mother had a go on it! And when I’ve had friends over it has been a hit with them. It’s certainly a conversation piece. I just discovered one of my friend’s long time favourite game is Asteroids Deluxe….you learn something new every day.

In retrospect

Would I do it again? Yes I would. Would I recommend TNT? Yes I would. The troubles I have experienced have resulted in me learning a bit about the cabinet which can only be a good thing and I have discovered some online communities along the way who will offer encouragement, help and advice – and there’s a healthy trading community too. I’ve even learned about a few guys who are local and a collector who can do his own repairs. So while somewhat stressful the end result has meant that this has been an overall positive experience. What i would say to anyone looking to do this though is be prepared to undertake a bit of fiddling and learn how to use a multi-meter. Atari cabinets seem to be extremely well built and everything is designed to be taken apart with a few screws and connector plugs. The test mode is considered very helpful and it identifies faulty ROM chips and its test pattern can be used to accurately adjust the screen size and set the brightness to the correct level. So I could certainly recommend a classic Atari.

And my wife? She has started mentioning getting a pinball machine and maybe converting the garage to a games room!

 
Installed – note that the power cord is now hidden. That armchair was just put there to check size – still looking for one that matches!

This game is tough, but I love it.