What's your favorite arcade cabinet

How to play classic arcade games on your PC

New games with their fancy textures, 3D modeling, and immersive environments have their appeal, but what if you crave old-school arcade games? Read on to learn how to turn your computer into a virtual arcade cabinet.

Vintage games ran much less efficiently on hardware than on modern desktop computers. With the right software, a joystick or two (if you want to make the experience more authentic), and doing a little bit of browsing online to find your favorite games, playing your childhood arcade hits is easy.

What do I need?

For this tutorial, you will need a small number of free items and possibly some optional items if you want to do more with your arcade emulation.

Required objects:

  • A copy of MAMEUI64 (free)
  • Public Domain Arcade ROMs to Try (Free)


  • Arcade or game controller (variable price)
  • XPadder ($ 10) or Joy2Key (free)
  • USB stick (variable price)

The three optional items will come into play when you want to easily map your joysticks / game controllers to the arcade emulator (see our guide on setting up an Xbox360 controller on Windows with Xpadder) and / or when you want to make it a portable system . MAMEUI64 and Xpadder / Joy2Key are all portable and can be stowed on a USB drive for fun on the go.

What exactly is MAME?

MAME stands for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulation. Much like there are emulation programs that allow you to play old console games on modern hardware, MAME lets you play old arcade games on modern hardware. Originally the brainchild of Nicola Salmoria, MAME was released in 1997 to combat the slow disappearance of classic arcade games. Salmoria handed over the coding lamp and a number of directors oversaw the project with the help of thousands of programmers from around the world.

What began as a preservation of old hardware imperative, and games like Pac-Man and Missile Command have grown into a sophisticated project with monthly releases and support for emulating hundreds of arcade cabinet hardware configurations and thousands of games. You can find out more about the history and current development of MAME here.

By default, MAME is a command line tool. Fortunately, while you can use MAME to launch your games this way, various programmers over the years have come up with a more user-friendly interface or two. For this tutorial we are using MAMEUI64, a Windows front end for MAME that comes pre-installed with MAME, a GUI and a large games database that contains valuable compatibility information about the games. Let's unpack MAMEGUI64 and start it.

Install and configure MAMEGUI64

Installing MAMEGUI64 is a breeze. The application is fully portable (although it depends on .NET 4.0 and DirectX for some of the more advanced arcade games) so you can easily extract the MAMEUI64 folder to a location of your choice.

Inside that folder you'll find nearly two dozen folders and a handful of files, but there are only two that we have to deal with:

The executable will start the GUI / MAME module and the / roms / folder is the default location for your ROM files. (You can change the default director and / or add additional directories through the user interface. However, we chose to keep everything clean and in the emulator's existing directory structure.)

When you start MAMEUI64 for the first time you may be shocked at how many games it contains:

Before your heart bursts with the joy of the thousands of hours you will spend playing every arcade game imaginable, we must rain on your parade. The first view in MAMEUI64 is the All games View that is essentially a huge database of all known arcade ROMs. Not all ROMs are included, just a very useful database with valuable information about the ROMs that are available, for example whether they work with MAME or not (and to what extent they work, e.g. with MAME) video output, but no sound output ).

To see the actual games you can play (games that you have the current ROM for and that are in your / roms / folder), click Available Entry in the sidebar. If this is your first start and you haven't filled in your / roms / folder, the game column will be empty.

Now let's get some free game ROMs. The developers at MAME have a selection of games on their website that game designers from the 1970s and 1980s specifically released to the public.

Click this page to browse our selection of free Arcade ROMs; The selection is pretty sparse, but there are more than enough ROMs for you to run tests on your emulation setup before you start scouring the internet for additional ROM sets.

After you downloaded a few, we downloaded them Side Trak and Alien arenaCopy them to the / roms / folder mentioned earlier. The games are not automatically displayed in the list Available on the "Games" tab you either have to restart the application or View - Refresh:

As soon as the MAMEUI64 checks the directory and then the ROMs it contains, they will be displayed in the list of available games.

It is worth noting that this is different from many other types of emulators. MAME can be quite special. The project is still in active development and gets better with every release. To keep up with the improvements, ROMs are also being updated and released. It is entirely possible that a ROM with version 0.02 of MAME will work fine, but not properly with version 0.12. For this purpose, it is worth keeping the old MAME copy when you upgrade to ensure backward compatibility with your collection.

Play games with MAMEUI64

To load your first game after refreshing the UI to display your new ROMs correctly, just right click on it and select play. The game loads and displays a series of screens before displaying the game as it would appear to an arcade visitor: These screens contain MAME diagnostics and may contain the home screen for the arcade machine itself.

Once you've clicked through these screens (either by typing OK or pressing Enter, depending on your screen) your game will load:

The standard controller buttons for a keyboard and mouse setup are as follows:

  • 5 - insert a coin
  • 1 - start
  • Arrows - move
  • Ctrl - action button 1
  • Alt - action key 2
  • Space bar 3
  • Mouse - analog controls (required for some games)
  • P - pause
  • ESC - quit MAME
  • F2 - service mode
  • Tab - MAME Options Menu

There are several things to keep in mind when playing with MAME. First, unlike console emulators, you have to use the 5 key to enter a number of virtual coins in order for you to play. Second, be careful with the ESC key, when you press it it will unplug the machine and you will be released from MAME into the MAMEGUI64 interface. TAB is one of the most convenient buttons in the emulator as it gives you quick access to a number of useful submenus such as the key mappings (both for the general user interface and for the specific game you're playing if it has special key mappings).

If you want to play around with the key bindings in MAME (whether you want to change them or record so you can map them with XPadder or some other helper application) all you have to do is Tab -> Enter (general or this game, whichever you want to change) -> Press player 1.

There is a real laundry list of key bindings that you can change, though once you get through the first two dozen or so you will start looking into game / hardware specific bindings that are often used for dark and specialty games .

After you've familiarized yourself with the button assignments and / or configured your controller, all that's left to do is sit back and enjoy retro games!

Further reading and additional adventures in retro gaming

If you want to try retro games on a wide variety of platforms, check out some of our previous articles on game emulation, including:

  • Play SNES games with Wiimote support on your iPad
  • N64oid brings N64 emulation to Android devices
  • Play your favorite DOS games on XP, Vista and Windows 7
  • How to Hack Your Wii for Homebrew Games and DVD Playback
  • Play retro Nintendo games right in your browser
  • Here's how to play your favorite retro video games on your Windows PC

For further reading of MAME and ROMs, Google is definitely your friend. That said, here are some useful links to get you started:

  • The official MAME website
  • The MAME database
  • The help forum @ MAME Addicts

Between these resources and a little bit of browsing and searching for ROM files for your favorite retro games, there's no end to the fun you can have with a MAME setup.

Do you have a tip, trick, or a cute, custom MAME closet to share? Sound off in the comments!