Cardboard Castles

Posted 29th May 2022

Shortly before the covid lockdowns began in Singapore, I had started gathering materials for a project. I wanted to build an arcade cabinet out of cardboard and PVC pipes, and recycle an old workstation+monitor while I was at it. This was the result:

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Ain't too shabby, no? I liked it!

The highlights of this project for me had to be:

  1. a PVC frame which I built to mount the monitor and house the workstation

  2. an arcade joystick controller with a thumbstick input

  3. boot-to-Launchbox arcade interface to launch the student game projects which I oversaw over the past 5 years

The whole process started off with gathering the necessary components, of course. It took months and months of searching and waiting before I had everything gathered for assembly.

 

The PVC frame was actually harder than I initially anticipated! Connecting the parts to form a self-supporting frame wasn't something the pipes were designed for, and I had to 3D print some custom parts to suit my needs. It was surprisingly hard to find the connectors I needed here.

I dismantled an old monitor for the screen, and it was a non-widescreen model, so the 4:3 aspect ratio would have been pretty nice for retro games - not so great for the PC games that my students developed though. With the monitor's casing stripped off, I had to use a piece of cardboard to mount the circuit boards, which worked better than I expected!

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With the monitor and workstation set up, the next step was to construct the controller for my arcade cabinet. It was the usual cardboard work for me, but this time it wasn't modified from a box; it had to be custom cut and needed support since it was going to be long. A lot of glue and cross-bracing were worked into the design. The controller parts were recycled from my Homemade Accessibility Controller, except for Player One's circuit board! 

Since I needed a controller to play my students' PC games, and they were designed with gamepad controllers in mind, a thumbstick controller was essential. It's difficult to control the camera in third person games without one. Of course, I could have used Player Two's joystick to do so, as I did in the Homemade Accessibility Controller, but many of my students' games were 2-player so I had to come up with something. After much searching, I finally found a controller board that supported thumbsticks. It was god-sent, so I dumped many dollar papers on it. It worked beautifully, totally worth it.

"Where's My Mummy?" by The Fire Department

It wasn't enough for this to look like an arcade machine on the outside, the complete experience had to be there as well. I used a shell software to boot the workstation directly into Launchbox, along with joystick-key-assignment software to load up custom control setups. The games had to be installed, and set up in Launchbox with screenshots and title screens so it had a nice launch interface. 

The final touch was the dressing, of course. This part of the process was all knives and cardboard, with a little washi tape for colour accents! So, after many hours of slicing and gluing (and one particularly nasty cut), the shell was complete and easily assembled to hide all its gloriously hideous inner components. 

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Afterthoughts

This project took so long to put together, and had so many frustrating hurdles to overcome. I'm glad I managed to at least get it to this stage. 

It originally started out because of nostalgia, I guess. I was looking back at all the students I had the pleasure to meet and work with, all their wonderful quirks and games. This was supposed to be a time machine of sorts, to put their works together in one place. I was really proud of them, proud of what was being created here in Singapore, and I wanted to build something that I could use to show it off. 

I failed, though; ultimately the machine sat at home due to the pandemic and lock-downs, and long enough for me to grow dissatisfied with it. I knew it wasn't good enough; the design of the controls were not universal enough, the hardware was too outdated, and of course, the cardboard could not even withstand the onslaught of a pair of toddlers. I have since dismantled it and recycled its parts into other projects. With the knowledge and experience of building it however, I will succeed on my next attempt (maybe).

Special thanks to my wife for pushing me to finish this, and for putting up with the mess I make.

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