Building the STARFORCE NEO

People are digging the SFNeo so much that I’m getting daily requests asking me to build and sell more! That’s very cool, and I’m flattered, but no. Building a system like this is kind of insane, costly and timeconsuming. Hopefully with this blog you’ll be able to get an impression of what it took to build it and give you some tips for your own project.

sfNeo_blogIf you’re only interested in the building part, skip past the ‘history’ and ‘build idea’, straight to the ‘Phase 1: Buy the Gear’. The components list is all the way at the end. Enjoy!

The History
I found an old trashed Minitel 1 system about a year ago, and immediately thought the look was perfect for a mini arcade. A very distinct style from the 80s that didn’t look like a typical cabinet, yet still quite large, which allowed for some more interesting internals than just a Raspberry Pi. I was originally going to make a Hyperspin system in it, until I found the Neo Geo MV-1C motherboard, and saw that the dimensions would perfectly fit inside the case. After the Kickstarter campaign things settled down a bit, and I saw most of my time was spent talking to vendors, designers and production companies. Once the relevant contacts had been made roughly at the end of January, I could finally start on building my arcade system. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, but building the STARFORCE PI finally gave me the confidence to pull it off.

The Build Idea
The question was simple: how much would it cost to have something similar to the SFP, but running original arcade hardware and not an emulation platform? I’ve seen some wonderful builds online, but anytime someone built an arcade system, it was either fully consolized or built into a Bartop resembling the original arcade. I wanted a small, all-in-one, standalone system that didn’t look like a cabinet rehash. In much the same vain as the SFP, I wanted it to look like its own system, clean and attractive. I started preparing a list of what I needed right after the Kickstarter campaign ended, as this build wouldn’t just be to contrast with the SFP, it would also aid to convince people of my capabilities to build solid and attractive game consoles that work great, and to show my dedication to the concept.

Phase 1: Buy the Gear
I already had the Minitel case and an 8 inch 480p screen in 4:3 aspect ratio I was planning to use for another project, but I had to first check whether the Neo Geo board would even fit. After going through the hardware manuals of all the boards, I found the MV-1C to match the size pretty well, and ordered it. Once I had this, and saw that with some slight cutting I could fit it, I decided to buy my other components, the Smallcab SuperGun, the SGL Scanline Generator, a scart-to-hdmi converter, a quiet yet powerful power supply, etc. (see a full component list at the bottom). Needless to say, this wasn’t cheap, and quickly ran into the hundreds of euros, so be mindful that you’re probably going to spend a lot more on your own build than just buying a normal AES or MVS system, and you’re going to invest a lot of personal time to get it right. I opted to switch MV-1C board for the MV-1B board, as this allowed me to sideload cartridges from the back, keeping the shell intact. I flipped it upside down, and this fitted beautifully, and was a real morale boost.

componentsList

Phase 2: Test the Gear
An important factor was to make sure everything plays nicely, I used several different brands of hardware, and converting JAMMA to SCART to HDMI via a scanline generator may have some adverse effects. But luckily, this part was smooth as silk. Sure there were some connection issues, but the end result were crisp, vivid sprites on both the internal screen and external screen. All the parts seem to be in place, and I felt that the spacing in the Minitel would be adequate, so I would spend some considerable time simply thinking on how best to fit it all inside.

SFNeo_Preview
Testing Video

Phase 3: Make it Fit
This is where a little bit of considered hack-and-slash is needed: what do you keep and what do you cut? As long as the outside integrity of the case stays fine, anything on the inside is pretty much salvageable. But keep in mind to not cut parts away if it’s not necessary. I’ve used the internal structure or followed the existing logic of the case layout whenever I can, as the original case designers put quite a bit of thought in it. Use that.

sfNeo_blog3
Minitel 1 Base Prepared

After hacking parts out of the case, I had to reshape or rebuild parts of it. I used VACUUMFORMING techniques to build in some new parts, and with a relatively simple homebuilt vacuumforming setup (some wood, a hoover, a heat gun, plastic and something to hold the plastic) you can make virtually any shape you need. 3D printing is of course a little easier, but I don’t have one of those. I wanted to place the screen behind a rounded plastic window similar to the original CRT monitor, and so vacuumformed thermoplast plastic over the monitor, and cut it to fit the shell. This took a while to get right, but you’re left with a very nice integrated window that protects the new videoscreen.

Vacuumform
Vacuumforming over the Minitel Monitor

I placed the PCBs around the main Neo Geo board, and made sure the cartridge slot at the back was nicely accessible. This meant very careful tooling with a multitool and some hard sanding. In fact, I sanded the crap out the entire things, just to get rid of small dings and such. I kept the general L-shape of the MV-1B board with the black ABS plastic cartridge holder, removed the casing of the scart-to-HDMI converter & power supply and screwed them to the back of the ABS cover. I stacked the scanline generator and SuperGun on the top of the MV-1B board, and made sure it had some space between them.

The audio came from two small Logitech speakers that I ripped apart and placed right behind the screen. I made some extra openings to make sure the sound came out well, and although it’s a budget speaker set, the sound is crisp and loud. I wired a 3.5mm audio jack in there for good measure, and plugged it into the SuperGun for arcade audio goodness.


Phase 4: Make it Work

Seems obvious right, but once everything is connected and you flip the switch, things still may not work perfectly. The audio was a pain in the ass to get working nicely, the screen kept flailing as well, and I burned, cut and shocked myself more than I care to remember. The HDMI splitter I bought also would need some finessing to get working, and the spacing was getting pretty tight.

board9
Sideview: SuperGun stacked on the MV-1b with scarts running everywhere!

I wanted to have Player 1 and 2 inputs in there, so you could play via the internal controls as player 1, but also through a Neo Geo controller. This meant buying some neogeo extension cables and sticking them at the back. I wanted both the power input and player 2 input to clear the cartridge so the user could exchange the cartridges without having to unplug the device or move the cables. Once I had the power button, scanline on/off button, player inputs and power input in place, and everything was linked up on the inside, I could work on the grueling SCART cable placements.

Finito (4)
Like a Glove

Scart output gives the nicest video quality on oldschool consoles, but are hideously large. Because I had a scart converter AND scanline generator in there, I needed to add two scart cables to fit in amongst the already crowded casing. A more technical minded person would’ve just soldered the connections straight to the board, but I wanted to keep the PCB modding to a minimum: no hacking of the PCB, no soldering directly on it, and screw everything in rather than hotglue it. This meant quite a bit more space was needed, but at least the parts were easily removed, and replaced if they break.

The thing I was struggling with on the STARFORCE PI was the easiest part of building the thing: the SEIMITSU controls. I used some flat 3mm plastic to cover the baseplate that would hold the Joystick, and made some large openings for the buttons. The buttons would be stuck into the second baseplate that would hold them in place, but could easily be removed to add a different placement of the buttons, or a different marquee. The best way to wire the buttons up would’ve been through bladeconnectors, but I didn’t have them at the time so I just soldered them straight onto the microswitches. It took me about an hour to connect them all up, and it worked like a charm!

The screen was a whole different story. The plastic screen I made had to be handled carefully, and placing the 8” screen behind it exactly would take a lot of trial and error. With some plastic, screws and hotglue gun I was able to make the screen integrated into the plastic window, and I could screw it into the bottom part of the enclosure. This meant it would stay solid, but could be removed if needed.

Phase 5: Make it Pretty
After taking the Minitel apart, sanding it completely, and removing all the internal components that are in the way, we can rebuild the outer casing a bit. As I mentioned before, vacuumforming was great to shape plastic parts into the spaces you want to, but once you hotglued all your new plastic parts in, placed the plugs and connectors into the holes at the back, you need to fill up the excess gaps to make the whole thing flush.

PreMarque
Rough but Ready!

For this I used TAMIYA PUTTY basic blue to cover any unsightly scratches and holes. I wired everything up one last time to make sure it all worked fine, and then I started painting in the iconic two-tone Stormtrooper style.

SFNeo_SFP (1)

Once the colors were done, I experimented with the controller baseplate: should it be single color, or transparent? I tried straight black, but soon felt the transparent look on the original STARFORCE PI gave a whole extra dimension to it, and adding your own colorful marquee underneath would give a professional finish. It takes a little longer, making sure the transparent plate fits nicely and doesn’t get scratched up, and needlepointing the holes into the photopaper marquee, but it was worth it.

In parallel to building the console, I also wanted a cartridge that fitted nicely with my new system. The NeoGeo MVS games were a cheap alternative to the AES version, but the cartridges were pretty ugly. So I bought an old, broked AES version of Fatal Fury, and a 161-in-1 Yellow Multicart, and jazzed it up a bit. One problem with these carts is that they might get a bit hot, so I added an extra BeQuiet! 80mm ventilator running at 12volt in there, which seems to do the job very well.


Comparison
As I mentioned before, this build was to contrast with the STARFORCE PI that I want to bring into small-volume production. The STARFORCE NEO is really a one-off build, and unless SNK knocks on my door personally, I won’t be making any more. It’s to show the effort and cost that goes into making your own system. I’ll use the SFNeo to compare gameplay with the SFP so we get the best possible emulation of games, with arcade quality feedback, video and sound, an awesome 80s look and sharp pricepoint.

sfneo_blog2

Retrospective
I finally spent about 750 euro for the set I presented here, but besides that I spent another 150 euros on parts I ended up not using for this project (a NeoGeo MV-1C board, fan, stickers, extensions, and even a Minitel which I partially melted with my heatgun). I spread the cost over several months, but it’s still quite a bit of money.

What could’ve been cheaper? You’ll see in the components list below I went for some premium gear, especially the joystick, buttons and power. I think if you’re building an MVS with less space restrictions, you can get some cheaper internals, and if you’re more technically minded, you could just wire the scart connections directly to the board. You could also skip the SEIMITSU brand joystick and buttons, and go for a more generic brand. I do notice a significant difference, especially in the buttons, as they are silent padded buttons. I prefer it to be a bit more clicky, but playing the games definitely adds speed to your responses. Also, I had to buy essentials like solder, a desoldering pump, a larger gluegun, wires, screws, paint, all that stuff, so if you’re a tinkerer, it’s likely you have a lot of this laying around.

What could I have done better? I really wanted to have a springloaded cartridge door, so it’s all flush and closed when there’s no cartridge in there. Unfortunately, there was no space for this inside, and would have weakened the structure at the back. It’s cool though, the MVS is made to have a game slotted in there at all time anyway, and it doesn’t protrude so much at the back that it gets in the way. I also fumbled with the audio a lot, so now the 3.5mm audio output has an extra volume control at the bottom, but it’s a detail (but it bugs me). I was particularly happy with the flush plastic window in front of the LCD screen, but this took a good amount of trial and error to get right.

Conclusion
And so we end up with the STARFORCE NEO – A Neo Geo Mini Videogame System with Gamepack and extra Player 2 controller, ready to rock your nostalgic heart! I’ve been searching the web for small NeoGeo MVS system, but so far I’m pretty sure that my version is the smallest all-in-one MVS tabletop in the world! A bold claim, and not technically correct when you consider Ben Heck’s MVS handheld. It took me roughly 4 months to build (evenings, weekends) and about 600 euro to build (with an additional 150 euro for the Multicart conversion and extra NeoGeo controller). It was a hell of a job, but it was totally worth it.

SFNeo_Pack (3)

Two take-home messages:
Do not rush the job: Seriously, I spent as much hours THINKING about the system, as I did building it. How to fit ports, components, when to work on what aspect, measure everything twice. I know it’s easy to see the finished product and think that I just stuffed a lot of existing gear in there, but there is a lot of trial and error to find the right solutions, especially when you’re working with limited space and with a novel approach.

• Get ready to pay: These builds aren’t cheap. Buying separate component and putting it together, the small extra bits you have to buy (wires, heatsinks, connectors, ports, paint, etc) it all adds up. Don’t do this as an easy or cheap alternative, do this only if you can make something better than you can buy.

Thanks for all the positive feedback, make sure to check out the videos and pictures, and support us in building more spectacular systems by joining the STARFORCE PI limited release pre-order in the near future!

Marcel J. de Haan
SFP Development Team


Components List + Prices (€):

SmallCab Supplies                           – 100.10 – Smallcab.net
– [shipping]                                          –  8.00
– SEIMITSU Joystick                           – 25.00
– SEIMITSU Buttons                           – 13.20
– SmallCab SuperGun                         – 42.90
– JAMMA Extension                           –  9.90
– PCB Spacers                                      –  1.10
NeoGeo MVS-M1B Board             –  83.89 – eBay
BeQuiet! ATX PowerSupply          –  65.99 – Amazon
LCD Screen 800×600                      –  68.60 – eBay
Scanline Generator                         –  40.08 – ArcadeForge.net
Scart to hdmi                                   –  40.00 – Amazon
Minitel 1                                            –  39.50 – LeBoncoin
Paint                                                  –  35.80 – local
NeoGeo Extension 2x                    –  28.00 – eBay
Logitech Speakers                          –  24.00 – Amazon
BeQuiet Fan                                     –  21.00 – Amazon
Scart to scart                                   –   6.54  – eBay
PC Power Extension                       –   5.20 – eBay
Power Wiring 18 AWG                   –   2.20 – eBay
Potentiometers                               –   6.98 – eBay
Spacers for system                         –   6.79 – eBay
ATX 24 pin plug x 2                         –   3.75 – eBay
HDMI 1 to 2 Split                             –   3.23 – eBay
HDMI Cables                                    –   2.80 – eBay
Pushbutton Caps                             –   2.73 – eBay
Scart to scart                                   –   4.50 – eBay
Wires                                                 –   2.90 – eBay
Power Jacks                                     –   1.90 – eBay
Molex Splitter 2x                             –   1.39 – eBay

Total                                                  – 601.87

MVS Game 161-1                            –  88.50 – LeBoncoin
AES Game Fatal Fury                      –  20.00 – LeBoncoin
Org. NeoGeo Controller                –  50.19 – eBay

Total                                                  – 158.69

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2 thoughts on “Building the STARFORCE NEO

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