Planning the Control Panel

Similar to arcade cabinets, arcade control panels come in all different shapes and sizes. The variety in control panels is largely based upon the number of players it can support, the types of games it is designed to play and the different types of controls that are used.

The vast majority of arcade control panels contain some type of joy stick and many pushbuttons.

A lot of control panels also contain trackballs for use in games such as Centipede, Missile Command, and Golden Tee Golf. A trackball functions similar to a mouse in that it moves through both the x and y axes.

Another popular control is the spinner, which is pictured below standing on its side. The spinner is used in many games such as Tron in which it can move your player or help aim a weapon. The spinner functions in the MAME arcade machine as only one of the mouse axis (x, y, or z).

*Please note that the four pictures above were taken from the manufacturer’s website at Happ Controls.

For an even more authentic feel some MAME arcade machines make use of steering wheels, flight yokes, and light guns. To read more about these controls check out other controls for your home arcade machine in the main guide.

Getting the Control Panel

Like the arcade cabinet there are several ways of getting an arcade control panel for your MAME project. The three basic ways are:


  • Build – You can come up with your own layout or try to follow someone else’s design and thus build it from scratch (more information underneath ‘What I Did’). Some people use multiple control panels and swap them out depending on the game they are playing. For a more in depth look on building and designing your own control panel check it out in the main guide. However if designing your own control panel is not something for you, Mameroom offers arcade control panel plans and cut outs for a panel that can support up to four players.
  • Restore – While not too common, it is always possible that you may come across a used control panel on E-bay or at your local game room. If you do buy a used cabinet some of the old controls may still be left in it. When choosing this option you will most likely still have to do some building on your own.


The way you go about getting your control panel depends on your personal preference, resources available, and goals for your MAME arcade project.

What I Did

For my arcade machine I wanted a four player control panel with a track ball and spinner in the middle. I had already invested a good amount of money into the project and decided that designing my own control panel would best suit what I wanted to do. It took a lot of planning and upfront work on my part but I was very happy with the end result.

*Note the drawer is a part of the cabinet and not the control panel*

Before you decide on a control panel I suggest you do what I did before I built mine.

First make a few sketches of what you would want it to look like then if you can manage to buy one like that, great. If you decide to build it from scratch I strongly urge you to first build it to scale out of cardboard. This way you can spot any problems (joysticks getting in the way of certain buttons, buttons too close to the edge, etc.) before you begin construction.

Above is a picture of my cardboard design. The actual dimensions were carefully drawn out and all the controls were placed exactly where I wanted through the use of centering lines and print outs of the controls (the print outs were scaled to the control’s actual size and then stapled on to the cardboard). For more information on building your own arcade control panel, check it out in the main guide as I walk you through the steps of building your very own (that suits your goals) from scratch.

Things to Consider

The control panel may appear to be an easier undertaking then building a whole cabinet but there are quite a few things to consider before buying or building yours. Here are some questions you should ask yourself and answer before you get underway:


  • How many players am I going to support? How many buttons should each player have (include start buttons, possible credit buttons, etc.)?
  • Do I want to include any special administrative buttons (pause, escape, tab, etc.)?
  • What type of games am I trying to play? Do I need a trackball/ spinner/ other controls?
  • Do my plans allow for enough physical room for each player? Enough room so I am not accidentally hitting other buttons/ joysticks when playing?
  • If building your own don’t worry about wiring, I never wired before and found it rather easy to do (there’s plenty of info. on this site that should help you too) but you should however know what interface(s) you will need in order to connect the controls to the PC. The interface you need, will depend on the controls you decide to use.


After answering those questions make sure you have a nice drawing of what you want your control panel to look like when it’s all done. To aid in sketching your control panel try out the freeware program CP Sketcher which was specifically created to design arcade control panels. Once you know what you are trying to reach it is much easier to get started on getting there.

If you would like to read more about building and designing the arcade control panel check it out in the main guide.


Before moving on you need to decide what controls you are getting and how many controls/ buttons you will have. This is essential because you need to choose what interfaces to use. There are several ways to interface your arcade controls to the computer, as you read I suggest checking out the descriptions of each on their respective vendor’s website. Interfacing the controls are one of the more complicated parts when building your MAME arcade machine but if you invest some solid time reading about the different types and how they work you will be absolutely fine.


  • Interface Card (encoder) – Interface cards are the more popular choice now a days as they basically give the computer the ability to interpret and recognize the arcade controls as regular input devices (mouse, keyboard, game pad). The arcade controls are wired to the encoder and then the encoder is plugged into the PC via PS2 port or USB port. There are several types of interface cards available:

    Keyboard – These are commonly used as they allow micro switches (most joy sticks and all push buttons) to be recognized as individual keys on a keyboard. Many keyboard encoders also allow for a regular keyboard to be connected as well. Below are some of the popular keyboard interfaces.

    * From Ultimarc – IPac – available for 2 players and 4 players
    * From Groovy Game Gear (GGG) – KeyWhiz Max and KeyWhiz Eco

    Mouse – These interfaces are used to connect spinners and trackballs and are generally used in addition to a keyboard encoder. Some popular mouse encoders are shown below.

    * From Ultimarc – OptiPac
    * From Groovy Game Gear – OptiWhiz

    On-Board – Some of the newer controls and joy sticks have interfaces built in. For example the Ultrastik 360 (with an additional cable) allows for 8 buttons to be connected. Another example is the TurboTwist spinner which also has the ability to connect a trackball. It is important to know what kind of joysticks and controls you are getting because you may be able to save yourself some money by not having to buy an interface card at all.

  • JAMMA – The Japan Arcade Machine Manufacturing Association standardized arcade control interfaces to make it easier to convert arcade cabinets to different games. You would find this type of interface if you bought an old or used cabinet (made after 1985). If your arcade cabinet is JAMMA ready you will need a JPac from Ultimarc to connect it to the PC. JAMMA interfaces generally are for two players with each having 3 action buttons and a start button.
  • Hack – Before encoders (interface cards) were available, the only solution was to hack a keyboard or mouse in order to connect the arcade controls to a PC. This basically meant ripping open the device and wiring each individual key or mouse axis to the desired control. For more information on keyboard hacking check it out in the BYOAC Wiki. Hacking is definitely the cheaper solution but is certainly not as clean and precise as buying an interface card.


In my MAME arcade machine I used the IPac for two players which connected player 3, player 4 and a few administrative buttons through the PS2 keyboard port on my computer. Player 1 and player 2 were connected through the on board interface on the Ultrastick 360’s which plugged into the USB port. My trackball was wired to the TurboTwist spinner interface which connected to the PC via the mouse PS2 port.

There is no right or wrong way to interface your controls to the computer. Just make sure you know what parts you are getting (do they have an on-board interface?) and how you will connect them to the computer before you buy anything.

Once you figure that out and decide on the interface you are using, it’s time to begin building your very own MAME arcade machine. Good luck!