By BEN R. WILLIAMS
For five years now, my hobby has been collecting and repairing pinball machines. I see no signs of stopping; the madness has fully taken hold.
Lately, however, I’ve also begun learning how to repair old arcade video games; your Pac-Mans and Galagas and Space Invaders and whatnot. It’s a lot like pinball repair except there are much higher voltages involved and you run the risk of blowing yourself through a wall if you touch a monitor in the wrong place. It’s pretty exciting!
I do freelance repairs for people, and I’m often asked if I enjoy doing these repairs. My answer is always the same: I enjoy it up until the exact moment that I don’t.
Allow me to provide an example, a tale of what happens in the slam-bang, thrill-a-minute world of arcade repair. I’m sure the three people still reading at this point will find it quite enjoyable.
A few months back, I purchased an original Donkey Kong arcade machine from a nice fellow in Roanoke. It worked great for a while, but as will sometimes happen with a 40-year-old piece of electronics, it eventually developed an issue: the image on the monitor began slowly scrolling to the left.
It’s pretty hard to play the game when the monitor is constantly scrolling to the left, so I started investigating how to fix the issue. I replaced some parts and made some adjustments, but the issue persisted. Finally, someone on a Facebook group pointed me in the right direction: my power supply, he said, needed to be recapped.
The power supply is the thing that takes the electricity from the wall and feeds it into the other components of the machine, and if the voltages coming from the power supply aren’t right, it can cause all sorts of problems. “Recapping” a power supply means replacing all of the capacitors, which are basically little batteries that store an electric charge.
A capacitor kit for Donkey Kong costs about $25. A new power supply, on the other hand, is only $40. But I wasn’t about to wimp out and replace a perfectly good power supply; I was going to undergo an extremely tedious process in the name of learning a new skill and saving $15.
On pinball machines and many arcade games, the power supply is just a circuit board; you remove a couple screws, it pops right off, and you have easy access to the capacitors.
This is not the case with Donkey Kong, however, because Nintendo apparently hated the people who worked on their games. No, the Donkey Kong power supply consists of two circuit boards that are sealed inside a metal cage made of pure hate.
I removed the power supply and began taking the cage apart. It was held together with about 20 tiny screws, all of which appeared to be made of compressed aluminum foil because the heads stripped the moment I turned my screwdriver. It took nearly an hour just to disassemble the puzzle box and get to the circuit boards inside.
Once I had access to the circuit boards, I began the painstaking process of removing each capacitor with my desoldering gun, finding the capacitor with the correct values from the kit I’d purchased, and then carefully soldering the new capacitor in place.
Capacitors, much like batteries, have a positive and a negative; there are two wires sticking out from each capacitor, and you have to make sure that you have the capacitor oriented correctly when you solder it in place. If you insert the batteries backwards in your TV remote, the remote doesn’t work; if you solder a capacitor in backwards, it blows up. It’s a real “measure twice, cut once” kind of situation.
For reasons known only to some old guys at Nintendo, there are about 30 capacitors inside the Donkey Kong power supply. I soldered them in, one after the other, and then put the power supply back together. The entire process took two and a half hours.
I put the power supply back in the cabinet and wired it up. I was utterly convinced that I’d messed up somewhere, that I’d put at least one capacitor in backwards or broken something. When I turned the power on, I was convinced that I would hear a loud “POP” and then watch the power supply burst into flames.
With a shaking hand, I flipped the switch.
There was no explosion, no fireball. I took out my multimeter and measured the voltages coming from the power supply.
They were perfect. Absolutely dead-on. I couldn’t help but smile, realizing that my repair skills had just reached a new level.
Then I looked at the screen and saw that the image on the monitor was still scrolling to the left.
I enjoy arcade repair up until the exact moment I don’t.