Overview & Options to Consider
Adding graphics to your cabinet can transform it from an oversized PC case into a functional piece of arcade artwork. It's the final touch that can make or break a great cabinet. The right choice of artwork and details can make a generic cabinet look simply amazing, while poorly done artwork options can make the most inventive cabinet design look dull. Though it's easy to overlook this area of cabinet building, it should be considered a crucial final step in creating your personal piece of arcade history.
There are generally 5 main approaches to designing the look of your cabinet that you may want to consider early in the planning phase of your cabinet. Each has drawbacks, and each requires varying degrees of skill to execute. Find detailed descriptions below.
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One of the most straitforward methods of adding some pizzaz to your cabinet is to use reproduction artwork based on your favorite game. There are many distinctive cabinets that have been released over the years, Pac-Man, Galaga, Defender (all of the Williams cabinets, really) for which artwork is still reproduced by reputable dealers and readily available. If you choose to use repro art there are a few things you need to consider;
- cost of reproduction graphics Usually bezels, marquees, and control panel artwork are usually fairly inexpensive and easily available, usually in the range of $10-$50 each. Side art is usually more expensive, running from $50-$300 for a complete set.
- availability of repro artwork (if you are interested in something a little more rare it may be difficult to find everything)If your favorite game is Ms. Pac Man you can easily find the art for sale online, at an auction or on eBay for a reasonable price (not necessarily cheap, though) If your favorite game happened to be Defender 3 chances are you're not going to easily find repro or N.O.S (new old-stock) to use on your cab. If you're really restoring a cabinet, it may be worth the wait to find something to complete your rare vintage cab. If you aren't restoring, just pick something else cool... at least that way your cabinet will look good while you're trying to find the rare stuff.
- accuracy of available reproduction artworkWhile most reproduction houses have high quality artwork available, you may want to investigate the quality & reputation a little bit before you lay down your hard earned cash. Ask questions about the vendor & about the specific piece of repro art at places like RGVAC or in the artwork section of BYOAC. In my past experience of dealing with repro art I have occasionally been dissatisfied with the material thickness, detail, and color of various pieces from various vendors. In many instances you will have a tough time getting your money back, so it's best to ask your questions first. If you really know what you want, you may find that repro art does not accurately capture proper color, appliqué (foil, embossing) detail, material (smooth, rough, textured,) thickness, strength, or opacity (in the case of marquees or bezels.) Many repro dealers and repro artwork sites may not have access to pristine NOS art to sample when they create repros and their printing method may not capture the original color (like Pac Man yellow) so you may have to settle for "pretty good" in some cases unless you are looking for absolute restoration style accuracy. In that case, buy NOS if you can find it.
- difficulty of application of the artwork.In most cases adding artwork should be fairly simple for the average person. Most of it involves the use of adhesives and patience. Many Williams machines use stenciled paint for side and front art, however, and accurate reproduction requires some skill, equipment, and practice. If you don't have the patience to spend days doing the necessary prep & execution required to paint with stencils, you may want to purchase repro stickers instead. If you have absolutely zero patience, you may want to avoid buying large pieces of full side-art stickers (like Centipede) as well. Applying very large stickers requires some skill to reduce bubbles and wrinkles when applying the art. Marquees, correctly sized bezels, and CPOs are fairly easy to apply and the average person should not have a problem.
Resto-mod is basically anything that is based on a classic design, but does not fully reproduce the original design. There are a few reasons to choose the resto-mod route;
- Cost It's cheaper to just put a Defender marquee and control panel on your cabinet than it is to add bezel, side and front art as well. A marquee and CPO might cost a total of $70, while the full kit might cost $200 to $300.
- Personal touches "Dee Fender," "LeeVious," "Jim's Pac Man," marquee titles all of questionable taste... but real examples. Each display a little of the personality of the owner.
- Making a statement Many people want their machine to be seen as more than a just a box for ONE game. Defendercade, Pacmamea, Hyper-Galaxian. Each marquee title implies that the cabinet is more than just a simple arcade classic.
- Physical differences Different sizes of cabinets, different shapes, different configurations of controls on the control panel are a few reasons that physical differences may require you to modify the art of a classic design. For instance, If you love the art from Galaga, but have a generic Dynamo cab, you might have to alter the art a little bit to fit the different cabinet shape. If you are building a Defender shaped cabinet, but want to use a trackball and spinner in addition to the standard defender buttons, you will have to make a few changes to the original defender CPO design.
Resto-mod can be a great shortcut to making a cool cabinet, without some of the cost and complexity involved in fully reproducing the original design. If you aren't careful though, your cabinet can also end up looking cheap and boring, with the art obviously a silly afterthought. Slapping a Galaxian marquee on your cabinet won't in itself make your box look great. A well thought out theme based on a classic design, however, can have some striking results. Great resto-mod designs capture the spirit of the original theme blending the changes perfectly with original art, while adding a dimension of uniqueness, rather than looking like pale imitators.
Original theme graphics
The most creative and striking cabinets that you'll find are well done original themed cabinets. Executing the creation and design of your own personal themed cabinet can be one of the most difficult methods of adding artwork to your cabinet. The payoffs are huge however, you'll have a great looking cab, a certified point of interest in your game room, and infinite hit points. Creating your own art can be a costly, time consuming and technically difficult option, so you may wan to consider the following before you begin your theme;
- Will your theme look good in five years? You don't want to get stuck with a cabinet that's as painful to look at as a faster pussycat tattoo.
- If your theme is going to be based on pop culture stuff (like sports teams, movies, or cartoons) can you find enough high resolution artwork to cover a marquee, control panel and side art?
- If you have a completely original theme, do you realistically have the time and skill to create artwork from scratch?
- Do you have the correct design applications to create your art?
- If you are creating side art, you may want to shop around the cost of printing full size side art before you begin. It may be expensive, or even impossible to get art printed large enough to fit your full sized cabinet. You may have to make some sacrifices.
- If your concept is awesome, would it be worth a few hundred $$$ to pay somebody to create it for you? You might even find a friend or an art student to give you a little help for free.
It's easy for a custom theme to become an unnattractive hodge podge if you're not careful. Good design is a little science, a little art. If you have any question about how to create great art for a cabinet, just take a look at the classics. Defender, Joust, Ms Pac Man all have themes that are very cohesive, creative and have an extremely polished appearance. Some of the later conversion cabinet kits weren't themed as well, and they look pale in comparison. To make sure that your cabinet theme looks like it was created by a pro, try to take some lessons from those classic designs. There are no hard and fast rules, but the following are good general guides to keep in mind
- Keep each piece cohesive with the rest. The marquee, control panel, side art, and cabinet paint job should look like they belong together.
- Use matching colors.
- Repeat the same logo or characters across each of your pieces.
- Use similar stylistic elements on each piece. If you use a blue border with a drop shadow, use that on another piece.
- People tend to consider images / elements presented together in groups of three or more as themes. It's hard to make an association with just two or less items. If you put red on a marquee, blue on your side art, green on your bezel, and purple on your CPO, your cab is going to look a bit disjointed. A red CPO with a blue marquee, blue sideart, and blue bezel might look striking, however.
- Limit your font choices to 1 or 2
- Use a display font for titles or logos, and regular fonts like Helvetica, Universe, Futura, Garamond, or even Arial and Times (if you must) for any instructional copy. Make instructional copy easy to read. It doesn't have to be big, but clear enough to read. If it's not clear enough to read, then just leave it off.
- On Marquees, your marquee title should use up the majority of space in most instances. Filling up a marquee with a bunch of characters and some tiny, wispy text is going to look really weak, and un-arcade like. Most cabinet titles you'll see on real machines take up the majority of space with characters forming around the borders, in the background, or snaking through the lettering. Bombastic... make the text part of the design, make it larger than life, make it speak for the cabinet in more ways than simple words can convey.
- Feel free to overlay boxes, lines, shapes, little symbols, onto any photos or images you might be using. Integrate the image into the rest of your theme.
- Don't feel that you need to fill all of the space. Smart use of whitespace can do wonders.
- Keep things balanced. If you add images to the left side of the marquee, you may want to put some stylistic elements or another image on the right to hold everything together. Not a hard and fast rule, but something to try out.
- Keep your buttons, joysticks, and accessories in mind. Before buying bright green t-molding, make sure it will make sense with your theme.
When you're done with your design, you may want to take some time before rushing out to get it printed.
- Print out a full size, low-res mockup (even on multiple pieces of paper) and live with it on your cab for a few days.
- Ask others for their honest opinion and expect some harsh comments. Request criticism.
- Press for real opinions, tell them you are asking for criticism to make it better. You can always ignore the comments, but the information you glean may be priceless.
- Don't be hurt by honest criticism. Everyone has differences of opinion. Hearing criticism can help you firm up your own opinions, you can discover how you really feel.
- A simple "I like it" does not mean your design is great. It means you have nice friends. When pressed, even your dear old grandmother may have some criticism stored up.
- When you are done with your design, look at it in a mirror. You'll be amazed at the new perspective you can get from looking at a reversed image... it can help you step back from your own ideas.
More information to come
More information to come