In the past decade or so, retro gaming has made a significant comeback. Thanks to advances in emulation technology, creating your very own custom retro gaming system is easier than ever. MAME and JAMMA are the two primary options for arcade enthusiasts who want to relive their childhood.
Both enable different approaches to the same problem, so in the case of MAME vs JAMMA- which one is better? MAME uses software emulation to replicate the original arcade or console hardware on a modern PC. In comparison, JAMMA is a wiring standard that allows you to create your very own hardware-based arcade cabinet with hot-swappable game boards.
Depending on how serious you are about arcade gaming, your budget, and the place where you live, one solution might be better than the other. But for those among you who don’t wish to compromise, it’s possible to integrate MAME and JAMMA into the same arcade cabinet. Keep reading the article to find out how you can do this.
|What It Is||Open-source emulation software designed to replicate old arcade and home video game consoles||An industry standard connector specification used to simplify the process of wiring an arcade cabinet so it can accept multiple boards|
|Created By||Nicola Salmoria, an Italian programmer who started the project to preserve Pac-Man games for future generations||The Japan Amusement Machine and Marketing Association, a trade association managed by representatives from game companies like Bandai Namco, Sega, and Taito|
|How It Works||Recreates the arcade or console hardware through a software translation layer that allows original game ROMs to run on modern computers||Uses a standardized wiring harness that is color-coded and has a 56-pin edge connector to carry power and data between various components of an arcade system|
|Advantages||The average Joe can turn their modern PC or Android phone into a retro gaming beast, just by downloading an emulator and ROM pack||Is the ideal choice for those who will settle for nothing less than original arcade hardware, and are willing to fabricate or purchase their own cabinets + displays|
|Cost||Free and open-source software, will work even on low-end PC hardware as well as Raspberry Pi boards||The harness itself doesn’t cost much, but you’ll need to source other components for your arcade like the power supply, speakers, adapter boards, audio amplifier, etc.|
|Gaming Experience||If you have a reasonably decent PC and the correct ROMs, games will look and feel very close to the original with no discernable flaws||If you source an original arcade board and hook it up to a CRT with your JAMMA harness, you’ll get an original experience that’s 100% free from glitches|
|Intended For||Gamers who want to play retro classics but don’t want to spend thousands of dollars and several months on creating a custom arcade cabinet with original hardware||Gamers who want the original experience as created by the developers, exactly how it would be in an arcade with the proper controls and display|
Origin Of MAME
MAME started as a pet project for Italian programmer Nicola Salmoria back in 1997. It was called Multi-Pac back then, as Salmoria created the software to preserve Pac-Man and its many variations for future generations. The emulator was coded in C, but as the need for implementation of OOP concepts grew, C++ was used.
Over time, Salmoria stepped down from the role of managing MAME development. Many other talented people would take his place during the years following 1997. During this period, MAME evolved into more than just a Pac-Man preservation project and started supporting various arcade/ console systems.
Hence, it got the name Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator. If you visit the official website, it is stated that MAME’s primary purpose is to facilitate the research and preservation of a legacy console and arcade hardware. Successful emulation of old games is just a test case to prove the efficacy of the framework.
Origin Of JAMMA
JAMMA stands for Japan Amusement Machine and Marketing Association, and it’s a standard for arcade machine wiring. The need for an industry-standard connector interface was realized when arcade operators began modifying cabinets so they could install new boards. In the early days, an arcade manager would have to take out all the old wiring, install new harnesses, and re-solder parts.
This was a very time-consuming process, and cost the arcade manager lots of money in labor. In 1985, the JAMMA group adopted a new wiring standard that used a harness with a 56-pin edge connector. Once you set up the wiring in your cabinet, you could just pull out the old board and slot in a new one.
Arcade managers loved this because it allowed them to swap games that weren’t very popular with ones that were expected to bring in more money. And instead of ordering a brand-new cabinet from Japan, they just ordered the motherboard. Swap out the artwork on the cabinet box, and you have a brand new game- ready to be enjoyed by customers.
The original JAMMA standard only supported one joystick and three buttons each, for a total of two players. This was expanded in the 1990s, to support more controls. JAMMA-compatible boards were used by Capcom, SNK, Taito, and many other game companies in their arcades.
Comparing How They Work
Because MAME is a software-based emulation framework and JAMMA is a wiring/ connector standard, there’s no point in directly comparing the two. However, it should be explained how both of them work. Let’s start with MAME.
It has got “cores” that are designed to emulate the processors and memory architecture of old arcades/ consoles. All of this is done in software, it is like simulating an entire computer on top of your OS layer using. A translation layer is needed to convert the simulated hardware instructions into code that your modern PC can understand.
Having all of this done via software has the advantage of supporting a wide range of resolutions, display formats, hardware architectures, etc. However, the translation process introduces a tiny amount of lag to emulated games. Which isn’t a big deal if you just want to replay your childhood favorites.
But it can be noticeable for a hardcore arcade gamer who specializes in fighting and platformer games. Getting high scores and making speed runs requires precision timing down to individual frames. So if you get a couple of FPS more or less, or if a certain frame is out of sync, it can ruin your attempt.
That is why arcade purists tend to prefer the JAMMA approach. They scour the internet and local communities for original hardware. These are JAMMA-compatible motherboards that were originally purchased by arcade operators back in the 1980s and 1990s.
Most of these boards are limited to just one game. Others, like the Neo Geo MVS support cartridges that can be swapped out to play multiple games on the same board. There are also multi-game arcade boards available from 3rd party manufacturers.
Some of these (like the MiSTer) use FPGA chips that can do emulation via hardware. This is possible since their logic blocks can be reprogrammed by an end user (making them versatile general-purpose processors). Then, you have cheap Chinese boards running some old version of MAME with preinstalled game ROMs (many of which you may or may not like).
For folks going the hardware route, JAMMA is the wiring standard of choice. Since they can easily swap out one board for another. This way, they can play thousands of games with just one arcade cabinet.
Comparing The Advantages
MAME has the benefit of being free, open-source software. If you want to play old arcade or console games (NES, Genesis, etc.), you don’t need specialized hardware. You can combine MAME with a nice frontend like RetroArch, connect a controller, and play whichever old 8/ 16-bit game you want.
It can even emulate more advanced consoles like the N64, original Xbox, and Dreamcast. A frontend like RetroArch can integrate with your Steam and Epic Games accounts. So you can use the same computer to play both old and new games.
JAMMA is better for dedicated hardware builds when you’re either using OEM boards or modern multi-game boards like the BLEE Pandora’s Box. You can go crazy with custom artwork, CRT displays, audio kits, etc. If you are particular about recreating the old arcade experience, install a coin machine- it can accept custom-made coins too.
All the components in the arcade cabinet (including your display, audio, and coin machine) will connect to the game board using a JAMMA harness. And here’s a neat little trick for those of you who want some extra flexibility. Ultimarc makes an interface that lets you connect your PC to a JAMMA standard cabinet.
It’s called the J-PAC (JAMMA Interface for PC to Arcade Controls) and acts as a translation layer between your computer and the JAMMA harness. The J-PAC accepts VGA output from the VGA port on your PC and has an onboard video chip that amplifies the signal for arcade CRT monitors. It also has a signal divider that can cut down a 31Khz VGA signal to a 15Khz signal (needed for certain arcade displays).
The J-Pac also takes the input from the joysticks and buttons on your arcade cabinet and converts them into USB format for your computer. Your computer will think it’s getting input from a keyboard. By now, you’ve probably figured out that this little interface is a way to play MAME games on your arcade cabinet.
When you want to switch from emulation to real hardware, just pull out the J-PAC card and use your arcade board instead. This way, you can have the best of both worlds.
Comparing The Cost
If you already have a PC, MAME is free. But if you don’t want to use your existing PC for retro gaming and want to get a separate one, that will add cost. It will still be cheaper than buying a cabinet and multiple game boards, that’s for sure.
Comparing The Gaming Experience
Gaming via emulation can get close, but it will not match gaming on original arcade hardware. Console emulation is slightly more forgiving and straightforward, which generates better results. But emulating arcades is a tough job because of how many specialized chips there are on each board.
Plus, many of these specialized chips will have their own BIOS. Some arcade boards run multiple games which further complicates things. You often have to download the correct ROM that matches your MAME version.
Tuning your emulator and getting the right ROMs can be a complicated process. And after all of that, you’re probably not going to get the best visual experience if you’re playing on a modern LCD. There is a reason hardcore retro gamers use CRT.
Which One Is Right For You?
It depends on what kind of gamer you are, and your tech savviness. Budget is also a factor. If you want something that looks and feels like the real deal, build an arcade cabinet.
If you want to play arcade games but aren’t too concerned with minimizing latency or reproducing an authentic experience, just download MAME on your PC. Building an arcade cabinet is tough work, and parts are expensive (they also keep getting rare with each passing year). But it is a special and very personal experience, something that will last decades and grab the attention of anyone who visits your home.
Creating your very own custom arcade system will take months of research, hard work, budgeting, and parts hunting. You could take the easy route and just download MAME on your home PC, along with some ROMs. And there’s nothing wrong with choosing convenience because that’s what the majority of gamers are likely to choose.
But if you put aside the time and money to set up a proper JAMMA-based cabinet in your mancave, it will open a window into your childhood. A cabinet with personalized artwork and LED lighting acts as a unique showpiece, drawing the attention of visitors no matter where you place it in the room. It is also guaranteed to be a great conversation starter when your friends drop over to take a look at your gaming setup.