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I've reviewed dozens of gaming devices - this arcade cabinet was the most fascinating

Arcade1Up and Midway have teamed up to bring a host of Midway arcade titles to your home in a single cabinet.
Written by Taylor Clemons, Staff Writer
Describe what's shown in the image.
Taylor Clemons/ZDNET

ZDNET's key takeaways

  • Arcarde1Up is notorious for producing arcade cabinets fit for homes and office spaces. I tested the Mortal Kombat Deluxe edition of its latest model.
  • This cabinet comes preloaded with 14 Midway titles, including the first four Mortal Kombat games, Defender, Rampage, and more. It also supports online multiplayer and leaderboards.
  • Don't expect the most variety in gaming genres per system. And at $500, the cabinet is best fit for the most enthusiastic gamers and collectors.

Arcade1Up launched in 2018, offering three-quarter scale arcade cabinets of popular retro titles, such as Centipede and Marvel vs Capcom 2. Since then, the library of retro arcade titles has grown significantly, and for someone old enough to have frequented local arcades growing up, I have been itching for the chance to try out one of Arcade1Up's machines. Recently, I finally got my hands on the Mortal Kombat Deluxe cabinet. After a few months of playtesting games online and with friends in person, here's what I liked about the $500 cabinet and what could be done better.

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As a fan of the early Mortal Kombat games, and arcade games in general, everything about the MK Deluxe cabinet is both everything I've ever wanted as well as something that leaves me wanting just a little more. The three-quarter scale design is tweaked a bit for this model, opting for a taller cabinet rather than including a pedestal. And while this setup does wonders for your back if you prefer to stand while playing, the narrow width of the unit makes playing feel cramped, especially for in-person, head-to-head matches.

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Both players have to stand off to the side in order to have enough room to comfortably access the controls, which is fine for a few quick rounds, but longer play is uncomfortable, as you have to lean to see the screen properly.

The controls themselves are solid enough, with the buttons giving you that satisfying 'click' feedback associated with arcade machines. The joysticks certainly look the part, but being a digital rather than analog controller means that controls won't feel anywhere near as smooth or responsive. Digital controls may be used to help keep final costs on the affordable side, but I would be willing to pay a bit more for accurate analog joysticks -- especially for fighting games, such as Mortal Kombat, where fluid movement is needed to pull off combos and fatalities.

A top-down view of the 2-player controls on the Mortal Kombat Deluxe arcade cabinet
Taylor Clemons/ZDNET

The 17-inch LCD screen is decent enough. Colors look vivid and bright, and detailing looks typical of the 16- and 32-bit era of gaming. The dual integrated speakers pump out music and sound effects that sound appropriately crunchy without being muddled or veering into 'tinny'. The audio doesn't impress, but Arcade1Up isn't offering remasters or remakes, and it's decent enough for a custom port of a 30-plus year-old game.

There is a quirk to make note of, though: if you don't power down the cabinet after you're done, the cabinet will automatically mute audio after a certain amount of time. The first time this happened, I thought the sound drivers for the cabinet were acting up, or that a component had gone bad. But it's a feature, not a bug. I appreciate the auto-mute feature, as the constant loop of basic, digitized dialogue, music, and sound effects gets overwhelming and annoying after a while. The problem is that this muting also happens while you're playing.

Close-up of the game-select screen of the Mortal Kombat Deluxe arcade cabinet. It shows the first 4 Mortal Kombat games, plus Paperboy
Taylor Clemons/ZDNET

Along with Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat II, Mortal Kombat 3, and Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, this cabinet also comes with 10 other Midway arcade titles: Paperboy, Rampage, Rootbeer Tapper, Toobin, Wizard of Wor, Bubbles, Defender, Gauntlet, Joust, and Klax. Rampage is one of my favorite arcade titles, as well as a go-to game when I have some time to kill, but don't want to play anything in depth. This cabinet is loaded with the original Rampage code, which means it has 768 levels. I got to 50 before the audio cut out, and stayed on until I got bored, and stopped somewhere around level 85.

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Putting the cabinet together was a test of patience and endurance. Everything was exceptionally well packaged in foam wrap and rigid foam inserts to help protect the cabinet art and electronics from damage in transit. Most of the cabinet interior is dead space, as the LCD screen is a flat-panel model, with the chipset mounted directly on the back. And while this setup leaves lots of room for intrepid modders to customize their cabinets, I can't help but wonder if the space could have been utilized better, either for a more sophisticated screen, or even a secret piggy bank attached to the fake coin slot. 

I got to sit down with Davin Sufer, chief technology and product officer at Arcade1Up's parent company, Tastemakers, LLC., and talked with him about the process for licensing titles for their cabinets, as well as what work goes into creating the cabinet hardware. I was surprised to learn that the chipsets in each Arcade1Up cabinet are a proprietary build, rather than what I had originally thought was a modified Raspberry Pi

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Sufer explained that trying to modify something off-the-shelf like a Raspberry Pi was more costly than custom building a chipset for each cabinet line. By using proprietary hardware, they can ensure each machine is optimized for its library of games. He also explained that most of the company's time, effort, and money is spent on licensing fees and a team of developers. They painstakingly comb through each line of code and every in-game asset to remove third-party content, replacing it with period-appropriate placeholders to avoid dredging up any decades-old legal issues with possibly long-defunct companies or PR firms.

ZDNET's buying advice

And now we've come to the most important question: is the Arcade1UP Mortal Kombat Deluxe cabinet, or any of the Arcade1Up cabinets, worth the money? I'm inclined to say yes, but only for very specific people. If you've got a finished basement that you want to turn into a rec room, the cabinet will make a great addition.

Or if you know someone who is a big fan of retro gaming and you need a killer gift idea, an Arcade1Up cabinet will certainly fit the bill. But as something just to have, even for dedicated gamers looking for affordable ways to build out collections, it's a bit difficult to justify spending $500 to $700 on an arcade cabinet -- especially something like the MK Deluxe, where you might only be interested in the four Mortal Kombat titles. 

If Arcade1Up made an all-fighting game cabinet with Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter II, Killer Instinct, and Virtua Fighter (if they could license it), I would instantly pay $500 at the drop of a hat to have that lineup of classic titles. But with the MK Deluxe cabinet filling out its roster with now semi-obscure titles that most people won't be familiar with, it's better to wait and see if you can catch one on sale. 

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