['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by Ollie Barder which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This week's column covers the foibles of owning an arcade gaming classic (all photos were taken prior to cleaning, just in case you are curious) and special thanks to Saur and Trevor for their fearless assistance in the rebuilding.]

vo_cab_11.jpgA few years ago I managed to acquire a Virtual On arcade cabinet. One of the slightly more difficult aspects of owning an arcade machine is that you sometimes have to move it around. Considering that this particular cabinet weighs nearly half a ton and is pretty sizeable, it doesn't exactly travel well.

Basically, to get the machine anywhere means it has to be completely disassembled and then rebuilt in its new abode. Two weeks ago, some friends and I did just that.

More after the jump...

vo_cab_3.jpgVirtual On was a weird game when it was released, not only for the eclectic choice of twin stick control but also how the game fundamentally played. The latter threw many and the learning curve did very much wean out the more casually inclined.

The main reason for this was down to Virtual On's approach to mecha combat; fixed vectors of attack coupled with homing based weaponry. It wasn't a run and gun third person shmup, something that Western gamers are generally au fait with. It was, instead, far more regimented. You had to learn the ballistic properties of each of your weapons in relation to not only your type of dash (either forward, sideways or backwards) but also in relation to where your opponent was positioned. Add into the fray a sizeable amount of immobility at the end of a dash and you have something far more tactical than it first appears.

I've had an ongoing love of Virtual On since it was released in the arcades back in 1995. I'd always wanted to own the original twin sit-down arcade cabinet but the price was always on the slightly astronomical side (well, it was when I was a wee nipper).

The game, despite being wholly focused towards multiplayer, very rarely received any love in the British arcades (what games do?). Being a somewhat resourceful little rascal I decided to set up a club for Virtual On in a London arcade. Imaginatively titled the London Virtual On Club (with the necessary abbreviation of LonVOC) I consequently met many other forlorn Virtual On addicts, who now finally had fresh meat to play with.

vo_cab_7.jpgNaturally, once I had come of age, I managed to find a second hand Virtual On cabinet. It was in fairly ropey condition but it was cheap. The only problem I had was a complete lack of suitable storage space. Persevering, I persuaded a friend to store it on my behalf. However, the room in which it was to live was on the 5th floor and the building didn't have an elevator.

This was the first time that the machine was completely disassembled. Gingerly carried up five flights of stairs and rebuilt. It was an almost military operation and required a fair amount of manpower. Though, once the job was done, it did have a ship in a bottle quality to it.

About a year ago, I had to move the cabinet again (the chap who had very kindly lent me his room now wanted it back, which was perfectly understandable). Again, it was taken apart and very carefully taken down the five flights of stairs and taken away to be stored. Now, this time I didn't have the luxury of a place to rebuild it. So it languished in its component parts until the bright day of its reincarnation. A few weeks ago a location had been found that was not only on the ground floor but also far more permanent. Once all the parts had been deposited we all agreed on a weekend to reassemble it.

Board based foundations

vo_cab_12.jpgThe first part of the machine that had to be sorted out was the base. The base is where all the important stuff resides; namely the amps and Model 2 arcade boards (where the actual game is stored). Naturally, we gave the board a very thorough though careful cleaning and generally checked the condition of the parts. Previously, the pre-amps had blown in both base units (it was the condition the machine was bought).

This was a design flaw in all Model 2 based cabinets apparently; crank the volume up too high and the pre-amp would die. Considering that poor old Virtual On had been placed in loud arcades, this kind of problem was an occupational hazard. Thankfully, I had bought two replacements and now with the more final resting place of the cabinet we decided to install them.

One of the other slightly insane aspects of Model 2 based multiplayer games is the way they are networked. In short, they use optical networking. For something like 8-way Daytona multiplayer it's moderately excessive but makes some sense. For a two player game, it's just wholly unnecessary. We can only assume that SEGA just used a standardised optical networking solution on all their cabinets and hence that's how it found its way into Virtual On. Still, it's a little bonkers.

It's all in the reflexes

vo_cab_1.jpgThe next part that needed to be attached was the twin stick housing. This actually was in pretty manky condition internally (so much so that we assumed the caked on dust was grey paint). After a good clean we bolted on the housing that would later act as the main support for the very heavy medium resolution monitors. We also checked all the earth points and generally made sure that entrepreneurial rodents hadn't had their way with the rest of the cabling. Next came the really tricky part.

Arcade cabinet monitors aren't very friendly pieces of hardware at the best of time. If they haven't been properly discharged then you should really be making some kind of funeral arrangements. Thankfully, the two monitors hadn't been used in over a year so we were okay on that front. The big trouble with monitors though, apart from the death bit, is that they are bloody heavy. The two medium resolution monitors in this case were no exeception. The tricky aspect of installing them atop the twin stick housing is that they don't have any kind of support.

vo_cab_4.jpgMore specifically, the monitors are held in place by the side panels. This means simultaneously mounting the monitor whilst attaching at least one of the side panels. It's a three man job, with two holding the monitor in place while the other bolts the panel on. To make matters more tricky, the monitor has to be docked onto the twin stick housing in quite a precise manner. So you have to stand there rigid as your fearless buddy gets busy with the spanner.

Mirrored repetition

After attaching the monitor and the remaining side panels, you then have the whole joy of repeating the process on the other side of the cabinet. Thankfully, the second side took less time but we did come into a fair few problems.

The first was that there weren't enough bolts, this I knew already but it was easily remedied (we got more). The second problem was more on the terminal side. Whilst one of the monitors fired up fine, the other didn't. Admittedly, both of them were waning somewhat but it's still unfortunate. After much deliberating we managed to connect the functioning side to the supposedly broken monitor to clarify the situation (one of my compatriots very carefully put their hand inside the monitor casing to extract the necessary wiring, we all stood back and made various supportive noises at this point).

It turned out that the monitor board was faulty and needed to be repaired and that thankfully the Model 2 board was fine. At this point the fan at the base of the slave machine went boom, the motor had gone. It was gently extricated from the machine and penciled in as another necessary replacement.

vo_cab_13.jpgAfter re-connecting the necessary wires we managed to get the master side working again. We turned the machine on for a final time and it functioned beautifully. The pre-amp had also worked its wonders and the cabinet produced all the sounds I remember from when I was a kid. I, naturally, sat down and one credited the game as a token of my gratitude. We also sat around marveling at the fact that for a game that's nigh on 12 years old it still looks pretty damn shiny. At this point we shut the machine down and cleaned up the mess we'd made in assembling the cabinet. Naturally, once our work was done I thanked my buddies and gave one of them a lift home. We were all dutifully shattered.

An end to Operation Moongate

vo_cab_5.jpgAll told, the cabinet was in very good condition for its age and once we get the remaining replacement parts and repair the monitor boards it will be good as new. Many may wonder why I bought the damn thing in the first place, when a Saturn port already exists not to mention the sequel, Virtual On Oratorio Tangram, has an incredibly good rendition on the Dreamcast. Apart from the nostalgia element, the main reason for owning the cabinet is that the game is much more tactical. That immobility at the end of dashes is absent in the Saturn port and in the Dreamcast sequel. Basically, the strategy required in the arcade original is a gaming sweet spot for me.

Admittedly a SEGA AGES port of Virtual On is scheduled for sometime this year. So owning the cabinet maybe a tad moot in light of an accurate port, though I am pretty sure SEGA won't be releasing a pair of twin sticks for the PlayStation 2. You don't expect me to play Virtual On with a pad do you?

[Ollie Barder is a freelance journalist who's written for The Guardian, appeared on BBC Radio 4 and contributed to Japanese mecha artbooks. He lives at home with an ever growing collection of Japanese die-cast robot toys and a very understanding wife.]