The other day I picked up a new game in unknown condition. After doing some basic checks, I powered it up and noticed that the marquee was not lit. This happens to a lot of us who have just picked up an old game; either the bulb is out completely, or the light is struggling to start. Well, here's some troubleshooting tips for those pesky fluorescent lights.
First, a few tips on what not to do. Do not just throw in a new bulb automatically! I've seen bad ballasts take out brand new bulbs (my first Sinistar did this), and it's like taking a match to a $5 bill.
Conversely, don't just throw away a fluorescent bulb just because it has dark spotting at the end of the bulb. It is not necessarily bad (but probably won't last much longer, either).
Ok, on to debugging. Make sure the fluorescent assembly is connected, and is getting the AC it needs (should be around 100-120VAC). If this is fine, replace the starter. Commonly, video arcade game fluorescent assemblies use an FS-2 starter that can be picked up at your local hardware store for around 89 cents, or from an amusement distributor for about half this price. This is the piece of the assembly which looks like a small 1 1/2" tall metal cylinder. It is socketed, so turning it should cause it to pop out.
Usually, this is enough to get the assembly working again, especially if the bulb is only partially lighting. If that doesn't fix it, try a new bulb. A new bulb can be picked up at Wal-Mart, K-Mart, any type of Mart store :-), for about $5. Take note of what length you need before you go. Typically you'll need a 15W bulb.
If you've got a new bulb and new starter, and STILL the light doesn't light correctly, or the bulb is immediately blown :-(, the only thing left is the ballast. The ballast is the heavy chunck of metal with two wires coming out of it. You can pick these up at your hardware store also for about $8, or from an amusement distributor for half that price. Take note of how the original was connected.
FYI, you can pick up an entire light fixture assembly for like $14 and wire that in if you are desperate.
However, the best way to debug a bad fluorescent assembly is to have a spare working fluorescent assembly. Use the assembly in another video game as a test fixture if you have to. Simply swap starters first, then swap bulbs. If these both work and you know the connections and voltages are correct, replace the ballast.
Working game with non-working fluorescent light bulb
Spare working fluorescent assembly (optional)
Your local hardware store should have everything you need, but amusement distributors such as Mazzco and Wico will have most items considerably cheaper. Sometimes it's just nicer to pick up the parts on your way home than to wait a week for mail order. :-)
Nintendo games like Donkey Kong use a non-standard light fixture assembly (probably because it uses 100VDC instead of 115-120VDC like most other games). Wico carries the parts for Nintendo light fixtures if you wish to keep the hardware original, but like I said, $14 for a new fixture and it should work fine with only 100VDC. A good source for fluorescent assemblies are trashed Tron cabinets.
Bob Roberts posted this tip the other day, but I had already finished writing this article, so I will append his tip here.
To save blowing up fluorescent tubes when restoring a game, simply unplug the light and measure the ballast with an ohmmeter. If good it will read about 26 ohms and you will know that it is safe to install a fluorescent tube.
Check out this FAQ on fluorescent lamps to learn more!