My ribbon cable connector idea has solidified into a small custom PCB. I would have liked to have this custom fabricated, but the turnaround time is long, and the board is simple. If I'd known exactly what I needed sooner, I would have ordered it with some other boards a few months ago, but oh well.
My MPU board has a slot for a 26 pin ribbon cable. 16 columns + 8 rows = 24, but 26 was cheaper. I just ran every wire from the playfield to this board, and soldered them to the pins:
Wouldn't have been too bad, except that, since I want to avoid having any left over wire hanging around, I need to be soldering it while it's within an inch or two of the playfield, sideways A lot of careful soldering, but luckily no issues
On a custom board I would have made all the wires come in one side, but with no room to route traces here, it still gets a bit messy. 3D printed some simple brackets and mounted it to the very back of the playfield, and it was good to go