Atari Archaeology Without Digging Up Landfill Sites

We are fortunate to live in an age of commoditized high-power computer hardware and driver abstraction, in which most up-to-date computers have the ability to do more or less anything that requires keeping up with the attention of a human without breaking a sweat. Processors are very fast, memory is plentiful, and 3D graphics acceleration is both speedy and ubiquitous.

Thirty years ago it was a different matter on the desktop. Even the fastest processors of the day would struggle to perform on their own all the tasks demanded of them by a 1980s teenager who had gained a taste for arcade games. The manufacturers rose to this challenge by surrounding whichever CPU they had chosen with custom co-processors, ASICs that would take away the heavy lifting associated with 2D graphics acceleration, or audio and music synthesis.

One of the 1980s objects of computing desire was the Atari ST, featuring a Motorola 68000 processor, a then-astounding 512k of RAM, a GUI OS, high-res colour graphics, and 3.5″ floppy drive storage. Were you to open up the case of your ST you’d have found those ASICs we mentioned as being responsible for its impressive spec.

Jumping forward three decades, [Christian Zietz] found that there was frustratingly little information on the ST ASIC internal workings. Since a trove of backed-up data became available when Atari closed down he thought it would be worth digging through it to see what he could find. His write-up is a story of detective work in ancient OS and backup software archaeology, but it paid off as he found schematics for not only an ASIC from an unreleased Atari product but for the early ST ASICs he was looking for. He found hundreds of pages of schematics and timing diagrams which will surely take the efforts of many Atari enthusiasts to fully understand, and best of all he thinks there are more to be unlocked.

We’ve covered a lot of Atari stories over the years, but many of them have related to their other products such as the iconic 2600 console. We have brought you news of an open-source ST on an FPGA though, and more recently the restoration of an ST that had had a hard life. The title of this piece refers to the fate of Atari’s huge unsold stocks of 2600 console cartridges, such a disastrous marketing failure that unsold cartridges were taken to a New Mexico landfill site in 1983 and buried. We reported on the 2013 exhumation of these video gaming relics.

A tip of the hat to Hacker News for bringing this to our attention.

Atari ST image, Bill Bertram (CC-BY-2.5) via Wikimedia Commons.

Hacklet 119 – Retrogaming Console Hacks

If you haven’t heard, retrogaming is a thing. 40-somethings are playing the games of their youth alongside millennials who are just discovering these classic games. There are even folks developing new homebrew games for consoles as far back as the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Atari 2600. This week on the Hacklet, we’re highlighting some of the best retrogaming console hardware hacks on Hackaday.io. Note that I did say hardware hacks. The focus this week is on games played on the original hardware. Don’t worry though, I’ll give emulated projects some love in a future Hacklet.

bankerWe start with [danjovic] and Atari 2600 Bankswitch Cartridge. The Atari 2600 is a legendary system. Millions of hackers’ first exposure to gaming came through its one button joystick. To make the unit affordable, Atari used a MOS Technology 6507 processor. Essentially it’s a 6502 in a 28-pin package. This meant several features got nerfed, most notably the address space. The 6507 can only address 8KB of RAM. In the Atari, only 4KB is available to the cartridge. Games got around the 4KB limit by bank switching – write a value to a magic address, and the bank switching logic would swap in a whole different section of cartridge ROM. There were several different bank switching schemes used over the years. [Danjovic] has created his own version of this bank switching logic, using only classic 74 series logic chips.

 

nesmodNext up is [ThunderSqueak] with Top Loader NES composite mod. Toward the end of the NES’s life, Nintendo introduced a cost-reduced version known as the “top loader”. This version had a top loading cartridge and no DRM lock-out chip. Unfortunately it also did away with composite AV ports. The only way to hook this NES to your TV was through the RF modulated output. [ThunderSqueak] and a number of other intrepid hackers have fixed this problem. All it takes is a 2N3906 PNP transistor and a few jellybean parts. The video and audio outputs are pulled from the motherboard before they enter the RF modulator. One nice feature is the clean connectors. [ThunderSqueak] used connectors from modular in-wall AV boxes for a setup that looks as good as it works.

segaNext we have [makestuff] with USB MegaDrive DevKit. Sega’s MegaDrive, or Genesis as it was known here in the USA, was a groundbreaking console. It used a Motorola 68000 16-bit CPU while most other systems were still running a Z80 or a 6502. People loved this console, and there are plenty who still want to develop software for it. Enter [makestuff] with his development kit. On a card with a $40 USD bill of materials, he’s managed to fit SDRAM, an FPGA, and a USB interface. This is everything you need to load and debug software on an unmodified console. The FPGA had enough logic left over that [makestuff] was able to implement a continuous bus cycle tracer over USB. Nice work!

robbbFinally, we have our own [Joshua Vasquez] with R.O.B. 2.0. The original NES came in a deluxe version with a special pack in – a robot. Robotic Operating Buddy, or ROB for short, would play games with the player. Unfortunately ROB was a bit of a flop. It only worked with two games, Gyromite and Stack-Up Ice Climber. Most ROB units eventually found their way to the recycling bin. [Joshua] is building a new version of the ROB, with modern controls. He’s already modeled and 3D printed ROB’s head. I can’t wait to see this project come together!

If you want to see more retrogaming goodness, check out our new retrogaming hardware hacks list. See a project I might have missed? Don’t be shy, just drop me a message on Hackaday.io. That’s it for this week’s Hacklet, As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!

New Hard Drives for Old Computers

After a certain age, computers start to show signs that they might need to be replaced or upgraded. After even more time, it starts getting hard to find parts to replace the failing components. And, as the sands slip through the hourglass, the standards used to design and build the computer start going obsolete. That’s the situation that [Drygol] found himself in when he was asked to build a SD-card hard drive for an Atari.

The 8-bit Atari in question was a fixture of home computing in the 80s. In fact, if you weren’t on the Commodore train, it’s likely that your computer of choice was an Atari. For the nostalgic among us, a new hard drive for these pieces of history is a great way to relive some of the past. Working off of information from the SIO2SD Wiki page, [Drygol] used the toner transfer method to build a PCB, 3D printed a case, and got to work on his decades-old computer.

Resurrecting old hardware is a great way to get into retrocomputing. Old protocols and standards are worth investigating because they’re from a time where programmers had to make every bit count, and there are some gems of genius hidden everywhere. Whether you’re reworking SIO from an old Atari, or building a disk emulator for an Apple ][, there are lots of options.

An Atari ST Rises From The Ashes

We’ve all made rash and impulsive online purchasing decisions at times. For [Drygol] the moment came when he was alerted to an Atari 1040STe 16-bit home computer with matching monitor at a very advantageous price.

Unfortunately for him, the couriers were less than careful with his new toy. What arrived was definitely an ST, but new STs didn’t arrive in so many pieces of broken ABS. Still, at least the computer worked, so there followed an epic of case repair at the end of which lay a very tidy example of an ST.

He did have one lucky break, the seller had carefully wrapped everything in shrink-wrap so no fragments had escaped. So carefully applying acetone to stick the ABS together he set to work on assembling his unexpected 3D jigsaw puzzle. The result needed a bit of filler and some sanding, but when coupled with a coat of grey paint started to look very like an ST case that had just left the factory. Adding  modern SD card and USB/Ethernet interfaces to the finished computer delivered a rather useful machine as you can see in the video below the break.
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Pong In Real Life, Mechanical Pong

[Daniel Perdomo] and two of his friends have been working on a mechanical version of Pong for the past two years. We can safely say that the final result is beautiful. It’s quite ethereal to watch the pixe–cube move back and forth on the surface.

[Daniel] has worked in computer graphics for advertising for more than 20 years. However, he notes that neither he nor his friends had any experience in mechanics or electronics when they began. Thankfully, the internet (and, presumably, sites like Hackaday) provided them with the information needed.

The pong paddles and and pixel (ball?) sit onto of a glass surface. The moving parts are constrained to the mechanics with magnets. Underneath is a construction not unlike an Etch A Sketch for moving the ball while the paddles are just on a rail with a belt. The whole assembly is made from V-groove extrusion.

Our favorite part of the build is the scroll wheel for moving the paddle back and forth. For a nice smooth movement with some mass behind it, what’s better than a hard-drive platter? They printed out an encoder wheel pattern and glued it to the surface. The electronics are all hand-made. The brains appear to be some of the larger Arduinos. The 8-bit segments, rainbow LEDs, etc were build using strips glued in place with what looks like copper foil tape connecting buses. This is definitely a labor of love.

It really must be seen to be understood. The movement is smooth, and our brains almost want to remove a dimension when watching it. As for the next steps? They are hoping to spin it up into an arcade machine business, and are looking for people with money and experience to help them take it from a one-off prototype to a product. Video after the break.

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Forty-Year-Old Arcade Game Reveals Secrets of Robot Path Planning

What’s to be gained from reverse engineering a four-decade-old video game? As it turns out, quite a lot, and as you’ll learn from [Norbert]’s recent talk at the ViennaJS meetup, it’s not just about bringing a classic back to life.

The game in question is Kee Game’s Sprint 2, a monochrome 2D car race that allowed two players to compete head to head. The glorious Harvest Gold and Burnt Orange color scheme just screams 1970s, and it might be hard to see why this game was once a popular quarter-eater. But it was quite engaging for the day, and [Norbert] was interested in reverse engineering it. That he did, using JavaScript to build a faithful browser-based emulation of the game. And he took it further, creating a 3D first-person version of the game.

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Cutest Possible Atari Disk Drive

[rossumur]’s first computer was an Atari 400, and after riding a wave of nostalgia and forgetting the horrible keyboard found in the Atari 400, he decided it was time to miniaturize the venerable Atari 810 disk drive by putting an entire library of Atari games on a single microSD card.

SD cards have been slowly but surely replacing disk drives for just about every old computer system out there. You no longer need 400k disks for your old mac, and your Commodore 64 can run directly off an SD card. The Atari 8-bits have been somewhat forgotten in this movement towards modern solid state storage, and although a solution does exist, this implementation is a pretty pricey piece of hardware.

[rossumur]’s hardware for giving the Atari 8-bit computers an SD card slot is just one chip – an LPC1114 ARM Cortex M0. This, along with an SD card slot, 3.3V regulator, a LED and some caps allows the Atari to talk to SD card and hold the entire 8-bit Atari library on a piece of plastic the size of a fingernail.

Designing a circuit board doesn’t have the street cred it once did, and to give his project a little more pizzazz he chose to emulate the look of the very popular miniaturized Commodore 1541 disk drive with a tiny replica of the Atari 810 disk drive. This enclosure was printed at Shapeways, and with some enamel hobby paint, [rossumur] had a tiny, tiny 810 drive.

While this build does require the sacrifice of a somewhat rare and certainly old Atari SIO cable, it is by far the best solution yet seen for bringing a massive game library to the oft-forgotten Atari 8-bit home computers.

Thanks [lucas] for the tip.