The Evolution of Wireless Game Controllers

The story goes that Atari was developing a premium model of their popular home video game console, the Atari 2600, for the 1981 fiscal year. Internally known as the Stella RC, this model revision promised touch sensitive game selection toggles, LED indicators, and onboard storage for the controllers. The focus of the project, however, was the “RC” in Stella RC which stood for remote control. Atari engineers wanted to free players from the constraints of the wires that fettered them to their televisions.

Problem with the prototypes was that the RF transmitters in the controllers were powerful enough to send a signal over a 1000 ft. radius, and they interfered with a number of the remote garage door openers on the market. Not to mention that if there were another Stella RC console on the same channel in an apartment building, or simply across the street, you could be playing somebody else’s Pitfall run. The mounting tower of challenges to making a product that the FCC would stamp their approval on were too great. So Atari decided to abandon the pioneering Stella RC project. Physical proof of the first wireless game controllers would have been eliminated at that point if it were created by any other company… but prototypes mysteriously left the office in some peculiar ways.

“Atari had abandoned the project at the time…[an Atari engineer] thought it would be a great idea to give his girlfriend’s son a videogame system to play with…I can’t [comment] about the relationship itself or what happened after 1981, but that’s how this system left Atari…and why it still exists today.”

Joe Cody, Atari2600.com

Atari did eventually get around to releasing some wireless RF 2600 joysticks that the FCC would approve. A couple years after abandoning the Stella RC project they released the Atari 2600 Remote Control Joysticks at a $69.95 MSRP (roughly $180 adjusted for inflation). The gigantic price tag mixed with the video game market “dropping off the cliff” in 1983 saw few ever getting to know the bliss of wire-free video game action. It was obvious that RF game controllers were simply ahead of their time, but there had to be cheaper alternatives on the horizon.

Out of Sight, Out of Control with IR Schemes

Nintendo AVS 1985 Display
Nintendo AVS console deck and IR controller on display.

Video games were a dirty word in America in 1985. While games themselves were still happening on the microcomputer platforms, the home console business was virtually non-existent. Over in Japan, Nintendo was raking in money hand over fist selling video games on their Famicom console. They sought to replicate that success in North America by introducing a revised model of the Famicom, but it had to impress the tech journos that would be attending its reveal at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

The prototype system was called the Nintendo Advanced Video System (AVS). It would feature a keyboard, a cassette tape drive, and most importantly two wireless controllers. The controllers used infrared (IR) communication and the receiver was built-into the console deck itself. Each controller featured a square metallic directional pad and four action buttons that gave the impression of brushed aluminum. The advancement in video game controller technology was too good to be true though, because the entire system received a makeover before releasing as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) that Christmas. The NES lacked the keyboard, the tape drive, and the IR controllers and its change in materials hardly captured the high-end flash of the AVS. The removal of IR meant the device was cheaper to manufacture. A decision that ultimately helped the NES to become a breakout success that in turn brought back dedicated video game consoles single-handedly.

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PlayStation Classic Hacked Live on Stream

When Sony announced they planned to release their own classic/mini/plug-n-play system this year, many fans were filled with excitement at the chance to relive countless classic games from the 90s. However, once the actual list of titles were made public that excitement faded as reality set in. So many favorites like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon were left off the final PlayStation Classic list, no doubt due to the complexity of licensing agreements. That will all soon change now that [YifanLu] cracked the PlayStation Classic live on a Twitch stream thus laying the ground work for swapping-in a “more curated” list of classic PlayStation games.

Over the course of three days, [YifanLu] documented the process in real-time of cracking the PlayStation Classic’s security armed with little more than a keyboard. The crux of the hack came from fellow hacker [madmonkey]’s revelation that the firmware update files were signed with a key that had been mistakenly left behind on the device by Sony. Or as [YifanLu] stated, “One key is, ‘Hey am I Sony?’…The other key is saying, ‘Hey I am Sony.’ They distributed the key that identifies [themselves] uniquely and this key doesn’t expire for another 50 years or so.”

Once inside [YifanLu] was able to sideload a prototype image of a Crash Bandicoot over USB. He simply overwrote the first title on the list, Battle Arena Toshinden, and could launch the freshly injected game from the PlayStation Classic menu screen. The video below is from Day 3 of the PlayStation Classic hacking series, so skip to timecode (03:44:45) to see the results in action. For a bit more nuance there are another 15 hours or so of video to catch-up on [YifanLu]’s Twitch page. Here’s to everyone getting their favorite onto the PlayStation Classic in the near future.

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NBA Jam ROM Hack on SNES is Heating Up

It’s a rare game that is able to bridge the gap between sports game fans and those that identify as hardcore gamers. Midway was able to bring those two groups onto common ground when they released NBA Jam to arcades in 1993. The game was an instant hit and was ported to 16-bit home consoles that same year. Compromises were made during those ports, so an attempt to make them more inline with the arcade release came in the form of NBA Jam: Tournament Edition a year later. However, in the heart of [eskayelle] NBA Jam: TE on the Super Nintendo didn’t go far enough. Now they have released a ROM hack that completely reworks NBA Jam: TE, and it’s called the “Double Z Mod”.

The Original NBA Jam Ball from the Title Screen
The original NBA Jam ball (courtesy of Steve Lin)

The concept behind the ROM hack was to bring about the NBA Jam game that fans deserved. All facets of pop culture from the early 90s were mixed in (not just former Presidents). According to the ROM hack’s notes, some of the things that were packed into the mod include:

• Assets from the original game have been restored, such as the Mortal Kombat banners.
• Modified certain players to give them a more “arcadey” feel.
• Soar to new heights with Air Jordan!
• Play as “The Worm”, Dennis Rodman, on at least four teams.
• Forget the Rookies, now play as the 1992 Dream Team.
• Tons of new secret characters including: Hulk Hogan, David Hasselhoff, Arnie as the T-800, and more.
• Expanded rosters are now as easy as inputting the “Konami code”

(Hint: B, A, B, A, Up, Down, B, A, Left, Right, B, A at the title screen menu)

In a gesture to give back to the ROM hacking community, [eskayelle] went as far to provide a collection of helpful tools to help potential SNES ROM hackers build their own NBA Jam: TE remixes. The document details ways to alter player photos, team colors, stats, and cosmetic tweaks. Since the Double Z mod focuses on being as 90s as possible, maybe this collection of tutorials will lead to a current NBA roster update.

To play the NBA Jam TE Double Z mod, you can use devices like the Retrode that allow easy dumping of an original cartridge onto a PC. From there the dumped ROM can be patched using an IPS patcher, like LunarIPS, which is as simple as locating two files in a browser window and hitting “Apply Patch”. In case you needed to see the Double Z mod in action, there is the clip below.

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GBA on the Big Screen: FPGA Delivers HDMI and Every Feature Imaginable

The concept of creating a gaming portable out of a home console has been around for some time, but it’s hardly seen the other way around. There have been a few devices that dared to straddle the line (i.e., Sega Nomad, Nintendo Switch, etc.), but the two worlds typically remain separate. [Stephen] looked to explore that space by attempting to turn the Game Boy Advance into a “big boy” console. The FPGA-based mod kit he created does just that, and comes complete with controller support and digital video output in 720p over a mini HDMI cable.

The kit itself was designed specifically for the original model GBAs containing the 40-pin LCD ribbon cable. These original models were the early run of non-backlit screens that are also denoted by a motherboard designation that can be seen by peering into the battery compartment. RGB signals are read directly from the GBA LCD socket by removing the handheld’s screen in favor of a fresh flat flex ribbon cable. This method enables a noise-free digital-to-digital solution as opposed to the digital-to-analog output of Nintendo’s own Game Boy Player add-on for the GameCube.

At an astonishing 240×160 native resolution, GBA video is scaled by the FPGA up to 5x within a 720p frame. Of course some of the image is cutoff in the process, so options for 4x and 4.5x scales were included. As a wise man once said, “Leave no pixel behind”. Since Nintendo designed the GBA clock to run at 59.7276 Hz, [Stephen] removed the oscillator crystal in order to sync the refresh rate to a more HDMI friendly 60 Hz. This means that the mod kit overclocks GBA games ever so slightly, though [Stephen] included a GBA cycle accurate mode as an option if your display can handle it.

The video below is [Stephen]’s initial test using a SNES controller. Tests must have gone well, because he decided to incorporate a SNES controller port in the final design. Now all those Super Nintendo ports on the GBA are back home once again thanks to this “consolizer” kit.

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Arcade1up Cabinet Solderless Upgrade With A Side of Raspberry Pi

Upon announcement of the Arcade1up replica arcade cabinets earlier this year, many laid in waiting for the day they could see a teardown. A four foot tall cab with an LCD outputting the proper 4:3 aspect ratio and the simple construction of IKEA furniture certainly seemed appealing. In theory, it wouldn’t take long to customize such a piece of hardware provided the internals lent themselves to that sort of thing. Now that the cabinets are on store shelves, [ETA Prime] made a tutorial video on his method for upgrading the Arcade1up cabinet with a Raspberry Pi calling the shots.

The entirety of the mod is solder-free and uses plenty of readily available parts from your favorite online reseller. The brains of the operation is a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ running Emulation Station. The Arcade1up Street Fighter 2 cabinet’s less than stellar audio receives an upgrade in a 2x20W car audio amp, while the middling joysticks are swapped out for some more robust Sanwa-clone ball tops.

Since there is no “select/coin” button natively, [ETA Prime] added some and in the process replaced them all with beefier LED-lit 30mm buttons. The replacement joysticks and buttons were all part of a kit, so they plug-in conveniently to a plug and play USB encoder. To adapt the 17″ LCD’s output over LVDS, [ETA Prime] elected to go with an LCD controller board that outputs DVI, VGA, or HDMI. Luckily the Arcade1up cabinet’s 12V power supply could be reused to power the LCD controller board and in the process bring down the overall cost of the upgrade.

While this Arcade1up cabinet mod won’t solve the whole “bats versus ball tops” argument, it does provide a template to build on. The tutorial video is below and the list of parts used can be found in the YouTube description.

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Retrotechtacular: Some Of The Last CRTs From The Factory Floor

It seems crazy having to explain what a piece of technology was like to someone who is barely fifteen years your junior, but yet we have reached that point when it comes to CRTs. There may still be remnants of CRT televisions and monitors left out in the wild, however, the chances that a kid preparing to enter high school has encountered one is slim. While there may be no substitute for the real thing, there is this raw video from [Glenn] who shared his tour of the Sony Trinitron assembly line in the early 2000s. Sony Trinitron Television

Sony Electronics’ cathode ray tube manufacturing facility was located alongside headquarters in Rancho Bernado, CA. The facility was shuttered in 2006 when Sony transitioned wholly onto digital displays like the flat-panel LCD line of Bravia televisions. [Glenn]’s video shows that the manufacturing process was almost entirely automated from end to end. A point that was made even more clear with the distinct lack of human beings in the video.

The Trinitron line of televisions first appeared in 1968. At a time where most manufacturer’s were offering black and white picture tubes, Sony’s Trinitron line was in color. That name carried through until the end when it was retired alongside tube televisions themselves. Sony’s focus on technological innovation (and proprietary media formats) made them a giant in the world of consumer electronics for over forty years in the United States, but in the transition to a digital world saw them seeding market share to their competitors.

A quick word of warning as the video below was shot directly on Sony’s factory floor so the machinery is quite loud. Viewers may want to reduce the volume prior to pressing play.

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Mini Vectrex Prototype Restored By National Videogame Museum

The crash of the videogame market in 1983 struck down a slew of victims, and unique products such as the Vectrex were not immune to its destructive ways. The all-in-one console featured a monochromatic vector display and offered an arcade-like experience at home complete with an analog joystick controller. It sadly never made it to its second birthday before being axed in early 1984, however, thanks to the [National Videogame Museum] we now how a glimpse of an alternate history for the Vectrex. They posted some photos of an unreleased Vectrex prototype that was restored to working order.

Little was known about this “Mini version” of the Vectrex as its very existence was called into question. The console came into and left the videogame market in such short order that its distributor, Milton Bradley, would have killed any additional model posthaste. Little thought was given to the idea, though a rumor appeared in Edge magazine issue 122. The article detailed a fan’s memory of seeing a Vectrex shaped “like a shoebox” on the president’s desk.

Seven years after the publication of that story, photos of the Vectrex design revision were posted by one of the Vectrex designer’s sons on Flickr. These photos served as the only concrete evidence as to the existence of the machine that were widely available for some time. That was until the [National Videogame Museum] managed to acquire the actual prototype as part of the museum’s collection in Frisco, TX. So for those without plans to swing through the DFW area in the near future, there is the video of the mini Vectrex in action below.

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