Thumbs Up for This Custom Atari 5200 Controller

It may be nearly 40 years old, but the Atari 5200 still inspires legions of fans to relive the 8-bit glory days of their youth. There was much to love about the game console, but the joystick-and-keypad controllers were not among its many charms. The joystick didn’t auto-center, the buttons were mushy, and the ergonomics were nonexistent.

Retro-aficionados need not suffer in silence, though, thanks to this replacement controller for the Atari 5200. [Scott Baker] didn’t want to settle for one of the commercial replacements or, horrors, an adapter for the old PC-style joystick, so he rolled his own. Working from the original Atari schematics, [Scott] devised a plan for using a readily available thumbstick controller as the basis for his build. The essential problem was how to adapt the 10k pots on the new joystick to work in an environment expecting 500k pots, which he solved using an analog to digital and back to analog approach. The ADCs on an ATtiny85 convert each joystick pot’s voltage to a digital value between 0 and 255, which is sent to a 100K digital potentiometer. A little fiddling with RC constants brings it back in line with what the console expects. The thumbstick and buttons live on a custom PCB – kudos to [Scott] for designing an ambidextrous board. The video below shows the design and the finished product in action.

[Scott] is on a bit of a 5200 kick these days; he just finished up a Raspberry Pi multi-cartridge for the venerable console. His controller should make retro-gameplay on the console a little easier on the hands.

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Dual-Port Memory And Raspberry Pi Team Up For Retro Console Multicart

There’s something powerful about reliving the experience of using a game console from our personal good old days, especially the tactile memories stored up from hundreds of hours handling a chintzy joystick or the sound and feel of inserting a game cartridge. Emulators have their place, but they fall far short of period-correct hardware in the nostalgia department.

That’s not to say that the retro gear can’t use a little help in terms of usability, which is why [Scott M. Baker] built this Raspberry Pi multi-cartridge for his Atari 5200. The idea is to maintain the experience of the cartridge interface without having to keep stacks of cartridges around for all the games he wants to play. [Scott] leveraged the approach he used when he built a virtual floppy drive for a homebrew PC/XT: dual-port memory. The IDT7007 is a 32k chip that lives between the Atari 5200 and a Raspberry Pi Zero and can be addressed by both systems; the Pi to write ROM images to the memory, and the console to read them. He had to deal with some fussy details like chip select logic and dealing with the cartridge interlock signals, not to mention the difference in voltage between the memory chip’s logic levels and that of the Pi. Retro game-play occupies the first part of the video below; skip to 6:45 for build details.

The one quibble we have is trying to jam everything into an old cartridge. It’s critical to replicating the tactile experience, and while we don’t think we’d have gone so far as to injection mold a custom cartridge to house everything without any protrusions, we might have 3D-printed a custom cartridge instead. In the end it doesn’t detract much from the finished project, though, and we appreciate the mix of old and new tech.

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