FPGA Hack Becomes An Atari Game Genie

The Game Genie is a classic of the early 90s video game scene. It’s how you would have beaten the Ninja Turtles game, and it’s why the connector in your NES doesn’t work as it should. They never made a Game Genie for the Atari 2600, though, because by the time the Game Genie was released, the Atari was languishing on the bottom shelves of Toys R Us. Now though, we have FPGAs and development tools. We can build our own. That’s exactly what [Andy] did, and his Game Genie for the 2600 works as well as any commercial product you’d find for this beleaguered console.

To understand how to build a Game Genie for an Atari, you first have to understand how a Game Genie works. The hacks for a Game Genie work by replacing a single byte in the ROM of a game. If your lives are stored at memory location 0xDEAD for example, you would just change that byte from 3 (the default) to 255 (because that’s infinite, or something). Combine this with 6-letter and 8-letter codes that denote which byte to change and what to change it to, and you have a Game Genie.

This build began by setting up a DE0 Nano FPGA development board to connect to an Atari 2600 cartridge. Yes, there are voltage level differences, but this can be handled with a few pin assignments. Then, it’s just a matter of writing Verilog to pass all the data from one set of address and data pins to another set of address and data pins. The FPGA becomes a man-in-the-middle attack, if you will.

With the FPGA serving as a pass-through for the connections on the cartridge, it’s a simple matter to hard-code cheats into the device. For the example, [Andy] found the code for a game, figured out where the color of the fireballs were defined as red, and changed the color to blue. It worked, and all was right with the world. The work was then continued to create a user interface to enter three cheat codes, and finally wrapped up in a 3D printed enclosure. Sure, the Atari Game Genie works with ribbon cables, but it wouldn’t be that much more work to create a similar project with Lock-On™ technology. You can check out the entire build video below, or get the info over on Element14

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Racing the Beam and Dropping Some Beats

The heart of the Atari 2600 wasn’t the 6502 (or the 6507 for the pedants), it was the TIA chip. This is the chip responsible for drawing graphics on the display, racing the beam, and extremely limited support for sound generation. We haven’t seen many attempts of using the Atari 2600 for chiptunes, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. [John Sutley]’s Syndrum, a take on an Atari 2600 drum machine is nearly a work of art. It’s a custom cartridge for the wood-paneled Atari, and an impressive input device that turns this classic console into a beat machine

Did the Atari 2600 ever come with a drum machine cartridge? Maybe. Probably not. [John] originally built this project to experiment with the TIA chip, but found it was less tonal than a kazoo. That struck ‘Atari synthesizer’ off the list and replaced it with an ‘Atari drum machine’. There are two key parts of the build here, the first being a repurposed Asteroids cartridge that had the PROM replaced with a ZIF socket. This allows [John] to easily burn new code to an EEPROM, stuff it in the socket, and run it on the Atari. All the code was developed with batari Basic, a BASIC-inspired language that spits out .bin files for the Atari.

But running code on the Atari is just one half of this build. To do a drum machine, you somehow need to tell the Atari when to play each sound. Given the lack of expansion capabilities for the Atari, [John] turned to the controller port. The Syndrum uses Arduino Nano to bridge the DE9 controller connector to a MIDI port. Yes, it’s real MIDI, on a machine that could probably never do MIDI natively (although we’d love to see someone try).

Need a video of this mind-blowing hack in action? Here you go:

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That Time Atari Cracked the Nintendo Entertainment System

It was darkest hour for the video game industry following the holiday shopping season of 1982. The torrent of third party developed titles had flooded the home video game console market to the point of saturation. It incited a price war amongst retailers where new releases were dropped to 85% off MSRP after less than a month on the shelves. Mountains of warehouse inventory went unsold leaving a company like Atari choosing to dump the merchandise into the Chihuahuan desert rather than face the looming tax bill. As a result, the whole home video game industry receded seemingly overnight.

One company single-handedly revived video games to mainstream prominence. That company was Nintendo. They’re ostensibly seen as the “savior” of the video games industry, despite the fact that microcomputer games were still thriving (history tends to be written by the victors). Nevertheless their Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was an innovative console featuring games with scrolling screens, arcade-like sprites. But the tactic they used to avoid repeating the 1983 collapse was to tightly control their market using the Nintendo Seal of Quality.

From the third party developer perspective, Nintendo’s Seal of Quality represented more than just another logo to throw on the box art. It represented what you could and couldn’t do with your business. Those third party licensing agreements dictated the types of games that could be made, the way the games were manufactured, the schedule on which the games shipped to retail, and even the number of games your company could make. From the customer side of things that seal stood for confidence in the product, and Nintendo would go to great lengths to ensure it did just that.

This is the story of how an Atari subsidiary company cracked the hardware security of the original Nintendo and started putting it into their unofficial cartridges.

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New Controller For Retro Console

In the world of retro gaming, when using emulators and non-native hardware it’s pretty common to use whatever USB controller happens to be available. This allows us to get a nostalgic look while using a  configurable controller. One thing that isn’t as common is using the original hardware while still finding a way to adapt a modern controller to an old console. This is exactly what you need though, when you’re retro gaming on a platform with notoriously terrible controllers.

[Scott] enjoys his Atari 5200 but the non-centering and generically terrible joystick wasn’t well received even in the early 80s when the console was in its prime. He decided that using a Dual Shock controller from a Playstation 2 would provide a much better gaming experience, and set about building an adapter. He found that in a way the Dual Shock controller was an almost perfect pairing for the Atari because it has two analog control sticks built-in already. There’s also an array of information on pairing the Dual Shock controller with AVR microcontrollers, so he wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel. From there, it was just a matter of pairing communications protocols between the two pieces of hardware.

The project page goes into quite a bit of detail on SPI communication protocols and the needs of both the Atari and the Playstation controller. If you’re a retro gaming fan, really into communication protocols, or have always had a love-hate relationship with your Atari because the controllers were just that bad, it’s worth checking out. If this is too much, though, there are other ways to get that Atari nostalgia.

Thanks to [Baldpower] for the tip!

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Atari Lynx Becomes Modern 2600 Console Homage

With its introduction in 1989, the Atari Lynx was the first handheld videogame system to include a color LCD. The gigantic size and equally gigantic price tag did not win-over a massive audience, but that doesn’t mean the Lynx was without its fans. Over the past few months a modder named [Jared] has been toiling away with his project to transform an Atari Lynx into a home console.

Atari Lynx 2600 Console Mod Motherboard

The inspiration behind the mod was the original Atari console, the Atari 2600. [Jared’s] console mod, called the Atari Lynx 2600, utilizes a four-switch 2600 case as an enclosure. However, since the Atari 2600 joystick did not offer enough button real estate an NES controller was used instead. A male-male serial cable serves as the new controller cord, while all the buttons on the face of the Lynx are hardwired to a female DB9 port. As an added touch a custom 3D printed cartridge adapter was incorporated into the original 2600 cartridge slot.

Since the Lynx did not natively support video out, and intermediary device known as the McWill LCD mod kit was used. The McWill LCD mod is typically done in order to modernize the Atari Lynx’s screen with hardware from this decade, but [Jared] used the kit in order to get VGA video output from the Lynx. Not satisfied with just VGA [Jared] also included a VGA to HDMI scaler inside to ensure a wider compatibility with current displays. Fittingly the HDMI port was placed on the back of the 2600 enclosure where the RF video used to come from.

Bonus points should go to [Jared] for going the extra mile and creating a custom console box to accompany the console mod. The entirety of the project was detailed in a three-part video series, but you can watch the console in action in part 2 below:

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Detective Work Recovers Atari ST ASIC Designs

[Christian Zietz] wanted to know more about the Atari ST. He found information online from newer Atari machines like the Falcon030 and the Jaguar, but couldn’t find much else. While looking through some archives of old disk images from the Atari headquarters, he found a folder marked “Drawings\4118.” With some detective work and emulation of an old operating system, he was able to recover the schematics for the ST-4118 video shifter ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit).

Unfortunately, this appeared to be a chip for the unreleased Atari Panther video game console. However, it did show the way to how these older schematics were readable. [Christian] continued searching and found some floppy disk images that were a bit unusual. They didn’t have a proper file system but had been created by a backup program called FastBack for MS-DOS.

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Retro Console Upgrade Gives Atari Flair

If you’re desperate for a sense of nostalgia for video games of yore but don’t want to shell out the big bucks for an NES classic, you can always grab a single arcade-style game that’ll plug straight into your TV. Of course it’s no longer 1980, and playing Space Invaders or Asteroids can get old after a while. When that happens, just replace the internals for an upgraded retro Atari 2600 with all the games from that system instead of just one.

As expected for something that has to fit in such a tiny package, this upgrade is based on a Raspberry Pi Zero. It’s not quite as simple as throwing RetroPi on it and calling it a day, though. For one, [Blue Okiris] is still using the original two-button controller/joystick that came with the Ms. Pac-Man game this build is based on, and that added its own set of challenges. For another, RetroPi didn’t have everything he needed so he switched to another OS called Recalbox. It also includes Kodi so it could be used as a media center as well.

The build looks like a hack in the truest sense of the word. The circuit board sticks out the bottom a little bit, but this is more of a feature than a bug because that’s where some extra buttons and the power switch are. Overall, it’s a great Retro Atari system that has all the true classics that should keep [Blue Okiris] entertained until Atari releases an official system one day. If you’d like to go a little deeper in the Atari world, though, you could always restore one instead.

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