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Atari 2600 jr: Controller Maintenance

I'd purchased two controllers from Holland (Game Over? in Amsterdam) and had received two more when I picked up this Atari from the rubbish dump. I have finally gotten a game worth playing and thought I'd test them all out.

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The game is Bezerk.. and it literally is just that. Think of a 'top-down' Space Invaders. You're a human, you're in a maze and there's robots who want to shoot you. If they (or you) touch a wall then you're dead. Your goal is to knock them all off and enter the next room. It's really quite challenging for such a simple concept.

This game is only playable if your controller works! It turns out that only one of mine had problems. This specific controller would not happily move left/right. Up/down and the buttons worked... but I couldn't get my guy out of the way reliably on the X axis. A little more testing realised a cable fault! If I put pressure on the cable, right where it enters the controller, then I could move in all directions... the cable must be internally fractured.

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Pulling it open, you can see the cable come in from the top. It then slaloms through the plastic pins to keep any unwanted pressure/tension off the solder joints on the PCBs. Too much flexing, over time, has ruined the cable. The only method was to cut it and shorten the cable.

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The cutting, pairing and soldering was quite painless. I unsoldered an existing wire and then soldered on the new wire, matching colour-for-colour. The end result was a perfectly working controller! It turns out you can even shoot diagonally in Bezerk!

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Two of the four controllers I've acquired used to have the screw-in joyticks. One of the other two actually still had the joystick in place! For the ones that have been snapped off, I grabbed a screwdriver and applied enough pressure to have the phillips-head torque the plastic left-over out of the thread.

Now to find a suitable replacement screw-in joystick!

10Aug/160

Atari 2600 jr: Composite Video Output + Audio

There seem to be a lot of options (and sites with comparisons of the options) available when adding composite video to the Atari 2600. Some require removing parts and disabling the RF output whereas others just hitch onto components and allow both signals to be produced. Here's a brief list of places to find information:

There's also hardware that you can purchase to make the job a lot easier:

Doing it yourself

I chose the mod available at Lynx's 0,68 Euro ATARI 2600 Junior Composite Mod (German). This mod offered a good balance of circuit complexity and as little atari-destruction as possible. All parts were purchased from the local Jaycar, except for the 330ohm resistor. They were out of stock and so I combined a 300ohm+33ohm.

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Construction was very straight-forward... I soldered straight onto the pins and scratched a pad for ground on the nearest plane. I then quickly wired up an RCA plug. I knew I'd need to de-solder it again to mount it into the case, so I didn't over-do the soldering.

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Great picture! This is the start screen for the 4-in-1 cartridge. All good... now for audio.

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Above you can see two wires heading to the required spot at the base of the resistor. One is folded up... I intend on doing the stereo mod next, so that's there for future-proofing. Currently mono audio is output via the white RCA socket.

UPDATE: My 'future-proofing' was useless... the PAL version of the Atari 2600 jr DOES NOT support stereo sound. So just connect the red plug to the white plug internally!

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Now... to play games...

9Aug/160

Atari 2600 jr: Introduction

This was an unexpected surprise. Canberra has a rubbish tip; well, a few, actually. At these tips, back in the day, the dumpers used to drive their cars/trailers/trucks right up to the wall'o'rubbish and offload. Whilst the father was scraping all the rubbish out and launching the bags onto the mountain of junk, the children would be scavenging through other people's discards.

I found many a thing there: old computers (286/386, at that time), model railway paraphernalia, misc. electronics, etc... After a while, too many dead bodies were being found and so they closed the dumping area off to the public. Instead, they built a concrete shed with a big mechanical compactor. Everyone's rubbish was thrown in a corridor and compacted. A truck would then drive it up to the real landfill area.

The public could no longer freely recycle other people's rubbish. It was lost once it went over the wall. An uprising occurred when an entrepreneur decided that he could form an organisation that worked at the tip under appropriate licensing (oh, I love democracy) and legally scavenge the rubbish. This was no good, unless they could actually sell it... so a 'shop' was set up at the rubbish dump. Can you believe this? We have to buy our rubbish back?

Either way... last Sunday... after 2 separate (and dismal) trash and treasure markets, I ended up at the Green Shed. I was initially looking for a bootable DOS disk... not finding much, I was disheartened and about to leave. As you exit the building, you pass the cash register, which is actually a large glass display cabinet. In it was a lost treasure. The attendant had me made: he knew I wanted it and happily quoted a price which would've doubled the takings for the day of the entire shop... but, for the unit, was half the going rate on eBay... as long as it worked!

My first Atari

Last year, I read the book: Racing the Beam. I can't remember how I came across it, but it ended up being a good read on the inner workings of the Atari. I was impressed to find out how they got around hardware limitations and changed the way kids would play games forever.

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I had never expected to own one. Especially one in this condition... It turns out this is the Atari 2600 Junior. It's the final version, slimmed down, produced somewhere between 1986 and 1991. It was brown when I got it...being in Canberra, I didn't have any tools with me, so I used floor-cleaning wipes (disinfectant was a great idea at this point) and tore the thing apart. After a good clean, it actually came up remarkably well. The best part was that the 'protective seal' was still on the steel Atari branding on the top of the case. I should've left it on there... but I really love peeling those things off!

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The whole loot included two game cartridges, two controllers (one had the screw-in joystick snapped), the base console and the wall-wart. The only thing that was missing was the RF cable. I cleaned it all at home in Canberra. Taking it apart, the solder joints looked fine... there was just a large accumulation of dust. A quick vacuum and wipe down got it into the state above.

I bit the bullet and plugged it into the wall. Toggling the power switch did nothing! Bummer... a dead Atari... I was very happy to have a new project. I popped it back open and scanned all components again. There wasn't anything obvious. I thought I'd leave it until I returned to Melbourne where I could go over it thoroughly with the multimeter. After re-assembling, I quickly tested it once more. The fourth toggle of the power switch saw the red power LED light! Ok... we're in for fun if the grime has gotten ALL THE WAY into the 'enclosed' power switch.

A more complete teardown

I returned to my workbench at home and pulled the machine apart; knowing that there were going to be gremlins in the system. Overall, it looked to be in great condition, but I grabbed the magnifying glass and inspected it all again anyway.

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The metal shielding comes off very easily. The top half is secured to the bottom half via metal tabs that have been slightly twisted. Grab a pair of pliers and bend them all straight again... you'll then find that both shields come apart with little force.

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After an inspection, I re-vacuumed the switches and grabbed a cartridge. I really wanted to check out Ghost Busters, so that was the obvious choice. Using my trusty BW CRT TV, I hoooked it all together. Scanning the UHF channel, I found no signal. I could get interference when I toggled the power switch, so I thought that I was near the right tuning every so often. I was on UHF because that's what the Commodore 64 used and I assumed that all consoles of that vintage would use the same frequencies. I was wrong. The Atari 2600 uses VHF Channel 2 or 3. This channel is selectable via the switch at the back of the console.

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Once on VHF tuning, the signal appeared easily. The console was set to Black and White, so the image was crisp! Even over RF. I wonder if these can do composite? Ghost Busters is pretty hilarious. Actually quite difficult to get started... but I think I'll write a post just for that story.

Top Push Buttons

The Select/Reset buttons to the right of the cartridge port, on top of the console, are spring-loaded via a 'sponge'. This material had deteriorated on both buttons over the decades and needed replacing.

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I happened to have some packaging material foam on hand and sliced some pieces off to replace the worn out sponge. I scraped the old sponge off first... needed a bit of elbow-grease for this ... was definitely stuck on well! Afterwards I used a bit of double-sided tape to apply the new sponge.

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Worked perfectly.

What's next?

Why, games! I've got a total of 36 to test out... so I'll flick through them and report on anything noteworthy. I also want this thing producing a composite signal... so a little research will see that occurring in no time.