Retro Game Guy

It's the 1980's again!


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Refurbishing Old Carts…

When I got back into gaming a few years ago, I started with the Atari 7800 and collected mostly 7800 carts.  Lately, I have had the desire to re-build my Atari 2600 collection.  Back in the early eighties, I had a number of Activision games and always enjoyed their colorful boxes and cartridges.  Unfortunately, the labels on Activision carts typically develop ‘anti-plaque’ and most haven’t held up well.  In fact, even if you can find a ‘new in the box’ Activision game, the cart label will typically not look very good.

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Not so wild for an old Activision label!

With multiple multi-carts available for the 2600, collecting carts is more about having something cool to look at, more so than any kind of necessity.  Given the condition of most Activision cart labels, this really wasn’t all that appealing…until recently.  Last week, I obtained some replacement Activision labels from Phil Boland (pboland on AtariAge) and replaced the labels on several of my carts.

This is a great project, even for someone new to the hobby.  I started by using a hair dryer to slightly warm up the glue and loosen the cart label, being careful not to get the cart too warm.  With a little heat, most labels will come off easily, but I did have one come off in small pieces.  I then used a wet wipe and a paper towel with a little rubbing alcohol to remove the remaining glue residue from the cart shell.

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An open Activision cart

While the label was off, I carefully opened the cart and cleaned the circuit board and the inside of the cart shell.  To clean the inside of the cart, I used a Q-tip and a little more rubbing alcohol.  Then I reassembled the cart, being careful not to tighten the screws too much.  Remembering that the 35+ year old plastic could be brittle, I didn’t want damage the cart shell.  Now all that was left to do, was apply the new label.  I took my time to make sure that the label was aligned correctly and started from one end and bent it around the corner of the shell.

Phil’s labels stick really well and look great.  Now my Activision carts look awesome and as colorful as they were back in the eighties.  They should be good for another twenty years!!!

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Wild for new cart labels!

@Atarigameguy

P.S.  Please note that Phil’s labels are perfect, just poor lighting in the last photo

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Scramble for the Atari 2600…

Scramble is a video game developed by Konami in 1981 and distributed in the United States by Stern.  It is a side scrolling ‘shoot ‘em up’ with outstanding graphics and game play.  In Scramble, you control an aircraft with the goal of getting as far into the Scramble system as possible.  In addition to controlling the movements of the aircraft, you must also use your guns and bombs to destroy rockets, UFO’s, and fuel tanks.  You must keep an eye on your own fuel and destroy a fuel tank to increase your fuel level.

In Scramble the terrain is constantly changing and you must fight your way through six stages:

  • Stage 1:  Launching Rockets
  • Stage 2:  UFO’s
  • Stage 3:  Meteors
  • Stage 4:  Launching Rockets from tall buildings
  • Stage 5:  Mazes
  • Stage 6:  Base

The Scramble arcade units were powered by two Z80 CPU’s and two AY-3-8910 sound generators.  It was ported to the Commodore 64, Vic 20, and Vectrex, but not to any Atari systems.  Scramble was succeeded by ‘Super Cobra’ which was ported to the Atari 2600, 5200, and 8-bit systems.

Thanks to John Champeau, it is now possible to play Scramble on the Atari 2600.  John started his work on his port of Scramble in 2015 and it was released by AtariAge in mid-2017 with a color manual, poster, and an amazing box.  A number of other AtariAge forum members contributed to the game, including Nathan Strum (graphics), Bob DeCrescenzo (music and sound effects), Michael Haas (sound effects), and Dave Dries (label, box, and manual design).  Additionally, Darrell Spice helped with the DPC+/ARM code and Thomas Jentzsch helped with testing.                         

Scramble2600

Scramble for Atari 2600

Scramble for the 2600 is amazingly close to the arcade version and, when playing it, you have to keep reminding yourself that it is an Atari 2600 game.  Like a few other recent homebrew games, John takes advantage of the Melody board to make the 2600 do things once thought not possible!  The graphics and sound are outstanding and all six arcade levels are included.

A really cool feature that John built into the 2600 version of Scramble is the ability to use a Sega Genesis controller.  If plugged in before your 2600 is powered up, Scramble will auto-detect the Genesis controller and allow two button game play (for separate control of firing bombs and missiles).  John also takes advantage of the 2600’s color/B&W switch to implement a pause feature in the game as well as the difficulty switch to allow for single shot or ‘burst mode’ when shooting missiles.

Scramble is a fun game, but it takes a lot of practice to get good at it.   John has built in four difficulty levels which will keep challenging you as you get better at the game.  Scramble is an awesome side scroller for the 2600 which not only pushes the system to its limits, but, also shows that, some forty years after it was first released, the Atari 2600 is still a great home gaming system.  John has really ‘knocked it out of the park’ with Scramble…an absolute must have for your 2600!!!

Scamble 2600

Wild for Scramble!

P.S.  Scramble also plays well on the Atari 7800!


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Keeping old controllers alive…

Last year, I picked up an Atari 2600, two joysticks, a set of paddles, and ten games at a local thrift store.  The console worked perfectly, but the joysticks were iffy and the paddles all jittery.  I had never re-built an Atari controller before, but I am pretty handy with a soldering iron, so I thought I would try rebuilding these joysticks and paddles myself.

Re-building the joysticks…

The two joysticks were in good physical condition, so I used one of those damp, anti-bacterial cleaning cloths to get all of the dirt and dust off of the outside.  To open up an Atari joystick, just unloosen four screws on the bottom of the joystick and the top will separate from the bottom.  Be careful as fire button and spring will come loose and one of my springs went missing.  There are a few dealers that still have original Atari CX40 joystick circuit boards for sale, but I opted for a re-build kit from Best Electronics.  Best includes a new joystick handle and a new circuit board, with gold contacts, that is an exact fit for the original Atari circuit board.  I had already turned my soldering iron on before I realized that no soldering would be needed as the Atari wiring harness is connected via slide clips.  I carefully removed the wires from the original board and installed them on the new Best gold board.  The Best gold board includes markings that indicate which wire should be connected to each contact.  I then carefully re-assembled the joystick and tested it.  This actually took me a couple of iterations as I didn’t have the spring lined up correctly and fire button wasn’t working.  Also, since I lost a fire button spring, I had imagineer one from a ball point pen spring.  Thus, I highly recommend ordering a couple of those from Best when you order the rebuild kits.  Once I had the springs properly aligned, the joysticks worked perfectly and are now better than new!

CX40parts

Original CX40 Parts

Gold CX40 PCB

Gold CX40 PCB

Re-building the paddles…

The Atari CX-30 paddles are infamous for becoming ‘jittery’, after many hours of use.  Some people have had success using contact cleaner to solve this problem, but most of the time the potentiometers are just worn out.  As far as I know, it is almost impossible to find original replacement potentiometers for Atari paddles.  Thankfully, Best Electronics has been able to locate a source of replacement ‘super pots’ for Atari paddles that are actually better quality and a perfect fit.  To replace the pots in a set of CX30 paddles is pretty straight forward.  I removed the two screws from the back of the case to separate the case halves.  I then loosened the nut that holds the pot in place and carefully removed it.  I used my soldering iron to unsolder the two wires from the existing pot and, then soldered them to the new super pot.  Using the new nut that comes with the super pot, I re-installed it into the case and re-assembled the case.  I repeated this process for the other paddle in the CX30 set.  Once they were both back together, I tested them and they worked flawlessly, but one of the paddles had a rattle.  I took it back apart and realized that the plastic housing had cracked around one of the screw holes.  Not wanting to wait to order a replacement case, I used a little silicone adhesive and shored up the post with a wire tie.  Problem solved, rattle gone!  The re-built paddles are smooth and jitter free!

CX30pots

Old & New CX40 Pots

Fixing a CX24 joystick…

One of my CX24 joysticks for my Atari 7800 wasn’t working very well, so I had also ordered a replacement circuit board from Best.  It was a simple effort to swap this board, in my failing controller, and restore it to full health.

Overall thoughts…

Fortunately, it is fairly easy to give new life to old Atari controllers.  There is more than one on-line Atari dealer that have repair parts for Atari joysticks and paddles, but Best Electronics seems to have the most complete selection.  Their ‘gold’ joystick circuit boards and ‘super pots’ are easy to install and will give your controllers new life.  Don’t continue to settle for a failing controller and don’t think that your only option is to buy new ones…get some replacement parts and re-build them yourself!

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@Atarigameguy


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Donkey Kong…

Donkey Kong is a 1981 video game developed by Nintendo and is one of the earliest successful platform games. Although there had been a couple of other platform arcade games, Donkey Kong was the first to introduce jumping.  Programmed by Shigeru Miyamoto, Donkey Kong was a monster hit that established Nintendo as a serious player in the video game market.  There are four different ‘platforms’ in Donkey Kong:  The construction scene, the cement factory, the elevator scene, and the rivets screen.  The goal in Donkey Kong is, essentially to climb to the top of the screen and rescue Pauline.  Only in the rivets screen is this different where Mario needs to knock out all of the rivets.

At the time that Shigeru developed Donkey Kong, it was a radical departure from the space shooters and maze games that had been dominating the video game market.  In fact, Nintendo America was not sure that it would be successful.  The Nintendo America staff is credited with naming the characters in Donkey Kong.  Originally they were only known as Jumpman and Lady.  They renamed them Mario and Pauline and had graphics made for American versions of the arcade cabinets.  They tested a couple of Donkey Kong arcade units in a couple of bars and, much to their surprise, the public loved the game.  They ended up converting over 2000 surplus arcade units into Donkey Kong units and the rest is history.  Donkey Kong went on to become one of the most popular and most recognizable game franchises in history.

Donkey Kong was ported to a number of home game consoles and computers including the Colecovision, the Atari 2600 and 7800’s, the Intellivision, and the Atari 8-bit computer line.

Colecovision version…

Coleco won the rights to produce cartridge based home console versions of Donkey Kong and decided to make it the ‘pack in’ game for their system which helped them sell over six million consoles.  The Colecovision (CV) version of Donkey Kong featured three of the arcades screens (the cement factory was left out home console versions) and no climbing or intermission screens.  The graphics were impressive, but the game was a little too easy to play.  In the elevator screen, Kong doesn’t throw any barrels, which makes this screen incredibly easy compared to the arcade version.  Still, the CV version was impressive for the time (1982).  Coleco also ended up producing Donkey Kong for the Atari 2600 and Intellivison.

Donkey Kong for the Colecovision

Donkey Kong for the
Colecovision

2600 version…

Gary Kitchen programmed the 2600 version of Donkey Kong for Coleco.  I had the chance to meet Gary last year and hear him talk about the development of this game.  He was only authorized to make a 4K non-bankswitched game, so he was very limited with what he could do.  He managed to get two levels (Construction and Rivets) into the 2600 version, but the graphics (impressive for the 2600) were no match to the CV version.  Gary managed to capture essence of Donkey Kong, but it is not one of the better games for the 2600.

Today, there are two new homebrew 2600 efforts underway:   Donkey Kong Arcade and Donkey Kong VCS.  Both feature improved graphics and sound, all four screens, and intermissions.  The developers of these games have taken different approaches, but both are creating awesome versions for the 2600.  Due to Nintendo’s licensing policies, these will probably not be able to be made commercially available, which is a real shame.  However, if you have a Harmony cart, you can try out the prototype versions of these games on your 2600.

Donkey Kong for the Atari 2600

Donkey Kong for the
Atari 2600

5200 (8-bit) version…

Coleco did not develop a 5200 version of Donkey Kong, probably as they saw the 5200 as the main competitor to the CV.  Fortunately, Atari had obtained the rights to produce home computer versions of the game and developed an excellent port for their 8-bit line.  Atari’s 8-bit version has all four screens and well as the ‘how high’ intermission screens.

The 8-bit version has been converted to run on the 5200 and can be played on the Atarimax cart or can be obtained in cart form.  Playing Donkey Kong with the 5200’s analog joysticks takes some adjustment, but it turns out to be one of the better games for the Super System.   The game also takes advantage of the 5200’s Pokey chip to produce near arcade quality sound.

Donkey Kong for the Atari 5200

Donkey Kong for the
Atari 5200

7800 version…

The 7800 version of Donkey Kong was released in 1988 and is an excellent good port of the game.  As with all of the home console versions, it is missing the Cement Factory screen as well as the climbing and intermission screens.  Also, like most 7800 games, the sound could have been better had Atari included a Pokey chip in the cartridge.   Even with these limitations,  the 7800 version of Donkey Kong is probably the best original port of the game for a home console and demonstrates the 7800’s home arcade capabilities.

Thirty years after the release of the 7800, a new version of Donkey Kong is now available for the Pro System.  Perry Thuente spent over a year working on improving the 7800 version.  Originally, he had only intended to develop a version that would improve the sound by taking advantage of Atari’s Pokey chip that will be in the XM expansion module.  One thing led to another, and Perry ended up completely re-building the game.  He has added the climbing and intermission screens as well as the missing cement factory level.  He also improved the graphics and added the ability to play the game in either the Japanese or US arcade order.  Perry’s version is called Donkey Kong XM and needs the XM module in order to hear the sound.  Unfortunately, the delivery of the XM module has been delayed.  Also, due to Nintendo’s licensing policies, Perry can’t make this commercially available and is only making a few copies of the game for friends.  Since the XM module has been delayed, Perry has made a handful of Donkey Kong PK cartridges which take advantage of CPUWIZ’s Versaboard and include a Pokey Chip.  This version produces arcade quality sound on a stock 7800.  Being one of the lucky ones to have a copy of Donkey Kong PK, all I can say is wow!  The only way to have a better home version of Donkey Kong would be to put an actual Donkey Kong arcade cabinet in your house!!!

Donkey Kong XM for the Atari 7800

Donkey Kong XM for the
Atari 7800

Overall thoughts…

If you are a Donkey Kong fan, there are no really bad versions of the game and they are all readily available.  The Colecovison, 2600, and 7800 versions are plentiful and cheap, but a copy of the 5200 version on cart will set you back a few $$$ (however, is a pretty awesome game for the 5200!).

Perry’s Donkey Kong XM or PK version is, however in a league by itself.   If you own a 7800, and are a fan of Donkey Kong, then you simply need to get yourself a copy of this game.  Make friends with Perry and convince him to make you a copy.

Also, if you are a 2600 fan, don’t forget about the new versions of Donkey Kong that are nearing completion!

@Atarigameguy


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Xevious…

Xevious is a 1983 arcade game developed by Namco and released by Atari in the US.  Xevious is a top down, vertical scrolling space shooter developed by Masanobu Endo.  The game was designed to run on Namco’s Galaga hardware with 3 Z80CPU’s and a Namco sound chip. It was a monster hit in Japan, but never achieved quite the same success in the US.  Xevious was ported to a number of game and computer systems of the era including the Atari 7800, the NES, and the Commodore 64.  Versions were planned for the Atari 2600 and 5200, but never released.

In Xevious, you must pilot your ship called a Solvalou against various enemy air and ground targets, including tanks, stationary bases, flying mirrors, and black spheres (8-balls).   The Solvalou is equipped with both a zapper for air targets and a blaster for ground targets.  There are sixteen areas in Xevious and the game loops back to area seven, if you are able to clear all of the areas.  One of the cool things about Xevious is that if your are 70% of the way or better through an area and are ‘killed’, the game restarts at the beginning of the next area.  The terrain in Xevious varies from dense forests, to rivers and oceans, to developed areas.  This makes for a variety of background graphics and adds interest to the game.  Another interesting thing about Xevious is that you don’t really have to ‘kill’ anything to keep advancing.  If you can manage to fly your Solvalou through the game and not get ‘killed’, you can advance through the entire game without shooting anything.

2600 Version…

The 2600 version of Xevious never made it past the prototype stage.  Programmed by Tod Frye  of 2600 Pac-Man fame, it had the beginnings of a pretty good port.  Tod was able to accomplish the scrolling background (all be it with simplified graphics) and have multiple enemies on screen, with little to no flicker.  Of course the 2600 has only one fire button, so Tod had the CX-40 fire button do double duty and it fires both missiles and bombs.

Tod had managed to get four types of enemies programmed (discs, mirrors, 8-balls, & tanks) into his 2600 version before the plug was pulled by Atari, during yet another management shake-up.   Hopefully, one day, one of the 2600 homebrew programmers will develop a new version of Xevious.  With today’s cart technology, it should be possible to develop a great version of this classic for the 2600.  For more information on the 2600 version of Xevious, check out Atariprotos.com.

2600 Xevious Prototype

2600 Xevious Prototype

5200 Version…

The 5200 version of Xevious was programmed by Jim Huether in 1983, but never formally released by Atari.  Happily, the final prototype version has been preserved and made available to the gaming community.  It is really unfortunate that the 5200 version was never released as it is complete and it is a pretty good game.  Jim managed to program almost all of the arcade’s enemies and the sound effects are nearly spot on.  The two biggest complaints about the 5200 version are that the graphics seem a little ‘washed out’ and your bullets appear as ‘bars’.  Other than these two complaints, Xevious is an awesome game for the 5200.  It is a shame that Atari never formally released it, but thankfully, the prototype code was preserved and is playable on the Atarimax multi-cart.  For more information on the 5200 version of Xevious, check out Atariprotos.com.

Xevious for the Atari 5200

Xevious for the Atari 5200

7800 Version…

The Atari 7800 version of Xevious is the only officially released version for the Atari home console family.  Programmed by Tom Flaherty of General Computer Corporation, it was intended to be one of the launch titles for the 7800 (had it been released as planned in 1984).  Tom did an outstanding job porting Xevious to the 7800 and his version includes almost all of the enemies and features of the arcade version.  The graphics are extremely well done, colorful, and crisp.   Also, the sound is pretty good for a standard (non-Pokey) game.  The 7800 version of Xevious can be played with either the two button Pro-line joystick or a regular CX-40.  When using the Pro-line, one fire button controls the Zapper (missiles) and the other the Blaster (Bombs).  When using the CX-40, both missiles and bombs are fired at the same time, like in the 2600 prototype.  I had owned a copy of Xevious for nearly two years before I realized that it could be played with a standard CX-40.  This is not something that Atari included in the Xevious manual, but I think it definitely makes the game more enjoyable to play!

Xevious for the Atari 7800

Xevious for the Atari 7800

Overall thoughts…

The 2600 version is clearly an unfinished prototype and is interesting, but not really anything to get worked up about.  Both the 5200 and 7800 versions are excellent ports and deserve a place in your collection.  While you will need the Atarimax multi-cart to play the 5200 version, the 7800 version is easy to find and normally can be had for less than five dollars.  If you have a 7800 and don’t have a copy of Xevious, you should pick one up the next time you visit your local retro game shop!

@Atarigameguy


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Atari Retro-game Happenings…

It is hard to believe that in 2014, multiple new games for the Atari systems are under development.  Here is just some of the current game news…

2600…

There are several outstanding games in the works for the 2600.  A couple of the most notable are Star Castle Arcade and Stay Frosty 2.  These two games are complete and will be released as soon as enough cart boards are available for a production run.  Several other homebrew games are also in the works including Circus AtariAge, Frantic,  and Zippy the Porcupine.

5200…

Just after I posted my last blog about Caverns of Mars, two developers (Paul Lay & Aking) converted Caverns of Mars 2 and 3 to the 5200.  Caverns of Mars 2 is a side scroller very similar to Scramble and lots of fun to play on the 5200.  Caverns of Mars 3 (Phobos) is very similar to the original game, but with improved graphics.  If you are a C of M fan, then you should head over to AtariAge and check out these 8-bit conversions!

Speaking of 8-bit conversions, Paul and Aking have converted more than dozen 8-bit games to the 5200 in the past few weeks.  In addition to Caverns 2 and 3, they have converted titles such as Ant-Eater, Bacterion, and Pooyan.   Thanks to Paul, Aking, and a few others, 2014 is turning out to be a banner year for the 5200!

7800…

Master 7800 programmer Bob ‘Pac-Man Plus’ DeCrescenzo has recently completed Astro Blaster and is now working on a port of KC Munchkin.   Bob plans to make a cart run of Astro Blaster as well as a run of ‘Bentley Bear: Crystal Quest’ in the next few weeks.

Donkey Kong…

2014 may go down as the year of Donkey Kong for Atari Systems.  Perry Thuente has recently completed one of the most accurate ports of Donkey Kong (Donkey Kong XM) for any home system.  He spent months updating the 7800 version to be as arcade accurate as possible.   His version has all four screens (only three were included originally) and Pokey sound (requiring the soon to be released 7800 expansion module (XM)).   Perry has been busy assembling over 100 carts and may also release a Pokey cart version that will run without the XM.

No less than two different 2600 versions of Donkey Kong (Donkey Kong Arcade and Donkey Kong VCS) are under development.  Both versions are absolutely amazing and totally blow away the original version for the 2600.  It is absolutely amazing to see what can be done with the venerable 2600!

Wow…

It is hard to believe that so many great games for the Atari 8-bit game systems are going to be available in 2014…it seems like the 2600, 5200, and 7800 will live on for many years to come!

@Atarigameguy


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Caverns of Mars…

Caverns of Mars is a fairly unique gem in the Atari game library.  It was developed in 1981 by Greg Christensen for the Atari 8-bit computer line.  Greg was a high school senior when he wrote Caverns and sent it to the Atari Program Exchange (APX).  APX was a division of Atari that was set up to sell programs developed by others for Atari’s 8-bit line.  Caverns won the 1981 APX game contest and was released by Atari in cartridge, cassette, and floppy disk formats.

Caverns is similar to Scramble, except the action is vertical, rather than horizontal.  The idea of the game is that Martians are surrounding Terra IV (your planet) and you must defeat the Martian forces by sabotaging their defense system.  The goal of Caverns is to guide your ship to the bottom of the cavern, while avoiding enemy fire and laser gates.   There are four types of enemies that you can shoot to gain points:  transmitters, creon rockets, pyxias rockets, and space mines.  You can also shoot fuel tanks, which will give you additional fuel.  If you are good enough to navigate your way to the bottom of the cavern, you must land on the fusion bomb, activate it, and escape from the cave before it explodes!

5200 version…

The Atari 5200’s design is similar to an Atari 8-bit computer, except that its memory is limited and some memory locations are mapped in different locations.  Thus, it has been possible to port over a number of 8- bit games to the 5200.  Steven Tucker has developed a multi-cart for the 5200 and he has also ported over a number of 8-bit games, including Caverns of Mars.

The 5200 version is available to be played in Steven’s multi-cart or may be purchased in cartridge format.  Caverns plays well on the 5200 and control on a standard 5200 joystick is not too bad.  Although not as easy to control as a digital joystick, after some practice, Caverns is fun to play.  If you are a fan of Scramble or like space themed games, you will enjoy Caverns on the 5200.

Caverns of Mars for the Atari 8-bit/5200

Caverns of Mars for the Atari 8-bit/5200

Flashback 2 version…

Caverns of Mars was included as one of the forty-two games on the Atari Flashback 2.  This version was probably a prototype that Atari developed for the 2600, but never released as there is no credit to any programmer in the Flashback 2 manual.  Although the graphics are simplified and there is quite a bit of flicker, Caverns is fun to play on the Flashback 2.  In fact, the rapid fire capability in this version, makes the game a little easier to play and, thus, a little less frustrating for beginners.

2600 version…

In 2006, John Champeau, released a 2600 version of Caverns which he titled ‘Conquest of Mars’.  This is an excellent port featuring improved graphics over the Flashback version and little to no flicker.  While the graphics overall are not quite as good as the original 8-bit version, they are very well done for a 2600 game.  The gameplay is also intact and had this been released by Atari back in the 80’s, it would have been a monster hit for the 2600.  John keeps the laser torpedo fire rate similar to the original 8-bit version, so his Caverns is more challenging to play than the Flashback version.  On the other hand, control with a standard Atari joystick, is much better than with the 5200’s analog version.

Conquest of Mars for the Atari 2600/7800

Conquest of Mars for the Atari 2600/7800

7800 version…

Sadly, no 7800 version of Caverns has been developed, but John’s 2600 version plays perfectly on the 7800.  With recent advances in cart boards for the 7800, maybe someone will develop a 7800 version that will be able to improve on the original.

Overall thoughts…

Conquest of Mars is an outstanding game that can be played on Atari’s entire 8-bit line of computers and game systems.  It may take a little searching to find a copy of the computer version, but the 2600 and 5200 versions are readily available and, at about $30 a copy, are, relatively, affordable.  As mentioned above, anyone who likes Scramble, Super Cobra, or space themed games, will love Caverns.  All of the versions of Caverns are fun to play and worth having in your collection!

@Atarigameguy