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RCA Studio II GOLD MINE! An interview with the Studio 2 Production Manager!

RCA Studio II Interview

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#1 Blazing Lazers OFFLINE  

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Posted Fri Mar 1, 2013 5:08 PM

Over the course of trying to discover more about the RCA Studio II- and whether or not the Bingo game actually exists, I made contact with the man who actually ran the production line at the facility where RCA built the Studio II's! We've been exchanging messages, and he's agreed to allow some of our conversations to be posted, which I've done below. He's also agreed to join up, and is quite willing to field any questions about his time with RCA, and possibly some future projects. For now though, enjoy the new information below:


Me: So, how did you become involved with RCA and the making of the Studio II?


“I graduated from Appalachian State University in Boone, NC with a degree in Industrial Arts and Computer Science. I had made a special study of microcontrollers, which were just emerging. As luck would have it, I applied at RCA Distributor and Special Products Division in Swannanoa, NC, and they were excited to find someone with formal training in micros. First job out of college for me, they promised that they would employ me in a video game project, but it wasn't quite ready to start so for several months, I worked as a tech on an antenna line.”


Me: You said you were there the whole time. How long was that for?


“I was given the job of running production until the line was discontinued and we shut down the operation. Less than a year passed between startup and shut down.”


Me: Could you describe the assembly line?


“S2 was made on a human intensive assembly line of 125 or so mostly women. Chips were hand inserted, as were discrete components. Everything was wave soldered except a few wires. Board cleaning was in an ultrasonic degreaser using Freon TF. (I told you I had a good memory.) Production rates were 1000 units a day on a single shift. Three or four adjustment/troubleshoot stations were in the line for rough testing of the RF components. We had a small cartridge with a test program for the console that put different patterns on the screen, tested the keys, beeper, expansion slot. RF output levels were verified on a final test station using a Boonton RF power meter. Spec was 3 mW or less.”

“The product is built around an RCA 1802 microprocessor. If I recall correctly, the unit used a 3.58 MHz color burst crystal for clock. It had one RAM chip (2K or so), one ROM chip (16k or 8k), a 555-timer based beep circuit, a 7805 voltage regulator. The ROM/RAM contained internal latches. Seems that there may have been some 4000-series glue logic here and there. Board was an FR2 double-sided plated-through item and I think the connector for expansion was a 32/64 pin 0.100" or .156 spacing. Failures in production were mostly solder shorts or board etch problems, so we made testers to pre-verify etching and to automatically detect solder bridges.”


Me: what do you recall about the popularity of the system?


“Units piled up in the warehouse and never did sell briskly. Competitive product from Magnavox was color, high resolution, sound-via-TV stuff wtih joysticks, so the monochrome block displays and keypad-only UI were outclassed from day 1.”


Me: What happened to all the unsold units, then?


“After 6-8 months, units were made available to employees at a discount. Eventually, RCA saw the writing on the wall, abandoned software development and the Studio 3, and shut it down. Inventory was sold to Radio Shack for 10 cents on the dollar, and few years later, Radio Shack bought the entire facility. It is still in operation mostly making antennas, for which there is a limited market.”
Me: Just how many units was this, in terms of what was manufactured? What about the game cartridges?
“Full production of the units was 1000 per day and I estimate maybe 9 months at full rate... 50K or so, total. Cartridges started later, at a rate of 3K/day for 9 months or about 150k? They are all identical except for having either 1 or 2 ROMs. The ROMS were masked, not EPROMS or flash. Costly to tool. I can read out their contents for you if you ever want to peek inside some.”


Me: What became of all the equipment used to manufacture the Studio II and its games?


“All of the test equipment was scrapped. Some wound up on a shelf at SDX and I found it in the 1980s. Funny. I had built it. Still remember the smell and appearance.”


Me: One of the biggest design flaws of the Studio II was the use of an external RF switch and power supply- which have often become lost over time. Do you know why this was done?


“RCA did a lot of FCC and UL products. The switchbox localized the RF leakage to a single unit that was bought from another supplier, so it could be certified as Part 15 compliant. UL for the whole unit could be avoided by keeping voltages on the console below 28V. The power and signal both employ the coax, meaning cheaper interconnects and this was a consumer product they hoped to build in the millions. Pennies count. This technique is widely used in old RCA products, like mast amplifiers, etc.”


Me: Tell me about the ease of producing the system itself


“Things moved slowly at RCA. I am not sure how long it was in design, but suspect a year or two. They had very little experience producing micro-based products, or developing software. We programmed our test equipment (which we made out of 1802 micros in machine language. We did not even have an assembler. The unit we used was called an Elf, and originally had an 1801 processor, which I think was PMOS. The 1802 was CMOS and ran on +5 volts, and was capable of static operation.... i.e., you could stop the clock with no penalty. Very low power. We thought it alone would be a great product for RCA, but it never took off. Intel, Intersil, Motorola, and a bunch of other companies ran away with that market. Programs were loaded in one byte at a time with switches and a LOAD button, and then run. Tedious.”


Me: You mentioned a Studio 3 system? I've never heard anything about that before...


“There were tons of rumors about the S3, which was under development up north, in either Deptford or Princeton. I think they pushed the S2 to market because they had an investment in it. When it failed, and they did an honest assessment of the S3 to competitive products, there was just no sense in doing it. They had been leapfrogged.”


Me: The Studio II had a surprising amount of clones released overseas, some much more advanced then the US system. Do you know anything about those?


“I never heard of them licensing it overseas, and certainly not producing it anywhere else. Clones are news to me. I did have a tech who authored a game in Swannanoa. Forget his name. It is entirely possible that in trying to recover a few bux from the design, they sold off the S3 project and the IP for the S2”


Me: I've gotta ask- do you still have anything from your time with RCA, such as source code or prototypes?


“Sadly, I have nothing from those days at all. Certainly no source code. However, maybe 20 years after I worked there, I got a client who had a small terminal using an 1802 micro, which was programmed in assembly language and I was able to patch defective code for them. (The old 'dead programmer' problem... I specialize in such things.)”


Me: So everything Studio II was made in the Swannanoa facility?


“With absolutely no reservations, the Swannanoa facility on Bee Tree Road was the only production facility for Studio2. The Distributor and Special Products Division was headquartered in Deptford, NJ.
Google map this house, across the street from the plant. There is a street view.
151 old bee tree road swannanoa nc
Zoom in/out to see it. Building at upper right in the layout was where we produced the units. Factory has a sign in street view that says "TDP Electronics".”


Me: Would you be able to read the ROM's of some undocumented Studio II carts?


“My approach to getting the ROM contents would be to remove the console ROM(s) and directly read the contents. I have an EPROM reader that probably has the chips in its support list. Failing that, I have a Fluke 9010 micro system troubleshooter console from that era that would require that I remove the 1802. Failing that, the 1802 pins go into a high impedance state on reset, meaning I could add another parallel micro to read out the ROM contents for disassembly. I actually have an 1802 or two here. I can envision making an emulator. The 1802 is a neat little general register architecture, (Von Neumann like the 68000's). I liked it. Ahead of its time. First CMOS micro.

Once the system ROM(s) are out, a little study would show where the DMA routines live (video is DMA driven in the S2, as I recall) and where the display literals live. Subroutines can be identified by entry and exit points and I think there might be one interrupt process in the unit to decipher. Back then, and particularly with this machine, things were simple. I know it probably doesn't sound simple to you, but I grew up with that stuff and went on to build missile test equipment and some fairly advanced products. I have the tools, too. I can reverse engineer the schematics and start a documentation project.

Game ROMs can get the same treatment, though they're easier to manipulate. I'd make an edge connector fixture to plug in the ROM and read it out directly for inspection.

As far as the ROMs are concerned, I reverse engineer hardware and code a lot. It's not a big deal for me and I am equipped. Somewhere I have an 1802 disassembler or can get one. I speak assembly languages and I do know a little about the Studio 2 architecture. I make my living doing engineering projects, and usually charge a bundle, but would love to explore doing small kickstarter projects to do something like re-animating the S2, cheaply, for enthusiasts.”



Me: Would it possible to make a multicart for the Studio II?


“on the multicart.... i am guessing that's a combined cartridge with all the games, and designing one would be relatively simple. Large, cheap flash memories are widely available and all that's needed is some glue logic (mostly latches), a board layout, a little selector mechanism. the binaries for the games, and a board layout/fab. That used to be expensive, but not so much anymore. I'll look into what's needed.”


Me: I mentioned the urban legend of the Bingo game for the US Studio II...


“I don't know about the Bingo thing, but can imagine it would be easy to code.
It IS possible that at a trade show or ham fest or swap meet, a prototype Bingo cartridge appeared. Stuff is in a 1000 garages all over the land. Who knows?”

Edited by Blazing Lazers, Fri Mar 1, 2013 5:11 PM.


#2 fauxscot OFFLINE  

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Posted Fri Mar 1, 2013 5:29 PM

Wow. That sounds more interesting than I recall! (I am the former production line supervisor at the RCA plant that made these devices.)

Just joined this forum at the suggestion of Blazing Lazers to answer any questions anyone has. (I'm relying 100% on memory and it was 1976-77, so be prepared for an occasional error.)

Nice to know someone's interested in these things...

#3 SoulBlazer OFFLINE  

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Posted Fri Mar 1, 2013 6:55 PM

Wow. That sounds more interesting than I recall! (I am the former production line supervisor at the RCA plant that made these devices.)

Just joined this forum at the suggestion of Blazing Lazers to answer any questions anyone has. (I'm relying 100% on memory and it was 1976-77, so be prepared for an occasional error.)

Nice to know someone's interested in these things...


Thank you for taking the time to answer Blazing's questions, Sir. What did you do after your time at RCA and what do you do now? Did you do anything else connected with the video game industry? And back in 77, did you have ANY inkling about what the video game industry might turn into? :)

Also, you hinted in your responses that you knew the Stuido 2 was doomed the moment it came out. How did you personaly like the system and the games?

#4 bennybingo OFFLINE  

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Posted Fri Mar 1, 2013 7:06 PM

This is one of the most informative and interesting threads I have read in a while...not to mention, the information on this amazing piece of gaming history has been fairly spotty up to the present.

A+++ to Blazing Lazers for digging deeper and a huge thank you to the folks who made this system happen!!! We appreciate all of your input, and sharing your stories from behind the scenes! :thumbsup: :thumbsup: :thumbsup: :thumbsup:

#5 fauxscot OFFLINE  

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Posted Fri Mar 1, 2013 7:10 PM

Hi SoulBlazer...

After RCA, I worked at a number of progressively technical and management jobs at a bunch of different companies (Square D, Texas Instruments, NCR, Martin-Marietta (now Lockheed-Martin), Tektronix, Raytheon, a contract manufacturer now out of business, my wife's family business, and self-employment, which is where I am now.) I did test engineering and product design work, and a helluva lot of manufacturing and management.

When I was studying my undergrad, there weren't lots of microprocessors available, and no microcontrollers. I knew, though, that the tech was a game changer for a ton of products and that it would revolutionize products by adding intelligence and converting design from hardware-intensive to software intensive.

My worries about the Studio 2 were based on seeing Magnavox video games, as i recall. Color, high-resolution, joysticks, and sound-thru-the-TV were clearly superior to the Studio 2. What I heard about the S3, as I recall, was that it was color, and not a lot different than the S2. Still, this wsa the era of Pong, so having my own Studio 2 was cool, and having built it, even cooler. I was reallllly young (21?) Before the year was out 125 people reported to me. Pretty amazing.

Oh... and the speed with which RCA ditched it was remarkable.

Edited by fauxscot, Fri Mar 1, 2013 7:11 PM.


#6 BigO OFFLINE  

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Posted Fri Mar 1, 2013 7:20 PM

We had a Studio II when I was a kid. It doesn't seem like much of a system in retrospect, but we spent a lot of hours playing it. I mostly remember bowling as that was a real world activity that most of my family was involved in.

We got ours at "Radio Mart". Our town was pretty dinky. We only had a Radio Shack dealer, not a full fledged Radio Shack.

Thanks, fauxscot for your time recounting the history of the Studio II. Knowing that information actually increases my interest in digging out the unit I have now and playing a few games.

#7 SoulBlazer OFFLINE  

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Posted Fri Mar 1, 2013 7:36 PM

Thank you again for sharing all your memories and experiences on your time with RCA and the Studio 2. So little is known about the system, due to how unpopular it is, that getting 'first hand' info like this is really a gold mind, and you're very kind to take time out to come here and talk about it. :thumbsup:

Oh, I got my grad degree from Western Carolina University. We hated you guys. :P

#8 fauxscot OFFLINE  

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Posted Fri Mar 1, 2013 7:54 PM

Yeah, SoulBlazer... I hated us, too! (I did an MBA at WCU which I started while I was at RCA.)

#9 Atari2008 OFFLINE  

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Posted Fri Mar 1, 2013 9:06 PM

Wow!!! I am simply stunned, I echo the sentiments that this is one of the most exciting and informative posts that I've read here in a long while. Although I have never played nor owned an RCA Studio II, as a collector and retrogamer, I haven been interested in it for quite some time. One of my guilty pleasures, is to comb the internet from time to time and dig up any information I can on this obscure system. As has been mentioned here, there isn't much information on it, so I've never turned anything up...until tonight. I'm glad I checked! Blazing Lazers, I thank you, this is very informative and I appreciate you sharing this slice of history with us. fauxscot, thank you for taking the time to answer all of Blazing Lazers questions as well as ours. Last but not least, thank you for your contribution to video game history.

I'm looking forward to seeing what, if anything, is in store for the S2 in the future...perhaps a multicart, emulation, homebrew? Who knows. :)

#10 PsychedelicShaman OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Mar 2, 2013 2:13 AM

This is amazing, thanks fauxscot and Blazing Lazers. I'm always interested in obscure hardware.

I would be very interested in a multicart! It would be a nice revival for the Studio II, and you could make a small profit for your time. The roms are available online, but I also have a full set of carts (not Bingo), if you would like to make fresh dumps.

#11 fauxscot OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Mar 2, 2013 5:35 AM

I found the ROMs online, and I also found a pinout of the 22/44 pin edge connector. My recollection is that there are two pins on the 22-pin connector that when shorted, indicate the presence of a cartridge, and in fact, I think they just disable the internal game ROM. This means they all occupy the same address space, which can be no larger than what's in the largest cart, and again, my recollection was that two ROMs were the max in the cards?

The cards run on +5 Volts and the regulator in the S2 was a 7805, meaning there is plenty of 5 volt power for modern parts.

So a multi card would take a large external memory (by Studio 2 standards) and add a page selector, This would be pretty simple, as it's just a fixed nibble or byte that establishes what page you are on. Once the page is set, there's no need to do any address conversions as long as each game was placed at its own page boundary. A page selector could be as simple as a switch, just to prove the concept, or as complicated as a small micro. Such an approach would be applicable to any other type of game that used the same structure, though I know nothing of other games. This was the era of small memory spaces.

So to do one, here's what would be needed... a test Studio 2 for checking it out once fabricated, two game ROM images, a weekend fab project to prove the approach works for two units, and a week to make a board with a larger selector mechanism. Cost of a blank board would be in the area of 10-20 bux, worst case. Maybe a month of calendar time. Could be fun.

Edited by fauxscot, Sat Mar 2, 2013 5:36 AM.


#12 toymailman OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Mar 2, 2013 5:44 AM

This is amazing, thanks fauxscot and Blazing Lazers. I'm always interested in obscure hardware.

I would like to echo this as well. Thanks to both of you!

#13 mckafka99 OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Mar 2, 2013 7:43 AM

Being the owner of 2 of these, one with this problem (http://www.atariage....ay#entry2673826) and another on it's way hoping that it wont have the same issue, it's awesome to hear from those directly involved with it. It gets so little attention, yet seeing an ad for it in the TV Guide when I was really young was my first exposure to the possibility of home video games. I wanted it so bad, but it never happened. Now, I'm just trying to end up with a fully working one. Thanks for joining and sharing!

#14 BigO OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Mar 2, 2013 8:20 AM

So to do one, here's what would be needed... a test Studio 2 for checking it out once fabricated[...]

If mine didn't have video problems, I'd be happy to make it available for such a project.

Edited by BigO, Sat Mar 2, 2013 8:51 AM.


#15 fauxscot OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Mar 2, 2013 9:15 AM

Hey Guys... I followed a link from mckafka99 and found the ifixit teardown. wow, it has been a long time since i saw the inside of one of those, but page 2 of the teardown features the RF modulator. there are 4 coils in there. i think two were for channel frequency adjustment and two were for amplitude. it's a monochrome signal, so there aren't any color or sound carriers. The 3086 IC is just a 5 transistor array. video comes in from the video chip as a standard NTSC video waveform at 5Volts as I recall, though it may be 1, and the signal is AM modulated on the RF carrier for monochrome TVs of the time. (It works with color tv's,too, since NTSC color is retroactively compatible.) If the RF modulator doesn't work, the composite video signal can just be sent to a monitor directly, bypassing the need for the RF switch and avoiding signal strength issues or carrier frequency issues from the modulator. It's trivial, kinda. I have a spectrum analyzer, frequency counter and other measurement devices for adjusting those characteristics, by the way.

http://www.ifixit.co...Teardown/3527/2

BigO, what's your video problem?

This whole thing reminds me... we used a ton of old Tektronix scopes (515, 535, 545, 585) on our assembly line. Boonton RF millivoltmeter. An old HP spectrum analyzer. Some cheap frequency counters. I had to maintain all those scopes and it's why I fell in love with Tek hardware and finally went to work for them. Still a Tek nut, and if you want an arcane group of insane collecters, go check out the Tekscopes group on Yahoo! That stuff is like the space shuttle inside. Yum!

http://tech.groups.y...roup/TekScopes/

Anyway, if one of you folks wants to trade access to a unit for repair, I'm up for it. Even better.... if anyone has one good and busted, which can't get any worse, maybe it can be ressurrected?

Edited by fauxscot, Sat Mar 2, 2013 9:44 AM.


#16 accousticguitar OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Mar 2, 2013 9:31 AM

Video game history is fun! Thanks for all the info. :thumbsup: :thumbsup:

#17 BigO OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Mar 2, 2013 10:23 AM

BigO, what's your video problem?

Sadly, it's worse now than when I first got the unit.

[Recollection from several years ago]: Originally, there was a "weak" video signal. The picture was viewable, not great, and changed (got stronger/weaker) when the video/power cable was moved around. I played it a little then stored it.

I just dug the unit out of storage and now it doesn't produce a picture at all. There is some vague disturbance of the picture when turning the unit on/off or actuating the channel 2/3 selector switch.
With no power to the unit, my TV shows a mostly black screen with flecks of snow. When the unit is powered up, the screen becomes slightly less black overall with more snow.

I opened up the unit and I see some evidence of moisture intrusion. There's corrosion on the traces at the lower edge of the board, mostly around the diode arrays. No contamination, just looks like water got in there at some point. The traces still seem to be intact. For all I know, the oxidation is meaningless and the problem is in the RF swtich at the other end of the cable.

The unit beeps and the LED comes on. I assume that means the CPU is functioning. I didn't fire up a 'scope or logic probe to verify that. (I did have a meter handy: the 5V regulator is putting out 4.93V).



I don't have much time to tinker with it right now, but if you think this would be suitable for your testing shoot me a PM with your contact information.

My terms for the loan:
I'll loan the unit and four CIB cartridges to you as long as you need. Shipping (to the continental US) is on me. Just drop me a line occasionally when/if progress occurs.
If you need to drill the rivets to open up the cartridges for your research and development efforts, I'm okay with that (as long as at least one of them comes back as a functional multi-cart. ;))
If it isn't worth fixing, just send it back. If it can be fixed and useful for your work, just send it back when you're done with it.

Edited by BigO, Sat Mar 2, 2013 10:54 AM.


#18 fauxscot OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Mar 2, 2013 11:24 AM

BigO... will do. Sounds like fun.

Just for the thread.... what works? The switch in the RF box is switching DC. The likelyhood is that your RF modulator is working, The beep means the micro is working to a point since the beep is software triggered and is brief. If it were silent or constantly on, that would be an indicator that the micro wasn't working. If the mico is working, then the latches and the ROMs are good and since any game takes some scratchpad RAM, the RAMs are probably good. No way to tell about the socket, but there's not much there that would fail. Ditto keyboards. If water got in, a good cleaning should fix things.

My approach to fixing this would be to look at the video output going into the modulator assembly with a scope. Even with no video, the veritical and horizontal sync pulses would be on the waveform.

Then, I'd look at the RF and see that the oscillator was running and adjustable and at the proper frequencies for CH3/4. If not, the only active component is the 3086 transistor array, but i'd be willing to bet it's OK. the rest are passives.

I shall shoot you a pm later....

If I can find the 22/44 pin edge connectors, it wouldn't take long to test out a selector mechanism... maybe a day.

#19 Mark Wolfe OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Mar 2, 2013 1:16 PM

if there is a multi-cart on the horizon, consider me a preorder... :)

#20 Atari2008 OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Mar 2, 2013 9:13 PM

if there is a multi-cart on the horizon, consider me a preorder... :)


Same here, if there is a multi-cart, consider me a pre-order as well. I'd like to support this project any way I can.

#21 Atari2008 OFFLINE  

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Posted Sat Mar 2, 2013 10:49 PM

fauxscot, thank you for your time, this is very informative and interesting! I'm curious as to why RCA designed the Studio II the way they did - black & white instead of color and built-in keypads instead of joysticks. Why did RCA go with this design? Also, you mentioned that the systems piled up in the warehouse, was the system commercially viable anywhere? I remember an old thread where someone posted an article from a store in Texas, claiming the Studio II was a big hit among its customers.

Thank you again for your time.

#22 BassGuitari OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Mar 3, 2013 2:58 PM

This thread is amazing. So many thanks to Fauxscot and Blazing Lazers for their time and efforts bringing valuable info about such an obscure footnote of video game history to light.

I've never heard of the Studio 3 project before, and it's fascinating to learn that the color "clone" systems found abroad may actually be, at heart, Studio 3s. It makes sense, though, considering how quickly RCA discontinued the system and that it was never licensed.

Multicarts and homebrews are exciting possibilities for this system (well, *I* think so, at any rate). There is also the fairly large library of CHIP-8 games (or at least "large" compared to the Studio II library), many of which I imagine could be ported pretty easily for someone with the know-how and the inclination, although some CHIP-8 games look like they run in graphical resolutions the Studio II probably is incapable of.

#23 Atari2008 OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Mar 3, 2013 4:59 PM

i agree multicarts and homebrews are exciting possibilities for this system! The Space Invaders homebrew showed that an arcade game could be ported to the system. I'd like to see other simplified versions of arcade classics, perhaps Pac-Man. Chip-8 games would be interesting! I'm certainly in for homebrews and multicarts for the Studio II. :)

#24 y-bot OFFLINE  

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Posted Sun Mar 3, 2013 5:28 PM

Wow, thanks for all the great info. Very interested if a multicart gets made. I have all the commercially produced Studio II carts plus some newsletters and a programming cart.

#25 5-11under ONLINE  

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Posted Sun Mar 3, 2013 5:43 PM

The 1802 was CMOS and ran on +5 volts, and was capable of static operation.... i.e., you could stop the clock with no penalty. Very low power. We thought it alone would be a great product for RCA, but it never took off. Intel, Intersil, Motorola, and a bunch of other companies ran away with that market.

The 1802 was still at least somewhat popular, at least in space applications, and some other industrial/commercial applications. A company I worked for used them to control electroplating tools. I wanted one after seeing after scouring the local library's Popular Electronics back issues... http://exemark.com/M...larElecwebc.pdf




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