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How to Connect Your Old Videogame System

RCA CableIf you've just dug your old videogame system out of the attic, you might not remember exactly how to connect it. They're not quite like modern game systems, and may require something extra to connect it to that brand new TV you have. To the left is the cable you should see attached to your videogame system. It is typically called RCA, and you will have to use some sort of adapter before you connect it to your TV. While it looks like it should fit into one of the composite jacks (and it will actually fit), that will not work because the audio and video signals are being carried in the same cable. In order to use the composite jacks on your TV, you will have to separate the audio and video signals somehow (described below).

The following instructions are relevant to most vintage videogame and computer systems that connect to a television. Specifically, the Atari 2600, 5200, and 7800. However, if you have the 4-port (four joystick ports) version of the 5200, you need a special switchbox. Try eBay or Best Electronics (catalog item) for this proprietary switchbox. If you have the 2-port version of the 5200, you can use the methods described below.

The first thing you need to do is figure out what type of connection you're going to make. Look at the back of your TV and compare to the pictures to the left. It's much easier to connect to a coaxial jack, and this is what most people will do. Composite will give you better audio and video quality, but you must perform a hardware modification.


Coaxial

RCA to Coaxial Converter
Coaxial (F-type) to Female RCA Adapter
Radio Shack part #278-276

TV Switchbox
Manual TV/Game Switchbox with Coaxial Output

300 to 75 Ohm Transformer
300 to 75 Ohm Matching Transformer

Coaxial is by far the easiest way to connect your old game system, and the method most people will use. This is the 'cable ready' input that is found on every TV made today (and for some time now). If you don't at least have this connection, you have our sympathy. There are several methods you can use for this connection.

The best way is to get a Coaxial to RCA adapter (left). It is cheaper, smaller, and provides a better signal than the traditional TV/Game switchbox. This is a small plug that will cost you about $3 at Radio Shack. It is called a "Gold-Plated Phono-to-F Adapter" and the Radio Shack part number is 278-276. Just connect it to the RCA cable of the game system, then plug the other end into the coaxial ("cable") jack on the TV. Set the TV to the channel that the game system is set to (usually 2-4), and your're ready.

If you still have an old TV/Game switchbox and you don't want to buy something new, you can use that. You can also purchase these at Radio Shack for about $5, but if you're going to go buy something we recommend the adapter described above. Some TV switchboxes have built-in coaxial output, some do not. If yours does not, you will need to buy a 300 to 75 Ohm matching transformer (again, about $2 at Radio Shack). If you you do have coaxial output on your switchbox, just plug the game system's RCA cable into the switchbox, connect the switchbox to your TV's coaxial ("Cable In") jack, and push the switch to "Game" or "Computer". Note - you cannot use the 'automatic switching' boxes that newer game systems like the NES use - the signal in most old systems is not strong enough to trigger the automatic switching, so be sure you buy a manual switchbox.

Most new TV/Game switchboxes will allow you to connect your Cable TV and Videogame system at the same time, but the picture is often less than ideal. We recomend a coaxial selector - this will allow you to choose between inputs (game, cable, whataver) at the touch of a button. We found this one at Parts Express for about $6.

A/V Switchbox AV Switchbox


Composite

Composite JacksAny way you slice it, generating composite output takes more work. How much more depends upon exactly what you want to do. To get true composite signals, you will need to be handy with a soldering iron and modify your Atari 2600 internally. If you've never soldered anything before, it might be a little tricky, but it's worth it for the clean signals! You may also notice that modern equipment has left and right audio jacks - this is for stereo sound, but you can't get stereo sound from your 2600 unless you make further hardware modifications. So if you make the mod, you'll just have one audio cable in use.

VCR with composite outputNow if you don't want to do that, but you're using a monitor or tv without a coaxial input (for example, a Commodore monitor), there are other options. You will still have to convert the signal to coaxial first (see Coaxial section). Then, if you have a VCR handy, you can run the coaxial connection into the VCR, and then use the composite outputs from the VCR. This will not give you the true signal clarity of composite audio/video, but it will allow you make that composite connection. If you don't have an extra VCR for this, you can probably go buy a junker at the local thrift store - the tape mechanism doesn't need to work, just the demodulator. Demodulator's rarely go bad on VCR's, they're usually thrown out because of the tape mechanism.

Speaking of demodulators, you can simply use one of these instead of taking up all that space with a VCR. Unfortunately, these are much more expensive ($100+) and you're not likely to find one in a thrift. Unless you're going to make a hardware modication, we really recommend using a straight coaxial connection, because going through a VCR/demodulator defeats the purpose of a composite connection.