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Dan Blanchard

AtariPi - My Mini Atari Project

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Note: This is a repost of a blog that I wrote last month.  I thought the members of this community would appreciate it.  Enjoy.
The blog can be viewed in its entirety at http://zopingo.com/dans-blog/ataripi-my-mini-atari-project


This post will describe my journey to create a miniature version of the Atari VCS using a Raspberry Pi system. My introduction to the Raspberry Pi came when my daughter suggested that I use it to power my full-size arcade machine project. You can read more about that project at http://zopingo.com/dans-blog/back-to-the-arcade-a-1980s-classic.
Once that project was up-and-running as a semi-portable unit, I learned of the Raspberry Pi Zero and had a thought… what if I could use that to create a mini Atari 2600?  The thought came because my son had acquired a NES Classic and SNES Classic which did credit to their much older, much larger predecessors (NES and SNES) that came out in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s respectively. The classics are much smaller versions of the originals but looked the part and included many of the games that were originally released in cartridge format for their larger cousins.  All-in-all these were very nice machines that captured the look and feel of the originals.  Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Atari. 

snes.jpg.a5af128e0eebbd3f4f59f63cd4d15709.jpg   nes.jpg.730cf01efbb90d00cc62bc273b638724.jpg


I’m not sure if it was licensing agreements or what the deal was, but someone dropped the ball when the Atari Flashback units hit the market.  Not only have they released multiple versions of essentially the same thing, but they gave the classic console a comical look with large, colorful, round buttons and styling that only somewhat represents the original design.  The original Atari VCS (later known as the Atari 2600) was a sleek, attractive, black ribbed unit with wood-grain trim and metal toggle switches.  It was a piece of art to be proudly displayed in any family room.  


Those pictures make me think of the Will Smith quote in Men In Black II, “Old and busted – New hotness.”  The irony in that is the old machine is the “new hotness” and vice versa.  There was one exception to the entire Flashback series, and I happened to have one, but only by luck due to a decision I made on my original arcade cabinet project.  I acquired it from a guy on Craigslist who was selling it for $10 including two classic Atari joysticks; I was only after the joysticks so I could play Atari VCS games on my arcade cabinet before this project was even an idea.  I’m glad I didn’t trash the Flashback 2 though.


The Atari Flashback 2 was the only model that has a chance at being modified to look like the classic because it most closely resembles the original design.  All the later versions added joystick ports to the front of the unit and they changed the shape of the bezel around the switches. 



The Flashback 2 still had those comical buttons though, which would need to be changed to satisfy my desire for the original look.  So, the quest began to find some toggle switches that would resemble the originals; no problem… right?  For those of you who have read my Back to the Arcade blog, you will know that I had access to an incredible electronics store not far from where I lived.  Think Radio Shack of the 1970’s but much larger; back in a time when the employees were usually electronics hobbyists and could actually help you with project challenges.

After a visit to my local electronics store my issue became reality; I couldn’t find toggle switches anywhere that would suit my needs until I discovered the holy grail of vintage Atari parts.  Apparently, some time ago, Atari sold their entire inventory of parts to a company called Best Electronics in San Jose, CA and they sell the parts to hobbyists like me.  Not only did I get toggle switches that looked like the originals; they WERE the originals and very reasonably priced!



Now that I have the switch thing figured out, I got motivated to get the rest of the project done.  One of the first things to do now was get rid of the cheesy, fake, plastic, simulated wood grain on the front of the unit.  I’m going to get real wood, like the original unit I had in 1977.  


     Editor’s Note: If you are reading this now and getting ready to go to the comments and blast me about the real wood comment; keep reading.


If I am going to match the wood trim of the original I will have to figure out which wood and color to use.  This led me down a rabbit trail for a few weeks before I finally figured it out.  My research revealed that the original was probably teak and I was able to simulate it nicely with a piece of pine and some Minwax Cherry – 235 stain.  Apply some polyurethane and voilà , I turned out incredible.



Now it’s on to the electronics.  I started this article talking about the Raspberry Pi Zero, or Raspberry Pi Zero W to be precise.  The W indicates a wireless (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth) version and doubles the price to a whopping $10!  This will be the heart of the project, I will be able to run any game ever produced for the Atari VCS.
One of the things this project led me to was utilizing the GPIO pins to physically connect switches to the Pi.  Something I did not have to do with my full-size arcade cabinet.  This required a little knowledge of Python programming and some moderate soldering skills.  My soldering skills are acceptable and fortunately my daughter had recently finished a class which included Python so she was able to help me out here.



Since this unit will now connect to a monitor via HDMI and the joysticks connect via USB through an adaptor (2600-daptor) and the power plug is in a different place I had to delete some of the existing holes on the case and make new holes for the above mentioned jacks.

Remember the switches that I acquired earlier?  It’s now time to get creative and figure out how to mount them since they are mounted at an angle, it presented a bit of a challenge, but I figured it out.  Rather than explaining here, just look at the pictures below to see how it all got worked out.


I’ve got the switches, I’ve got the wood, I’ve modified the holes, I’ve got the coding right, and I have all the electronics and adapters; I’m ready to go…  Not so fast, there’s one more little detail to figure out; the switch grommets.  I have been looking at many, many options of things I could use as grommets but nothing was the right size or shape to satisfy my OCD on this project; especially since I had original switches. 

I came up with an idea to make the grommets.  I could have my friend print them on his 3-D printer, but I would need a 3-D file.  I can sketch pretty well in 2-D on my computer but not 3-D which is what my friend needed to ‘print’ them.  I drafted up my design in 2-D with complete dimensions (my former career as an Engineer came in useful at this point) and hired some guy in Pakistan (via www.fiverr.com) to convert my file to a 3-D compatible format for 5 bucks.  He had the file back to me within a couple hours which I then sent to my friend who in-turn printed my grommets.  From idea to physical parts in hand was less than half a day.  Gotta love technology.



Since I got rid of the goofy round buttons I needed to create some graphics for my new panel.  Fortunately there are Atari fonts available so I was able to go with those.  My panel replicates the original as close as possible with just a couple deviations. Rather than using a toggle on/off switch, I opted for a momentary switch in this location so I can safely shut down the system by toggling the switch.  Also, since this machine will not use actual game cartridges, I opted for a lighted button that will act an escape button to return to the game menu.



Now that everything is in order, it is time to make it all fit in the console.  It started out seeming like an easy task but quickly filled the space, mostly with wires. At this point I’m sure glad I went with a Pi Zero because a normal size Pi would not fit at this point.



Remember the real wood that I mentioned earlier? Well after my build was complete, I decided that I needed a full-size 2600 for some photo comparisons to show the size difference so I started shopping.  I found out that working units were somewhat spendy so my focus was on aesthetically nice units that didn’t work.  I finally found one on Ebay with ‘unknown condition’ for $27.85 shipped.


Once it arrived, I eagerly opened it up so I could get some pictures along with my newly created invention and lo-and-behold the wood was not wood at all. It was plastic with a simulated wood grain finish.  Good thing I wasn’t challenged with any bets on the topic because I stood to lose a hefty chunk of change because I was very confident that my unit in 1977 was real wood.  I think this is considered the mandela effect.   

After I got over the ‘wood’ thing I decided to see if this thing did indeed work; and it did not.  It sat in a  box until after I moved and one day I decided to see if I could get it running; which I did.  See my blog post entitled, Atari 2600 (VCS) Repairs.



I was fortunate to have an Atari VCS growing up but I gave it away while purging things before I left for the Air Force.  I never thought I would ever be interested in the Atari 2600 again, but this was a fun project and in the end I get to play some games that I remember as a young teen and share them with my now grown children.  



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How many games are included with the system?

Edited by Serguei2
Didn't pay attention to the screenshots.

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4 hours ago, Serguei2 said:

How many games are included with the system?

It is built on the Raspberry Pi system so it will run any game made for the 2600.

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4 hours ago, D Train said:

Nice job!


You need to get your fuji to light up, though...

Although that would be nice, I was going for something as close as possible as the original.  The pictures don't do it justice, but the logo is a chrome foil that looks very close to the original.

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Are you using a retro pie image or a standalone Stella on this? Care to share the python script or the image that you are using for the pi? :) Curious minds want to know! 

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