For a while now, UK MIke has been trying to get me to part with my Atari 7800. In discussing what equipment we would need for Revival Expo he mentioned that I should bring it, so that we can play Retrogaming Roundup Presents CGE Adventures at the show. (I think he was just hoping that by the end of the weekend he could talk me into leaving it in his care)
At the time, the crew did not yet know the state of play for CGE, and therefore the completion date of the game was a bit of an unknown.
This led to an interesting dilemma. We wanted to play the game on as close to real hardware as possible, at the very least it was to be played with the iconic 2600 joystick. This meant either sourcing a Harmony cart, or going with a usb joystick interface for a PC.
The Harmony cart would be as close to the final experience as we would get, but the downsides would be the cost of the cart, and an uncertainty at the time as to the playability on PAL timing hardware.
Going the USB route was looking to be the most likely solution, but would very likely be running on a laptop, which would obviously have a vastly inferior hardware aesthetic, especially if the units LCD screen were to be used.
This made me think about whether I still had any PC’s with a graphics card that had composite output, and then the ideal solution dawned on me. Raspberry Pi. The ridiculously cheap credit card sized single board computer (SBC) that has taken the tech hobbyist world by storm.
The Raspberry Pi would have great composite output, I can knock up a customised OS on it to give fast boot times, it was nice and small, so there was no need to lug a PC around, and the GPIO connections create the ideal interface to make a joystick adapter, without having to buy one.
The best was yet to come though, when a friend suggested I buy a cheap broken Atari 2600 to house it in, to give the impression that it was using the actual hardware. My brain then took this one step further, and decided that it already has all the ports and switches necessary that I could utilise to make a case for the Pi, with just a ribbon cable to interface it to the console (made from an old floppy drive cable), and then run the audio and video out of the case as the original hardware did.
So after some quick soldering, and tinkering with Linux, I now have an Atari 2600, with a ribbon cable umbilical cord that I can quickly hook any Raspberry Pi to. The power switch, obviously, turns it on. Within a few seconds it passes the initial Linux bootloader, and displays the RetroGaming RoundUp Presents CGE Adventures logo, whilst continuing to boot in the background. After that you are briefly shown the Linux command prompt (complete with ASCII art RGRU logo) before Stella automatically boots up into the CGEA ROM, and you are off and running. In total this takes just under 20 seconds, but with the nice splash screens it seems a lot shorter.
Once in game the joystick functions as you would expect, and the original game reset switch on the console sends the right signal to Stella to simulate a hardware reset.
So now we have a very nice Atari 2600 capable of playing the development builds of CGEA.
The postponement of CGEA however has now rendered this project a little redundant, although having an extra ‘station’ that punters can play the game on probably won’t hurt.
Fortunately though, I had thought about what I was going to do with the hardware after the show, and a quick change of a script file alters it from booting CGEA, to simply booting Stella into a big list of ROMS. From here the joystick navigates the list, and the consoles game select switch runs the selected ROM. Pressing this switch again in game returns to the ROM list, and Voila! I now have a nice reliable system to play all my Atari 2600 games on, and can sell UK Mike my 7800 at a high price
And when I get bored of that it serves as an incredibly strong Raspberry Pi case, for my general tinkering, with the bonus that it has a decent hardware joystick interface if I ever find time to develop my own game for it.