Lap joystick

The Atari 2600 joysticks were pretty much shot, so I picked up a couple of arcade joysticks and buttons thinking I’d build a couple of new ones to use with the Ataris.

My initial plan was to use a project enclosure to build a new joystick out of, but it turned out to be a bit too small and felt awkward. Then I looked around and saw an old lap desk that I wasn’t using anymore and thought “Oooh, that might work.”

The lap desk was originally designed to have a little pouch for carrying things like paper and writing implements in. Perfect for containing the wiring and components. The innards of the lap desk was accessible via a few zippers (two “pouches” contained inserts with styrofoam beads for padding and a middle pouch for stashing things in). Used a hole saw to make a few holes for the joystick controller and two buttons so that the “lap joystick” could be used left or right handed.

Joystick controller installed on the lap desk
Joystick controller installed on the lap desk

The joystick controller and buttons went in very nicely.

Buttons added to the lap joystick
Buttons added to the lap joystick
Buttons added to the lap joystick
Buttons added to the lap joystick

To wire everything up, I started with a piece of copper clad PCB hot-glued to the back for a base. I thought some MeSquares would make good spots to wire up the joystick and buttons to the cable that connects to the Atari. A terminal connector was used for the common connection. I was originally going to just solder the common connections to the copper clad, but my soldering iron turned out to be too puny and ineffective for soldering onto a copper clad heat sink. The cable from one of the dead joysticks was used to connect to the Atari console.

Getting the joystick and buttons wired up
Getting the joystick and buttons wired up

The wiring is pretty ugly and I’ll probably re-do it at some point to make it neater but the lap joystick works perfectly with the Atari, and it’s actually pretty comfortable to use. The cable out to the console ended up being kind of on the short side (it’s not that long to begin with), so the console has to be pretty close to play. When I re-wire everything, I’ll see if I can extend that out a bit.

I’ve got one more joystick controller and will need to get a couple more buttons to build a second lap joystick. I think I’ll see if I can find some shorter buttons to use.

Atari 2600 controllers

Went through and checked out all of the controllers that came with the Atari 2600s. There were 5 Atari joysticks, 5 other joysticks and two sets of paddles.

The joysticks are pretty simple devices, consisting of a single PCB board with 5 metal dome button-type switches.

Atari joystick PCB

The joystick consists of a plastic piece with knobby bits that contact the domes. Pushing the joystick up, down, left, or right causes the knobby bit to press down on the switch, closing it and making a signal go down the corresponding wire.

One of the joysticks was broken. The other four joysticks work ok, but aren’t super responsive and the fire button on one of them doesn’t seem to be working.

The other non-Atari joysticks sort of work, but mostly don’t. Haven’t taken them apart yet to see if there’s anything that can be repaired.

The paddles are pretty simple devices, each consisting of a single 1 Mohm potentiometer and a push button.

Atari paddle controllers

After disassembling the potentiometers and cleaning them, they worked a little bit better than they did before, but there’s still a lot of jitter in the resistance measurement when the pots are turned, which translated to jittery movements in games. I’ll probably end up replacing the potentiometers if I can find any suitable ones.

Atari 2600 progress

After replacing the voltage regulators and several capacitors on the Atari 2600s, one of them is back in operation!

Pac-Man on the Atari 2600
Pac-Man on the Atari 2600

Out of the 18 cartridges I have, half of them worked (were playable) when I plugged them in. The others just gave me squiggly lines or just a black screen. Not sure if it’s an issue with the cartridges or the cartridge slot.

Still lots of work to do on the consoles. The other console only got a quick check with a couple cartridges, so I’m not sure if it’s working yet. The switches on both of them are a bit finicky so I’ll probably have to take them out for cleaning/refurb. I don’t think any of them will need to be replaced though. The cartridge slot seemed a bit touchy too, but looking into that will be a bit more work I think.

After that I’ll tackle the controllers. There are a few of them to work on. I’ve got 5 Atari and 5 third party joysticks plus a pair of paddles. The one joystick I tried mostly worked, although it wasn’t very responsive when pushing the stick in the down direction.

Atari 2600 refurb plan

After going through a few forum posts, I think I’m going to start with replacing some of the capacitors and the 7805 5V voltage regulator on one of the Atari 2600s (the older one).

Physically the caps look fine but after who knows how long in storage, they probably need replacing anyway. There are three electrolytic capacitors, five mylar film (green chiclets) capacitors, two polystyrene capacitors and one ceramic disk capacitor I’m planning to replace.

I’ve replaced the video cord with an RCA-F adapter, so now the video signal will go through regular RG-6 coax right to the TV’s coax/cable input.

The power connector is a 3.5 mm tip-ring jack, which I’d like to replace as well with a more standard 2.1 mm barrel jack, but finding one with the right footprint is proving a bit difficult. That might be a second slightly more involved project.

Time to go shopping in my parts bins. I think I should have most of what I need already on hand.

Project: Atari 2600 Repair/Restoration

On the bench are two Atari 2600 video game systems that were given to me by one of the members of the local Slack community I hang out in. They’d been sitting in storage for the past few decades and didn’t seem to be working so he asked if anyone wanted them before they went out to the dumpster. I, of course, said I’d take them.

They’re of two different vintages based on the serial numbers, and came with a number of controllers and cartridges. For having been in storage, they looked in decent shape, although the older one was obviously sitting out in the open more than the other newer one.

The older Atari 2600 system.  SN 82227274
The older Atari 2600 system. SN 82227274

The 2600 isn’t too difficult to disassemble, and there’s already a pretty good Atari 2600 teardown on the iFixit site. This particular unit was made for Atari by Dimerco Electronic Corp in Taiwan and has serial number 82227274 according to the sticker on the back. I was able to brush off a lot of the dirt on this one, but it could still use a good cleaning.

Inside looked relatively clean with some tarnish and corrosion on the RF shield. No obvious issues with any of the components. From the silkscreen, this is a Rev 14 board.

Atari 2600 main board
Atari 2600 main board

Underneath the RF shield are the brains of the system: the MOS 6532 RAM-I/O-Timer (RIOT) chip just below the cartridge connector, the MOS 6507 CPU, and the Atari television interface adapter (TIA) chip at the bottom.

Underneath the RF shield; MOS 6532 RIOT chip (top), MOS 6507 CPU (middle), TIA chip (bottom)
Underneath the RF shield; MOS 6532 RIOT chip (top), MOS 6507 CPU (middle), TIA chip (bottom)

The RCA jack to the right is where the video signal goes out to the TV.

Initial testing of the two systems didn’t show anything on the screen. I ordered some RCA-F connector adapters (no idea these even existed until I started looking for them) to replace the RF modulator, and was able to get some images on the screen with one of the cartridges inserted. There was no response to any of the switches or controllers though, so more troubleshooting is going to be required.

Atari game on the television
It lives…sort of

I’ll need to do some more research on repairing and refurbishing these. I’ve found some potentially useful threads on the AtariAge Atari 2600 forum, so I’ll dig around there some more.