Hello Woodgrain My Old Friend

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A couple of weeks ago Natalie bought an Atari 2600 for me as a present. It came with 60 games, two joysticks and paddles, so it was a pretty good deal. She did ask the seller if it worked, and she said it did.

When Natalie got it home, I took the 2600 apart to make sure nothing had leaked all over the place or was otherwise obviously broken or loose and it was SUPER clean, which was encouraging. Just some minor nicotine film everywhere, but it was even dust-free inside. So I hacked together a super crappy cable to convert from the Atari's RCA RF cable to coax to get it hooked up to the TV. Unfortunately it didn't seem to work after all. Natalie was pretty bummed out, but I decided that she'd tried to get me a present, and instead got us a project, and so I convinced her not to bother the seller or leave negative feedback or whatever. After all, as far as the seller knew, the last time she saw it hooked up, it probably did work.

As it was, it did the same thing whether there was a cartridge in or not, just various interference patterns:

The 2600 is like the VW Bug of electronics. There's not that much in there to break, what can break is relatively easy to repair even for rank amateurs like us, and they sold 30 million of them, so there are loads of parts. We'd make it work, and we'd learn A Thing. And if it didn't work at the end, just dip in and grab another console and try again.

To that end, we bought a $5 RCA -> Coax converter, a 2600 re-cap kit, and went way overkill on a swell Hakko solder station to replace the garbage iron I had and hated using. I also grabbed some junk electronics to show Natalie what we're trying to do. We're gonna heat this stuff up, get these components out, get all the old solder out and put new components in. I thought of doing a composite video conversion at the same time, but I kind of wanted to take it one step at a time.

There are only like 5 caps in here to replace, and they also sent a replace voltage regulator. I had previously tested the voltage regulator and it was fine, (near enough) 12V on the input and 5V output, so I opted not to replace it. We split the re-cap duties so both of us could get in some practice on the new soldering iron. It worked great, 0 -> 600 degrees in seconds. We pulled the 3 socketed chips out and hosed the sockets with contact cleaner along with all the switches and the cartridge port.

After that work, I hooked it back up again and....Definite Progress:

A staticky display, but definitely playable. Joysticks work, paddles work (after a hosing out with the brake cleaner). I decided to stop touching anything until the RCA->coax converter showed up, since I was 90% sure the problem was probably that janky as fuck cable I gooped together. Natalie had tracking on it, and they said it was delivered "Today" to our same street address, but 3 towns away. It turns out they'd sent the wrong tracking number, however the correct tracking number showed it as having been delivered a week ago. A quick harried rummage through a week's worth of opened shipping envelopes and we found it. Hooked it up and, yeah, I'd say this is pretty much handled:

I see no point in doing a composite conversion. This is 100x better than any image you'd ever get off of one of these when they were new. If the RF modulator starts to fail, it's always an option later on.

So now the 2600 is in its place along side the arcade cabinet. Of course all of these roms are available in emulation, and I've got an archive of nearly all 2600 games. If we really want to play some serious Fishing Derby, we can do so there. But it's really nice to have a functional 2600 with original games. Natalie is totally enamored with this whole thing and is already stacking up her favorite games. It's totally likely that we'll flip the whole game-time layout and put the arcade cabinet on music video duty while we play Atari on the main TV.

There are still games that don't work, and we often have to switch the console off and on once or twice to get a game to start. Some are also pretty susceptible to any nudge to the console, so we'll probably get it back apart, clean the cartridge port properly, make sure all the contacts are good and re-tin them if they aren't, and see if that helps. But really, this instability is par for the course for 8 year old me. It's part of the charm


I have a very close long-time friend who's been trying to mentor me into doing electronics projects since...1988 or so? I never got any good at it. I only ever had one of those garbage un-regulated plug-it-in-and-wait-10-minutes soldering irons that never really got hot enough. I couldn't be bothered at the end of the day. I was too busy playing games to care. I think he was pretty happy to see me tackle even such a simple project and dip our toes in.

At the end of it, his only comment was "Working with electronics takes on a different dimension if you have a scope. Fun to see what is happening in a circuit.".

So I guess we gotta get project-ing.

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