I’ve wanted a working Atari 2600 VCS for a while. I bought a couple of them a few years ago, but they either died early, or were busted to begin with. I tried taking them apart, but probably made things worse. I lost faith in the machine. To buy one that was guaranteed to work meant throwing out a lot of cash.
Last year on a trip to Fry’s, I saw a little machine called the Atari Flashback. It was a little box shaped like a VCS, but about a quarter of the size. It comes with a dozen or so built in games, but no cartridge slot, so I lost interest – I wanted a machine that I could play all my existing carts on. Still, the idea of a VCS that was like a NOAC was intriguing.
While Steve was visiting over Thanksgiving this year, we entered a major retro gaming binge. While he was trying to finish Contra, I did a little more reading on the Flashback – it turns out you can add cart slot to some models (the Flashback 2, but not easily the 1 and 3 models). Quite a few people have added a cartridge slot to it (see here and here).
Unlike these mods, my goal was to demake the Flashback – take this modern beast and put it through reverse evolution until it became a vintage VCS once again. I had a VCS light sixer body in great shape, and wanted to stuff the flashback into that. Externally it would be a real VCS – it would use the original joystick ports, power port, switches and cartridge slot. Internally, it would be the Flashback. The only exception would be it would output composite video from the Flashback instead of the old crappy RF.
Time to hack. I picked up a used Flashback 2 on eBay for $20. I tested it and it worked great. I opened it up and discovered something interesting. In a fit of passive-aggressive engineering, the folks who made the Flashback PCB left instructions on exactly how to wire up the cartridge slot, right on their PCB. Very handy.
The Flashback electronics are actually quite tiny. Everything, including joystick ports and switches, fits on a board about 7 inches long by 1.5 inches wide. As you can see below, the whole Flashback (bottom PCB) is much smaller than even the main board of the VCS (top PCB). What a difference 30 years makes…
The plan was to keep the main VCS board with the cart slot, joystick ports and power socket, plus the PCB with the switches, and of course the huge aluminium chassis to hold everything together nicely. To begin, I wanted to be sure that I could wire up the original VCS switches to the Flashback PCB (the tracks were pretty thin). That seemed to work out fine, after a couple of attempts – although I started to get an inkling of how many cables would be involved. Here is the Flashback running, but controlled with the VCS switches (notice all the green and yellow cables I added):
Then came the important question – will it all fit into the VCS case? I found enough space on either side of the main VCS board, provided I cut some of the switch PCB – no problem there, as that originally held the voltage regulator for the VCS, and we were going to use the regulator from the Flashback anyway. Out came the Dremel, and after some grinding, there was enough space.
Next was wiring up the cart slot to the Flashback board. I used IDE ribbon cables to try and keep things tidy. Using the handy hints left by the Flashback engineers, it didn’t take too long. Did I mention that there are a lot of cables? It’s 12 from the switches, 2 from the power jack, 9 from each joystick, and 24 from the cartridge socket – 56 in total. It got a little spaghetti even using ribbon cables in most places.
A quick test showed two shorts, which were taken care of. Then a final test with everything closed up, using Yar’s Revenge of course. Runs beautifully!