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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!

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UPDATE (9/1/2014): If you are looking to build a project like this, see my post on the Rabbit Engineering Model I1 device.

Lately I have been on a Strike Fighters 2 binge. SF2 is a great indie combat flight sim, written by Tsuyoshi “TK” Kawahito (a flight sim developer rock star from the 1990s) out of his garage, and sold DRM-free online. The game presents air combat between the 50s and 80s, and is in the tradition of the old ‘survey sims’ of the 1980s and 90s. It has a solid user community, with lots of free add-ons available.

As with a lot of older flight sims, there are a lot of keyboard commands. Frankly, looking at your keyboard while you fly breaks presence for me. This is the reason why people buy HOTAS controllers, after all. But of course, you can’t get all your controls into a HOTAS setup. For commercial flight simulators (like FSX), there are many dedicated controllers like Saitek‘s Multi Panel or Radio Panel, but there is really nothing comparable for combat sims.

So time to build a set of custom controllers for SF2. I realized that part of the coolness of the Saitek controllers was that they look like the real thing. So I did a little research into combat aircraft panels from that era. Here are two representative ones:

This is part of the defense panel from an F-4. Black panel, white line breaking up the controls into groups.

This is part of the input panel from an A-6’s DIANE computer. Again, black with white sans-serif text, and again big, chunky controls (to be usable while wearing flight gloves). In general, everything is kind of lumped together, but grouped using text and likes on the panel. So this was the look I would try to reproduce in my panel. On top of that, I wanted to keep the entire project cost under $100 (the cost of a typical Saitek panel), and it had to be easy to setup/teardown on my desk. Finally, it had to be plug-and-play; no messing with software, loading profiles or calibrating anything. It would use the IPac2 Distribution box to interface to the PC.

I decided that the controls I would build would be an armament panel, radar control panel, and some miscellaneous controls (gear, flaps, etc). The idea was to cover as many of the common aircraft functions as possible between HOTAS and these new panels; sim-only controls (such as time compress, the map and radio controls) could remain on the keyboard.

The project: Custom controllers for Strike Fighters 2

Because this project was intended to have a clean look, planning was more important than ever. I began thinking about how many game functions to map onto the 32 available inputs, and on what type of physical control to surface them (rotaries, buttons or toggles).

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Once that was cleared and I had the count of how many of each count I needed, I bought them at Jameco. I then carefully measure each one to plan the layout on the 5″ enclosures:

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Picking your parts early is important so that you can measure and lay things out correctly.I began by choosing a good box – ABS plastic, basically 5″x5″, which I found at Skycraft Parts & Surplus. I also used three types of control (bought them all at Mouser):

In order to plan the layout, I would need something more accurate than my chicken scratchings. I used Scribus (an open source page layout editor) to do an accurate plan which I could print at 1:1 scale. Because the plan is digital, you can play with many arrangements and think about how things will work together without risking any materials or parts. In the end I finished with this arrangement:

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A huge advantage of using page layout software like Scribus is that you can print out the layout and use it directly as a template to drill with etc. Once the layout was finalized, it was time to create a ‘decal ready’ version:

Download my Scribus 1.3 file. Notice how a little circle was left to indicate where to drill. Incidentally, the font I used is Miso, which is free.

This version was then printed onto decal inkjet paper, overlaid with a transparent, self-adhesive film to protect it from spills etc, and then stuck directly onto the enclosures. Here they are ready to drill:

Now we drill. The different controls required different size holes (which are measured from the electrical parts directly). The most interesting were the buttons, which needed a half inch hole (12.7mm). To do this in plastic, you need to use a spade bit, which is a mean looking implement:

When it is done with the hole, the spade bit leaves behind this amusing looking wormy thing:

Although my bits were new and sharp, they dis leave a slightly ragged edge on the decal. This is not really a problem, as each control has some form of lip which covers this up later.

Now that all the holes are drilled, you can attach the controls themselves, in preparation for soldering.

Attaching the controls is fairly straight forward – screw them into place. Be careful in tightening them though, as most buttons/pots have either plastic or aluminium threading, which will pop easily under a lot of force (and then you are stuck with a button/pot you can’t use). Once they are all in, solder all the common poles together in series, and then put one cable to each control. Buttons get single cable, but the rotary switches and toggles get two apiece. I used a ribbon cable from a (very) old 3″ floppy disk. These cables are compact and solder quite well, so work nicely for this kind of project. Here is one completed:

Notice that the back of the box (black bit above) has had a rectangular slot cut out (with Dremel) to allow the ribbon cable to pass through. I then capped the cable off with a DB9 plug, so that I could plug into my IPac 2 distribution box. Due to the number of controls in a box, each of them had two DB9s wired up. To finish off, I added two strips of self-adhesive non-slip rubber tape to the bottom of each box (I had this left over form an automotive project). This prevents it from moving around the table as you use them, and also allows the ribbon cables to pass under the controls. Here they are ready to test:

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Now for the setup. I plugged them into the distribution box. Quite pluggy:

I then fired up the IPac programming utility and set it up. Because the IPac 2 has flash memory, it keeps its programming even without power. That means I don’t have to re-program each time – just plug and fly.

This is how it is positioned – between the throttle and keyboard. Notice that The ribbon cables of the box closer the the desk edge pass under the other box, and up to the distribution box. This is another advantage of using ribbon cables instead of bundles.

Testing went very well – after entering the new key bindings into Strike Fighters 2, I was off blowing things up. The chunky buttons and switches really fit with the level of technology presented in teh game. Having the rotary switches especially makes for a very nice experience for things like radar mode and range. This project cost about $40 for the control panels (the rotary switches are a little expensive – you can save probably $15 by using toggles instead), and about $50 for the distribution box (which includes the price of the IPac). Well worth it, especially given there is nothing like it to buy off the shelf. And of course, you can use this for any sim that takes keyboard inputs (including the old classics for DOS, if you are running them inside DosBox in Windows).

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Time for another Kuniyoshi print:

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This is Menju Ieteru (sometimes Menjo Ieteru). He served as a page to Shibata Katsuie (one of Nobunaga‘s commanders). He joined the army at age twelve, and gained fame at sixteen. While at the battle of Ise Nagashima, the golden gohei (standard) was taken by the opposition. Ieteru charged into the enemy ranks, and safely retrieved the gohei. He is shown here at that dramatic moment, holding the golden gohei while fighting of numerous attackers.

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April was a dry spell in new screenshots, but May brings a little bit of new info.

First off, a new aircraft – I may be wrong, but it’s a Van’s Aircraft RV-6A. I think this is the first kit plane represented in the history of Flight Simulator. Very nice!


This shot also shows the water – it is about the same as FSX water, but seems to have more texture. The earlier previews have shown the improvements in lighting, and this shot shows this off nicely:

The terrain shadowing itself is quite obvious, as well as the subtlety of colour in the clouds and horizon. The colours are less bright, and more realistic. Some people have compared it to the effects given by REX under FSX, which may be a good comparison. I’m looking forward to seeing Table Mountain casting its shadow over the city bowl.

The biggest improvements are obvious in the terrain rendering. The algorithm for texturing the terrain finally takes slope correctly into account, so that cliffs faces and other close to vertical areas are textures separately, making the terrain more geologically plausible:

Finally, the details: The resolution of the textures is much higher, the colours more subtle, and the vegetation casts a little shadow under itself onto the terrain. The surf also is much higher resolution, extending further into the water texture, giving a great effect:

Looking good! Can’t wait to see all these goodies animated together.

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Yes, you heard right – a flight simulator for your phone. Resembling Flight Simulator 2000, Infinite Flight currently has 15 airports around the San Francisco bay area, day and night flying, user settable weather (no clouds in the sky yet), and so far a single plane to fly – the classic Cessna 172.

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The game is smooth (I’m guessing around 25 FPS), with good sound and graphics – it’s a blast to fly. Watch your battery though, an hour of flying ate about 20% of the battery on my Samsung Focus.

The developer, Flying Development Studio, has plans to expand – they are promising more aircraft, and let’s hope we see radio navigation in the next release.

Price is $5, available in the Windows Phone Marketplace. Also look out for their free WP7 Air Traffic Control arcade game, Final Approach Lite.

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Time for another Kuniyoshi print:

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Mori Ranmaru Nagayasu was one of many Mori youngsters who served as pages to the powerful Oda clan during the 16th century. Ranmaru is remembered for his loyalty to Oda Nobunaga. When Nobunaga, Ranmaru and others were trapped at the Honno-ji temple by Akechi‘s troops, Nobunaga decided to commit suicide to preserve his honour. He turned to Ranmaru and told him “Ran, do not let them enter”, meaning he should not let the Akechi troops take Nobunaga’s head as a trophy. Ranmaru complied by setting fire to the temple, and then committing suicide next to his Lord. He was 18 at this time (1582).

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Poking around YouTube one day, I accidentally stumbled on this amazing 1959 toy. The 1950s represented a time in American consciousness when jet aviation and the space race were mingled into an overall sense that the future was happening right then. It was the age of NORAD and the Century Series of interceptors, keeping watch for Soviet Bear bombers carrying nuclear loads over the pole.

During this period the early scale model industry gave children a way to imagine themselves in stratosphere, in the thick of the action, swooshing their (recently invented) injection molded airplane kits around their bedrooms.

But of course, home computers and video game consoles would not exist for another 20 years, so these kids were limited to imagining what it was like to fly these planes.

Enter the Fighter Jet from the Ideal Toy Company to change all that. Have a look at this amazing period TV commercial:

It is impressive to say the least. In a world before cheap consumer electronics, all of the effects were achieved with simple circuits and clever mechanical engineering. Here is a clear view of the console:

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And what flight sim would be complete without a good set of instructions:

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Here is a modern review of the toy, showing it in action. It is quite amazing how much careful thought and invention went into it. Not surprising, considering Ideal was the toy company that invented the Teddy bear and the Magic 8 Ball:

Must have made for an awesome Christmas morning unboxing this thing – looking at that old timey commercial makes me want one even now. Could this be the first flight sim entertainment product?

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