Saturday, June 24, 2006


The Further Adventures of Atari Flashback 2

So I loved my Atari Flashback 2 when I first got it, but now I love it even more.

You see, they built an Atari 2600 version of Pong specifically for the Flashback 2 and, although you can play it using the included joysticks, everyone knows that you're not actually playing Pong unless you're using the original dial-style controllers. Moreover, there are two hidden games on the console that you can't control unless you have a set of paddle controllers hooked up -- Super Breakout and Warlords. Now, the Flashback 2 was built to be compatible with the original Atari 2600 paddle controllers, but they've made no attempt to actually make these controllers available to new users. Being the completionist I am, I came to accept that a trip to eBay was in order.

Paddle controllers weren't exactly selling for a fortune, but I was a bit annoyed that I had to go above my self-imposed $5 limit per set. I managed to get one set at a reasonable Buy it Now! price, and I won a second auction that didn't have much competition because the seller misspelled "Atari" in the product title. Including extortionistic postal charges, I got a complete set of four paddle controllers for just under $25.

I hooked them up to my Flashback 2. Good news was, they were clearly compatible with the new system. The plugs fit like a charm, and I was able to control the action on screen using the dials.

Bad news was, I became acquainted with the concept of "jittery paddles".

It seems that, as paddle controllers age, they become less responsive to subtle movements and, with more time, to any movement at all. The result is, as you smoothly turn the dial, your paddle will get stuck in a certain position, then suddenly leap into a new position like an electon changing energy levels. Alternately, you may be holding the dial still and the paddle will shake up and down (or side to side in Super Breakout) as if it can't decide where you wanted it placed.

I was slightly crushed. I knew it couldn't have been that easy.

Still, I wasn't ready to give up yet. I went looking online for Atari repair services and found a webpage that described my very problem. It even detailed how I could fix it myself. However, despite having a bachelor's degree in Computer Engineering, I've never been very comfortable opening up and modifying electrical components, and since the actual repair service sounded a bit too costly and inconvenient to be worth it (the paddles only work for three of the 42 games on the system, and I had versions of those games already on the Jakk's Paddle Controller TV Games unit), I dropped the idea and resigned myself to going through life with only the Core Flashback 2 to keep me company.

Then, while doing a random browse through the forums at Atari Age, I came across a forum member who described his experience at fixing paddle controllers to be simple, painless, and totally worth it. Intrigued, I started browsing Atari Age's FAQs and discovered something amazing.

Jittery paddles are caused by a buildup of foreign materials in the potentiometer in the controller. (I know exactly enough about electronics to understand that bit, at least.) It can be fixed in four simple steps:

1) Gently pull the dial knob right off of the controller.
2) Spray a little electrical cleaner/degreaser into the holes surrounding the dial.
3) Replace the knob.
4) Give the dial a good twisting to loosen it up.

I figured it was worth a shot. I got some electronic cleaner at a local hardware store, brought it home, and fired up a game of Pong to identify which controller was player one. I played against the computer for a bit -- I was able to hold my own, but it was the same annoying jittering problem. So I pulled the controller out, gave it a few magic squirts, plugged it back in...

And it worked like new. The difference was night and day. What used to be a struggle to keep my paddle in place became an absolute joy, the smoothest and most natural control I've ever experienced in a video game. And I handed that CPU its own ass.

So now I'm nothing less than super pleased. All four of my paddles are cleaned and fully operational, and I'm the proud owner of a complete Atari Flashback 2 setup. Total investment: $60. There's a lot more hardware hacks I could try, but for now I'm satisfied.

Now, if only it was just as easy to fix a Dreamcast Maracas controller.


Tuesday, June 13, 2006



The more I hear about the way the Wii really works, the less interested I am in it. No wonder Nintendo's been so tight-lipped -- they're not going to keep these promises they're making.


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