Build your own Atari 2600 paddle controllers

Atari Paddle Controllers

Video games are starting to seep into my kids’ lives. Not the (mostly, kinda) educational games on the iPads; I’m talking the console games at their friends’ houses.  Mario Kart has started to seep into the 6 year old set, and while we don’t have a console system of our own, because if we did I fear I’d get even less sleep, I’m starting to feel the pressure to prepare the young ‘uns.

The thing of it is, they’re easily distracted and overstimulated, and a four player split screen racing game is a bit of a challenge to manage.  I was looking for something simpler, and… oh let’s face it, I just wanted to play some games from when I was a kid.

And that’s how the Atari Flashback made its way into our home. I actually wanted the Intellivision version, because Shark! Shark! but Bed Bath and Beyond didn’t go beyond enough to have that one in stock (somehow if I’d bought it online I feel like I would have paused on the “confirm order” button and I had some time to kill in a store while the youngest napped.)

The system works pretty well, but it only comes with joysticks and not paddle controllers.  The paddle-based games have been changed to work with the joysticks, but maybe it’s the conversion, or maybe it’s the fact that the joysticks are infrared and not direct-wired, but the experience is, shall we say, nigh-unplayable.  Pong works, but it’s a way more even match between me and the kids than it should be at this point in their development, with very little fine-grained control over the paddle position.

As it turns out, the paddle controller is a dirt-simple interface.  It’s basically a 1 megaohm potentiometer.  And a button, if you’re playing a game that needs it. So I set out to build a set, because I couldn’t find a set on eBay that wasn’t more than the price of the console, even before shipping.

Bill of Materials

2 x 1 MΩ potentiometer
2 x SPST button
2 x 4-conductor cables
2 x project boxes
2 x potentiometer knobs
1 x DB-9 female connector
Solder, tubing, etc

For the knobs, I found a replacement knob on Thingiverse that would at least get me that part of the original experience. I decided to use project boxes for the cases because, well, there weren’t any models for that part, I doubted I’d be able to quickly design anything close to the original, and I had a bunch of $2 boxes kicking around.  I’ve seen these online made out of tupperware containers, so I knew there was room to play.

The trick with the project boxes was getting the holes in the right places (and in the right shape!)  I’ve ruined a few drill bits from drilling acrylic, which then melted all over the bit, so I didn’t want to go through that again.  I had distant memories of doubling the capacity of 3.5″ disks by putting an extra hole in them with a soldering iron, so I thought I’d go that route and simply melt the boxes with an old corroded iron that I was keeping for pretty much that purpose.  DO NOT DO THIS INDOORS.  The fumes that came out were vile, and I’m sure they weren’t good for me.  And the fact that I did it in the boys’ room (there was an open desk!) didn’t win me any points…

In the end I used a Dremel grinding stone bit, which held up well and didn’t seem to heat up enough for melting to be a problem. The trade-off was that I was limited to round-ish holes, and the buttons I chose were square (I originally was going to use some cheap round buttons, but then decided to splurge on something a bit nicer.)  I used a different (green?) stone bit to “square up” the hole, which… mostly worked.  The buttons ended up on a bit of an angle, and there’re some gouges that sneak past the border, but I can live with that.  The green bit was about half its original size at the end but it did its job and I have spares.

In the end it worked out OK, thanks to the secret ingredient which is heat-shrink tubing, cover-er of many mistakes.

All praise heat shrink tubing
All praise heat shrink tubing

The connector to the console is a simple DB-9 plug, but I had some challenges with the casing around it. I needed the plug to be as flush as possible to the unit, which ruled out most of the covers I found that would have added some layers in between.  Plus soldering got a little… messy, and I needed a little extra room there. Also, one plug powers both controllers, so I needed to run two wires out of it.  Since I was using phone cables for the main wires, I had an idea of putting some RJ-11 jacks on the connector to make a more modular system (and avoid sacrificing my phone cables) but I couldn’t source any easy to use jacks and it was way more work than the project required.

In the end I printed up a simple “tray” for the connector from Thingiverse.  Which I then plugged in upside down.  But this had the advantage of hiding my terrible solder work while still allowing for a bit of stain relief. It’s still ugly, but it’ll do until I someday design/print a full enclosure and re-do all my terrible soldering.

IMG_8030
The half-cover which more than half-covers my terrible wiring job

Oh, and the actual wiring diagram, possibly taken from here (I think I just grabbed something off of Google Image Search for reference):

Atari paddle schematic

The only trick here was the two common wires (pins 7 and 8) – for one I jammed the two wires into the connector, and for the other due to a wire length issue I made a little bridge thing that I wouldn’t be proud of unless it worked (pro-tip: crimp all your wires ahead of time so if one of them gets cut short you can adjust before your start soldering things in place.)

And you know what? Aside from a false alarm when I started a test in 1-player mode and couldn’t use the 2nd controller, everything worked on the first try!  So that was cool, and now I’ve got a set of Atari 2600 paddle controllers for about $10 in parts and probably too much of my time.  But it was time I would have spent otherwise playing Pong, so I ask you, was it really ill-spent?

Now the kids can learn video gaming from first principles (while Pong wasn’t the first commercial arcade game, it’s pretty close) without high falutin’ distractions like actual graphics (though technically with the paddles and the ball it’s at least a 3 polygon game, so there’s room to downgrade.)

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