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Gaming Hacks by Simon Carless

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Play Reissued All-in-One Joystick Games

Can’t find your old Atari? An N-in-1 TV game collection may be worth your money.

In the last couple of years, the officially licensed N-in-1 TV Game genre has grown in popularity. These are small, battery-powered devices that contain conversions and emulations of classic games licensed from the original manufacturers—including Atari, Namco, and Intellivision. Add some batteries—generally four AAs—plug the device into your TV, and hey presto!, you have a complete retro gaming system for around $20. This is a neat hack from the manufacturer’s point of view.

This approach seems successful, in that the TV games seem to sell well. What’s out there? How faithful are the conversions? Are they hackable to play other games? I’ll answer all these questions. Read on . . .

Atari 10-in-1 TV Game

JAKKS’s Atari 10-in-1 game was the first officially licensed, legitimate repackaging that really generated buzz when it hit the market in 2002. It comes in a replica of the original Atari 2600 joystick (officially called the CX-40) that immediately endeared it to retro fans.

The games include Asteroids, Adventure, Missile Command, Centipede, Gravitar, Yars Revenge, Breakout, Real Sports Volleyball, Circus Atari, and Pong. At first glance, this looks like a perfect conversion, but when Atari die-hards get a hold of it, they tear plenty of holes in its armor, as you can see in the BackNTime review (http://www.backntime.net/Atari%20Interactive/Teninone/Frame10in1.html).

Although the basic playability of the classic Atari games translates better than the review intimates, the reviewer does point out actual changes in some of the games. Grindle, the green dragon from Adventure, has mysteriously turned purple. Even worse, the previously well hidden dot (the first ever video-game Easter Egg) is deliberately obvious. Activating it leads to a screen that, instead of crediting Warren Robinett, the original coder, simply says TEXT. Is this a preproduction flub? In any case, these games are not straight emulations. Instead, they’re probably recreations done by looking at the original cart, though they might theoretically involve partial emulation.

What’s really inside the Atari 10-in-1 joystick? Steve Witham and his handy web site (http://www.tiac.net/~sw/2003/10/tvgame/) disassembled a joystick to reveal actual game chips deliberately covered in black epoxy. He also found a 27-MHz clock crystal and muses that the deliberately obscured chips are the video chip, as well as the processor, memory, I/O, and ROM. There doesn’t appear to be a way to add other Atari 2600 games into the unit, unfortunately, probably because it’s not really a proper emulation. It’s interesting to see the insides, anyhow.

One additional reviewer complaint worth mentioning is that several games (especially Circus Atari and Pong) really deserve a paddle controller. JAKKS plans to bring out one- and two-player versions of an Atari Paddle TV Game (see [Hack #4] ) around the time this book goes to press. There’s a new developer handling the emulation and recreation, and the initial indications point to significantly better results.

Namco 5-in-1 TV Games

JAKKS also released another desirable TV Game set in the Namco 5-in-1 pack, which includes Pac-Man, Dig Dug, Galaxian, Rally-X, and Bosconian. This version emulates no specific console, though some people speculate that the emulation comes from a particular home conversion set. That’s almost certainly not the case.

This set has one peculiar problem, however: it’s hard to move diagonally. Bosconian has severe control difficulty, which is unfortunate, because diagonal motion is vital to gameplay. Some of the other games feel a little odd too.

As it turns out, Rob Mitchell at the Atari Age forums has two solutions (http://www.atariage.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=44435), one simple, and the other complex. The simple solution involves changing the four-way diamond travel limit so that it’s actually round, meaning you can hit the diagonals properly. The complicated option includes unsoldering the battery wires, really taking the whole thing to bits, and then soldering connectors to attach an Atari joystick into it. A joystick plugged into the innards of a joystick? Wacky.

Unfortunately, there are also some unsolvable problems. In particular, the radar overlaps the playfield for Rally-X and Bosconian. This is both disorienting and disappointing, considering that the original games also used horizontal, not vertical, displays. The sound effects also seem diminished and otherwise blurred from the original arcade versions.

Intellivision 10/25-in-1 TV Games

The oddest release of all is the 10- or 25-in-1 Intellivision game from Techno Source (http://www.intellivisionlives.com/retrotopia/direct2tv.shtml). Why odd? As their page itself explains:

It is based on the Techno Source TV Play Power technology, which means what they are doing is having NES hardware emulate an Intellivision.

What’s odd about this? If this is correct—and I guess that it is because it’s printed on the official Intellivision page—someone has ported all of these Intellivision games to work on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), another notable ’80s-launched console. Suspiciously, the NES pseudo-hardware may be used surreptitiously, because there’s certainly no Nintendo logo on the unit.

Even though the 25-in-1 has an excellent collection of games, including Astrosmash, Baseball, Basketball, Buzz Bombers, Football, Golf, Hockey, Hover Force, Motocross, Night Stalker, Pinball, Shark! Shark!, Skiing, Snafu, Space Armada, Space Battle, Space Hawk, Star Strike, Sub Hunt, Thin Ice, Thunder Castle, Tower of Doom, Vectron, Volleyball, and Wrestling, it’s received uniformly poor reviews. The original Intellivision controllers differed strongly from the basic Dreamcast-looking controllers used in this remake. Worse yet, the games vary from vaguely correct-looking to almost unplayable, with almost no sensible music or sound effects.

This is an example of caveat emptor. Classic TV game remakes may be hideously disfigured clones of the original, and you may not realize this until it’s too late. Before buying, look online for reviews, especially in bastions of classic aficionados such as the Atari Age forums (http://www.atariage.com/forums/index.php).

Even Better Than the Real Thing?

This first batch of TV games has just scratched the surface of public consciousness when it comes to playing classic titles. Other intriguing new and upcoming titles include the Activision 10-in-1 (make sure to buy the newer joystick version, not the older version with the aesthetically displeasing and otherwise horrible joypad design!), a second Namco unit featuring Ms. Pac-Man and more, and other sticks with content licensed from Midway, Capcom, and others. There’s even a Commodore 64 stick on the way, licensed from Tulip Computers, the current Commodore rights holders, which will include Epyx-licensed C64 games.

Warning

You may also see very unauthorized Famiclones—third-party, unlicensed NES joysticks, sometimes with an attached light gun and not as many games as the packaging says. Not only do the original creators not receive any money from them, they often have weird sprite-rips and otherwise odd game duplicates. Caveat emptor; despite the novelty value, they’re not worth the price.

Unfortunately, these TV games are disappointingly unhackable if you wish to change games because they tend not to include the real hardware in them. The beautiful and increasingly scarce SID chip probably won’t actually appear inside the C-64 stick, I’ll wager, but at least you can disassemble the hardware, file it down, and make joystick adapters.

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