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Hands-On With 7 Atari Rarities and Prototypes
As it’s the Atari 50th anniversary, I thought why not go hands-on with some of the rarest and most interesting Atari retro gaming items from my game collection, including some unique prototypes! Here I pick 7 of my favourites, including the original CX-10 joystick, Power Pad, XE Game System, a Pac-Man prototype, the infamous Video Music, a collection of Atari calculators and much more!
I collect stuff - as I’m sure you can see - and I have a particular focus on Atari as that’s where some of my earliest gaming and computing experiences were. So I’d like to show you 7 of the most interesting, rare, and otherwise weird and wonderful Atari items from my collection.
First up I want to talk about controllers - of course, an essential part of any gaming setup. So let’s go back to 1977 and the genesis of Atari’s iconic CX-40 joystick - except this one’s actually a CX-10, the very first version which was shipped with Atari’s first production run of VCS “Heavy Sixer” consoles like the one I have here.
What are the differences? Well, this is something I’m going to cover in a lot more detail in a future video all about Atari controllers, but basically it’s constructed very differently internally - this was simplified to make the later CX-40 cheaper to produce. It uses a different system of dome contacts which made it a lot more clicky and tactile but actually slightly lower effort. Externally it doesn’t have the “top” text to show which side is the top - I guess people struggled with this and so Atari decided to add it - and originally this would have had a hexagonal metal disc in the top of the stick with an Atari logo on it. Unfortunately these weren’t stuck on very well and - like most of them - this is long gone in my case. Also the rubber boot on mine was really badly chewed up so this is a modern aftermarket replacement.
Just another few examples of some cool first party Atari controllers - here’s the kid’s controller from 1983, which was designed to be used with a range of Sesame Street games on the 2600 but is essentially a slightly friendlier looking Star Raiders keypad, so it also works with anything that supports those. I particularly like the look of this Space Age Joystick from the same year, and there’s the Track and Field controller from 1984 - which is hopefully pretty self explanatory.
Oh, and there’s also this arcade sti- hang on a second!
Moving on to the 5200 console from 1982. This console famously had notoriously bad controllers as standard, but thankfully Atari decided to rectify this by releasing a rather excellent trackball, giving us perhaps the best home version of Missile Command there is.
This is easily the rarest Atari controller that I own - it’s called the Power Pad and was designed for use with the STE, the expanded version of the Atari ST released in 1989, and Atari wanted this and its enhanced 15 pin controller port to become a new standard to replace the 9-pin port that they’d been using since 1977. From what I can find online allegedly only 10,000 or so of these were ever produced, and not many games actually supported it at the time.
This design was used for the cancelled Panther console from 1988, and the Atari Jaguar of course, with a “Pro” version that included 3 more action buttons and two shoulder buttons coming along later. The enhanced controller port was also included in Atari’s swansong home computer, the Falcon030, released in 1992.
Finally, there’s this rather cool grey version of the CX-40 joystick, and the XG-1 light gun, which were bundled with the XE Game System in 1987.
So let’s take a look at that system now, as it’s number 2 on my list. With the VCS - or 2600 if you prefer - getting very long in the tooth, the 5200 being cancelled almost as soon as it was on store shelves, and the 7800 finally releasing after long delays thanks to a change of ownership at Atari, 1987 finally saw the release of the console slash home computer hybrid known as the XE Game System - or XEGS for short.
Quite why they decided to sell this thing alongside the inferior 7800 at a similar price point is something of a mystery, but perhaps the biggest mystery is why the XEGS wasn’t more successful.
Alright, it was based on Atari’s 8-bit home computer technology from all the way back in 1979 - but bear in mind that those machines had a really capable sound chip in the form of Atari’s 4 channel POKEY, the exact same chip used in many of their arcade games, not to mention a sophisticated graphics chip designed by none other than industry legend Jay Miner.
The XEGS was beefed up with a lot more RAM than those early machines, getting 64kb onboard - that’s 8 times as much, and 16 times more than the contemporary 7800 - and it was compatible with Atari’s huge back catalogue of 8-bit computer games, which included some of the most accurate arcade conversions available on any system.
Oh, and you could also use it as a computer, with a bundled keyboard, and an SIO port which made it compatible with existing accessories like disk drives, tape drives, printers, modems and a whole lot more besides. Because - well - it basically was one. Just disguised as a console.
Did I mention that it came bundled with a light gun?
That light gun was based on existing light pen technology that forward-thinking Atari engineers had included in the 2600 and their earlier home computers, so it was backwards compatible with those systems too.
Oh, and the 7800.
But the XE Game System wasn’t Atari’s first attempt at consolising their 8-bit computer range, which brings me rather neatly onto the third item on my list.
Earlier I mentioned the Atari 5200 - a pretty rare console in its own right on account of the fact that it was only on the market for a year back in 1982 and was never released outside the US. This console was also based on the same architecture as Atari’s home computers, albeit without being directly compatible with their cartridges and hardware add-ons due to some architectural changes.
This is a loaner or prototype cartridge - and as you can see from the label, this particular one claims to contain the excellent 5200 version of Pac-Man. These days there are unscrupulous sellers unfortunately churning out reproductions of these Atari prototypes and listing them for really silly money on ebay, but I actually bought this years ago - before I even had a 5200 - from a reputable seller in California for a fraction of the price of what they seem to go for now, and back in 2021 I finally took it apart on video to try to verify its authenticity and dumped the EPROM chips inside to try to work out what it’s actually all about.
Now - spoiler alert if you haven’t seen that video - it’s actually bit-for-bit identical to the final retail release of the game, meaning that this specific cartridge was probably produced for internal testing, or to send out to the press for a review or maybe to be used for demo purposes for the people at Namco or whoever before the final retail carts had been manufactured.
So not a priceless undiscovered early prototype of the game, but still, it’s a piece of history nonetheless - and the best thing is that the old EPROMs still hold their data and work just fine!
Those joysticks are still pretty terrible though.
And while we’re on the subject of prototypes, let’s go from one that’s fully working and fun to play with to one that’s sadly not much more than an interesting piece of wall art.
This rather sorry looking - thing - is known as the Atari Sparrow - or to give it another internal prototype name - the FX-1. It was hand built by Atari engineers in 1992, and was the successor to the ST - using the much more powerful 68030 CPU - and the last home computer that Atari would ever release.
Which is a rather convoluted way of telling you that this is an early incarnation of the Atari Falcon030.
So back in the day there was an Atari upgrade and add-on company based in New York called WizzTronics - they’re still around in fact - and when Atari went bust in 1996 the owner Steve Cohen stuck in a bid for the contents of their New York office and won.
It turned out that among many other interesting relics, the engineers at Atari New York were sitting on a box full of Falcon prototypes in various states of disrepair and Steve has slowly been releasing these to collectors ever since, with only 5 of these revision 1 boards known to be in existence - and as you can see, mine was pretty heavily cannibalised by a cash-strapped Atari, presumably to put together a revision 2 board.
We’ve had a bit of an email exchange off the back of the initial video that I made poking around this, and Steve was keen for me to show you some even rarer bits - including some development boards for the Falcon’s custom COMBEL, ATMEL and VIDEL chips - that’s right, these 3 boards were eventually shrunk down into the 3 custom ASICs that lie at the heart of the Atari Falcon.
He also has a Falcon Microbox motherboard - this cancelled Small Form Factor version of the Falcon was designed to be used either horizontally or vertically, and famously went on to inspire the design of Sony’s PlayStation 2 and be cited as prior art in the patent filing for that console.
Sadly, the Falcon030 ended up being Atari’s last ever computer. So we’ll take a trip back to happier times and look at their first home offerings from the 1970s.
…and where better place to start than the very first, 1975’s Pong, based on Atari’s 1972 arcade game of the same name - incidentally here’s a particularly lovely example that I was lucky enough to be allowed to get up close and personal with at the Arcade Archive in Gloucestershire. The C-100 home Pong console wasn’t the first to bring the concept to living room TVs - that crown goes to the Magnavox Odyssey, also from 1972 - but it was the first to offer on-screen scoring thanks to the entire game being built on a custom integrated circuit which was supposedly the most sophisticated available in any consumer product at the time.
Add to that arcade-accurate sound effects and a rather clever colour overlay effect which has its roots in NTSC colour TV test circuits, and Pong was a very compelling product, leading to many clones, and indeed official variants including this Super Pong, also from 1976, and this later Ultra Pong Doubles from 1977.
After the success of Pong, Atari released more home versions of their popular arcade games, including Video Pinball and Stunt Cycle, also in 1977, and I really need to get around to getting these up and running so I can cover them in a future video. Of course, all of this in-house expertise and experience at Atari culminated in their first cartridge based console, the iconic Video Computer System, or 2600, in that same year.
…and as if they weren’t busy enough, they also decided to branch out into… hifi equipment?
Yep, the Video Music - famously nicknamed the “migraine machine” by Techmoan - shared a lot of the same technology as those home consoles as well as a team of engineers that included the legendary Bob Brown, who took his inspiration from - well.
“Bob Brown had designed Video Music, our weirdest product ever. Hook it up to your stereo and TV at the same time, and the sound triggered some pretty psychedelic visuals. The Sears guys took one look and asked what we’d been smoking when we did that. Naturally, one of our techs lit up a joint and showed them.”
Evidently Sears were fully onboard with this as they signed off on the Video Music and agreed to sell it in their stores. Unfortunately the wider public didn’t really see the appeal and in true Atari fashion - it was cancelled less than a year later.
I can’t really do this thing and the rather crazy story behind it justice in this video but I have covered it in depth in a previous video on the channel, along with some of the modifications I’ve done to it to keep it running 45 years on, so I’ll link the playlist at the end and down in the description.
Of course, the Video Music wasn’t the only non-computer consumer device that Atari came up with over the years. Alright, calculators are computers but coming up with these links and keeping this flowing has been pretty hard and I really wanted to get these in here.
The truth is that I don’t really know much about these Atari-branded calculators. But I do know that they were mass produced - as much a promotional item as an actual serious calculator - during the Tramiel era in the mid to late 80s using the ST-like design language of that era.
They pretty much all claim to have been designed by Atari Corporation in the USA and made in Taiwan or China. I did find a reference online to at least one model being produced under licence by Hartech Limited, which was founded by Atari’s former Vice President for International Sales David Harris in 1987, but that may just be that one specific model - which incidentally, I don’t have.
What I do have are big desk calculators, small pocket calculators, and even a printing calculator which the seller told me was a rebranded Epson, or maybe it just uses the same paper and print ribbon. As you can see, apart from that printing calculator they’re all dual battery and solar power.
These aren’t actually particularly rare and there’s usually a small handful on ebay whenever I remember to look - and of course they’re still useful even today.
Of course, when it comes to weird and wonderful Atari stuff I’ve already covered a fair bit on this channel, including the very cool Japanese Atari 2800 and the interesting story behind that, an actual audio PCB from the cancelled Panther prototype that I mentioned earlier which lead on to a huge amount of new information being unearthed and released to the community, a very early 260ST that doesn’t even have its own onboard operating system due to a screw up at Atari, and a whole lot more besides.
I don’t often ask people to subscribe in my videos and to be honest I find it quite annoying when other people do it, but if you’ve made it this far I can guarantee that this channel is right up your street so… y’know… and here’s the link to my Atari playlist with all of those videos.
Big thanks to my patrons, channel members, and everyone else who has supported me over the years, and I’ll hopefully see you again soon.
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