My History with Atari
Hey hey, folks! Lumpz the Clown here with Part 2 of my massive emulator setup write-up, this time focusing on the grandfather of all home consoles, Atari. To give you a little backstory into my history with Atari, whenever my brother and I would go over to our grandparent’s house for the holidays, the adults would congregate in a side room to catch up and bullshit while us kids were left on the sidelines. Not being content with just “sitting there,” we would venture off into other parts of the house. It was through these expeditions that we discovered the Atari 2600 hooked up to a TV in a forgotten part of the house, which also housed an ancient player piano. While some of the cousins were content with loading up the piano with yellowing scrolls that would crank out old-timey tunes, the others would gather around the Atari 2600 for a rousing game of Donkey Kong, Empire Strikes Back, Frogger, Warlords or Adventure.
My question: what damn kid would say “no” to THIS?!
My family is pretty much split down the middle when it comes to interest in video games, and it became very clear after a few family gatherings as to who were the gamers and who weren’t. A couple of my cousins in particular would become extremely vexed if anyone happened to beat their high scores, which was typically done by my clowny hands! Even the so-called shoddy port of Pac-Man was a personal favorite of ours and I was one of the first to discover the infamous “cheat” of going through the warp holes to slow down ghosts and get a higher score.
As time wore on, my grandparents wound up selling their Atari 2600 (which happened to be a Sears Video Arcade II) and all of its games, much to our dismay. To address this issue, they promptly replaced it with an NES and a small library of games, which included Burger Time and Final Fantasy. While I enjoyed playing the NES with my cousins, I found myself pining for the days when I could hear the infinite loop of the first melody of Frogger when one holds down the Reset button, which has always amused me since I first discovered it.
Now that I am a grown-ass clown, I have since acquired an Atari 2600 Light Sixer as well as the Atari Flashback 2, which is the only model that can be modded to add a ROM cartridge slot. The manufacturers were also kind enough to include a wiring diagram inside the unit for modders to reference in the event they want to add the cartridge slot. What also makes the Flashback 2 special is that instead of running as an emulator (which the original Flashback did), it runs on actual Atari hardware (though it uses RCA outputs instead of coaxial) and better reproduces the experience of playing an Atari 2600 natively. Later models also included additional perks, such as wireless controllers and more games, but none of them even came close to reproducing the experience of playing an actual Atari 2600.
Pretty awesome, huh?
Why emulate the 2600 when I already own not one, but two, of these excellent consoles? That’s a good question! My space is getting kind of low in my own game room, and as a result, some of my lesser-played consoles are put into storage until I want to play them. This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that I am running out of electrical outlets, with my existing ones already being pushed to the breaking point via surge protectors and extension cords to accommodate my ever-growing collection of consoles.
As I felt the increasing need to share these excellent games with the world, emulators became an excellent go-to resource for me to capture excellent gameplay and to educate the masses on the roots of home consoles. Using my custom-built computer, I am able to recreate the Atari experience and map its control scheme to my own USB-powered XBox 360 controller! Granted, playing Warlords is a downer unless you have a paddle controller, but I can still get my Adventure and Frogger on, at least!
What also makes this article interesting is that I have had zero interaction with the 5600 and 7800! Some may consider this a hindrance, but I don’t think so. Not only has it been enriching to learn how to get these emulators to work flawlessly with my existing equipment, but it also provides a fresh set of eyes for you, the reader. Now, onto the good stuff!
Initial Setup: Atari 2600
The Atari 2600, originally dubbed the Atari VCS (or Video Computer System) was released by Atari, Inc. in 1977. After going through multiple model revisions, the Atari continued to be supported until it was ultimately discontinued in the United States in 1989. During its run, the Atari 2600 had its share of successful games (e.g., Adventure and Space Invaders), but alas, it was not all sunshine and rainbows. A sudden influx of poorly coded games (mostly produced by third parties) flooded the shelves and many video game historians agree that the sudden rush to cash in on the Atari’s success caused the Video Game Crash of 1983. Despite these hard times, the Atari 2600 is remembered and loved by video game enthusiasts, and game developers still continue to create games for the 2600 almost 40 years later!
First of all, I will mention this: out of all three of these console emulators, the Atari 2600’s is the easiest to set up. The 2600 emulator is named “Stella,” which happened to be the 2600’s code name during its development. The Stella community is very active and its software is very user-friendly. To start out, you will need to follow the steps outlined below:
1) Download the latest stable version of Stella. (I would stick with the 32-bit binary installer as it seems to be the most stable, regardless of your system). Note: the downloads can also be found at AtariAge’s website.
2) After downloading the file, go to your Downloads folder and run the EXE file.
3) Follow the prompts to install the software to the directory of your choice.
The first screen you see after running the EXE file.
What you see after clicking “Next”…
4) After installing the software to the directory of your choice, you will need to create a file to store your game files (.BINs).
I named my folder “Games.”
Here’s the contents of my “Games” folder.
5) AtariAge has made it very easy to download ROMs (.BINs) from its website. Go there to get the files you will need.
6) After downloading the files, unzip them to your “Games” folder and you’re done!
As you can see, all of these files have the extension .BIN, which is required to run the games in Stella. Before we get ahead of ourselves though, we need to discuss the initial setup of Stella so that you can get the most from the experience. When you first launch Stella, you are greeted with a windowed screen that will look similar to this:
Press Cancel if need be to get to the “Options” menu.
Before you begin gaming, you will need to map the appropriate keystrokes to your controller, keyboard, what have you, as well as setting up video preferences (Fullscreen, etc.). Below is a screenshot of what you will see when you select “Options” from the above-stated menu:
Don’t let it fool you, it’s very easy to get started!
The only settings you will really need to make changes to include Video, Audio and Input settings. The rest can be left “as-is” unless you plan on moving your Stella folder to another location on your hard drive. In the Video settings, you have the option of enabling Fullscreen upon launch or toggling VSync, but in my experience, unless you happen to be running an extremely outdated machine (Windows 95, etc.), you shouldn’t have many issues with screen tearing, which VSync would fix (at the cost of button responsiveness).
In Audio settings, you can Enable Sound and set your sample rate (44100 Hz is my personal preference). Finally, Input settings is where you will map your keys to your keyboard or controllers to match your personal preference. In this menu, the Player 1 controls are designated as P0 and Player 2 controls are designated as P1.
Do also bear in mind that for many Atari 2600 games, it is required to Reset the game in order to start playing. Some games will boot into a menu where you can select the mode you would like to play in (designated as a number typically at the top of the screen), whereas others will not. Below is what the Input settings screen looks like.
Remember: P0 = Player 1 and P1 = Player 2!
Some of the options located within the Input settings menu may be unfamiliar to newcomers, but luckily, you have your clowny expert here to enlighten you. Atari 2600 consoles came with two different difficulty settings and were represented either by a push button (Sears models), front switch (Heavy and Light “Sixers”), or a switch on the back (4-switch models). Even better, difficulty could be set differently for each player! That’s right, you know that dude that always beats your ass when you both play on easy? Well, it’s time to even the odds!
But what about those numbered “mode” settings I talked about earlier? Unless you happen to have the manual lying around, those numbers won’t mean a damn thing. I would suggest popping over to AtariAge to see if a digital copy of the game’s manual is available for viewing or download to help you discover which “mode” (2 player, 1 player, increased difficulty, etc.) you would prefer to play your game in. After all of these settings are configured to your specifications, it’s time to get your game on!
Remember this badass piece of software?!
Once configured, the system should run seamlessly and fairly close to form as to what was provided on the original consoles (though this does depend on what type of PC you are running it on). If you have any issues with sound, experiment with your Sample Rate. If you have issues with graphics, try to run it in a windowed mode or change your Renderer setting. I use Direct3D for my own setup (works perfectly), but depending on your machine, you may want to try Software or OpenGL, though Raspberry Pi users have reported launching issues when using OpenGL (though in limited cases). Of course, if you have any issues whatsoever with setting up Stella, feel free to hit me up on Twitter or Facebook and I will research it to the bitter end! :-) Now, onto the less well-received successor to the 2600: the Atari 5200!
Initial Setup: Atari 5200
Disclaimer: First off, let me be the first to tell you that due to its commercial failure and lack of a comprehensive game library, the Atari 5200 is perhaps the hardest emulator to setup out of the three that I am outlining in this article. However, after extensive testing, I have been able to run the emulator in Fullscreen mode with excellent controls (albeit the “fullscreen” only fills up the screen, whereas the graphics will only fill up a small portion of the center of the screen). I have tested two games (Pengo and Gremlins) and both run great; I just wish it ran in true fullscreen instead of a small screen on a black background. Others may be able to tamper with the emulator settings to fix this issue, but again, it depends greatly on your hardware.
First of all, the Atari 5200 never really stood a chance to be a commercial success. It was released in 1982, a mere 2 years before the Video Game Crash of 1984. Even though it was able to port over many titles from its line of 8-bit computers and has even been lauded as having a quality library of games, the 5200 simply fell victim to bad timing and even worse analog controls that didn’t self-center during use, which made playing games like Pac-Man an exercise in frustration. Notable titles include Pole Position, Berzerk, Gremlins, and Pengo.
When you visit AtariAge, you will be greeted with many different emulators to choose from. I have tried to get M.E.S.S. to work with not only the 5200 but also the 7800 with no success, but I have not had the chance to try out the other emulator choices located at AtariAge. My computer’s OS happens to be Windows 7, and the most user-friendly option I have found for the Atari 5200 is kat5200. This emulator required the least amount of setup and more-or-less faithfully emulates the 5200, though many of us will not have a USB-powered controller with enough buttons to accommodate the numerical pad that came with the original 5200 controller, nor be able to effectively map our keyboard to the emulator in a user-friendly fashion.
Anyone remember THIS abomination?!
My strong suggestion is to map your standard keys to either your keyboard or controller and to map the numerical pad to your keyboard’s keypad (though the numbers will be upside down if you set it up like I did in my attempt to recreate the controller’s interface). The numerical interface has only been used to select pre-game options (such as number of players and level start), but as I have only tested Gremlins and Pengo at the time of this writing, this could be different for other games. However, with my own controller/key mappings, I have not experienced any issues aside from forgetting that the numerical gamepad on the Atari 5200 does not match what I have on my keyboard. :-/ So how did I do it? The steps are outlined below.
1) Regardless of what emulator you choose to go with, you will need the Atari 5200 BIOS ROM, which can be downloaded here.
2) Download the kat5200 emulator here.
3) After downloading the emulator, place the BIOS ROM in the same location as the executable.
4) Create a folder in the kat5200 file named “games,” “roms,” or whatever your choice is.
5) Download Atari 5200 ROMs here.
The end result should look a little something like this:
We did it!
After extracting your ROMs (.BIN files) to your “games” folder, it’s as simple as clicking the “kat5200” Application file to launch it. Once launched, you can map your controller/keyboard to your preferences as well as change video and audio settings, similar to the steps outlined above. Since we are using a different emulator, however, the interface will be a little different. This is what the launch screen looks like:
Kind of intimidating at first, huh?
Don’t be too put off by the interface, as it functions similarly to the Stella emulator we discussed earlier. Games can be launched from the File menu. However, in order to change your audio, video and input settings to your preference, you will simply hover the Options menu at the top of the screen and make your choice. Here is what you can expect from each:
Video Settings Screen
Audio Settings Screen
Controller (Input) Settings Screen
User Interface Settings Screen
Audio and Video settings are pretty self-explanatory and require no additional steps, but where the User Interface and Controller (Input) settings, it’s a different story. What you will need to do to map those keys will be to click the function of your choice (Save State 1, Up, Down, etc.), go to the “Device” dropdown list, select the input of your choice (keyboard, controller), then click “Device Num” or “Part Num” and press the key of your choice. In some cases, it may be necessary to know what “button” is assigned to which key/control setting so that you can input it manually (e.g., “Button 7,” “Button 1,” etc.). Finding this information can vary greatly between OS, hardware, and controller, but many wired controllers have their own programs which can tell you what number is assigned to which button press/axis. This is perhaps the most complicated part about setting up this emulator, but don’t let it discourage you. Simply use your own controller’s software, determine what buttons are assigned which numbers, and plug them into the Input settings. This is a moot point, however, if you simply want to use your keyboard, but nothing beats using a controller to play old-school games in my honest opinion. Here is the end result with no screen tearing and responsive controls:
A windowed shot, but you get the idea!
After further testing, I was able to get a decent result using Fullscreen with 2x zoom, which can be found in your Video settings, but again, this is all personal preference. Some capturing software seems to get along better with windowed gameplay, so your own settings may differ from my own. Play around and see what will work best for you and your needs. Just remember: unzip the ROMs and extract the resulting .BIN files into your “games” folder and you will be good to go! Press ESC at any time to access menu items such as File and Options. This will also be needed if you plan on launching another ROM. :-) Now, onto perhaps my favorite Atari emulator to work with thus far!
Initial Setup: Atari 7800
This is, sadly, one of the most overlooked consoles in Atari’s lineup. It featured a custom CPU that was capable of outputting 256 colors and 100 moving objects on screen simultaneously. It was announced in 1984 and is even 100% compatible with Atari 2600 titles. Further, a cartridge was available that allowed players to retain their high score, which was unprecedented in 1984. So why didn’t it do well? Atari was purchased by Jack Tramiel who quickly put a halt to any console sales due to disagreements with previous arrangements penned by Ray Kassar. The console wasn’t released until 1986, but by then, Nintendo had come to the States with its Nintendo Entertainment System, which took off like a rocket packed full of nitro and dynamite! The 7800 was slated to have three titles available at launch, but after a run of unfulfilled promises and fighting to get out from under the colossal shadow of Nintendo, it didn’t make much of an impact and fell into obscurity. At the end of the day, it still has 60 titles available, many of them rivaling the quality of the Sega Master System and even the Nintendo Entertainment System. My recommendations for this system include Choplifter, Ms. Pacman, and Donkey Kong.
First of all, the Atari 7800 is another system that is surprisingly easy to setup and even looks and sounds awesome! Setup is similar to what we’ve experience so far with the previous two systems, but for ease of use, I chose to go with the ProSystem emulator as opposed to M.E.S.S. and EMU7800. The ProSystem emulator is kind of the “new kid on the block,” but after extensive testing, I find it to be the most pliable, approachable and customizable out of all of the available options. If you use ProSystem, the OS file is not required, but it may be if you happen to use any of the other two options available. Below are the steps that I took to download and begin using ProSystem to play some damn Atari 7800!
2) Unzip the contents to a location of your choice using your favorite unzip program (I recommend Ken Ward’s Unzipper).
I slapped mine inside the Atari 7800 Folder that I had added to my Emulator Folder.
3) After everything has been unzipped, go to your ProSystem folder (wherever you put it) and click the ProSystem Application.
4) On launch, your screen should appear at the top-left of your screen, albeit very small!
Hardly whets the appetite for some retrogaming, am I right?
5) To fix the display problem, select Options -> Display -> Modes.
6) Make a selection that best suits your display (I recommend 640×480, as it seems the safest, most predictable route).
7) After selecting your screen size, return back to Display and click “x4” (This will “zoom” in on the action and make it that much more real and in your face!).
8) Mouse back over Options -> Input and click “Controller 1.”
9) Using the dropdown menus, assign a key to the action.
Select either your keyboard or controller from the first dropdown, then the corresponding key in the second one. Repeat for each action.
10) Create a folder within the ProSystem folder and label it either “ROMS,” “games,” or whatever the hell you want!
11) Go to AtariAge’s website to download some ROMs! The ROMs come zipped and will need to be unzipped to your “games” folder. The resulting file has the extension “.a78”.
12) Go to File -> Open and navigate to your ROMs folder, make your selection and GET YOUR GAME ON!
BAM!!! Dig Dug ALL UP IN YOUR GRILL!
As usual, feel free to play around with the display options to get the best results for your personal setup. As of this writing, I have not found a true fullscreen option that works, but I personally blame the HDTV I use as a display. Whenever I would attempt to go fullscreen, the program would act like it wanted to, then just give up and go back to its original size.
Why Do I Continue to Write About Emulation?
I have always felt that it’s important to us as gamers to keep an open mind and explore all of our available options and find out what we like. I have a few friends who are doggedly determined to own every XBox 360 title ever printed, but me? I personally couldn’t care less. I get my kicks from checking out multiple retro consoles that I never had the pleasure of playing as a young clown (or have a ghost’s chance in hell of ever acquiring for a decent price). If it were not for the emulation community, many of these consoles would have fallen into obscurity, leaving the poor man to gaze up at the rabid and flush-with-cash collector wishing it were him (or her) playing it instead.
Judging from how poorly the 7800 tanked due to poor timing and disputes, you can bet your ass that a decently priced 7800 is going to be a rare find indeed and ultimately, will be out of reach for most collectors. Does that mean that they have to go without? Hell no! Granted, I don’t feel emulation is right in every aspect, but I do believe within the depths of my haunted, clowny soul that everyone has the right to enjoy these amazing games.
Do I feel that those who utilize emulation for their own profit should be prosecuted? Hell yeah! Every console that I have either hacked or setup emulators on were for my entertainment and my entertainment only. I never made a buck off of any of them, nor do I plan to. I’m just a poor gamer who wants to see the bigger picture and experience as much as I can in this pixelated world of ours. There are collectors out there who have multiple rare consoles and copies of rare games; why? Just because? It’s actions like that that drive up the price of games that would otherwise be more readily available and more affordable to everyone else who doesn’t have an unlimited bank account. But instead of crying about it when others refuse to play fair, at least give emulation a try! Don’t go without! Fight back and claim those valuable experiences! Lumpz the Clown out!