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Curt Vendel: The Escapist Interview

Howard Wen | 5 Jun 2007 08:01
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One of the past year's best-selling videogame consoles has been the latest version of a three-decades-old system: the Atari 2600. Though marketed as a plug-n-play TV game unit last fall, the Atari Flashback 2 is actually a full-blown, official clone of the 2600, right down to its microprocessors. The only difference is it lacks a cartridge slot. Fortunately, the Flashback 2 was designed so it could be hacked to add one.

The Flashback 2 was indirectly born from the active community of homebrew Atari 2600 game programmers and fans who pine for the classic era of Atari gaming. (A few of the games on the Flashback 2 are originals created by homebrew programmers.) Among them, Curt Vendel is one name to remember: He designed both the Flashback and Flashback 2. For all intents and purposes, Vendel is the current caretaker of the classic Atari gaming hardware. He runs the Atari History Museum, which is dedicated to archiving the legacy of Atari's classic gaming era.

Vendel and the engineering development firm he runs, Legacy Engineering Group, scored the gig for both Flashback projects after he previously worked with Atari to assist the company on licensing issues for several plug-n-play TV game units that featured classic Atari games. These products, which were fitted into recreations of the Atari 2600 joystick and paddle controllers, were developed by other companies - not Legacy - and neither accurately re-created the original Atari gameplay experience.

Even Vendel's first take on the Flashback was roundly criticized - particularly for using a microprocessor meant for emulating the NES. But the Flashback sold well enough that Atari commissioned Vendel's company in 2004 to design a second version. With more development time, and fielding input from the classic Atari gaming community, Vendel and his team achieved critical and sales success with the Flashback 2.

The Escapist: What's your history in the classic Atari gaming community?

Curt Vendel: I go back to the early '80s, participating in [my] local New York Atari users groups and running the Staten Island Atari Users Group for several years. I also ran my own Atari BBS, frequented the Atari [forum] on CompuServe and haven't stopped since.

TE: While designing the Flashback 2, did you have access to the design blueprints of the original Atari 2600? Or, did this job require a bit of reverse engineering?

CV: I was actually disappointed to see just how little Atari itself owns insofar as past assets. The fact of the matter is the Atari Museum owns far [more] materials than Atari. So it was fortunate that the Atari Museum's efforts to recover and preserve Atari's past materials have helped to save such things. Of particular importance were the original chip schematics to Stella, the heart [microprocessor] of the Atari 2600.

TE: Prior to the Flashback 2, there were a number of other TV game units that played classic Atari games, and pretty much all of them sucked. You were involved in some of these, though just consulting for them. What do you think was the common problem with all of them?

CV: Originally, the consultations had to do with the form factor, supplying materials for the packaging, manuals and game content. On some of the first systems, we never received test units to give feedback on the games, which turned out to be poorly written ports.

TE: Describe an interesting technical challenge you encountered while designing the Flashback 2.

CV: A lot of timing issues. Anyone who's done any kind of chip development is familiar with the inherent challenges of trying to move older hardware designs into a new modern core. Another challenge was having games written for the console. We didn't get the go-ahead for software coding until April [2006] and had only until June to deliver games for production. Several games could have afforded more time to improve them further.

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