Archive for November, 2005

My BBS Alter-Ego Turns 45

Saturday, November 12th, 2005

Red Wolf ANSIBack when I started BBSing in 1992, I was only eleven years old. I was very young, innocent, trusting. I told the truth, giving out my real name, address, and age to every BBS I called. But certain devious teenage SysOps took advantage of my youthful tendency towards trust and shattered my confidence, betraying me and making me look like a fool in the BBS community. My innocence as I knew it had been lost. No longer would I be Red Wolf the Boy Wonder SysOp, the celebrated youngest SysOp in the Triangle area — no, that boy went to school every day, played in the woods, and rode his bike with his friends. Online, I would be Red Wolf the confident 34 year old computer professional — the kind of guy no power-tripping teenage BBSers would dare mess with. I went so far as to engineer a fake “real” name, birth date, and background for this alter-ego to give it realistic consistency throughout the years. His name was John Scagon (a silly name, I know), and he often traveled to Chicago for business meetings (a convenient excuse to not answer chat requests, reply to emails, or for the BBS being down a few days). His birthday was 11/12/1960 — an obviously fake-sounding date that was chosen by me because it was easy to remember. I had an address and phone number made up for him too, but I don’t remember what they were. John Scagon even had a friend in his neighborhood that would come over sometimes and look after the BBS while John was “on vacation.” I did this especially when I felt like having some fun with my callers. Make no mistake; this was not some manifestation of multiple-personality disorder. The line between fantasy and reality in my mind was always firmly drawn, and I am very sane. Rather, John Scagon was a simply role I took on when I was online, like an actor playing a part in a TV show. Although sometimes it was a bit deeper — more like an actor living a part in a TV show.

After a few years of masquerading as John Scagon online, nobody remembered that I was only 13 years old anymore. I tried my hardest to act older, and surprisingly enough, people actually thought that I was 30-something instead of pre-puberty. I established my Scagon act so firmly that when I once tried to tell some people (as Red Wolf online) that I was actually only 14 (at the time), they didn’t believe me. And to this day there are probably dozens of people out there who still think I am a lot older than I really am (sorry to break it to you so late, if you found this entry on a Google search). So much more credibility and esteem is yours for the taking as an older guy if you’re making your rounds in an online community composed of mostly teenagers and college students. Strangely enough, over time I became a kind of father figure that many BBSers, ironically my own age or older, looked up to.

My BBS life was a secret life I never mentioned to anyone my own age. Only one friend in school knew of it, and he was sworn to secrecy. A few of my parents’ friends knew about it, but not many. Not many relatives knew either. It was my own private world that I figured no one else could understand. Besides, if I ever even tried to explain a BBS to someone, it would usually be greeted with a “huh?” and a look of profound confusion from the person I was trying to educate. A completely different layer of reality, the online community, existed on top of the one in which mere “normal” people lived, and it was quite shocking for such people to learn of its existence, and very hard for them to grasp for some reason. That’s why I kept it quiet. Only when your very average Joe started using the Internet around 1999 did I even mention to my classmates that I played with computers as a hobby.

The dichotomy of being that arose from my BBS usage created some interesting situations when my offline life would cross over with the BBS one. That is, when some people I knew in person discovered BBSes and would talk to me about them, not knowing that I ran one myself and had been calling them for many years. Of course, I didn’t tell them that I was Red Wolf and ran The Cave BBS — that was part of the fun. But I’ll save those stories for a future entry.

My alter-ego and I separated long ago. I thought about killing him off in a car wreck in Chicago when I shut down my BBS for good. It would have been a cool story to tell, but it didn’t happen; I couldn’t bear to kill an innocent man. So instead, the two of us just went our separate ways. Today I am very much a different person — I am definitely not John Scagon at all. Years ago, a completely new Red Wolf (in fact, RedWolf — the lack of a space in the name came from the Internet world) grew up to fill the hole left by my alter-ego, then no-longer needed after I had attained sufficient age to be confident in my true identity online. But I feel like John Scagon is still out there somewhere now, although I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing. I find myself wondering what his life is like at 45. Does he have a wife, or even kids? Does he still work with computers? I almost want to email him and ask him how he’s doing, to wax nostalgic over our BBS days together as if he’s a long lost friend. But of course, that would be impossible. Still, I’d like to drink a toast to the man who never was: the mentor inside of me, and my personal guide through a tougher world, long past. Happy birthday, Red Wolf.

The First Atari Jaguar Press Release (1993)

Saturday, November 12th, 2005

Atari JaguarStraight from RedWolf’s vintage text file archives: It’s the original Atari Jaguar Press Release! Sure, you can probably find this elsewhere on the web, but I downloaded this text, as you see it, directly from the official Atari Forum (GO ATARI) on Compuserve in 1993. I was a huge fan of Atari at the time, and news of a new system from them was extremely exciting — exciting enough for me to archive the press release for over twelve years. It’s an entertaining read.

Sunnyvale, CA – June 1993 – Atari Corporation, the founder of the video game industry and the creative force behind some of the world’s best known titles, has announced the launch of a revolutionary new multi-media entertainment system, the ATARI JAGUAR. The launch will be supported by aggressive advertising, promotion and marketing efforts to be centered in the New York market in the Fall, with a national roll-out of the product within one year.

The ATARI JAGUAR, housed in a futuristic casing, is an interactive multi- media system based on an Atari-designed proprietary 64-bit RISC processor. The 64-bit system is four times the technology currently seen in the market today. The ATARI JAGUAR features over 16 million colors in 24-bit true color graphics and produces shaded 3-D polygons to be manipulated in a “real” world in real time. The ATARI JAGUAR also has real time texture mapping and creates spectacular video effects.

The sound system is based on Atari’s proprietary, high-speed, Digital Signal Processor dedicated to audio. The audio is 16-bit stereo CD quality and processes simultaneous sources of audio data, allowing for very realistic sounds, as well as human voices, which are essential for future multi- media applications.

The ATARI JAGUAR is truly expandable and will include a 32-bit expansion port which allows for future connection into cable and telephone networks, as well as a digital signal processing port for modem use and connection to digital audio peripherals such as DAT players.

The unit will also have a compact disc peripheral, which will be double-speed and will play regular CD audio, CD + G (Karaoke), and Kodak’s new Photo-CD.

Currently, there are multiple software titles in development, which will be available on MegaCart ™. Atari, known for such groundbreaking 3-D titles as Battlezone 2000 (r), and Tempest 2000 (r), will issue spectacular new versions for the ATARI JAGUAR. New 3-D game titles will include Cybermorph (r), Alien vs. Predator (r), Jaguar Formula One Racing ™ and many more. Atari will license third party publishers to join the Jaguar family.

“The ATARI JAGUAR system will revolutionize the state of home entertainment as we see it today,” said Sam Tramiel, president of Atari. “The idea of a 64-bit system is earthshattering and kids and adults will be amazed at both the imagery and manipulative capabilities. And we are proud that our entry into the multi-media entertainment category will be fully made in America.”

The ATARI JAGUAR will retail for approximately $200 and will be available nationwide next year. The ATARI JAGUAR packaged unit will include one software experience and a Power Pad (r) Controller with a ten-key pad, and other special features.

Atari Corp. manufactures and markets personal computers and video games for the home, office and educational marketplaces throughout the world. Atari headquarters are located at 1196 Borregas Ave., Sunnyvale, CA 94089.

Hehe.. “The ATARI JAGUAR packaged unit will include one software experience.” I like that part. And this — “The ATARI JAGUAR features over 16 million colors in 24-bit true color graphics and produces shaded 3-D polygons to be manipulated in a “real” world in real time.” Putting the word “real” in quotes isn’t too reassuring. Why not just say “virtual” instead?

The World’s First (Flying) Laptop Computer

Friday, November 11th, 2005

Epson HX-20I was just looking through my collection of old computer images today when I noticed this one. Someone is apparently tossing an $800 Epson HX-20 computer (incidentally the world’s first “laptop”) toward this creepy disembodied hand. Or perhaps the HX-20 had flying capabilities that I wasn’t aware of. Either way, it’s pretty weird. What will people in 1981 think of next?

For more info on the Epson HX-20, check out this cool page. And if you want some original documentation on this early portable, check out Epson’s own product support site for the HX-20!

Vintage BBS Validation Message of the Week (#1)

Friday, November 11th, 2005

Call The Cave, Punk!If you read my introduction or the “About the Author” page on this site, you’ll know that I ran a BBS from 1992 to 1998. It was a one line, 24-hour WWIV BBS called “The Cave BBS.” Anyway, back in the BBS days there was a common convention known as submitting a validation message. This was a personal statement sent to the SysOp (short for System Operator, the person who ran the BBS) that essentially begged and brown-nosed for full access to the system (especially for the file section), sent immediately after registering on the BBS. The new user was taken directly into a message editing screen and forced to send the message. If he or she aborted the message, then the BBS would usually hang up on them. What follows is an example of such a message, sent to me, RedWolf, long ago.

Subject: UMMM
Name: Ceaser #298 @1
Date: Tue Jun 25 19:22:14 1996
RE: Validation Feedback

I am Jonathan A. Matthews and I am a cool person. You just have to meet me. I will spread the word of this BBS because I don’t want to be the only one on here.

Ok, so that was a little thin, but I enjoyed it. I like how he spelled Caesar. I suppose I’ll give you a little bonus, one of the many silly threats that came in on a monthly basis:

Name: Mad Max #115
Date: Tue Apr 04 19:31:49 1995
RE: Validation Feedback

MAD MAX!!!!!

Oh no! Will MAD MAX succeed in taking over the BBS? I guess you’ll just have to tune in again next week for another exciting episode of Vintage BBS Validation Messages!

How Hard Drive Crashes Kept Me Regular

Wednesday, November 9th, 2005

HD CrashComputer hard disks weren’t always as reliable as they are now. From 1992 up until about five years ago, it seemed that I had a drive crash on me at least once every two years (Hmm.. they ceased right about the time I stopped buying OEM Western Digital drives from a questionable source). A total drive meltdown was always a terrible event, but it was still no where near as catastrophic as it would be now. You see, back then, the data on my computer was usually just stuff I had downloaded from BBSes or the Internet, maybe some text and Word files, and a few games. But these days, people keep their entire lives on their computers, including home movies, digital family snapshots, personal correspondence (in the form of emails), and gigantic music collections. Not to mention that more original creative work than ever is being done on computers these days — musicians record directly to them, photographers process their pictures on them, illustrators draw and paint with them, and writers write with them. This creative data is unique and irreplaceable — you can’t just download it again if you lose it, making a data backup plan absolutely essential for the modern computer user. Of course, I’m sure most people don’t back up their stuff, and computer users everywhere lose valuable data on a daily basis. Considering the importance of the personal data on PCs these days, I find it absurd that computer manufacturers don’t include some sort of redundant disk protection by default in every PC sold (or at least the build-to-order option). As RAID controllers get more economical thanks to the widespread adoption of the Serial ATA standard, such a scenario will become more realistic. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that in five years, redundant data protection of some kind will be a standard feature on all consumer PCs. From now on (starting with my last two computers), I’ll never build another computer again without at least RAID level 1 (data mirroring) protection. I also do daily backups to an external hard drive on my three main computers for an extra level of safety.

HD FilesBut my backup regimen isn’t really what I want to talk about today. No, it was my complete lack of one that we’ll focus on for the moment. Back when I lost my hard drives, I usually lost most or all the files on them as well. This functioned as sort of a “natural reset” (a big crunch, if you will) that set me back and forced me to clean up and start over. But once those natural resets stopped happening, things started building up. Data clutter reared its ugly head, and now data management and organization of all my files, including thousands upon thousands of legacy files, has gained incredible importance. Of course, it takes a lot of time to organize this data, but once you have it sorted out, it’s settled! Or is it? You still have to keep organizing every file you create, or else you will have a big mess on your hands, which I suspect is quite common among computer users. With larger capacity hard drives becoming ever cheaper for the foreseeable future, there will never be any need for the data pack rat to throw anything away. And with no natural resets, there will be no force making them throw anything away. At what point do I say enough is enough and trash MS Works files of 6th grade school papers? I just can’t bring myself to do it. At what point do I trash my collection of thousands of low-resolution, low-color images of old computers I downloaded off the web in 1996? I can’t bring myself to do it. I still have copies of DOS programs sitting around that I used in 1992. I have all my primitive MS Paintbrush computer artwork done in the mid-90s. I have archived HTML web pages that interested me in 1997. I have…lots of stuff. I’m swimming in it, and now with every new computer I buy, it’s hard to keep straight which file is where on my constellation of networked machines (which, I might add, keep my house quite toasty in the winter…whether I like it or not). I suppose I should centralize the data the best I can into a single, hyper-backed-up file server. I already have a similar server for most of my old files, but they aren’t actively backed up at the moment, and it adds extra cost to set that up. Either way, until I commit the money to it or — God forbid — “nature” takes its course and thrashes one of my drives, I’ll still be swimming in a digital sea of dusty — but priceless — data.

No More Blinkies: Replacing the NES’s 72-Pin Cartridge Connector

Monday, November 7th, 2005

Frustrating NESIt’s an endless struggle; an epic, no-holds-barred wrestling match: Man vs. NES in a fight to the death. Or at least, in a fight to get your NES games working on that old front-loading NES. You push, it blinks. You pull, it blinks. You blow, you sneeze, you use q-tips, cleaning kits, and wow…it works? You see the title screen, but it’s still a little flaky. Things might be a little garbled, so you hit reset and it looks OK. Then an hour into playing, you accidentally tap the console and the game freezes, forcing you to start your Metroid game all over again. Blast! It’s hard to remember that your NES ever worked on the first try. There’s a fine art to actually getting a game running on an old NES. It takes a lot of patience and a certain flick of the wrist. I used to impress people at parties with my NES-charming abilities, and boy did the ladies love it.

NES 72-Pin Replacement ConnectorThe crux of this classical problem is a special connector inside the unit that wears out from repeated usage over the years. It was designed in such a way that a game cartridge can be inserted at a slight angle with little resistance, then pushed down in the spring-and-latch loading tray inside the NES, bringing the cartridge’s contacts in full contact with the connector’s pins. It’s sort of like a cartridge port version of a ZIF (zero insertion force) socket (Hmm.. Zero Insertion Force sounds like it would have been a good title for a Japanese NES game). This mechanism seems like a great idea on paper — there’s no brute-forcing the game in, and it’s easy to pull the game out of the slot when you’re done. But this delicate dance between cartridge and machine repeats it self over and over again throughout the years until the the pins in the internal connector start to lose their flexibility and springiness. And when they get slowly bent down from repeated usage, the physical contact made between the connector and the cartridge itself suffers, making it hard for the NES to read the data on the cartridge. On top of that, you have years of dust, dirt, and corrosive build-up on both the internal connector and the game itself. As a result, you get…Dum Dum Dum…The Blinkies.

Back in the day, we just threw up our hands and suffered with the problem, never really thinking there could be a solution — other than buying a later model top-loading NES (released in 1993), which eschewed the high-class ZIF mechanism for a more plebeian (and low cost) approach. And as we all now know, recent attempts at NES replacements just don’t cut it. But a few years ago, enterprising young lads on Ebay started selling replacement 72-pin connectors (the cartridge port on the NES has 72 pins) for afflicted front-loading NES systems. The concept is this: you buy a new connector, you disassemble your NES and replace the old one, and supposedly the blinkies will be gone. So about three months ago, I finally decided to buy one and try it out. Sellers want anywhere from $7 to $12 (!) a piece for these things, which is a lot of markup considering they’re probably being churned out by Chinese factories at a cost of a cent a piece. However, they are quite unique in the world of connectors and I (in my limited experience) know of no other device that has ever used such a component. So until we find out who these sellers are smuggling these things from, the gaming public will have to put up with the high prices.

NES Apart, RF Shield RemovedI took a dive and went with a $7 connector from I bought it through Ebay, although HitGaming has its own online store too. The choice of a vendor for these things probably matters very little. I highly suspect that all of them come from the same manufacturer somewhere in the Far East. Just go for the cheapest price.’s 72-pin connector arrived in a little plastic baggy with a cheaply done single-sheet print out of NES disassembly and connector installation instructions. Having disassembled a number of NESes before, I didn’t have any trouble with the installation — it’s very easy as far as console fixes go. But for those who are not experienced in taking anything apart, the operation might be a tad tricky. also has extended installation instructions online with more pictures, which is definitely handy for the inexperienced. I’m not going to go into detail about the assembly and installation instructions myself, since the method to do so has been repeated many times over on the web.

I took everything apart — first the main chassis, then the RF shield, then they tray mechanism, then unplugged the old connector from the mainboard, hollowed out some incompletely drilled screw holes in the new connector, and plugged it in to the mainboard. Then I screwed only the tray mechanism back so I could test it before completely putting it back together. If I had to give one tip for the process, it would be this: there is a black plastic lip/slot on the bottom of the black spring-loaded tray that is designed to go under the front, bottom edge of the main board. Make sure you slide the tray mechanism in parallel to the mainboard and that the lip goes under the board, or else the tray will stick up too much and the spring-locking mechanism won’t work properly. After successful testing, reassemble everything else in reverse order, taking care not to mix up which screws go where.

The new 72-pin connector in my NES succeeded in eliminating the confounded blinkies. It should be heavily noted that your game cartridges need to be cleaned before inserting them into your newly refurbished NES, or else you’ll still have trouble getting them to work (and you’ll get your new connector dirty).

There was only one problem with my connector, though. The whole ingeniously-designed ZIF feature of the tray-loader was somehow negated by the new connector. It requires a strong force to push the cartridge in, and a Herculean effort to remove the cart from the system. The sheer gripping power of the new connector will surely lessen over time and use, but it’s definitely inconvenient to have to struggle to pull a game out. It’s a disappointment, but at least a cleaned cartridge works on the first try. Also, you can practically throw the NES across the room and not have the game lock up on you; the contact is that strong. Still, I wouldn’t try it on purpose (although it might happen spontaneously while trying to get past the first stage of Ghosts ‘N Goblins).

Note: Below, I am reviewing my particular connector, not the whole concept of replacing your old one. Replacement NES 72-Pin Connector
Good Features: Seemingly good quality construction, same dimensions as old connector. Eradicates the blinkies if installed correctly and used with clean carts. Installation instructions provided on paper and online.
Bad Features: Overpriced. Skimpy installation instructions. Grabs on to your carts for dear life and won’t let go. Requires disassembly and possible breakage risk in the process — not a good option for the technically unexperienced.
VC Rating:
(10 Being Best)
[ 6 out of 10 ] Shiny Marbles

Late Review: XGaming X-Arcade Dual Joystick

Saturday, November 5th, 2005

X-Arcade LogoYeah, I know, this joystick is old news. It’s probably been reviewed dozens of times. But when it first came out, I didn’t have a Vintage Computing and Gaming blog. So now I get to play catch-up and review all kinds of nifty things I’ve been buying and collecting over the years, just to add another voice to the chorus of public opinion, and to help my fellow enthusiasts, of course. And in this case, I specifically wanted to review the XGaming X-Arcade Dual joystick because I definitely think it’s worth a mention here.

X-Arcade Dual JoystickI bought my X-Arcade Dual over three years ago, and it has held up very well over the years. I originally used it with a PS/2 to USB adapter on my iMac to play arcade games in MAME. Then for a while I had a dedicated (if pathetic) MAME PC that I used the Dual with to play emulated arcade games, of course. I originally decided to get the Dual model so my buddy and I could play two-player games together (loads of fun and works great), but the extra joystick also comes in handy for games like Robotron: 2084 and Smash TV that use two joysticks in their original cabinets (one for movement and one to fire in a certain direction).

The price is a little steep (currently $129.95 for the Dual, and $99.95 for the Solo, one-player joystick), but I’d have to say that you really get what you pay for here: authentic arcade controls. This thing is made of the real stuff — industrial strength switches for the buttons and joysticks that hold up to intense pounding, while still being quick and responsive — all mounted sturdily in a heavy particle-board base that feels like it could take quite a beating itself (although not a drink spill, if it seeps through the plastic-covering’s edges). The eight standard play button positions are well thought out, allowing for the best compatibility with many different arcade games. There are also two start buttons at the top (for added authentic feel) and as a nice bonus, two buttons on either side, which work excellently as flipper buttons for a video pinball game. The overall craftsmanship and quality of the product is exemplary, and it becomes obvious once you hold the Dual in your hands that you’re dealing with a well-designed, well-manufactured product.

The X-Arcade Dual, by default, plugs into your computer through its PS/2 keyboard port, with a handy pass-through female PS/2 jack for your regular keyboard. In this way, the Dual emulates a keyboard and has incredibly large possibilities as a game controller, even for games that don’t support joysticks. You can program which buttons correspond to which keys on a keyboard using a plugged-in keyboard and a special programming button on the back. The Dual also allows you to save four different button configurations (for different games, for example), which you can toggle with a four-position switch in the back of the unit. It should also be noted that through XGaming, you can purchase various adapters that let you use the Dual (or the Solo) as a controller on traditional console game systems like the PS2 and the Xbox, although I have never tried this feature.

Overall, I’m very impressed, and yes, I recommend the X-Arcade Dual highly to anyone who is serious about playing games with MAME, or even those who just want a damn good joystick. The bottom line is this: if you want an authentic arcade quality feel to your games, look no further than the X-Arcade Dual.

And no, all my reviews won’t be this glowing. I’ll find something bad to review soon enough.

The Skinny: XGaming X-Arcade Dual Joystick
Good Features: Sturdy, arcade-authentic hardware, excellent craftsmanship and quality, great button layout, incredible compatibility options with keyboard emulation and available adapters.
Bad Features: The price is a little steep, relegating this stick to a hard-core audience. Keyboard pass-through a little awkward. Particle board body construction.
VC Rating:
(10 Being Best)
[ 9 out of 10 ] Shiny Marbles

Goodwill Adventures and the $1 Book Find

Saturday, November 5th, 2005

Goodwill LogoAh…the trusty Goodwill store. Once the last bastion for countless old computers thrown out by a thankless middle-class America that had grown tired of them, it’s now merely a graveyard for broken VCRs and 1970s-era crockpots (you can always find at least one crockpot at any Goodwill store). So what happened? Around 2001, if I recall correctly, GCF was choking at the gills with hordes of truly worthless PC-clones that no one ever bought. They kept pouring in, non-stop, stacking up at the back of every store. The only thing Goodwill Industries could do to prevent themselves from being crushed by a mountain of PC trash was to stop accepting donations of computers, period. Unfortunately, this policy threw out the wheat with the chaff, the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. No longer could I find complete, boxed TI-99/4a’s, pristine Commodore Plus/4’s (yes, I found two of these complete in boxes Goodwill), and an endless supply compact Macs with personal resumes and strange letters still on their 10 meg hard drives (giving me hours of entertainment as an unexpected bonus).

But there are still some good things about the Goodwill store for the computer and gaming collector. For one, they still sell video games and systems, although they are pretty rare finds, and they’ve recently taken to locking them up in a glass case near the checkout counter. I’ve picked up an excellent condition SNES with some games (no AC adapter, though), and some really nice Genesis games in their original plastic boxes with manuals (Landstalker and Shining Force among them!) at Goodwill stores over the years. Also, they have a book section, which is the true focus of this entry, although it will ironically take up the least amount of space.

The Media Lab Book CoverPaperback books cost fifty cents a piece; hard cover books, one dollar. That’s where I found the first edition of “The Media Lab” by Steward Brand (1987), hardcover and in great condition. This is a really cool find — an excellent addition to my computer history library — at a great price. It’s fun to see what was considered futuristic even as recently as 1987. The book has a great picture section in the middle (Grog no like words, Grog like piktures!), which, since I haven’t actually read the book yet, will have to suffice for a source of a description of the book. There are examples of early computer illustration software, rudimentary 3D computer graphics, anti-aliasing for digital text, force-feedback joysticks, holograms, AI, and something called NewsPeek, which was an idea for an electronic newspaper with eerie echos of the World Wide Web before such a thing existed. If it deals with computers and media, the MIT lab did it all first. And, if I may add personally, they also repeatedly failed to capitalize on their discoveries first, a ridiculous flaw of many a government and corporate think-tank and R&D division over the years (Xerox PARC comes to mind). “But RedWolf,” you say, “That’s not the purpose of a research institution!” I don’t care. Many incredible inventions are made at university labs, but it always takes a maverick separatist entrepreneur to break off from the organization and bring the benefits of those inventions to the masses. Otherwise, great ideas would stagnate there forever, and die on the vine where they were grown. Until new technologies are actively pushed and available in the marketplace, they’re just academic play-toys that don’t help anybody, hoarded by elitist engineers. So am I criticizing academic and big organization research? Hell yes. But hey, that opens up another can of worms, and I think it’s time to eat lunch.

…On second thought, maybe not.

Mini-Review: The AtariAge Store

Friday, November 4th, 2005

AtariAge Store Logo
Part of what I want to do here on is to share my experiences with certain products and services related to the vintage computing or gaming communities, so that other enthusiasts might know who to trust and who to avoid (if you trust my opinion, anyway). That’s why I’m devoting this mini-review to AtariAge’s online store. Yes, to the store itself and its service.

I have ordered twice from AtariAge over the last year and a half. First, I ordered a SIO2PC cable kit and a Hollex Cartridge, both for the Atari 800, and also a Redemption 5200 joystick adapter. Then, earlier this year, I ordered a version of M.U.L.E. adapted to the Atari 5200 (pretty awesome, by the way) and a homebrew game called Skeleton+ for the Atari 2600 (each of these items might be subject to their own reviews in the future). Both times I was very satisfied with every aspect of AtariAge’s service.

Skeleton Plus Homebrew CartFirst of all, the store’s design and functionality is excellent. It is organized in a relatively easy to understand and navigate manner. If I ever ran an online store, I’d probably shamelessly pattern it after AtariAge’s store/shopping cart software (whether custom or a modified package, it’s still good). AtariAge’s checkout process integrates seamlessly into the PayPal system and payment via credit card is easy and fast (AtariAge also accepts check/money order payment, but I haven’t tried that). Their shipping options (typically USPS First Class and USPS Priority Mail) are realistic and actual-cost — no shady handling fees padded onto the total. After waiting a week or maybe less, depending on which shipping method selected, your package arrives. I personally was very happy with the speed at which the products got here, and the professionalism with which they were packed (the padding seemed adequate for the items inside), complete with a packing slip / receipt inside the box. The items that I ordered were exactly as described, obviously handled with care and in excellent condition.

All in all, if anyone is reticent about ordering from AtariAge, don’t be. I highly recommend their store and personally consider it a service to the vintage gaming community, not some over-commercial exploitation of the “retro” market. They’re the Real Deal, as I like to call it, doing it for the love of the game (those phrases might become VC cliches soon if I keep saying them). So what are you waiting for? Order a homebrew 2600 game now!

The Skinny: AtariAge’s Online Store
Good Features: Great store layout, functionality. Realistic prices, good payment options, excellent shipping options, fast and as-described service. The Real Deal.
Bad Features: Selection is a little sparse, but that’s quite a stretch for a negative feature. Requires use of PayPal for credit card purchases.
VC Rating:
(10 Being Best)
[ 9 out of 10 ] Shiny Marbles

SomethingAwesome: RetroZone’s FourScore USB Interface

Thursday, November 3rd, 2005

Sorry, but this thing kicks ass.Over the past 6 years I have been looking for an easy way to interface my original NES pad with my PC so I could play NES games on an emulator with an authentic feel. There was only one realistic option I knew of: a parallel port interface hack that had spread around the Net over the years, but I never quite got around to doing it. Then, early this year I stumbled across RetroZone’s site. There I found an array of different vintage controllers available for sale with USB (!) interfaces. Now we’re talking! USB is the way of the present and the future — I don’t want to be saddled with having to hook up parallel port stuff to my circa 2010 PC (which almost definitely will not have a parallel port). All of RetroZone’s USB controllers apparently use a specially programmed microcontroller to convert the original pad’s signals into a USB signal that a PC can understand. After browsing the options (a converted NES controller for $26 and a $17 do-it-yourself kit among them), I settled on the FourScore USB model, which seemed like a great deal to me at $60. Sure, I’ve seen some people balk at these prices, but I think they’re really cheap for saving me the labor and sheer mental strain of devising and doing such a mod by myself. With the FourScore one, you can use up to four NES controllers on one USB port. And even better, you can use any NES controller you want — you don’t have to be stuck with a converted one that might have bad conductive rubber pads in it. So I ordered it via PayPal, and a week or so later, it arrived.

The arrival of this product was one of the most exciting things that happened in a long time, having recently acquired, through BitTorrent, an archive of all known 10K+ NES and Famicom ROM files (the legality and morality of doing such will probably be debated in a future entry). I opened up the box and plugged it in. The FourScore was in pristine condition (no surprise, since I have about five unopened FourScores in boxes that I bought for $5 a piece in 1995), with a mint-condition USB cable. The craftsmanship was flawless, with the USB cable coming out of the FourScore as if it were meant to be there, complete with molded USB connector and all. I plugged it in and Windows 2000 instantly recognized it. I plugged in a NES pad into port one of the FourScore and Windows 2000 also instantly recognized it as a joystick (which is great, because it means you can use it with anything that supports Windows joysticks). I fired up FCE Ultra, my emulator of choice and configured the pad. In no time, I was playing Super Mario Bros. full-screen on my PC just as if it were a real NES. The pad had incredible response time — no noticeable delay — and flawless performance. Since then I have played a hundred games with the pad and adapter with no problems. I’ve also plugged in a 2nd pad into port two of the FourScore and played some Bubble Bobble with a friend, without a hitch. I’m sure it would work with four pads if I tried it, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

All in all, I am extremely impressed with this product and recommend it highly to anyone who plays emulated NES games on their PC. There’s nothing quite like playing a NES game with the original controller — it will never feel authentic otherwise. RetroZone is the real deal, doing their service for the love of the game. My next project will be making a dedicated NES emulator machine to hook up to my TV for the complete experience, which I will detail in a future entry. 🙂

The Skinny: RetroZone’s FourScore NES USB Interface
Good Features: Everything. Flawless craftsmanship of the highest quality. Works exactly as promised. Convenience and ease of use is incredible. Fast response times, easy setup, reasonable price.
Bad Features: Honestly. I tried, and I can’t think of one thing.
VC Rating:
(10 Being Best)
[ 10 out of 10 ] Shiny Marbles