Curt Vendel: The Escapist Interview

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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TE: Why replicate the internals of the Atari VCS for the Flashback 2, and not just emulate the hardware?

CV: The purpose was to give people the exact game experience, not to tamper with the existing designs on that particular project.

TE: How has the Flashback 2 done in sales since its original release? What’s the latest possibility of a follow-up, a “Flashback 3”?

CV: Flashback 2 did exceptionally well. 860,000 sold in U.S./domestic. Unfortunately, Atari didn’t order units in a PAL format for the U.K./European markets. Otherwise, we’d have easily broken the million mark.

A new product was developed, and if the timing can be worked out, there is a good chance of it making it to retailers shelves for the holidays.

TE: What is this “new product”? There have been rumors that the “Flashback 3” could be based on the Atari 5200, the 7800, the 2600 again – with new games, or with some form of cartridge slot – or a magical combination of any of these three. Can you hint what the next Flashback to come will feature?

CV: It will be based on the 2600 architecture, but this time we are enhancing the game experience with newer display and interfacing technologies and putting the system together into a form factor that Atari had never before delivered to gamers.

TE: The so-called plug-n-play TV game business isn’t covered much in the mainstream gaming press. Is this still a profitable market, or has the appeal for these systems waned?

CV: It’s still quite profitable and has evolved. When we designed the Flashback 2 and Atari sold it to retailers, it set the bar very high for the plug-n-play market. The Flashback 2 was not some “toy,” but in fact a game console. Atari can now be considered the king of the “entry level console market” in a round-about way, I suppose.

TE: What’s the coolest Flashback 2 mod you’ve seen?

CV: Someone had completely redone their case, and actually put the cartridge slot right back where it originally was on the original Atari 2600’s and added some great switches to it; it looked fantastic. Another person did a whole Tron theme case. It’s great to see all of the creativity that people have shown when modding their Flashback 2’s. A lot more people did the cartridge mod than I thought would have, so it’s good to see people having a lot of fun with the consoles.

TE: Nostalgia aside, what do you think has been the lasting appeal of the classic Atari games and consoles?

CV: Everyone knows and remembers Atari. Parents today were the arcade dwellers of the ’80s. Now they can not only show their kids these great games, but they can probably beat them at them, too. It also comes down to something that even the industry itself is finally recognizing: It’s not about massive amounts of CPU horsepower, full cinematic storylines or [Dolby] 5.1 or better stereo sound. It’s about making games that are fun – fun but simple, too. Many would-be gamers don’t want to invest 30 to 60 minutes just to understand how to play a game, its storyline, etc. Many want that “quick fix” – to step up to a game, pick up the controller and just play, have fun and enjoy themselves.

TE: Last question: Have you played Atari today?

CV: Not a day goes by that I don’t.

Howard Wen is still pretty pissed off about how much the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man sucked.

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