With 2019 fast approaching, one might think that software development for the the Atari 2600, released in 1977 has long since ceased. While certainly more of a niche pursuit than it was 40+ years ago, as John Sutley’s Syndrum project shows, this system is still very much open for hacking. Modern computer interfaces and cheap hardware like the Arduino only assist with this pursuit here, dramatically opening up possibilities.
His idea was to turn the 2600 into a synthesizer, which seemed like a good idea until he found that its Television Interface Adapter chip was “less tonal than a kazoo.” Not entirely discouraged, he decided to instead redefine his goal from “synth” to “drum machine,” creating a custom cartridge that pumps out very simple jams, along with an onscreen VU meter.
The program was created on batari Basic, burned on an EEPROM chip, then inserted into a heavily modified Combat cartridge with a ZIF socket for easy modification. This new cartridge allowed Sutley to play four notes with a controller, but he decided to take things further and create a MIDI interface for his program using an Arduino Nano.
Code for the new device can be found here, including the Arduino portion which translates MIDI signals into the “button presses” for the Atari 2600. This enabled him to make the amazing demo video seen above, and the concept could even lead to a variety of alternative musical instrument-style gaming interface.