The Australian Centre for the Moving Image, or ACMI as it is more commonly called is home to the permanent exhibition Screen Worlds. The exhibition was first opened all the way back in 2009, and has a large range of exhibits that showcase different technologies and trends in film, television, and digital culture that date back more than 100 years. Now when screen worlds opened, I was only just graduating high school myself, but after joining the ACMI AV department as an AV Technician for the first time in 2013 I have had the opportunity to get well acquainted with the individual exhibits by performing maintenance and making sure they stay up and running for as long as possible despite using equipment and technology that is now almost 10 years old!
This is easier said than done. Sometimes we are talking about maintaining 40 year old gaming consoles that run 24 hours a day! A reoccurring victim of this ambitious operating schedule was the legendary Magnavox Odyssey that ran a copy of the original Pong. ACMI burnt through quite a few Magnavox Odysseys through the years which is not particularly surprising seeing as the console was released in 1972. Original functional Magnavox Odysseys have become increasingly rare, and with the exhibit closed for some time the ACMI AV department decided to commission a rebuild of Pong that would try to emulate the original as closely as possible. Seeing an opportunity to do something cool, I put my hand up to attempt building a clone.
JAMMA Boards and Emulation
So how do you attempt a clone of something like Pong? There are lots of different pre-existing solutions out there that will do the job, but what are they and how faithful are they to the original?
Unbranded and branded so called “multicade JAMMA boards” are available from a variety of online sources that usually contain one or more versions of Pong, although versions of Pong that emulate the Magnavox are rare. Perhaps the most well known branded multicade boards are the Pandora’s Box series. But don’t go rushing to find a website with information on these boards, they are mostly illegal. They use MAME emulators in conjunction with illegal game ROMs that have annoyed companies such as Nintendo for years. If you know someone who has an arcade machine with these old classics and it didn’t cost several thousands of dollars, it is almost certainly illegal! Because of this using any kind of emulation or third party board was out of the question. This includes the use of any kind of computer that uses emulation software to play illegally downloaded ROMs. While various linux distributions such as the widely popular RetroPi are not illegal, legal ROMs of Pong are not available for purchase.
Coding a Clone
In contrast to emulated ROMs, coding a clone from scratch that is devoid of any particular trademarks is perfectly legal, hence why so many Pong derivatives have existed over the years. With this being the case, I decided to give a go at coding one these. The easiest solution would have been to make a reasonably accurate clone that can run on a PC or Raspberry Pi, but after doing some quick googling I noticed quite a few people had tried to code Pong games using the Arduino Uno and the TVout library. This library makes it possible to create composite signals using a couple of resistors and a couple of GPIO pins. The graphics it produces are pretty rudimentary, but perfect for something like a pong clone. Composite type signals are often imperfect, which actually helps create a retro type effect in applications such as this! It also has a simple audio tone generator which can produce some pretty convincing 1 bit audio signals.
The existing controllers were custom made to resemble the old school Magnavox controllers, and had two potentiometers each, as well as one momentary push button. One potentiometer acts as the spin control for once the ball has been hit, and one acts as the paddle position control. The push button puts the ball back in to play. The potentiometers are connected to various ADC channels on the Arduino, and the pushbutton is connected to a GPIO pin.
A GPIO pin was also reserved for connecting to an RCA jack that acts as the audio output. Two resistors are used for the composite output as per the write up done on the TVout library reference.
The code for this project is available here and is licensed under GPL 3.0, so by all means go ahead and use this yourself! I won’t go in to the details of the code itself as it is pretty sufficiently commented, but if everything is wired up correctly this should work straight out of the box using Sketch.
This Pong clone is closer to the version released for the Magnavox Odyssey 300 rather than the original Magnavox Odyssey. Hopefully the kids in Screen Worlds don’t notice! Some bugs appeared after installing this at ACMI which I didn’t have the chance to fix. If the ball is going fast enough sometimes it will go straight through a paddle and win a point for the opponent. The spin control was a little difficult implement, and harder still seeing as I never got a chance to play Pong on an actual Magnavox. One of the tougher things to get right with the TVout library is to make sure the game and graphics have been sufficiently updated before TVout tries to bit bang the output. This can actually add a visual retro effect to the game, but is not ideal and highlights how even a simple Pong game can push an AVR Atmega microcontroller to it’s limit.
See it for yourself at ACMI in Screen Worlds!