At our house, we enjoy playing our Atari 2600 quite a bit, since the games have such a simple brilliance. Sometimes though, it’s nice to play something on our main flat screen TV, not the Trinitron (CRT television). When I discovered that the RetroN 77 emulation console lets you do Atari in HD, I got interested. 720p, here we come.
Want to play classic Atari 2600 games on your HDTV (or 4K TV), over an HDMI connection? A really convenient and affordable way to do this is with the RetroN 77 emulator console. Plug in Atari cartridges and joysticks (it comes with an ergonomic reboot on the classic joystick), and you’re good to go.
The RetroN 77 is an emulation console - a dedicated piece of hardware designed to run the excellent Stella emulator software. It lets you use real Atari game cartridges, while playing on a modern TV. It also adds some nice extras, like saved games (YES!), and playing new (“homebrew”) Atari game files developed in recent years.
Since the RetroN 77 lets you play game files as well as physical cartridges, it’s a convenient way to test games if you are making your own. YES - if you like messing around in BASIC (see my article on C64 BASIC programming), there are a couple of options for programming Atari games in BASIC. No - this isn’t the 2600’s BASIC Programming cartridge, these are modern implementations that are designed specifically for game-making. They compile down to run nice and fast. See below for details on making Atari games in BASIC.
And to top it all off - the maintainers of the Stella emulator software that the RetroN 77 uses, have taken the firmware source code released by Hyperkin (makers of the RetroN 77), and released a newer, much improved version that upgrades Stella. This enhances a number of things, including interface, option settings, compatibility, and more. You can just write this to a separate SD card, and swap out the card that comes with the 77 to boot up in the new, updated system. Nothing fiddly, no permanent changes, and swap back at any time. What’s not to like? See below for how to UPDATE your RetroN 77 with this nice enhancement - for free!
Interesting fact: The original Atari processor chip (based on the MOS 6502) was codenamed “Stella” after Atari engineer Joe Decuir’s bicycle. Impress your friends with that tidbit!
Table of Contents
- Atari 2600 Games in 720p HD
- Save Your Game - On the Atari!
- A More Hand-Friendly Atari Joystick
- The RetroN 77 - Easy Setup & Use
- Included Homebrew Games
- Reasons to Update to the RetroN 77 Open Firmware
- Updating the RetroN 77 to the Open Firmware
- Tips on Using the Updated Firmware
- How to Get Homebrew Games Onto a Micro SD Card
- Best Atari 2600 Homebrew Game Downloads
- Create Atari 2600 Games in BASIC (Compiled)!
Atari 2600 Games in 720p HD
First and foremost, the RetroN 77 (check the price on Amazon) enables you to play Atari 2600 games (physical cartridges, and new homebrew game files - a good number of them free) on your modern TV in HDMI. Asteroids, Adventure, Maze Craze... all look sharp as a tack. No grungy upscaling like when you try to plug in a vintage 2600 console via RF. Games look NICE at bright shiny 720p.
Also - be kind and don’t stretch the 4:3 image. Old school games were made for old school TVs, whose screens were more more square-ish than today’s 16:9 widescreen. While you might feel the desire to fill your screen, it mashes things, making them look short and squat. I have some more detail on this in my article about new vs old TVs.
It is worth noting, that as with all emulation, there is not 100% compatibility, so some games (especially later ones with special chips in them) will not play if you plug the cartridges into the system. That’s just the way emulating is. I have a decent collection of popular games, and all of mine work. Your mileage may vary.
Save Your Game - On the Atari!
Another perk of using emulation, is that a snapshot can be taken of the current game state, so that you can come back to it. I recently rolled the score counter back over to 0 on Asteroids. In the middle of a long play session like that, it can be nice to pause and take a bathroom break, you know? With the RetroN - no problem. Just hit the Save button on the front. It lets you know it has taken a snapshot. Later, you can hit the Load button, and you’re right back where you were. You can also use this to save incrementally as you go while playing a hard game, in order to keep a recent fallback position in case you flame out. 1 snapshot can be saved for each game. Note that this goes to 10 slots per game if you do the open firmware update.
A More Hand-Friendly Atari Joystick
One of Hyperkin’s “Trooper” joysticks comes with the system. It has a nice feel, good construction, and best of all - those palm-gouging corners are rounded off. They also look out for the lefties as well, by having an extra fire button on the other side.
The RetroN 77 - Easy Setup & Use
Setting up the system is very straightforward. Plug the included 5V USB power supply into the back. You could use an alternate as well, as long as it supplies enough amperage (Raspberry Pi supply - yes, phone charger - no). Also - this USB-based power supply setup comes in handy for doing other things like connecting a keyboard, or ethernet once you update to the open firmware.
Next, connect your HDMI cable (included) between the RetroN and the TV, and power it up by sliding the big switch on the front of the unit. Notice I didn’t say to put in a cartridge first. You can insert and remove cartridges at will without powering off. Nice.
Starting up always takes a few seconds as everything initializes. The screen will be black during that time, and then it comes up with the user interface for loading files. At this point, you can load a file (if you have one on the SD card - more on that below), or you can insert a cartridge.
To play a game file, use your joystick to select it in the interface, then press the fire button to load it. The 77 comes with a handful of homebrew games included.
If playing a cartridge - always clean its contacts thoroughly before inserting it into any system, so you don’t transfer 40-year old gunk into your game console. See my article about cleaning NES cartridges for some helpful info on how to do it. Only Level 1 from that cleaning process will be applicable (you can’t easily open Atari carts), but the principles are the same. Also - while some Atari cartridges have the contacts exposed, many don’t. Just slip a thin screwdriver into the small slot on either side of the “business end” of the cart, and press the cover in with your finger. It will slide back into the case to expose the contacts.
When you have a cartridge ready, pop it in - but with the label facing you. I know that feels backwards, but the RetroN design team wanted to let you see the snazzy cartridge artwork while the game is in the console.
Your game is now up and running. Reach around back, and press the middle of the 3 silver buttons. This toggles between the 4:3 squarish image format Atari games were designed for (for old school TVs), and the stretched/squashed 16:9 widescreen image. Oddly, the distorted 16:9 is the default - pressing once returns it to the proper 4:3.
As stated above, you can use the Save and Load buttons to take snapshots of where you are, and return to those snapshots. Saved games on the Atari is a very nice feature.
The Reset and Mode buttons function as the standard Atari Game Reset and Game Select buttons. The two Skill buttons over the controller ports acts as the two difficulty switches on a vintage Atari.
When using a cartridge, just pull it out to return to the main RetroN 77 interface. Insert another cartridge, and it will start up again. Unfortunately, the only way to exit a game file is to reset the system. This is a limitation of the stock firmware on the RetroN 77, and is overcome when you use the new open firmware explained below.
To get other homebrew game files onto your RetroN 77, you need to pull the Micro SD card from the back, and transfer from your computer onto the card. See below for some recommended Atari homebrew games to check out.
To remove the Micro SD card, find the small slot on the back of the unit marked Memory, and use your fingernail to push the card further in until it clicks and springs back out. Note as you take it out, that it is inserted upside down, with the contacts facing upward. Make sure you get that right when you go to put it back in. See below for more on the process of getting game files onto your card.
Included Homebrew Games
As mentioned, the RetroN 77 comes with a few homebrew game files on the Micro SD card. They are not really my favorites (I make recommendation below for other ones to add), but I mention them here for completeness.
Click each to visit their release page, and get more information.
Reasons to Update to the RetroN 77 Open Firmware
There are several key reasons to update your RetroN 77 to the new open firmware:
- It’s free, and easy to do
- Use a separate card, keep the original, swap at will
- It goes from max 18 game files, to unlimited, with nested folders
- It shows a game file’s full name, plus additional info (instead of the very short filenames in the stock firmware)
- You can easily back out of a homebrew game by pressing the Fry button, instead of resetting the whole system
- Bug fixes, and increased compatibility with games
- Enhanced settings and features:
- Attach a keyboard
- Take Screen shots
- Tweak interface and gameplay settings
- Attach an ethernet adapter for game transfer
It’s easy-peasy, and I walk through the steps immediately below.
Updating the RetroN 77 to the Open Firmware
Hyperkin released the source code for the RetroN 77’s firmware, and so the creators of the Stella emulator (which the RetroN 77 uses) have picked it up and greatly improved it. It now uses a much newer version of Stella, and is a must-get.
If the idea of updating firmware sounds daunting, don’t sweat it. This process is by far the easiest I have ever done. You just have to do the following things:
- Download the firmware file
- Grab the super-simple Micro SD card writer program
- Write the firmware to a spare Micro SD card
- Swap the Micro SD card in the RetroN 77, and go!
1) Download the Open Firmware File
Unless you are very technical, you don’t need the source code that’s available from the main project page, but the documentation you can find there is very useful.
To do your update, just jump straight to the releases page:
The top item listed is the newest. Click the name to go into that particular release. Click the file:
to download it.
2) Download the SD Card Writing Program
This is the simplest SD card writing app I have ever used, and it works on Windows, Mac, and Linux... so you’re all covered.
Locate the downloaded file, and do a standard installation for your operating system.
- On OSX: you just open the .dmg and drag it to your Applications folder. When you double click to run it the first time, you may need to go to System Preferences > Security & Privacy to approve it.
- On Windows: you just double-click the .exe, and follow the installation.
- On Linux: I’m sure you folks already know what you’re doing.
3) Write the Firmware to a Spare Micro SD Card
You need a spare Micro SD card that you can write over, since the process will erase anything on it.
This application is designed to overwrite removable media, like Micro SD cards, USB thumb drives, etc. I strongly recommend you unplug any such removable media, and have only the Micro SD card you plan to overwrite with the new firmware plugged into your computer. This helps you avoid accidentally writing to the wrong device.
I recommend you do what I did - keep the original Micro SD card that came with your RetroN 77 unchanged, and write this new open firmware to a fresh card. That way you always have an archive of the stock version.
Fire up the Balena Etcher application you downloaded. There are 3 steps:
- Select Image
- Select Drive
I recommend you click the middle step first, and make sure you have the correct device chosen before we proceed. Click the “change” link to see any other options. If you unplugged everything else as recommended, you should only have one option, and it should be your Micro SD card.
Once you have made sure the proper drive is selected, go back to the first item - on the left - and choose the sdcard.img file you downloaded from the firmware releases page. You can drag/drop that onto the left button, or click to get a file chooser.
When you have both selected properly, click Flash! It will write and verify the card in a few seconds, and then unmount it and tell you the process is complete. You can then quit the application.
Now remove and reinsert the Micro SD card to get it to come back up so you can confirm that you see the files on it.
You will need to create a new folder on the card called “games” in order for the system to know where to look for game files. If you don’t do this, the RetroN will just boot up into a black screen. It will still play cartridges, but won’t show you an interface when no cart is inserted.
Speaking of games, you really should download some homebrew games now. See homebrew recommendations below.
4) Swap the Micro SD Card in the RetroN 77
Press your fingernail into the slot marked Memory on the back of the 77 until it clicks and the stock card springs out. Note that it needs to be inserted upside down, with the contacts facing upward. Store your stock card somewhere safe, and insert the card you just wrote (with contacts up) until it seats.
You’re done. Fire up the RetroN and go!
Tips on Using the Updated Firmware
When you fire up the new firmware, it will drop you into a windowed interface where you can browse your games folder on the Micro SD card. (If you don’t see this, but only see a black screen, you forgot to create the “games” folder on the Micro SD card. You at least need an empty one.)
Note that on some TVs, the interface edges may extend a bit past the screen edges. This is due to “overscan,” and can be adjusted in your TV settings. It’s probably not called overscan though: look for “picture size,” ”screen fit,” “dot by dot,” or something similar in your TV’s picture setting menu.
First things first - let’s change the interface to a nice old school green screen look (or a white one). Click the Color/BW button on the back of the RetroN, and the Settings menu will come up.
Note that the joystick control on the settings menu uses left/right movement to move between options, and up/down to change the selected option setting.
Use the joystick to switch to the interface Theme dropdown menu, and click the fire button. “Classic” gets you the green screen look, “Light” gets you a white interface. Pick what you want, then go to the OK button and press the joystick button.
There are plenty of other settings, especially in the Advanced Settings mode.
Attach a USB Keyboard
If you have a USB keyboard, you can get a special OTG (On-the-Go) multi-tap style USB adapter, and put it inline between the USB power supply and the RetroN, so that you can plug the keyboard in. Once plugged in, you can go into the Settings by pressing the Color/BW button on the back of the RetroN, and then you can use the following keys:
- Tab: Step between options (forward)
- SHIFT + Tab: Step between options (backward)
- Enter: Select
- Arrows: Step between choices
ESC: Back out one level
When you are in a game, you can use the F12 key to take screenshots. The screenshotting bit is still in development at the time of this writing, and may crash things if you do too many in a row - but just reboot and start over. You will find your screenshots in /games/screenshots. You can change the location by going to Advanced Settings, and then going into “Snapshots...” and editing the Save Path.
10 Save Slots Per Game!
Now that you’re using a keyboard, you can have 10 save slots for each game - not just 1. Save multiple states of that killer Asteroids marathon, and leave space for friend to do likewise! Use the following keys during gameplay:
- F9: Save game state to the current slot for this game
- F10: Change the current slot (increment by 1 from 0-9, then back to 0)
- F11: Load game state from the current slot for this game
That is a sweet setup. Really. There’s even a Time Machine mode to do saves at user-set intervals, but as of this writing, it is not totally stable in the RetroN 77 version. Get more info on Stella’s Time Machine. See if Time Machine is still listed under Known Issues in the documentation for the RetroN 77 version.
Oh - and you can use PAUSE/BREAK to pause a game, and ESC or BACKSPACE to bail out to the main Stella interface. You can also use the arrow keys + SPACEBAR in place of Joystick 1.
To see more keys (not everything will work on the RetroN 77 version), see the hotkey reference in the online Stella documentation.
How to Get Homebrew Games Onto a Micro SD Card
This step is quite simple. Pop the Micro SD card out of the back of the RetroN 77 by pressing in with your fingernail until it clicks and then springs back out. Put the card into your computer’s card reader. Double click the card on your computer to open it up, and then drag game files into the /games folder.
Eject the card, put it back into the RetroN 77 (contacts facing up!), and start it up. The stock card that comes with the RetroN 77 has firmware that only will show you 18 games. For unlimited games, do the free update to the open firmware above.
Best Atari 2600 Homebrew Game Downloads
Retro gaming has a thriving underground of innovation. The very existence of the updated open firmware from the Stella team is a great illustration of that. But there are also a good number of games being developed for these vintage gaming systems, especially the 2600.
While many homebrews (the name used for contemporary games developed for old systems) are available as downloadable files, a good number have gone the whole way and are obtainable as physical cartridges. That is a very cool option. My focus here will be on downloadable games, since we’ve been talking all about using the updated firmware to load game files.
This is an excellent reboot of the Atari 2600 version of Asteroids - where graphics, sound, and gameplay have all been improved over the already very fun original. The overall feel is much closer to the arcade version. Also, one of my key pet peeves from the official 2600 version has been fixed - the fact that you can't properly shoot small asteroids coming at you via certain angles. In this version, you get more finely-grained control over turning. It's also pretty cool that it gives you some gameplay parameters you can change up.
Star Castle (Arcade)
This is a very nice 2600 version of a classic arcade game. Shoot your way through the revolving force shields, and take out the enemy ship within... but watch out for those seeker mines, and the blast the enemy unleashes when you finally expose him. Like many classic arcade games, the mechanics are simple, but the play is challenging and fun. Interestingly, this is the game that inspired the monster hit game Yar's Revenge.
Oh - bonus - there is ANOTHER version of this created by a former Atari employee in recent years. He just got the itch to give it a try, recalling that the Yar's Revenge's creator had said a good version on the Atari would be impossible. Give his a try as well.
Note that on the second version I list, you need to download the StarCastle2600CDfiles.zip, then unzip and get the .bin file from the /ROMs folder.
This one really surprised me. Like many great games from this era, the concept is very simple. It's a tile-matching puzzle game - the kind of gameplay many modern casual games have been made from. You start with a stack of colored blocks, and find groups of the same color that are touching. Select and remove them, and the blocks above fall down to take their place. The board is constantly changing, and you need to strategize the best approach to clearing it, so you can get as far, and score as many points as possible. It's ridiculously satisfying to play.
This is a fast-and-furious canyon shooter that has you flying along, unleashing a constant hail of fire upon rapidly-advancing enemies. The intense soundtrack makes the experience all the more gripping. It progresses through different levels, where the enemy (and therefore, strategy) changes up on you. If you like fast action and lots of shooting, find your groove with this one. We got hooked on it pretty quickly, and became determined to get through each new level.
Fly your ship around a large expanse of space, navigating via the mini-readout, while quickly shooting all of the enemies, asteroids, and mines you see. Your goal is to take out all of the enemy space stations. Things move quickly, and I like the way you're flying around a large area, while only seeing a small portion. It's also very nice how you can turn on a dime, and you fire out of the front and back of your ship simultaneously.
If you want the MEGA-LIST, jump into this spreadsheet with listings for more than 3,600 Atari 2600 games. Keep in mind that this is the all-inclusive list: not everything is complete, not everything is made to the same standards, etc.
Create Atari 2600 Games in BASIC (Compiled)!
I want to make a note of this here for everyone who finds this as interesting as I do. I have not had the opportunity to do a serious dive into this yet, but I plan to, and will write it up. Meanwhile, there are apparently 3 options for writing Atari games in versions of BASIC that compile down to run nice and fast:
- batari BASIC
- Atari Flashback BASIC (scroll down the page to find it)
- SuperCharger BASIC (scroll down the page to find it)
This is compiled BASIC, which runs much faster than normal interpreted BASIC (interpreted is what you find on most computers, like a Commodore 64). If you are not familiar with BASIC at all, you might want to check out my writeup on programming old school text-based games in standard interpreted BASIC, since the big concepts should apply.