Atari2600.pngYou might recall how Ben Heck recently reinvented the beloved Atari 2600 video game console into a sweet handheld games system. And, of course, one lucky gaming nut can win it by joining in the fun over on Ben's page.


The Heck is actually following in a long and noble tradition of hardware hacking for the sake of playing games, that actually reaches back further than most people realise, to the very beginnings of computers.




The first ever example of a video game (actually, it's probably more closely related to a computer game, but whatever) was a fine example of hacked hardware. A graphical version of noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe, to our transatlantic cousins) was created in 1952 by British professor of computer science Alexander "Sandy" Douglas at the University of Cambridge on the institution's EDSAC machine.


Effectively a powerful calculator used for academic research, the EDSAC was successfully (and to the public's delight) turned to frivolous use when Sandy managed to display the game on the system's low resolution CRT monitor. A rotary telephone dial was used to play against the computer opponent.


Tennis for Two


Some 6 years later, across the world, physicist William Higginbotham hacked an oscilloscope to create the second ever video game, dubbed Tennis for Two. It was displayed at an electronics exhibition at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.


Interestingly, Higginbotham was also involved in the Manhattan Project and if he'd taken the time to patent his efforts in building the Tennis for Two hardware, the US government would effectively have owned the rights to anything thereafter that could be considered a video game. He didn't though. Luckily.



In what would become a rich tradition of misusing expensive university computing equipment, MIT student Steve "Slug" Russell turned the massively expensive PDP-1 computer into a sci-fi game of epic (by contemporary standards, that is) video game, called Spacewar!, back in 1962.


Ships battled it out on the round PDP-1 display as they circled a gravity well, and in one of its earliest -- but certainly not its last -- reincarnations, Spacewar! set the defacto standard for the upright arcade cabinet that we know and love.




Although an almost direct duplicate of Ralph Baer's Magnavox Odyssey "bat and ball" game, PONG is a much finer example of video gaming through hardware hacking. The original prototype arcade machine was installed in a bar around the corner from Nolan Bushnell's Atari headquarters, and had an old paint can inside to catch the quarters.


After a couple of days, the bar owner phone Atari to report that the PONG machine had broken down. The fault, it turns out, was due to the paint can overflowing with money.


Ms. Pac-Man

Ms Pac-Man.png

After causing coin shortages in Japan and the US, Pac-Man was quickly established as a gaming phenomenon. More interesting, in terms of its hardware development, is the sequel Ms. Pac-Man, which wasn't actually developed by Namco.


The game, which boasted a new character with a bow on her head, floating fruit and shifting mazes, was the result of a hardware add-on to the original Pac-Man PCB, cobbled together by US electronics engineers General Computer Corporation.


To this day, Ms. Pac-Man is the best selling American arcade game of all time, despite originally being Japanese built and based on a hacked hardware platform.



Breakout.jpgIn 1976, Atari wanted a single player version of PONG, and founder Nolan Bushnell came up with the idea for Breakout, which involved bouncing the ball against a wall to eliminate bricks. At the time, an average Atari arcade game had around 150 microchips inside, and engineers were given massive bonuses for removing just a single IC, due to the huge savings it made for the company.


Bushnell's friend, a young chap called Steve Jobs, have a buddy who worked at Hewlett Packard, and had a particular skill in the strange and imaginative use of microchips that allowed him to perform functions in his designs that few people could understand, but worked superbly well. Jobs brought him into Atari over the space of four nights, and the engineer worked until the daylight to create a working Breakout game that used just 42 chips.


His name was Steve Wozniak, and he was paid just $350 for his incredible hardware hacking efforts.



ROB the Robot


In 1983-1984, the US video game market crashed spectacularly, and not a single store in the country would stock gaming hardware. So as a way to camouflage the fact that the Nintendo Entertainment System was a video game console, Nintendo launched it in the US alongside two superficial peripherals.


One of these was ROB the Robot, which was an almost useless V.I.N.CENT clone that worked in conjunction with an equally lame video game.


The gambit worked incredibly well though, and the NES successfully revived the American video game scene in the space of a single Christmas sales period. ROB's now very collectable.


Mine Storm


The failed Vectrex was actually a great console. Released in 1982, it had a built in monitor and made use of vector-drawn graphics, in an effort to capitalise on the Asteroids craze that was sweeping the arcades. And it did so via a built-in Asteroids-clone game called Mine Storm.


The sad story of the Vectrex is that Mine Storm is a great example of hardware hacking gone wrong. The console was shipped with a fault that prevented players from going past level 13 in Mine Storm, and effectively killed it before it ever really had a chance to get a foothold.


What gamers at the time didn't realise was that if they wrote to the hardware manufacturer General Consumer Electronics, the company would send them a free, updated video game cartridge with Mine Storm 2 on it. Because almost no one actually did this, Mine Storm 2 is now one of the most rare and collectable video games in existence.




Got any cool video game hardware hacks of your own? Tell us all about them in the comments below, and if you're a retro gaming lover, remember to go take part in our big Ben Heck giveaway and bag yourself an awesome portable Atari 2600.