Atari Cartridge and Box Prototype

27 September, 2010

I've written a couple of times before about my obsession with building replicas of the Atari 2600 cartridge. The obsession originated when I learned the story of how Atari dumped millions of unsold copies of its failed 1983 ET game into a hole in the ground in Almogordo, New Mexico. Since then, I've made a series of studies for a sculpture that would act as a kind of Natural History Museum-style monument to this event.

Burried ET cartridges

First, I built a 3D model of the ET cartridge in Blender and then, last month, I built another model in blue foam.

Last week, for Peter Menderson's Materials and Building Strategies class I took another whack at the project by building a more refined blue foam model as well as a foam core and card stock recreation of Atari's packaging.

I started by working closely with ITP's local 8-bit video game expert, Don Miller, to understand the workings and dimensions of the traditional Atari packaging. Don explained that the packaging consisted of three parts: a cardboard box, an insert that filled the box and held the cartridge in a tight-fitting compartment, and a booklet.

Note: the Air Raid cartridge pictured here is eccentric in including that T-shaped handle.

Don also leant me a cartridge of his own (a modified one that he uses to play his Atari as a synthesizer) to use as a model — my previous modeling attempts had been limited to the basic silhouette of the shape and some minor detailing since I could see things like the way the cartridge's actual card protrudes from the slot in its bottom to interface with the Atari console.

After a few false starts, I began by using the foam core design tips we'd learned in class to design a fold-up version of the insert: a box that would fold up fully closed on six sides, but with a rectangular hole centered in its top that would snugly fit the cartridge and that would be edge by flaps to keep it in place.

I drew the design out onto a piece of 3/8" foam core and cut wedges and joints into it to facilitate folding, a set of techniques Peter had taught us from his days as an architectural model maker.

Insert before gluing

Once the foam was fully cut and scored, I folded it up and glued it with transfer tape, creating the finished insert.

Completed insert

Despite few rough edges, the dimensions of the insert came out just about right and Don's cartridge fit in it snugly.

Insert with real cartridge

Next I set about making the box. One of the false starts I mentioned before had been making the box out of foam core. The problem with that approach was that, once completed, the inside dimensions of the box were far too small due to the thickness of the foam. Hence, I decided to rebuild it out of card stock, which eliminated this problem and is actually what the real boxes were made of. I picked out a nice 70s orange piece, measured it out and got to cutting.

Case bottom

The box came out nicely (strangely, a few people I showed it to asked if I'd bought it), but with one mistake: I forgot to include the side flaps to fully-close the hinged opening at the bottom (visible in the Air Raid picture above).

Once I had these two components done and working smoothly together (I included an addition 1/8" all the way around on the box so that it would have clearance for the insert to slide in an out) I started working on carving the cartridge out of blue foam. Having done this a couple of times before, I found that my technique with the exact-o and the sander had gotten a lot better. For example, I was able to do a much better job with some of the delicate inset parts that had really been a struggle for me last time:

Cartridge top

Also, I used another technique Peter Menderson taught us for smoothing out rough sections of foam: applying and sanding joint compound. This let me get the front inset smooth for the first time:

Cart front comparison

Having the cartridge in hand also meant I could go into a lot more detail on the undercut on the bottom with some tricky exact-o work:

Bottom with logic board

The final product fit perfectly in the foam core insert (which I'd designed to be slightly shallower than the cartridges depth so that you'd be able to get the cartridge in and out easily) and slid nicely into the cardboard box.

Cartridge in case and inset

Having finished this prototype, I feel like I have a pretty strong grasp on all the details that would have gone into an ET cartridge in 1983: all the parts that might be included in that dump out in Almogordo. The next step in building that piece will be to explore methods for producing multiples of each of these components (as well as the booklet, which I didn't get into here because it's mostly a simple graphic design problem). I plan to make another 3D model of the cartridge that takes all I learned in this prototype into account and then to use that as a model for the casting unit of the Materials class. If I can produce multiples of the cartridge in a reasonable amount of time, figuring out how to do the same with the paper components should be relatively easy.