Thursday, November 1, 2018

The OpenBrite Turbo Controller for Vectrex

At long last, I debuted my custom turbo Vectrex controller at the Houston Arcade Expo on October 19 & 20.  This will be a milestone for Vectrex fans and collectors, as it brings about more ergonomic controls and a rate-adjustable Turbo (auto-fire) mode that can toggle per button.

Vectrex Controller Prototype, as seen in Houston last month

Why, you ask?


I acquired a Vectrex in late 2015 from a very generous individual who had several to spare.  However, it did not come with a controller, so it laid dormant until I got around to building the giant 100x NES controller.  As the guts of a cheap knock-off NES controller from Amazon went into my behemoth NES controller, I used its shell and buttons to enclose a crude perf-board controller, and cut up a cheap Sega Genesis extension cable from Amazon in order to make all the connections from my hand-soldered board into the Vectrex.  It is well-documented on how to fashion a Sega Genesis controller into a Vectrex controller, but I didn't really feel like harvesting the QuickShot knockoff because its cable was going bad.

Original homebrew Vectrex controller using a knockoff NES shell


Anyway, both things (the giant NES controller and my Vectrex) made their debut at Let's Play Gaming Expo in 2016.  I even had MuffinBros Graphics whip up a decal for me to go over the generic Nintendo-esque aesthetic and make it look more Vectrex-y.

Assembled controller with decal designed by MuffinBros Graphics (prior to reworking the screen/vector board).  Note how Select & Start have been repurposed into game buttons 1 & 2.

Ultimately, this controller didn't quite suffice because it could be flaky at times, and as an originalist, I really wanted an analog joystick -- one which neither this NES controller knockoff nor a Genesis controller would provide.  After a while, the generous donor came forward with an original Vectrex controller, and so I could study its design and try to replicate it.

However, the original Vectrex controller is not without its flaws.  It takes up an inordinate amount of space for what it is -- four buttons and a joystick.  The four buttons are in a straight line and spread far apart, forcing even someone with large hands to spread their fingers out and curl some fingers more than others to touch all the buttons.  The joystick has a tall, skinny grip, meaning you must grasp it between your thumb and forefinger rather than just mash it with your thumb.  The controller is designed to be set flat on a table to be used, not held in both hands like pretty much every other controller made.  Given all these flaws, original Vectrex controllers still fetch well over $100, with homebrew controllers appearing sparsely.  Given all this, I set out to rectify the ergonomic problems of the controller and modernize its interface, all while keeping such a cheap bill of materials that I could easily squash the market for the original controllers and still (hopefully) make some money.

Lastly, debuting it in Houston was essential because among conventions in Texas, the Houston Arcade Expo tends to have the biggest contingent of Vectrex fans coming to the convention (sometimes Vectrexes are more numerous than any other type of console).  At any other show, it would be far less noticed.

The Design Process


The main impetus for this was to have a homebrew controller that actually featured an analog joystick, since there were few if any guides elaborating how to fashion one from an existing controller.  I acquired a couple Parallax 2-axis joysticks with breadboard mounting capability to do the trick.

The Vectrex comes with a game in its ROM -- Asteroids -- thus you can play without needing a cartridge.  However, with the traditional controller, this requires lots of button-mashing since it has no auto-fire feature.  Using a 555 timer, potentiometer, and clever values within an RC circuit, I have given it the ability to auto-fire.  Not only that, but once you graduate from Asteroids, there may be other games where holding down a button to toggle something repeatedly might not be a good idea.  Thus was born the idea to have toggle switches mimicking the positions of the buttons.  These would be switchable to complete the circuit (by sending GND) just once upon the button press, or send the GND pulse from the 555 timer as long as the button is being held, depending on the position of the Turbo toggle switch for that button.  The potentiometer serves to adjust the rate of auto-fire, from less than once a second to around 7 times a second given the current values of the RC circuit.

The buttons are modeled in a diamond shape, just like Sony PlayStation or Microsoft Xbox controllers.  This allows for better agility as now all buttons to be reached with one finger, and this type of arrangement comes naturally as it has been ingrained into our brains since at least the Super Nintendo.  Playing "chords" of buttons happens rarely, if at all, in Vectrex games, so we might as well standardize the button arrangement to something more familiar but that generally accommodates only one finger at a time.

Finally, the screws to disassemble an original controller are located under the original decal.  As such, you have to pull up the original artwork/decal and risk doing severe damage to it in order to get to the screws underneath the sticker but still on the top side of the controller.

Assembly


The initial breadboard was built in June 2017.  At first, I was using a jumper wire in order to complete the circuit for each button press, so it was very inconvenient to try to play the game and take a picture simultaneously, much less play the game at all.  After showing these pictures of the breadboard with auto-fire capability to people at Houston Arcade Expo in 2017, I vowed to get it produced by the 2018 show.  And, I just barely made it under the wire with the prototype.

First working breadboard version of the Turbo Vectrex Controller


As you might know, the body of the Vectrex has a clasp that can hold one controller.  Originally, I wanted to split up the controller in two so that this one spot could hold controllers for both players.  However, a controller this small would likely be unwieldy to hold, especially in larger hands.  Furthermore, this would greatly reduce the space on the breadboard available for all the desired components.  As such, I elected to model my enclosure after the original Vectrex controller enclosure.

It was quite painstaking to get the details correct on the controller.  I first attempted to trace the side profile of the controller with graph paper and then approximate it into the computer with Adobe Illustrator.  This proved tedious and with too much uncertainty as to the error, so I got clever and held the controller on its side above a flatbed scanner.  Then, not only did I have the side profile, but also I had the profile of the little groove piece where a nub on the system case guides a controller being inserted to lock it into place during transport or storage.  Furthermore, I could extrude the edge and make the object as long as needed to match the original controller width -- 199mm.

If you consider the side profile of the Vectrex controller to be a blob, I "hollowed out" the blob -- leaving a 2mm-thick ring along the inside -- in order to form the regular outer shell of the controller.  In Illustrator, I also sliced it in half so that I could lay flat both sides -- bottom and top of the controller -- in the CAD program, thus making it easier to model all the details that need to go on those respective pieces.  In particular, the bottom piece was adorned with little grooves in which the breadboard would fit.  As time was running out and component selection was not finalized, I elected not to go with a custom PCB for this implementation, but to simply use my original breadboard.  The bottom side also incorporated screw holes with recesses so that a pan-head screw would not protrude from the case.  While the diameter of these holes was set to accommodate a #6 screw shaft, as you know, 3D printing is an inexact science and, as filament deposits thickly in some areas, this ended up being a hole that nicely accommodates #4 screws instead.  (Note that these holes are on the bottom, unlike on the original.)  The top side of the case not only features further screw holes exactly aligned over the bottom screw holes, but also must have holes/slots for all the protruding buttons and joysticks coming out of the breadboard.  The top side is also angled down roughly 10.7 degrees relative to the bottom side (if aligned parallel to the horizontal), so there were a few times I had to flip things around exactly perfectly in order to verify their correctness.

Speaking of modeling, the CAD program I used for all this was TinkerCAD, with its convenient, simple, yet flexible interface.  With at least a few groups of positive and negative shapes, I can model the entire controller.

Besides the joystick, I also went out to source some interesting buttons.  I already had some clicky buttons and some mushy rubber-dome or membrane buttons, but I wanted something in between the feels of these buttons -- light to the touch, yet clicky.  I managed to find an ideal, nice-feeling button at the local electronics surplus store.  I also acquired several potentiometers and knobs, and was trying to figure out the best way to 3D print something for these too when I found a breadboard-compatible potentiometer lying around in the house.  And thank goodness I found that, because otherwise the knob would have had a very flimsy connection to the potentiometer!

The 3D printing aspect of this was tedious, as Stacy was out of town while I was trying to do all the printing.  She had the licenses to the Simplify3D slicer on machines I did not have access to, so I had to do a lot of back-and-forth of STL files and binary files with her before she finally gave me credentials into these systems.  As the bottom plate took somewhere between 6 to 8 hours to print, I decided to try to make the larger top plate print faster by cutting holes out of it in the design, especially so I could at least test the alignment and hopefully make a quick adjustment if anything was wrong.  Fortunately, the holes were indeed aligned correctly, but sadly, the 3D printer stopped working (formed a clog, apparently) and would not let me print any more items after this case and the buttons.  This was a problem because now my nice-fitting top cover was a bit less structurally sound, and it also looked super-weird.  I managed to rectify this during the show by printing out some informational blurbs as a top decal and taping it onto the top cover.  The prototype top cover also didn't have the screw holes in place, so I ended up having to hold the case together with rubber bands.

Ultimately, the slide switches never got promoted/extended up through the top cover because it was questionable as to how to stabilize such a large moving piece through the top cover.  Several times, I have sheared off the nubs of slide switches by applying too much pressure too close to the top of the switch.  You could reach in with a skinny screwdriver and change the switches, but I doubt anyone bothered or even gave it much attention.

Outcome


Turbo Vectrex Controller in use -- with "traditional grip" :-P

This labor of love seems not to have gotten a whole lot of attention except from the other guy who brought a Vectrex machine, who really liked it (and was willing to  3D-print a proper top cover for me during the show).  It seems like consoles that predate the NES tend to be a little bit too obscure for people these days.  Even the Atari 2600, which was immensely popular in its time, now is generally popular only with people old enough to remember its heyday.  Of course, the Vectrex is a really obscure machine in its own right.  It came out shortly before the Video Game Crash of 1983, and it is nearly impossible to find replacement vector monitors if that part should go out.  This makes for quite an expensive collectors item nowadays, which means the owners are scattered around the country in small numbers.

I think for it to get much traction, I will have to do more than a couple tweets about it and show it at a regional show -- it probably needs to be posted on AtariAge and brought to the Portland Retro Gaming Expo in order to make a big splash.  However, before I take it to that point, it would be nice to make a proper PCB that mounts to the top cover, make the appropriate edits to the CAD model to facilitate that, finalize the bill of materials, and then make sure the whole thing fits into the slot designed for it in the system case.  After the Houston show, I thought this would take no time, but the more I think about it, the more I foresee still quite a bit more math and CAD time ahead.

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