Atari 7800 Expansion Module + An Interview With Kurt Vendel

Yesterday, Legacy Engineering announced a pre-order for their newest product, The Atari 7800 Expansion Module.  Pre-orders receive a  10% discount (for a limited time).  The Atari 7800 Expansion Module includes:

  • Built in High Score keeping capability (compatible with approx 20 existing titles and any HSC coded games/programs in the future)
  • 128K of Program Available Memory
  • POKEY audio/interfacing IC Chip for enhanced audio/voice synthesis and I/O Interfacing capabilities.
  • 2nd Audio Processor for higher end Arcade sound effects and music
  • SIO (Serial I/O) Port for potential future use of Atari 8bit computer peripherals such as Disk Drives, Printers and Modems.
  • 15 PIN Port for potential future use with a detachable computer keyboard.
  • Will come professionally boxed in original Silver styled “Atari XL” type box with extensive User Guide and Technical Data manuals.

Since we are big fans of their work, we caught-up with Legacy Engineering’s Kurt Vendel and got him to answer a few questions for us.

How is this product related to the Atari 7800 High Score Cartridge?

I’ve been asked more and more over the years if I’d consider doing another run of High Score carts.  I originally made 100 and then did a small 25 pc run a few years later, but never did anymore since, so I thought it would be good to do a new run but then started to think about doing more and the Exp Module became the result of cramming more into the design and then actually taking drawings I bought from a former Atari Industrial designers for a piggyback module case and using its design for the Expansion module.

128K ram is a massive amount for the 7800.  What do you think developers will do with it?

I am hoping that will do more complex backgrounds, perhaps larger game maps – like for instance the new Failsafe game (Countermeasure follow up) could’ve benefited greatly from all that memory.   Also having that much ram means more of the game can be loaded and ready and it will offload from the MARIA and allow finer scrolling and other more complex games with less cpu overhead.

Do you already have developers ready to make games using this product?

Actually when the high score cart 3rd round went to a high score/pokey idea I then starting asking for input and then decided the best persons to tap would be the most active developers on the 7800 platform, so I pulled 3 of the top developers (now a 4th has just joined in after the Pre-Orders started) to basically ask them – what do THEY want from an enhancement device and after some starts, stops and a lot of push-backs on wishlists, and going a little overboard, it was settled on the high score, adding pokey for audio and I/O, adding RAM in multiple banks and then adding in a Yamaha sound chip used in many Atari arcade machines as well.   Basically the enhancement had to stick to one specific design criteria – it had to be feasible in 1984-1986 if done then.   So everything feature wise being incorporated into it couldn’t been done during the heyday of the 7800.

How does the current “Atari” feel about these kinds of products?

I’ve never directly asked, except for the USB joysticks.  At the time their head of licensing told me on the joystick that “it didn’t fit with what Atari wanted to do with its name”   Needless to say, I was flabbergasted at the statement – that’s like saying McDonalds doesn’t really want to use the Golden Arches anymore or Coca Cola is going to sell its products in milk cartons.    Apparently that person is no longer with Atari anymore 🙂

I think Atari see’s what I have been doing as a very positive thing for them in an indirect way.   I am probably one of their biggest cheerleaders and by bringing out such products to the fanbase and the nascent cottage industry hobbyist coders who in turn further keep Atari’s torch lit.   I feel I’m doing them a great and positive benefit by injecting new life and excitement into their legacy of products.

Have you been able to interest Atari in a “Flashback 3”?

Yes from an interest and excitement standpoint.   Even during a recent conference call with Nolan who is know a part of Atari on their Board and part of the Creative Team, he even liked the product.     Funding is the issue, no one seems to want to invest in the “Risk” side of the product, even though, in my opinion, the “Reward” side has proven itself already with the Flashback 1 and Flashback 2 consoles.   The key is distribution through major channels as the previous products were sold.   The 2+ console update was direct sales promotion and I don’t think the proper momentum was put behind it, plus the retail price and high shipping cost turned a lot of potential buyers away unfortunately.

What are some of Legacy Engineering’s best selling products?

The USB Controllers have been a phenomenal success and sell very strong, even in todays tough economic climate.      Some custom versions have been done exclusively for some of our partner Resellers like Reflex Audio and now Thinkgeek has recently signed up to also sell our joysticks.     A new Arcade32 interface for MAME builders just came out this past week with 2 player inputs and trackball/spinner support all on one interface and that is picking up steam.    A new product coming out for the holidays is the “Dualer” which is a 2 port joystick/paddle interface that also has a built in SD-CARD reader so you can keep all of your emulators, and ROM’s on it, take it with you to work, school or a friends house and use any original Atari joysticks or paddles with it (for those who don’t have old Atari joysticks we will have a line of low cost, high quantity Atari compatible joysticks coming out as well too.)

Have you seen the plans for the “Commodore 64″ PC?   Do you know of any plans to do something like that with an Atari casing?”

Something is already well into the works and I don’t want to say too much on it at this time….

Why do you think the Atari 7800 fails to get the respect it deserves?

The 7800 was a truly amazing console in my opinion, great graphics, built in 2600 compatibility, a line of never before seen expansion devices.   Timing of the sale of Atari killed it and it never got to hit its stride in 1984 as it should’ve.    Negotiations and payments to GCC from the Tramiels held it up for almost a year and then getting games and such also negotiated for it held it up longer so it wasn’t able to hit the scene until 1986 and faced with Nintendo and Sega, and crippled by Nintendo’s exclusive sign up deals with software houses, the 7800 never got a fair shake in the marketplace.  Sega didn’t have this problem as much as it had its own library of untapped, never released to the home market arcade titles to survive on with its SMS system.     The glaring flaw in the 7800 is obviously its sound, but that aside, its graphics and capabilities were superior to the NES, and I think todays Homebrewers, these small independent individuals – coding, not for profit, but for their love of the console – have been proving this true over the last 3 or so years, releasing new games that are just amazing.    With the added horsepower of the Expansion Module, we could see a totally new resurgence of the 7800 and see games and titles never before thought possible, but done with technology and designs that were realistic and obtainable back in 1984-1986.

Do you know of any legal or technical reason why Atari can’t release 7800 or 8-bit games to platforms like Xbox Live arcade, handhelds, etc?

They are already releasing games for the 2600 and arcade on Xbox Gameroom, it wouldn’t surprise me if you start to see 5200 titles show up on their service in the future and who knows, maybe 7800 titles will follow not too long there after, at least that is what a little birdie tells me 😉

What’s next for Legacy Engineering?

Baby steps…    After being burned severely by my designs and work being stolen for the Gene Simmons Kiss guitar controller for Guitar Hero, I decided that it was best for me to invest in Legacy Engineering being not just a design firm, but a manufacturer.   Its been rough, but I am taking a cue from Microsoft in a sense… if you look back 10-15 years ago, no one wouldn’t ever thought Microsoft would be a top contender in home gaming consoles.    They started out small – doing game controllers and accessories.   They learned and worked their way up.   I’m not saying in 10 years I’ll be designing the next Xbox720 or the PS5, but I am hoping that my experience as a day to day video game enthusiast, mixed with my passion for design will continue to fuel and inspire Legacy Engineering to go on to build bigger and more ambitious products that fill a missing need for gamers, and as I try with all my products, have some fun hidden surprises for people to find and enjoy.

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