How to Fix an Atari 2600: From Top to Bottom

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Believe it or not, the Atari 2600 is one beast of a console, and very rarely dies. Its like the annoying brother you kick in the pants, and he still comes back. Here are some notes to keep your console looking fresh, clean, and working perfect. Don't forget, you need to use either the RF box that comes with the atari, or you can buy an RCA to Coax adapter. An automatic RF switching box will *not* work, because the atari signal isn't strong enough.

Out of all of the consoles I like to work on and play, the Atari 2600 is still one of my favorites. 


Cleaning the cartridges:

There are several ways to clean the cartridges; if one doesn't work, then go to the next one on the list. I have only ran across one dead board, in which the ROM itself died.

1. Rubbing Alcohol and Q-Tips.

Soak the q-tip with rubbing alcohol, squeeze it out, and use it to rub both sides of the cartridge connectors. If its an atari cartridge with the dust cover, you can take a small screwdriver, there are two holes on the left and right side, use a screwdriver, gently push it in, then you can push the dust cover down. Let dry, and play. This will work 80% of the time. If you had your cartridges in a damp, dusty attick, then you may need to resort to #2, if the game does not work.

2. 2000 Grit Sandpaper

Its a very fine sandpaper, and when used, it will polish the cart connectors to a perfect shine, with minimum damage to the PCB.

Fold the sandpaper in half, and use a corner of it to polish the connectors. Take a credit card, EB games card, whatever, and take the folded sandpaper and slide it into the card, where you folded it. Sand with the corner of the card, lightly, until you see shiny connectors. Then, do the other side. If light isn't working, then apply a little bit more pressure. Once the contacts are shiny, it *will* work, unless the ROM chip inside has gone bad, or the atari cartridge slot itself needs to be cleaned. Which, I will cover next.

Cleaning the Cartridge Slot:

Cleaning the cartridge slot is pretty easy for the Atari 2600, and you can actually kill two birds with one stone. The easiest way to clean the cart slot is actually to do so while you are cleaning a game.

Clean the cartridge slot with rubbing alcohol as above, but don't let it dry. Insert it into the cart slot, 10 or so times, while the cart is wet with the rubbing alcohol. Clean the cartridge again with rubbing alcohol, repeat 2 more times. The final time, let the Atari sit for a bit, as well as the cartridge slot. It should work now. Now you're good to go, you flip on the on switch, sit down, ready to play River Raid... but it doesn't come on! Well, several problems can be the cause of this.


Power Issues:

Your Atari won't turn on. It can be one of three things, the first one being the biggest curprit.

1. AC Adapter doesn't work anymore.

There's two ways to check this, but I would recommend using just number 1, unless you have a multimeter.  First, plug in the AC Adapter in for a few hours. If the adapter gets warm, then its converting AC to DC. If its still cold, then the adapter is broke. You can get a multi voltage AC adapter at radio shack, with multiple jacks, and make sure it has the headphone jack add on.

The second way is, if you have a multimeter, the tip is hot, behind the line on the jack, is ground. See if you're getting voltage. If not, its dead. If so, then its a different problem. The second most common problem to atari's not working is...

2. Power jack solder points broke off.

This is an easy fix, but you will need a soldering iron. Don't worry about breaking anything, the contacts are huge. Unless you literally drag it while the solder joints are hot, across the board, then you're fine. All you're doing is reheating the solder, to rejoin the contact to the pin. Depending on the model, there's either 4 or 8 bolts. Take out all the bolts, and open up the atari case. You will see the board, and the jack. If the jack wobbles, it's the solder joints. Flip it over to the back side, and you will see the two joints that the power jack is connected to. Plug in your soldering iron, and let it get hot. Go drink a beer (if you are of age, of course!). Give it about 5 minutes or so, and then it should be hot. Basically all you are going to do is hold the soldering iron on the solder joint until it melts, and then remove the soldering iron. Do the same with the other really big solder point that's below from it. Basically, over time, the hard solder just cracks. You're removing the crack by refilling it up by remelting the solder.

If it still doesn't work, there's one more thing you can try.

3. Power switch solder joints broke.

Same thing as above, but where the 4 or 6 switches are at, depending on the model, on the underside, you will see six solder points per switch. You can't miss them; its a rectangle of 6 square connectors. Those solder points broke off. Same as the power jack, and honestly, if you are having that problem with the power switch, you might as well do it to all the switches. Heat the soldering iron up, melt the solder, once it melts, remove the soldering iron. This will also cure up fixing the switches, which I'm about to explain next.

Ok, so, now you have power to the Atari. You plug in River Raid, and you want to start your game. You hit select for two players... and nothing happens. All the other switches work. At this point, you have the worlds cursed Atari, but, you can still fix it!  Here's how.

Fixing the Switches

1. Clean the switches themselves.

The easiest way to clean those dirty switches, is to take a Q-Tip, soak it with rubbing alcohol. Once again, take apart the Atari. You will see the switches on the cartridge side of the board. You will see a small gap when you turn the atari on its side, where the switch is. Take the soaked Q-Tip, and squeeze it inside of the gap in the switch. Work the switch up and down 20 or so times, and add more rubbing alcohol. This will also clean jittery buttons. If that does not work, either your switch solder joints or your power switch solder joints broke.  Reference the above steps to fix these problems.

2. Switch solder joints work. Follow the above step 3. Power switch solder joints broke.

Fixing your joystick

Everything is now working, you hit reset, your game is ready to go, you hit the fire button... nothing happens. I know, you're about ready to throw the atari out the window, but its still fixable. It can be two things, the odds being about 99% that its the first problem below.  If that still doesn't work, try the solution to the second potential problem.

Your Joystick contacts have worn out.

The contacts on the joystick, the little pieces of metal that you push down to make a connection, have worn out. They do that, and unfortuately, there isn't a 100% fix, other than buying a new joystick, or finding an Atari Flashback 2 and using those joysticks. I fully recommend doing that, as those joysticks are amazing.  They feel like the original stick, but have connections like a modern video game controller with the rubber contacts.  If you are confident that this is NOT the issue, try the following steps

1. Rebend the metal contacts.

This is easier to do than you think. Unscrew the 4 screws on the bottom of the joystick. Open the top up, and you will see the metal contacts. The easiest way to do this, is press down on every metal contact. If you don't get a nice springy feel to it, it needs to be reshaped. Remove the tape that is around the switch and remove the switch itself. Gently bend the 3 wings, so it has more spring, like the others. Now, on the switch that you removed, the center where it pushes down goes onto the center dot, while the wings touch the other contacts around it (the ground). Line it up just like that, then take a piece of scotch tape, and tape it down. Might want to use a couple pieces, since it's gonna be used a lot. Once all the switches feel the same, put the stick back together, and test it. Adjust accordingly to feel. If that does not work, and when you put in the joystick, if the whole plug feels like its moving, the solder points went on it. So you will have to:

2. Resolder the joystick pins.

Its exactly the same as soldering the power switch joints above. This time, the contacts are smaller and there are 9 pins where the joystick is located. 

Ok, so now you have a fully working Atari 2600... but now it looks like it just got hit by a dust bunny. Every little crack has dust in it, and you want it to look new again. How do you clean it up?

Cleaning the Atari:

The easiest way to clean your Atari is to tear it apart, and use an old toothbrush or get one at the dollar store. The coarser the toothbrush, the better. Spray down the whole machine with Windex -- with the guts taken out, of course -- scrub away. Wipe with a damp cloth, let it dry, and put your atari back together.

Fixing a Paddle Controller:

There are two ways to do clean a paddle controller: the temporary way, and the pernament way. The temporary way will work when you have some friends over for a quick game, but the problem is sure to arise again in about a week. The pernament way will get a set working perfect for another 10 years.

1. The temporary way

Unscrew the two screws in the back of the controller, and take off the back. You will see the potentiometer back there, the thingy that turns. You can either use TV tuner spray (designed for older televisions) to fix bad knobs, such as when the sound gets staticy when you move a knob. You can also use WD-40, but the TV Tuner spray is preferred.  And that's all you've got to do. Spray some in, work it in, turn it on, see if it went away. If not, add more. As I said, this is for a pinch that you need to get your set working only one time. The pernament way is much more involved.

2. The pernament way

This takes a bit of time to do, but it will work for another 10 years. You're looking about at a half hour's worth of work, per paddle. Tools you need: pliers, rubbing alcohol, q-tip, and a screwdriver.

First, pull off the knob. If it resists, don't worry: it comes off.  You just might need to tug. Unscrew the nut you see that is there, so that it is off. Unscrew the two bolts in the back of the controller. Pull out the pot, and look at the stem side, you will see 4 little tabs bent across. You need to pry those open. From there, you can take the pot apart. The pain parts are the black round strip you see, and the two pieces of metal that bends out which are almost touching. You need to clean both the black strip, and the contacts. BE SURE TO NOT BEND THE CONTACTS. Clean them VERY gently. Make sure that you do not get any cotton onto the contacts. Once that is done, put it together just like how you took it apart, bend the tabs in, put it all together, and play.



That should be about it. Enjoy!

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Last Updated on Thursday, 22 July 2010 01:11  
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0 #2 Christian Keilback 2010-07-27 16:55
Quoting Garret Staus:
This is an awesome article, so much info here!

You don't have pictures to go along with those soldering instructions or anything, do you?

I do not, but the Atari 2600 has HUGE solder points, except for the controller ports. Its almost impossible for you to join them.
0 #1 Garret Staus 2010-07-22 14:13
This is an awesome article, so much info here!

You don't have pictures to go along with those soldering instructions or anything, do you?