Category Archives: Classic Gaming

Magnavox Odyssey 2 Atari Joystick mod

$179 in 1978. That’s $705 in 2019 money.

Meet the Odyssey 2

It’s an old ass game console from 1978 I recently picked up from Ebay. It even has a built in keyboard for some reason.

In the first real “console war” it placed third out of well, three, ending up behind the Atari VCS and Intellivision despite some neat addons like a voice module.

It’s famous for hosting the game K.C Munchkin, a pacman-like game that was forced off the market for being a clone in a giant lawsuit.  However, looking back at it, it played different enough that this really shouldn’t have happened. Sorry K.C, you deserved better.

I buy old systems like this and try to fix them up because it’s a cheap and fun way to learn electronics and gaming history.  Oh, and you get to play your homework!

Care for a game of golf? It’s actually not bad. Your golfer gets mad when he hits trees.

For this one I did a composite video mod as that’s a huge improvement over the original noisy RF that requires a US TV tuned to channel 3 or 4.

The joysticks it came with were completely broken – unfortunately finding replacement controllers for old systems is quite difficult and fixing them to work like new almost always requires new membranes or other parts that are not made anymore.

The solution? Wire it up to accept a standard Atari 2600 controller!  It’s kind of a ubiquitious standard that’s compatible with the Commodore 64 and believe it or not, Genesis/MegaDrive controllers.  I got the idea from ArcadeUSA’s youtube video but I did it a slightly different way so I could also use the original controllers as well.

The electronics for the Atari 2600 controllers are the same but the pinouts are different so you can’t plug them directly in. I used what I had on hand,  a “6inch DB9 Female Port to Dual DB9 RS232 Male Serial Y Splitter Ribbon Flat Cable” for the adapter.  $4 from ebay, I cut off the parts I needed with scissors.

Click for the big version.

I soldered at the pins below the DB9 jacks, easier there.  Above is a labeled picture that might save somebody time.  Notice that the player 2 wiring is SLIGHTLY different from the player 1.

It’s ugly the way they stick out and will surely break soon. But it works great!

Conclusion

It would probably be better to just make DB9 to DB9 adapters to fix the pin differences (could unplug them when not needed), but I didn’t have the right stuff handy.  Someone should make a simple circuit board to do both ports together, something that looks like this useful  joystick port toggle I got for my C128.

Thanks Seth, something I didn’t care about.  When will you actually make a game

Yeah, yeah.  We’ve been working on stuff behind the scenes and will soon be upgrading RTsoft to a new HQ in Kyoto.  The idea is to be a real (well, slightly more legit than now anyway) game studio as well as a sometimes kind of public hackerspace/cafe, more later.

Universal Game Translator – Using Google’s Cloud Vision API to live-translate Japanese games played on original consoles (try it yourself!)

Why I wanted a “translate anything on the screen” button

I’m a retro gaming nut.  I love consuming books, blogs, and podcasts about gaming history.  The cherry on top is being able to experience the identical game, bit for bit, on original hardware.  It’s like time traveling to the 80s.

Living in Japan means it’s quite hard to get my hands on certain things (good luck finding a local Speccy or Apple IIe for sale) but easy and cheap to score retro Japanese games.

Yahoo Auction is kind of the ebay of Japan.  There are great deals around if you know how to search for ’em.  I get a kick out of going through old random games, I have boxes and boxes of them.  It’s a horrible hobby for someone living in a tiny apartment.

Example haul – I got everything in this picture for $25 US! Well, plus another $11 for shipping.

There is one obvious problem, however

It’s all in Japanese.  Despite living here over fifteen years, my Japanese reading skills are not great. (don’t judge me!) I messed around with using Google Translate on my phone to help out, but that’s annoying and slow to try to use for games.

Why isn’t there a Google Translate for the PC?!

I tried a couple utilities out there that might have worked for at least emulator content on the desktop, but they all had problems.  Font issues, weak OCR, and nothing built to work on an agnostic HDMI signal so I could do live translation while playing on real game consoles.

So I wrote something to do the job called UGT (Universal Game Translator) – you can download it near the bottom of this post if you want to try it.

Here’s what it does:

  • Snaps a picture from the HDMI signal, sends it to google to be analyzed for text in any language
  • Studies the layout and decides which text is dialog and which bits should be translated “line by line”
  • Overlays the frozen frame and translations over the gameplay HDMI signal
  • Allows copy/pasting the original language or looking up a kanji by clicking on it
  • Can translate any language to any language without needing any local data as Google is doing all the work, can handle rendering Japanese, Chinese, Korean, etc  (The font I used is this one)
  • Controlled by hotkeys (desktop mode) or a control pad (capture mode, this is where I’m playing on a real console but have a second PC controller to control the translation stuff)

In the video above, you’ll notice some translated text is white and some is green.  The green text means it is being treated as “dialog” using its weighting system to decide what is/isn’t dialog.

If a section isn’t determined to be dialog, “Line by line” is used.  For example, options on a menu shouldn’t be translated all together (Run Attack Use Item), but little pieces separately like “Run”, “Attack”, “Use item” and overlaid exactly over the original positions.  If translated as dialog, it would look and read very badly.

Here are how my physical cables/boxes are setup for “camera mode”. (Not required, desktop mode doesn’t need any of this, but I’ll talk about that later)

Happy with how merging two video signals worked with a Roland V-02HD on the PlayStep project, I used a similar method here too.  I’m doing luma keying instead of chroma as I can’t really avoid green here. I modify the captured image slightly so the luma is high enough to not be transparent in the overlay. (of course the non-modified version is sent to Google)

This setup uses the windows camera interface to pull HDMI video (using Escapi by Jari Kompa) to create screenshots that it sends to Google.  I’m using an Elgato Cam Link for the HDMI input.

Anyway, for 99.99999999% of people this is setup is overkill as they are probably just using an emulator on the same computer so I threw in a “desktop mode” that just lets you use hotkeys (default is  Ctrl-F12) to translate the active Window. It’s just like having Google Translate on your PC.

Here’s desktop mode in action, translating a JRPG being played on a PC Engine/TurboGrafx 16 via emulation. It shows how you can copy/paste the recognized text if want as well, useful for kanji study, or getting text read to you.  You can click a kanji in the game to look it up as well.  (Update: It now internally can handle getting text read as of V0.60, just click on the text.  Shift-Click to alternate between the src/dest language)

Try it yourself

Before you download:

  • All machine translation is HORRIBLE – this is no way replaces the work of real translators, it’s just (slightly) better than nothing and can stop you from choosing “erase all data” instead of “continue game” or whatever
  • You need to rename config_template.txt to config.txt and edit it
  • Specifically, you need to enter your Google Vision API key.  This is a hassle but it’s how Google stops people from abusing their service
  • Also, you’ll need to enable the Translation API
  • Google charges money for using their services after you hit a certain limit. I’ve never actually had to pay anything, but be careful.
  • This is not polished software and should be considered experimental meant for computer savvy users
  • Privacy warning: Every time you translate you’re sending the image to google to analyze.  This also could mean a lot of bandwidth is used, depending how many times you click the translate button.  Ctrl-12 sends the active window only, Ctrl-11 translates your entire desktop.
  • I got bad results with older consoles (NES, Sega Master System, SNES, Genesis), especially games that are only hiragana and no kanji. PC Engine, Saturn, Dreamcast, Neo-Geo, Playstation, etc worked better as they have sharper fonts with full kanji usually.
  • Some game fonts work better than others
  • The config.txt has a lot of options, each one is documented inside that file
  • I’m hopeful that the OCR and translations will improve on Google’s end over time, the nice thing about this setup is the app doesn’t need to be updated to take advantage of those improvements or even additional languages that are later supported

After a translation is being displayed, you can hit ? to show additional options.  Also, this is outdated, use the real app to see the latest.

5/8/2019 – V0.50 Beta – first public release, experimental
5/13/2019 – V0.51 Beta – Added S to screenshot, better error checking/reporting if translation API isn’t enabled for the Google API key, minor changes that should offer improved translations
5/30/2019 – V0.53 Beta – Added input_camera_device_id setting to config.txt for systems with multiple cameras.  Moves mouse offscreen for “camera” mode captures
9/5/2019 – V0.54 Beta – Fixes crash on startup problem some people had, adds “audio|none” config.txt command to optionally disable all sound.  Added “minimum_brightness_for_lumakey” setting to config.txt in case the default isn’t right
9/15/2019 – V0.60 Beta – New feature, text to speech!  You’ll need to enable Google’s Text To Speech API, Fixed a crash bug, added some in-app persistent settings, gamepad can now move around the cursor and click things.  Controls changed a bit. Added automatic reading of detected dialog, can choose to read src or dest langs, can hide text overlays if you want now.  A few new options in the config.txt. Switched to FMOD audio, SDL_Mixer has buggy mp3 playback which was causing some me grief. Changed the translate button sound to something more soothing.

Note: I plan to open source this, just need to get around to putting it on Git, if you’re someone who would actually do something with the source, please hassle me into doing it.

Download Universal Game Translator for Windows (64-bit) (Binary code signed by Robinson Technologies)

Conclusion and the future

Some possible upgrades:

  • Built-in text to speech on the original dialog (well, by built in I mean using Google’s text to speech API and playing it in UGT, easier than the copy and paste method possible now)
  • A built in Kanji lookup also might be nice,  Jim Breen’s dictionary data could work for this.
  • My first tests used Tesseract to do the OCR locally, but without additional dataset training it appeared to not work so hot out of the box compared to results from Google’s Cloud Vision.  (They use a modified Tesseract?  Not sure)  It might be a nice option for those who want to cut down on bandwidth usage or reliance on Google.  Although the translations themselves would still be an issue…

I like the idea of old untranslated games being playable in any language, in fact, I went looking for famous non-Japanese games that have never had an English translation and really had a hard time finding any, especially on console.  If anyone knows of any I could test with, please let me know.

Also, even though my needs focus on Japanese->English, keep in mind this also works to translate English (or 36 other languages that Google supports OCR with) to over 100 target languages.

Test showing English being translated to many other languages in an awesome game called Growtopia