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Fred Rubatino

Fred Rubatino is an Electrical Engineer and long-time Atari 5200 fan.
In 1983 his desire for a more responsive and reliable 5200 controller
led him to develop the legendary REI Starcon, one of the rarest 5200 peripherals. Classic game collector and fellow Atari 5200 enthusiast
George Reese caught up with Fred, who lives in Washington State,
for this interview.

GR> Fred Rubatino, thanks so much for allowing us the time for this interview.
FR> Thank you George. It is hard to believe anyone remembers the Starcon controller but it's fun recalling that time, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Sorry, couldn't help myself!

GR> No problem, Obi-Fred! You were a big fan of the Atari 5200 when it came out in 1982?
FR> Yes, I got one for Christmas. To me the 5200 was the ultimate game machine. It had good games and great graphics (for the time) and the controller had an analog XY joystick with control buttons and keypad. I had an IMSAI S100 computer with a tank game that used an analog XY joystick for position control so I knew the type of control that was possible. The game play on the 5200 was great...that is, until the controllers started breaking!

I still have my 5200 along with a couple of Starcon controllers.

GR> You are the creator of the REI Starcon controller, correct?
FR> Yes, back in 1983. Like I said the Atari 5200 controllers were not holding up, I guess, because of the intense game play. In any case I thought if there was a way to use the arcade type of buttons and joystick the controller would never wear out. The problem was I could not find an analog control stick that was affordable.

GR> You're an engineer by trade, correct?
FR> Yes, I have a degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Washington. I grew up putting together Knight kit radios from Allied and a ton of Heathkits (shows my age!). I remember the first Teletype I saw in college. I was so fascinated on how it seemed to communicate to the operator that I needed to know how the computer that it was connected to worked. So my field became digital design. I was lucky enough to work on a lot of computers back then. That was when computers were room size, and then they shrunk to office size. I was a hardware designer but I have also written a lot of software. Turns out the hardware does not do much without something telling it what to do. I remember one project was
to write a program (in Fortran) to organize data in a matrix form. I thought it would also be handy to add rows together and create a new column with that number. Then I added statistics. I wrote this way before Lotus or Excel were around. It never dawned on me that this program could be useful to other people. I was a hardware guy and that was where my interests were. If I had only run into Bill Gates!

Nowadays I design industrial control systems and embedded controllers.

GR> So what inspired you to develop the Starcon?
FR> I had two reasons. The first was that the controllers from Atari were breaking. The buttons would not make reliable connection so game play was frustrating. The second reason was size. I thought game play would be better if the controller was large enough to sit on the floor or hold in your lap.

GR> It's definitely large enough! It's a beautiful controller, very precise and well made. Tell us about the Starcon, Fred.
FR> Size was an important part of the design I had in mind for this new controller but the first problem was to find an analog joystick that was affordable, I found some industrial ones but they were hundreds of dollars. I could not find an inexpensive analog 2-axis joystick and was about to give up on the controller when I found the trick to using a digital or switch joystick. I did not have any schematics to the Atari 5200 game so all this is reverse engineering. I took the Atari 5200 joystick apart to trace the wiring out and measure the values of the pots on the joystick. Then I connected the joystick to the 5200 console and plugged in a game so I could measure the min and max voltage that was used. What I found was that even though the joystick could output from 0-max voltage most games only used two values. It turned out a lot of games did notuse continuous velocity or position control. So with only two values needed I could use the standard heavy-duty arcade type of joystick. I came up with a circuit to create the two values needed, wired up the keypad and other buttons, and the Starcon joystick was born. Well after about 6 different shape designs the last item I changed was the cable length. I wanted to be able to sit away from the console while playing so I made the cable about 10 feet long.

The plastic shell was a vacuum formed piece, but the dimensions were not the same for each shell. All of the plastic shells had a little different dimension at the base so what we did was place the shell on a piece of 1/2" plywood and trace it out. Every base was custom made to each shell. I don't have any drawings of the base piece. Then we cut some standoffs to attach the base to the bottom of the shell. I used hot glue to attach the standoffs to the plastic shell, then screws to attach the base to the standoffs and outside of the shell.

GR> How many Starcons were produced?
FR> I had about 10 made to get the vacuum mold correct, than ran 100-500 off. Initially I sold them to friends and gave them away to family to get a base number out there and see if there would be any problems.

GR> How many sold initially?
FR> The total number sold was maybe 20-25 units. I had most of the unused cases and shipping boxes recycled.

GR> Was the controller advertised in magazines? What was the original selling price?
FR> Yes I did advertise in game magazines in 1984 or 1985. The original price was $35.00

GR> How was the controller packaged?
FR> I just had a corrugated (cardboard) box made with the name of the controller in one color printed on the outside. No graphics or multi colors. The box was a custom size to fit the controller and heavy enough so it could be used for shipping.


GR> Starcon made a bit of a comeback a few years ago on eBay. You had parts leftover from the production run?
FR> Yes I kept some of the cases and all parts. The cases and shipping boxes took up so much room I had to get rid of most of them. I had some controllers that were 50-90% built so I placed an ad on eBay to see if anyone knew what a 5200 console was and if they would be interested in the Starcon controller. Little did I know that I would get more response on eBay then when the controller was initially release back in 1984.

GR> What was the 'adjusted for inflation' price?
FR> I sold the complete controller minus the base for $100.00 including shipping.

GR> And did you sell the rest of the Starcons?
FR> Most of them. I have two built that I use (you need two for ROBOTRON 2084), and maybe one or two more in pieces but that is it. I do not have any of the plastic shells or shipping boxes left.

GR> So that made how many Starcon controllers produced, total?
FR> Well with the initial ones and the ones sold on eBay I would guess around 30-50. The number that is actually out and in use are probably just the ones from eBay.

GR> Is the Starcon the rarest Atari 5200 controller?
FR> If not the rarest it must be one of the largest. The last run on eBay probably doubled the number that is out there.

GR> Perhaps there should be a Starcon owner's registry?
FR> Yes, I could offer firmware upgrades… oh wait, there is no firmware! Anyone can email me if they have any questions or problems. Actually the biggest problem was the ribbon cable breaking as it came out of the case.

GR> So what games will work with the Starcon and what games won't?
FR> Out of all the games I could get a hold of there were two the controller would not work with. They are MISSILE COMMAND and SUPER BEAKOUT.

Here is the list of games that DO work:


GR> Do you know if the recently released 5200 prototypes or 800 conversions will work with your controller?
FR> I don't know anything about the 5200 prototypes or 800 conversions.

GR> I understand the star pattern on the face of the Starcon is an actual constellation. Is that true?
FR> Boy, you are good! Actually I think it was two sky areas put together. I wanted a lot of stars so I picked some populated areas and cut them together. Sorry I do not remember the areas I used.

GR> Did you ever design any other controllers or peripherals for the 5200 or other game systems?
FR> Just a version of the Starcon for the Atari 2600. That controller had the joystick and one button. It used the same case so it was the same size as the one for the 5200.

GR> Do you still own an Atari 5200, and do you still find time to play video games? What games were your favorites back then, and what do you like these days?
FR> My 5200 is connected to a 50" TV that I use for games. I use it a little but my kids and grandkids also use it and it is fun watching them play the old games. My favorite games were Bounty Bob Strikes Back!, Miner 2049er, Defender, and Robotron 2084. Nowadays I play mostly PC based games. Currently it is Half-Lift 2 and TEAM Fortress 2.

GR> What are you up to these days? Is REI still in business?
FR> REI is still in business as my consulting company. I work as a systems engineer, developing robotic equipment with vision control. As a consultant I work on embedded controllers for industrial equipment and install PLC based control systems.

GR> Have you ever attended any of the classic gaming conventions held throughout the year?
FR> No, I have not but it sounds like fun.

GR> You should be invited as a guest speaker! That's one panel I would attend for certain.
FR> It would just be fun to talk and hear stories from people about the old games and how they were made. That was a fun time for a lot of us and the convention sounds like a way to relive some of that excitement.

GR> Any final thoughts on yourself and Starcon being part of Atari history?
FR> Having people want and use the Starcon controller after all these years is amazing to me. When the Atari 5200 came out I thought it was the greatest machine and now being a part of the history it is a great honor that people remember the Starcon controller.

GR> Fred, thanks again for speaking with us today, and sharing some Starcon history.
We wish you all the best in the future!
FR> This was fun. Going back through my old files brought back good memories. Thanks for the interview.


Good Deal Games would like to thank Fred for making such a dandy controller,
especially since the standard 5200 controller is such a dud. We would also like to personally
thank George Reese for taking the time to interview Fred Rubitino -- THANKS GUYS!

If you have questions regarding the Starcon Controller,
or just wish to say 'Hi' to Fred, he can be reached at:



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