The Atari 7800 XM Debacle

By Scott Stilphen

 

To summarize this debacle in one sentence, the 7800 XM was perhaps one person's biggest scam in a long history of perpetrating scams.  I mention a few of them here, but that's a topic worthy of its own article.  The main focus here is the ill-fated 7800 XM, the imagined add-on module for the Atari 7800 gaming console from Curtis T. Vendel, who managed to secure around 200 pre-orders for something that didn't even exist when payments were taken, and that after 10 years in development hell remained an unreleased vaporware product.  If you're wondering how something like that could happen, all I can say is, when you have someone so morally bankrupt who's freely willing to use other people's money to fund his personal projects, con others to actually doing the work for him for free (because he lacks the knowledge and skill to do so himself), and finds himself surrounded by enablers and sycophants who buy into his obsession to the point where he can keep repeating that scam, well... anything is possible.

The origins of the XM can be traced back to an unreleased computer keyboard that was first conceived by General Computer Corp. (GCC), the company who designed the 7800.  It was an enhanced keyboard that plugged into the side expansion port that was included on early versions of the 7800, allowing the 7800 to be a computer, much like the VCS/2600's My First Computer/The Graduate device.  The reason the keyboard never saw release was due to the combination of the video game market crash (which reached its apex in 1984, the same year the 7800 was planned for wide release) and the falling prices of home computers.  Both of these factors made devices like the keyboard non-starters.  So who would want to create such a device in the 21st century?  Enter Curt Vendel.

Vendel contacted some of the folks from GCC and got his hands on some of their materials - both paperwork and hardware.  Through them, he learned of the keyboard and planned to make a similar device.  In July 2001 he posted about getting the specs on programming the 7800 computer add-on.  Over 4 years later, he posted in December 2005 about going "back to work" on the 7800 computer.  4 more years would pass before Vendel posted again about it, in June 2009, stating he was again back to work on the computer keyboard.  At this point, 8 years passed with regards to the 7800 keyboard, with nothing to show for it, which is amazing since he got a prototype keyboard from GCC, along with some software for it.  All he had to do was duplicate them!  Instead, he decided to drop the keyboard in favor of the XM project

7800 Expansion Module

The XM was another device that GCC planned to make (it was apparently proposed in Spring of 1984), who referred to as a piggyback CPU module, but unlike the keyboard, development doesn't seem to have progressed beyond that early proposal, except for an artistic rendering of what it was to look like (a bloated Sega 32X-like attachment).  Vendel's idea was to create an expanded version of the module, including 16K of RAM, a POKEY chip for sound, and the high score cart feature.  Prior to that, an add-on board by Pontus Oldberg called the Xboard was created in 2006 that allowed for an onboard POKEY chip and 128K of RAM; after first hearing about it in 2009, within days Vendel changed the XM's onboard RAM from 16K to 128K.  A year later, in July 2010, he posted a drawing of his XM module (7800 Piggyback Expansion Module comes to life!), which was actually based off drawings Atari Industrial Designer Tom Palecki did, who was designing a computer module case for the 7800.  Vendel simply took Palecki's drawings and transferred them to a program called Solidworks, and used that to create the files needed to have a sample case made up using Stereolithography 3D printing.  While everybody was bamboozled by the drawing, Atariage user Clay "ZylonBane" Halliwell was the first to speak up about how introducing such a device wasn't in the best interests of both programmers and owners:

Another user, "jaybird3rd" commented on how doing such an upgrade for a console like the 7800 in 2010 doesn't make much sense, and was quickly labeled a troll for it:

A month later, Vendel was already proposing 2 different versions (Expansion Modules #1 and #2) - one being just the high score cart in that huge case (for $60) and the other with all the extra features, plus a second audio chip (Yamaha) for $90-$100.  So it was already clear by this point he has no clear idea of what the XM was supposed to be.  As a result of that one misstep, the XM was doomed to what's referred to as 'feature creep'.  Such an effect had spelled failure for many a product, even those that started off with a clearly-defined objective, but in the case of the XM, it affected every aspect of the project, as you will soon learn.

Before I get into the details of the XM, I want to mention the 7800 High Score Cartridges that Vendel had previously sold.  He started selling these in 1999 and at first claimed he designed them, only to later admit he used GCC's design.  Of the 3 cartridge runs that Vendel made (100 each time), very few actually worked, or if they did, they didn't save any scores (LINK)!  The shockingly poor quality of the pcbs, which were shown to be hand-notched to fit the cart guides and have incorrect edge connector spacing (LINK - the photo below shows one compared to a VersaBoard), and overall construction made it a miracle any of them worked.  People complained about them early on, but he was keen to point out they probably didn't buy them direct from him... but since he was the person who made them, he felt it was "only fair" to maintain them, especially since he admitted he built them with used chips.  It's rather pathetic when a notepad and a pencil are far superior to a $60 cartridge for saving high scores.  Given the 'workmanship' of the HSC and the fact that he had a working prototype from a former GCC employee to go by, and failed, building something like the XM that wasn't based off an existing prototype would be a recipe for disaster... and that's exactly what he ended up with.


Vendel's High Score Cartridge board (top), compared to the VersaBoard (bottom)

Vendel started taking pre-orders in September 2010, with a late November ship date.  November came and he posted photos of the plastic shell (7800MX1 - Plastic Tooling Update), seemingly more concerned with the casing than what’s actually supposed to be inside it.  A week later and there were more posts about the shell, as well as some fake box art (7800XM1 - Project Update).  Another week and another update (Quick update on 7800 Exp Module...) went by, but still no photos of anything else other than the shell, but now the shipping date was moved to December 10th.  The next time he posted was January 2011, after coming back from a vacation (XM Status Page...), which thus began a long string of broken promises and excuses. He also mentioned new cartridge guides were being made.  In April, Vendel emailed everyone who pre-ordered to tell them the expected ship date was now May.  Come May, he told everyone to disregard the email notification.  2 weeks later he stated dev/test units were being assembled and shipped the next day, with the first batch of 25-30 pre-orders the next week, and every week after that.  In late June, he stated the first batch of pre-orders was being assembled.  A month later, photos of the manuals were posted on his website.  Soon after, he started playing the martyr angle and lashed out at a user ("sermajic"), who simply asked how does he know he'll get one, since he never received the USB joysticks he ordered, nor any replies to his inquiries about them.  Vendel offered to refund anybody who pre-ordered it and threatened to stop making any more homebrew projects.  Eventually "sermajic" was banned by Albert Yarusso for complaining, although he's far from the only person to not receive their joysticks (LINK).  Those that did take Vendel's offer for a refund only received one if they publicly complained about not receiving one!  In July 2012, Vendel replied to one such complaint, and stated, "I have been very cooperative with you, even though as you know there were no refunds".  Someone else mentioned his book with Marty Goldberg was taking priority over the XM, and Vendel confirmed as much ("have not been putting as much bandwidth as I want into the XM... have to wrap up this book...will be back on this project in 2-3 weeks once book is done and I can devote 100% of my time to this project solely."  He also stated, "I'm not making any further changes anymore to this design", which he reiterated on his website that November:

...only for Goldberg to claim otherwise.  It seems he'd forgotten about Vendel's attempt to drum up interest in a new console and controllers the same month he first announced the XM.  This thread ran for nearly 2 years and over 1,200 replies before being closed "to cool things down" (i.e. silence the critics).  User "Jaynz" on Atariage is one of the few people who saw the XM for what it was - a fraud.

As a side note, the new cartridge guides were sold separately, and someone noted in 2013 cartridges fit too tightly (LINK).  In the "vacation" thread, Vendel mentioned in October 2011 he needed to check which carts won't fit in the original 7800 cart guides.  Back in the thread where he first announced the XM project, he claims he was made aware of the cart guide problem in June 2010.  Why he simply didn't copy the 2600JR cart guides right from the beginning, we'll never know.  In 2018, another victim of Vendel's, "Rajada", decided to 3D print his own cart guide (LINK), and Vendel couldn't resist trying to shame him for complaining (another common ploy of his), but "Rajada" wasn't having that, and nor should he.  In 2020, 7800 homebrew programmer Bob DeCrescenzo created an improved cartridge guide using a 3D printer, which Vendel claimed in this April 2020 video he would start using.  So for 10 years, the cartridge guide issue was never resolved by Vendel.

Another thread was started (time for another xm update?) soon after the last one was closed, and started off with people mentioning the weekly updates Vendel promised aren't happening.  "LoTonahh" replies about being another victim of Vendel's in regards to his USB joysticks:

Vendel decided to change the name of his company from Legacy Engineering to Syzygy Company, even though he never had the rights to use the Syzygy name, nor did he bother to tell anybody about the name change beyond a post on his Facebook page.  Most people were only made aware of it when they noticed the Legacy Engineering website disappeared.  The comment "cult of Curt" is thrown around, referring to how protected he is on Atariage.  Another mentioned between $15k-$20k was collected for the project that's now over 2 years late.  Others came forward with their own stories about ordering USB joysticks from him that were never sent.  Vendel had yet another public meltdown, blaming others for spreading "conspiracy bullshit" (i.e. daring to complain) and threatening to throw everything XM-related into a wood chipper (also known as 'taking one's ball and going home'):

"Jaynz" gave a very respectful reply to Vendel's hissy fit, basically telling him he brought all the criticism on himself and that by all appearances, he got himself in far over his head with the XM.  Vendel responded, telling everyone to email or message him with any questions, which is laughable since he's always been notorious for not responding to such inquires. Vendel finished his reply with, "The XMs ship Jan 30th and that is it."  This ended in yet another locked thread after 200 posts.

April 2013 brought another thread full of more updates (Back in the game), and Vendel mentioned he broke his own XM dev unit, but after a few posts about him and BIOS developer Mark Ball going "back and forth" with emails, the most notable update concerned Mark leaving the project to make Intellivision games, which Vendel started another thread about (Anyone know if Groovybee is okay?).  Without someone to write the BIOS for him and implement the latest changes he wanted, he was forced to go back to an earlier board revision, even though a year before, he stated no more changes were going to be made.  Some people were starting to point out the XM was falling victim to 'feature creep'.

Mark was the first to show a game he was developing for the XM in July 2010 (LINK).  As we found out later, everyone who helped with developing XM were not paid for their efforts, so it's not surprising that people like Mark would walk away after spending several years on it.

A month later, Vendel started another thread to let everyone know he fixed his dev unit (Wow! Great news).  Meanwhile, everyone who pre-ordered one continued to wait for theirs.  2 months later, Vendel created yet another thread (7800XMs - Just checking in...), this time telling everyone he shipped out 3 more dev units, one of which was broken due to his poor soldering.  He also now claimed the pre-orders were his version of doing a Kickstarter for the XM, perhaps to make people more accepting of the fact he doesn't have to fulfill his promise to ship it.  The problem is, crowdfunding through sites like Kickstarter has only amplified the failure of homebrew efforts (article).

In November 2013, another thread is started, asking if there's any chance it will be in our hands by Christmas?  Atariage user "ZylonBane" again reiterates why something like the XM is ultimately detrimental to the already small number of active 7800 users:

Atari 7800XM - 3.5 years later - Where is it?

2014 started with someone asking where the XM was; Vendel replied that he doesn't respond to forum questions (?) and claimed he was hoping to quietly start shipping XMs out for the 30th anniversary of the 7800.  Someone stated, “Curt's provided no uncertain terms on when they would ship now, and from my experience has been a man of his word."  How about his word about shipping the XM in late 2010, or the multiple words about shipping it at different points along the way?  No, in fact he did everything BUT keep his word.  Another 300+ post thread goes by before the thread is locked, but not before someone else outdoes the XM by advertising an enhanced cartridge with nearly all of the same features!  This is exactly what the XM should have been all along, and something all the major companies back in the early 1980s learned was the best approach - not with expansion modules but with the extra hardware in the cartridges.  Today's VCS programmers have been enjoying the creation of new bankswitching methods as well as ARM-based pcbs, both of which could easily be applied to the 7800.  PenguiNet's recent release of 7800 Rikki & Vikki is a perfect example of this approach.

In July 2014, Vendel started another thread (7800 XM update) to say nothing had been done with the XM that year, and from his comments, the XM sounded as hopelessly bungled as ever, with overheating issues and noise in the audio section.  Goldberg chimed in to state their 2nd book (Business is War) is delayed because of the XM.  In October 2015 it's mentioned Perry “tep392” Thuente is now re-writing the BIOS, in 7800 BASIC (?).  In March 2016 Perry mentioned the BIOS would have been further along had Mark shared his code.  2 more people are added to the BIOS team.  This thread ran to September 2019 and was locked after some 1,600 posts in order to keep the discussion in another thread (?).

Perry's Donkey Kong XM game for the 7800 was one of the earliest titles announced for the XM.  It offered enhanced sound via a POKEY chip and was intended to be released along with the XM, but by the end of 2012 and with the shipping date of the XM still unknown, he decided to start selling carts of it that included a POKEY chip.  Someone commented, "I see the xm as just a cool looking expensive door stop at this point."

In 2015, Vendel started yet another thread, this time asking people to send him their latest contact information, since it's been over 5 years since he started taking pre-orders.  In a thread about Bob DeCrescenzo's 7800 Bentley Bear's Crystal Quest game, someone commented, "The XM was a swindle" and also noted he collected thousands of dollars up in pre-order sales (at least $20,000).

In June 2016 Vendel posted on his Facebook page:

As you might have guessed by now, the XM's design was never locked down.  It had been in a constant state of change the entire time. 

In January of 2018, Vendel yet again started another XM thread, this time proclaiming XM shipping this month!  The thread ran for 2.5 years and over 900 posts (and no, it didn't ship this month, or next month, or ever) and is full of more contradicting statements.  On page 18, after Perry solved a timing issue with the board (Vendel used the wrong flash chips for the BIOS), he again mentions wanting to make a new console and creates a new website for it, along with crowdfunding!  This was clearly another effort to raise more money for the XM or some other side venture of his, but this time most people spoke up and said no more projects until the XM was finished, and the thread activity died out in less than 1 week.

With his 3200 console plans sunk by angry Atari fans, Vendel decided what people really wanted was a new $90 joystick controller!  And he used the website for his failed Awecades business to sell them!  Only a few were sold before word got around about how poor the quality of them was.  The photos below show how "awesome" they weren't:

  

Again, his attempts to round up more free money to be thrown into the money pit known as the XM were again scuttled.  By the end of the "XM shipping this month thread", Vendel confirmed someone's question about the XM's box - it won't have a box when it ships, saying, "Boxes will ship later, people want their systems, so to cut down on any additional time."  So 10 years later and the boxes were never printed, other than the one that appeared on his desk in a photo?  He also boasted of yet another set of boards being made and shipped 2nd-day air (!), and that he just got "a brandy new soldering station and some new tools, so I'm ramping up for assembly."  I guess he never ramped up for assembly in the 8+ years of this project?  Wouldn't he have needed that equipment since the entire board was DIP designed?  He also commented:

"I came very close to giving up and just shipping everyone the plastics and being done with it as that was all the pre-orders paid for."

At least they would have had something.  Damn, if that’s all the $20k-$30k paid for, he was quite possibly the worst person to trust with anything financially.  Here's how he misspent it, in his own words:

"Tooling was very expensive, between the tooling, running off 500 sets of plastics and having the custom aluminum name plates made it was $18K in total, the 180 orders just covered that, everything else is coming out of pocket do to bad math on my part.  Any new orders will have to be at $149 to cover all of the costs."

The board alone went though how many revisions?  Did he 2nd-day air every set of them, like he did with the most recent?  What’s the rush at that point, nearly 9 years later?  What's waiting a few more days with opting for less-expensive shipping going to change at that point?

Here's a few more statements from him:

Right now I have 180 pre-orders of the XM's and judging by the interest, I think another 100 or more will be sold.   I kinda figured around a 300 unit sale of them would be about where they'd go."  So he figured 300 units, but ordered 500 of everything?

"I did just buy a kick ass new desoldering station which has worked excellent with I've have to remove some PLCC sockets in a pinch.”  Who the hell has to remove a PLCC socket “in a pinch”?

"Board is mostly SMD for final production. Through hole was just for development."  That’s not what he said – and showed – 10 pages prior to making that statement.  Even back on page 6 when someone asked if he planned on doing all the soldering himself, he said “Yeah, Im a gluten for punishment:-)”  You're not the only one.  Someone asked, "Is every single XM going to be built by hand?", and he replied, "Yes they will."  Ah, but how quickly things changed.  Someone suggested he have the pcb fabrication company (in this case, he was using PCBWay) install all the SMD components since they charge very little and it will save time and money.  He responded, "Definitely will, also it'll far more accurate than by hand."  Shouldn't he already have known this if he was the engineer he professed to be?  On page 37, he was complaining about doing hand-soldering for .5 pitch chips.  Well, if he had PCBWay do everything for him, like others had previously suggested, he wouldn’t have had yet one more step he could screw up.  So 5 MORE development units were to be sent out for more testing, the BIOS *still* wasn’t finished, and whatever units shipped out wouldn’t have boxes or manuals, “to cut down on any additional time”... even though a photo showing a pile of manuals was posted on his website years earlier, along with a photo of an actual box on top of his monitor...

In another thread about some planned HSC-only 25th anniversary version of the 7800 (that also was never released), Vendel replied to someone asking, "I thought the XM was “shipping this month” two years ago?" with the understatement of the decade: "I thought so too until I realized there was far more to do than I bargained for, but...".

XM has shipped!

January 2020 - we finally arrive to the last XM thread, and once again it has a misleading title.  All that was shipped was yet another demo unit to the guy who was still working on the BIOS.  No testing of the latest version had been done yet.  Yep, we were at this exact same point in 2013.  Vendel states, "There is a POKEY or PokeyMax on the XM boards."  The fact that Vendel is mentioning the PokeyMax confirms he never acquired a large inventory of Pokey chips.  Considering the first 200 XMs that were pre-ordered were sold for $100, there was absolutely no way he was going to make any money from this project.  And considering the PokeyMax costs $10-$20 MORE than the PokeyOne (which still isn't compatible with Atari 8-bit computers) or original OEM Pokey Chips (currently at $40 each), why was he not buying the real thing?  This came up in another thread the previous October.  Page 17 revealed yet more problems - now the dev units are displaying random pixels!  Possibly heat-related?  Overheating was a problem back in 2014!  Yeah well, no heat sinks… and no fans.  He also screwed up the board traces again (forgetting a ground?).  The BIOS still isn’t finished, but, "Nothing is going to be a show stopper."  Oh, and he just realized last March (?!) the XM might require its own power supply, because ‘weak’ 35-year-old consoles might not be able to handle it, but, "As for adding power, its not that complicated a feat to do."  I'm not an engineer, but as a 25+ year arcade tech, I saw this being a problem with the XM right from the start, because you're basically sticking another console on top of a console, and expecting that vintage power supply to handle the load of running both.  Most 7800 consoles only had voltage regulators rated for 750mA, with a few rated for 1A; Vendel's quick fix for one of the dev units was to replace it with a 2A VR, which is akin to "fixing" a fuse that keeps blowing by putting in a larger fuse.  Even Sega's 32X had its own power supply, and that was when the Genesis was only a few years old.  Well, 2 months later, I guess it was too complicated for him to do and he decided it wasn't worth the extra cost and time to add a power jack for the XM.  Panel-mounted 1/8" / 3.5mm mono connectors are $0.76c each from a supplier like Adafruit.  As for the time involved, you're basically soldering 2 wires and drilling a small hole in the case to mount it.  And this is the guy who was soldering SMD components by hand and buying equipment to remove PLCC sockets.  He had to do another board revision anyway, to fix the board traces and correct a timing issue (that may or may not have created the random pixels issue), so have the power jacks added and ship the boards ground this time.. right?

After spending 10 years on this project, one thing should be very clear to everyone - Vendel wasn't an engineer of any kind, for if he held an Engineering degree from some college, there should be a full investigation done with that institution and the credibility of the professors teaching there.  By all accounts, he pulled computer cable for a living, working from home with his own business, Westchester Technologies.  He designed boards like someone who was given a copy of a PCB CAD program like Eagle to use would, but without any experience with using the program, or any knowledge of how to design a board layout.  He also lacked any programming experience, beyond making some rudimentary cut-and-paste graphics menus for the Flashback2.  Simply put, something like the XM was far beyond his abilities, but his ego couldn't allow him to accept that.  Unfortunately, it didn't stop with him, because he dragged several hundred people down a financial hole with him.

As for the XM itself, it was never really needed.  As Atariage user "ZylonBain" pointed out, splintering the already small base of 7800 owners was a foolish endeavor.  If owners were so desperate to play improved versions of arcade games, they could simply download MAME for free and play the original games.  What the price for XM-enhanced cartridges was going to be was never discussed.  After spending $100 for an XM and having all the extra hardware in the module, the cartridges should have been relatively cheap; similar to how the VCS Supercharger and its games were priced, but somehow I doubt Atariage would be selling XM carts for under $20, and I'd expect the programmers would have balked at making so little from their efforts.  Between the 2006 Xboard and the 2013 VersaBoard (which supports 256K ROMs, 32K RAM, and a POKEY chip), the XM was 'obsolete' early on in its development; some of the homebrew games originally planned for the XM later shipped using VersaBoards.  The 2nd audio chip that was later added to the XM's design was also unnecessary and ultimately contributed to hardware issues, and the high score feature was certainly never something there was a lot of demand for.  Given Vendel's penchant for continually adding one more feature to the XM, it was destined to never be completed; its development could have easily stretched out for another 10 years.

Lastly, someone noted in one of the later threads that in 2019, Vendel decided to waste time slagging another delayed project that was 14 months past its own "shipping this month" deadline, when his own XM project had languished for far longer.  It's a classic example of Vendel's hypocrisy and narcissism, and a larger example of the environment that exists on Yarusso's Atariage forum, where a few are afforded the opportunity to act out against others at will and without consequences.  It's no secret to some that I've never respected Vendel and have gone out of my way to call him out over issues like this.  But as far as the guy's contributions to the hobby, he's done far more damage to Atari's image than most people will ever realize.  On any other website, a scam like this XM would have been stopped years ago and those who pre-ordered would have formed a class-action lawsuit to get their money back, but on Atariage, Vendel was built up to be some unimpeachable figure who was far more important to the hobby and given far more credibility than he ever deserved.  Why was Vendel allowed to perpetuate this fraud?  Was it the promise of Vendel turning over sales of the XM to Yarusso at some point that earned Yarusso's support?  To Yarusso and others who were fans and supporters of Vendel, I'll close this article by merely saying, you reap what you sow.  Vendel's lasting legacy will concern debacles such as his XM project, and all those who fell victim to his empty promises.


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