Bringing old things back to life holds a great sense of joy for most people. The never ending pursuit of recapturing our youth leads us down roads we’ve long forgotten. Along the way, we tend to bump into forgotten memories which jostle other forgotten memories which allows us to relive happy times we haven’t thought of in years, sometimes even decades. For some, the roar of a 351 small block sweeps them back to high school and the fast nights of cruising down main street with the FM radio cranked up as high as it would go. For those of us who were born in the 80’s and 90’s, video games can bring back such memories. Who among us can forget our first encounter with Link, the elegant theme music of Final Fantasy or up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-b-a-select-start?
Advances in processor technology has allowed us to relive our favorite games via emulators – programs that emulate processors of older computers. The games are ‘dumped’ from the ROM chips (where they are stored) into files. These game files can then be loaded into the emulator program, which allows you to play the game as if you were playing it on the original system.
Technology is truly a beautiful thing. It allows us to move forward, allows us to do today that which was not possible yesterday. There are a few cases, however, where this paradigm does not hold true. One of these has to do with the Nintendo Entertainment System and its “Zapper” gun controller. The NES was the most popular game console of its time, and rightfully so. From the minds of Nintendo engineers, programmers and audio experts came some of the best video games ever made. Unfortunately, some of these great games cannot be played on your Raspberry Pi favorite emulator due to the incompatibility of the Zapper gun and modern digital monitors. None of us can forget the fun that Duckhunt brought. The game came as standard issue with all NES systems, so we’ve all played it. But its nostalgia is currently entombed by a technological quirk that has yet to be solved.
From one hacker to another – this can no longer be tolerated. First, we’re going to learn how the Zapper works and why it doesn’t work with digital displays. Then we’re going to fix it.
[ijsf] recently came across a very old synthesizer from a defunct West German company. This was one of the first wavetable synths available, and it’s exceptionally rare. Being so rare, there isn’t much documentation on the machine. In an attempt at reverse engineering, [ijsf] decided to dump the EPROMs and take a peek at what made this synth work. There wasn’t an EPROM programmer around to dump the data, but [ijsf] did have a few ARM boards around. It turns out building a 27-series PROM dumper is pretty easy, giving [ijsf] an easy way to dig into the code on this machine.
The old EPROMs in this machine have 5v logic, so [ijsf] needed to find a board that had a ton of IOs and 5v tolerant inputs. He found the LPC2148, which has a nice USB system that can be programmed to dump the contents of a PROM over serial. Interfacing the PROM is as simple as connecting the power and ground, the address lines, data, and the signal lines. After that, it’s just a matter of stepping through every address according to the timing requirements of the PROM. All the data was dumped over a serial interface, and in just a few seconds, [ijsf] had 32768 bytes of ancient data that made this old synth tick.
For one reason or another, [Dragao] has an old Sonic The Hedgehog cartridge that throws an illegal instruction somewhere in the Marble Zone stage. While the cause of this illegal instruction is probably cosmic rays, how to repair this cartridge isn’t quite as clear. It can be done, though, using BIOS chips from an old computer.
[Dragao] got the idea of repairing this cartridge from Game Boy flash carts. These cartridges use chips that are a simple parallel interface to the address and data lines of the Game Boy’s CPU, and Sega Genesis / Mega Drive flash cart would work the same way. The problem was finding old DIP flash chips that would work. He eventually found some 8-bit wide chips on the motherboard of an old computer, and by stacking the chips, he had a 16-bit wide Flash chip.
To program the chips, [Dragao] wired everything up to an Arduino Mega, put a ROM on the chip, and wired it up to the old Sega cartridge. Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, everything worked, and now [Dragao] has a fully functioning copy of Sonic The Hedgehog.
The Macintosh Classic – a small all-in-one computer with a 9″ monochrome screen – was one of the more interesting machines ever released by Apple. It was the company’s first venture into a cost-reduced computer, and the first Macintosh to sell for less than $1000. Released in 1990, its list of features were nearly identical to the Macintosh Plus, released four years earlier. The Classic also had an interesting feature not found in any other Mac. It could boot a full OS, in this case System 6.0.3, by holding down a series of keys during boot. This made it an exceptional diskless workstation. It was cheap, and all you really needed was a word processor or spreadsheet program on a 1.44 MB floppy to do real work.
[Steve] over at Big Mess O’ Wires had the same idea as the Apple engineers back in the late 80s. Take a Macintosh Plus, give it a bit more ROM, and put an OS in there. [Steve] is going a bit farther than those Apple engineers could have dreamed. He’s built a rewritable ROM disk for the Mac Plus, turning this ancient computer into a completely configurable diskless workstation.
The build replaces the two stock ROM chips with an adapter board filled with 29F040B Flash chips. They’re exactly what you would expect – huge, old PDIPs loaded up with Flash instead of the slightly more difficult to reprogram EEPROM. Because of the additional space, two additional wires needed to connected to the CPU. The result is a full Megabyte of Flash available to the Macintosh at boot, in a computer where the normal removable disk drive capacity was only 800kB.
The hardware adapter for stuffing these flash chips inside a Mac Plus was made by [Rob Braun], while the software part of this build came from [Rob] and [Doug Brown]. They studied how the Macintosh Classic’s ROM disk driver worked, and [Rob Braun] developed a stand-alone ROM disk driver with a new pirate-themed startup icon. [Steve] then dug in and created an old-school Mac app in Metrowerks Codewarrior to write new values to the ROM. Anything from Shufflepuck to Glider, to a copy of System 7.1 can be placed on this ROM disk.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen ROM boot disks for old Macs. There was a lot of spare address space floating around in the old Mac II-series computers, and [Doug Brown] found a good use for it. Some of these old computers had optional ROM SIMM. You can put up to 8 Megabytes in the address space reserved for the ROM, and using a similar ROM disk driver, [Doug] can put an entire system in ROM, or make the startup chime exceptionally long.
[nitro2k01] got his hands on a Game Fighter, a clone of the original Game Boy. While there’s a ton of information about the boot ROM and operation of the original Game Boy, not much is known about these clones. [nitro2k01] wanted to learn more, so he used a clock-glitching technique to dump the device’s ROM and made some interesting discoveries about its copyright protection and boot process along the way.
Reading the contents of the Game Boy ROM is a bit challenging. The ROM is readable while booting, but afterwards the address space of the ROM is remapped for interrupt vectors and other uses. There are a couple of methods to get around this, but the simplest method involves glitching the crystal by grounding one of its leads. This causes the CPU to jump to random locations in memory. Eventually the CPU will jump to a location where the boot ROM is accessible (if you’re lucky!).
Although [nitro2k01]’s clone can run the same games as the Game Boy, it has a different boot ROM and also has some significant hardware differences. [nitro2k01] managed to use a modified version of the crystal-grounding technique to glitch his clock and dump the clone’s boot ROM. He found that the clone uses an unusual variation on the Game Boy’s copyright-checking technique, along with some other oddities. [nitro2k01] also posted a disassembly of the boot ROM, which he explains in detail.
Once upon a time, arcades were all the rage. You could head down to your local arcade with a pocket full of quarters and try many different games. These days, video arcades are less popular. As a result, many old arcade games are becoming increasingly difficult to find. They are almost like the artifacts of an ancient age. They are slowly left to rot and are often lost or forgotten with time. Enter, MAME.
MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) is a software project, the goal of which is to protect gaming history by preventing these arcade machines from being lost or forgotten. The MAME emulator currently supports over 7000 titles, but there are still more out there that require preservation. The hackers who work on preserving these games are like the digital Indiana Jones of the world. They learn about lost games and seek them out for preservation. In some cases, they must circumvent security measures in order to accurately preserve content. Nothing as scary as giant rolling boulders or poison darts, but security nonetheless.
Many of the arcade cabinets produced by a publisher called NMK used a particular sound processor labeled, “NMK004”. This chip contains both a protected internal code ROM and an unprotected external ROM that controls the sound hardware. The actual music data is stored on a separate unprotected EEPROM and is different for each game. The system reads the music data from the EEPROM and then processes it using the secret data inside the NMK004.
The security in place around the internal ROM has prevented hackers from dumping its contents for all this time. The result is that NMK games using this chip have poorly emulated sound when played using MAME, since no one knows exactly how the original chip processed audio. [trap15] found it ridiculous that after 20 years, no one had attempted to circumvent the security and dump the ROM. He took matters into his own hands.
The full story is a bit long and contains several twists and turns, but its well worth the read. The condensed version is that after a lot of trial and error and after writing many custom tools, [trap15] was able to finally dump the ROM. He was able to accomplish this using a very clever trick, speculated by others but never before attempted on this hardware. [trap15] exploited a vulnerability found in the unprotected external ROM in order to trick the system into playing back the protected internal ROM as though it were the sound data stored on the EEPROM. The system would read through the internal ROM as though it were a song and play it out through the speakers. [trap15] recorded the resulting audio back into his PC as a WAV file. He then had to write a custom tool to decode the WAV file back into usable data.
[trap15] has released all of his tools with documentation so other hackers can use them for their own adventures into hardware hacking. The project was a long time in the making and it’s a great example of reverse engineering and perseverance.
While [Rob] was digging around in his garage one day, he ran across an old Commodore 64 cartridge. With no ROM to be found online, he started wondering what was stored in this ancient device. Taking a peek at the bits stored in this cartridge would require dumping the entire thing to a modern computer, and armed with an Arduino, he created a simple cart dumper, capable of reading standard 8k cartridges without issue.
The expansion port for the C64 has a lot of pins corresponding to the control logic inside these old computers, but the only ones [Rob] were really interested in were the eight data lines and the sixteen address lines. With a little bit of code, [Rob] got an Arduino Mega to step through all the address pins and read the corresponding data at that location in memory. This data is then sent over USB to a C app that dumps everything in HEX and text.
While the ROM for just about every C64 game can be found online, [Rob] was unlucky enough to find one that wasn’t. It doesn’t really matter, though, as we don’t know if [Rob] has the 1541 disk drive that makes this cart useful. Still, it’s a good reminder of how useful an Arduino can be when used as an electronic swiss army knife.