Winning the Console Wars – An In-Depth Architectural Study

From time to time, we at Hackaday like to publish a few engineering war stories – the tales of bravery and intrigue in getting a product to market, getting a product cancelled, and why one technology won out over another. Today’s war story is from the most brutal and savage conflicts of our time, the console wars.

The thing most people don’t realize about the console wars is that it was never really about the consoles at all. While the war was divided along the Genesis / Mega Drive and the Super Nintendo fronts, the battles were between games. Mortal Kombat was a bloody battle, but in the end, Sega won that one. The 3D graphics campaign was hard, and the Starfox offensive would be compared to the Desert Fox’s success at the Kasserine Pass. In either case, only Sega’s 32X and the British 7th Armoured Division entering Tunis would bring hostilities to an end.

In any event, these pitched battles are consigned to be interpreted and reinterpreted by historians evermore. I can only offer my war story of the console wars, and that means a deconstruction of the hardware.

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Neural Networks And MarI/O

Minecraft wizard, and record holder for the Super Mario World speedrun [SethBling] is experimenting with machine learning. He built a program that will get Mario through an entire level of Super Mario World – Donut Plains 1 – using neural networks and genetic algorithms.

A neural network simply takes an input, in this case a small graphic representing the sprites in the game it’s playing, sends that input through a series of artificial neurons, and turns that into commands for the controller. It’s an exceedingly simple neural network – the network that can get Mario through an entire level is less than a dozen neurons – but with enough training, even simple networks can accomplish very complex tasks.

To train the network, or weighting the connections between inputs, neurons, and outputs, [SethBling] is using an evolutionary algorithm. This algorithm first generates a few random neural networks, watches Mario’s progress across Donut Plains 1, and assigns a fitness value to each net. The best networks of each generation are combined, and the process continues for the next generation. It took 34 generations before MarI/O could finish the level without dying.

A few members of the Internet’s peanut gallery have pointed to a paper/YouTube video by [Tom Murphy] that generalized a completely different technique to play a whole bunch of different NES games. While both [SethBling]’s and [Tom Murphy]’s algorithms use certain variables to determine its own success, [Tom Murphy]’s technique works nearly automatically; it will play about as well as the training data it is given. [SethBling]’s algorithm requires no training data – that’s the entire point of using a genetic algorithm.

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RetroPie portable looks like SNES Gameboy

[Mat] wanted a portable RetroPie project he could take while travelling. He made one with a laser cut plastic housing and, according to him, it turned out to be a ‘hideous deformed beast’. In version 2 he took a different approach and we must say it came out looking pretty nice.

This time [Mat] went with a 3D printed case. He designed it himself in SketchUp. Unfortunately, [Mat] doesn’t have access to a 3D printer so he had to send it out to a professional printing company to the tune of £60 ($90). Although that was a large chunk of change, he was happy with the quality of the print. The final exterior dimensions of the case is 13 x 13 x 2.5 cm.

A quick look at the controls will remind anyone of an SNES controller. [Mat] took the innards of an SNES-like USB gamepad and modeled the new case around it. Not having to cut up or otherwise modify the controller PCB makes for an easy addition to the project. Conveniently, the width of the controller was just about the same as the 4.3 inch LCD used for the gamepad’s display. Both fit nicely together.

Under the hood is a Rasberry Pi running RetroPie. An internal 2600mAh Lithium Ion battery provides up to 3.5 hours of game play. Battery charging management is provided by an Adafruit Powerboost 500 which also has a micro USB port that makes connecting an external charger easy.

SNES Headphones Cry for Bluetooth Has Been Answered

A year and a half ago we ran a post about a SNES controller modified into a pair of headphones. They were certainly nice looking and creative headphones but the buttons, although present, were not functional. The title of the original post was (maybe antagonistically) called: ‘SNES Headphones Scream Out For Bluetooth Control‘.

Well, headphone modder [lyberty5] is back with a vengeance. He has heeded the call by building revision 2 of his SNES headphones… and guess what, they are indeed Bluetooth! Not only that, the A, B, X and Y buttons are functional this time around and have been wired up to the controls on the donor Bluetooth module.

To get this project started, the SNES controller was taken apart and the plastic housing was cut up to separate the two rounded sides. A cardboard form was glued in place so that epoxy putty could be roughly formed in order to make each part completely round. Once cured, the putty was sanded and imperfections filled with auto body filler. Holes were drilled for mounting to the headband and a slot was made for the Bluetooth modules’ USB port so the headphone can be charged. The headphones were then reassembled after a quick coat of paint in Nintendo Grey. We must say that these things look great.

If you’d like to make your own set of SNES Bluetooth Headphones, check out the build video after the break.

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BeagleSNES for Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, NES, and – yes – SNES

By far the most common use for the Raspberry Pi is shoving a few dozen emulators on an SD card and calling it a day. Everybody’s got to start somewhere, right? There are other tiny, credit card-sized Linux boards out there, and [Andrew] is bringing the same functionality of the Raspi to the BeagleBone Black and BeagleBoard with BeagleSNES, an emulator for all the sane pre-N64 consoles.

BeagleSNES started as a class project in embedded system design, but the performance of simply porting SNES9X wasn’t very good by default. [Andrew] ended up hacking the bootloader and kernel, profiling the emulator, and slowly over the course of three years of development making this the best emulator possible.

After a few months of development, [Andrew] recently released a new version of BeagleSNES that includes OpenGL ES, native gamepad support through the BeagleBone’s PRU, and support for all the older Nintendo consoles and portables. Video demos below.

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SNES Controller Modified to be Completely Wireless

[Pat] was looking for a way to wirelessly control his Fire TV unit. He could have just went with one of many possible consumer products, but he decided to take it a step further. He modified a unit to fit inside of an original SNES controller. All of the buttons are functional, and the controller even features a wireless charger.

[Pat] started out with a Bluetooth video game controller marketed more playing video games on tablets. The original controller looked sort of like an XBox controller in shape. [Pat] tore this controller open and managed to stuff the guts into an original SNES controller. He didn’t even have to remove the original SNES PCB. [Pat] mentions that it was rather tedious to rewire all of the buttons from the original controller, but in the end it wasn’t too difficult. The only externally visible modification to the original controller is a small hole that was made for a power button.

In order to make this unit completely wireless, [Pat] also installed a Qi wireless charging module. Now, placing the controller on a charging pad will charge up the small LiPo battery in just about 45 minutes. This controller would be the perfect addition to a RetroPi or other similar project. If you’re not into Bluetooth, you can try using a Logitech receiver instead. Continue reading “SNES Controller Modified to be Completely Wireless”

Passion Project Turns BeagleBone into Standalone Super NES

So you want to play some retro games on your BeagleBone, just load up Linux and start your favorite emulator right? Not if you’re serious about it. [Andrew Henderson] started down this path with the BeagleBoard-xM (predecessor of the BeagleBone Black) and discovered that the performance with Snes9X wasn’t quite what he had in mind. He got the itch and created a full-blown distro called BeagleSNES which includes bootloader and kernel hacks for better peformance, a custom GUI, and is in the process of developing hardware for the embedded gaming rig. Check out the documentation that goes along with the project (PDF); it’s a blueprint for how open source project guides should be presented!

The hardware he’s currently working on is a Cape (what add-on boards for the BBB are called) that adds connectors for original Nintendo and Super Nintendo controllers. It also includes an RTC which will stand in for the real-time clock features included in some cartridges (Pokemon Yellow). Also in the works is a 3D printed enclosure which would turn it into a portable, something like this other BBB portable hack.

Check out a demo of what BeagleSNES can do in the video after the break.

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