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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The RUM 80 – a home brew Z80 computer built from scratch

[M] recently tipped us off about hacker [Lumir Vanek] from the Czech Republic. Between 1985 and 1989, [Lumir] built his own home brew, Z80 based computer. The list of home computers available in the 1980’s is extensive. Those living in western Europe and the Americas could choose offerings from Acorn, Apple, Commodore, Atari, Radio Shack, and Sinclair Research to name just a few. Even the erstwhile Czechoslovakia had home computers available from Didaktik and Tesla.

[Lumir]’s built was based around the Z80 processor and is built using regular, double-sided, prototyping board. It featured the 8-bit Z80 processor CPU, 8kB EPROM with monitor and BASIC, two Z80 CTC timers, an 8255 parallel interface for keyboard and external connector, 64kB DRAM, and Video output in black & white, 40×25 characters, connected to a TV. The enclosure is completely made from copper clad laminate. [Lumir] documented the schematics, but there is no board layout – since the whole thing was discrete wired. He even built the membrane keyboard – describing it as “layers of cuprextit, gum, paper with painted keys and transparent film”. When he ran out of space on the main board, he built an expansion board. This had an 8251 serial interface for cassette deck, one 8-bit D/A converter, and an 8255 parallel port connected to the “one pin” BT100 printer.

On the software side, he wrote his own monitor program, which allowed simple interactions, such as displaying and modifying registers, memory, I/O ports and to run programs. He wrote this from scratch referring to the Z80 instruction set for help. Later he added a CP/M emulator. Since the Z80 had dual registers, one was used for user interaction, while the other was reserved to allow background printing. Eventually, he even managed to port BASIC to his system.

Check out [Martin Malý]’s awesome article Home Computers behind the Iron Curtain and the follow up article on Peripherals behind the  Iron Curtain, where you can read more about the “one pin” BT100 printer.

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ZX81 Emulated on an mbed

This is a wonderful example of the phenomenon of “feature creep”. [Gert] was working on getting a VGA output running on an mbed platform without using (hardly) any discrete components. Using only a few resistors, the mbed was connected to a VGA display running at 640×480. But what could he do with something with VGA out? He decided to emulate an entire Sinclair ZX81 computer, of course.

With more than 1.5 million units sold, the Sinclair ZX81 was a fairly popular computer in the early ’80s. It was [Gert]’s first computer, so it was a natural choice for him to try to emulate. Another reason for the choice was that his mbed-VGA device could only output monochrome color, which was another characteristic of the ZX81.

[Gert] started by modifying a very lean Z80 emulator to make the compiled code run as efficiently as possible on the mbed. Then he went about getting a picture to display on the screen, then he interfaced an SD card and a keyboard to his new machine. To be true to the original, he built everything into an original ZX81 case.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a ZX81, but it is one of the better implementations of an emulated version of this system we’ve seen.

Thanks to [Jeroen] for the tip!

Reverse Engineering Capcom’s Crypto CPU

There are a few old Capcom arcade titles – Pang, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, and Block Block – that are unlike anything else ever seen in the world of coin-ops. They’re old, yes, but what makes these titles exceptional is the CPU they run on. The brains in the hardware of these games is a Kabuki, a Z80 CPU that had a few extra security features. why would Capcom produce such a thing? To combat bootleggers that would copy and reproduce arcade games without royalties going to the original publisher. It’s an interesting part of arcade history, but also a problem for curators: this security has killed a number of arcade machines, leading [Eduardo] to reverse engineering and document the Kabuki in full detail.

While the normal Z80 CPU had a pin specifically dedicated to refreshing DRAM, the Kabuki repurposed this pin for the security functions on the chip. With this pin low, the Kabuki was a standard Z80. When the pin was pulled high, it served as a power supply input for the security features. The security – just a few bits saved in memory – was battery backed, and once this battery was disconnected, the chip would fail, killing the game.

Plugging Kabuki into an old Amstrad CPC 6128 without the security pin pulled high allowed [Eduardo] to test all the Z80 instructions, and with that no surprises were found; the Kabuki is fully compatible with every other Z80 on the planet. Determining how Kabuki works with that special security pin pulled high is a more difficult task, but the Mame team has it nailed down.

The security system inside Kabuki works through a series of bitswaps, circular shifts, XORs, each translation different if the byte is an opcode or data. The process of encoding and decoding the security in Kabuki is well understood, but [Eduardo] had a few unanswered questions. What happens after Kabuki lost power and the memory contents – especially the bitswap, address, and XOR keys – vanished? How was the Kabuki programmed in the factory? Is it possible to reprogram these security keys, allowing one Kabuki to play games it wasn’t manufactured for?

[Eduardo] figured being able to encrypt new, valid code was the first step to running code encrypted with different keys. To test this theory, he wrote a simple ‘Hello World’ for the Capcom hardware that worked perfectly under Mame. While the demo worked perfectly under Mame, it didn’t work when burned onto a EPROM and put into real Capcom hardware.

That’s where this story ends, at least for the time being. The new, encrypted code is valid, Mame runs the encrypted code, but until [Eduardo] or someone else can figure out any additional configuration settings inside the Kabuki, this project is dead in the track. [Eduardo] will be back some time next week tearing the Kabuki apart again, trying to unravel the mysteries of what makes this processor work.

A Z80 Computer With Switches And Blinkenlights

While most people who build their own computer from chips want the finished product to do something useful, there’s something to be said about a huge bank of switches and a bunch of blinkenlights. They’re incredibly simple – most of the time, you don’t even need RAM – and have a great classic look about them.

[Jim] wanted to build one of these computers and wound up creating a minimal system with switches and blinkenlights. It’s based on the Z80 CPU, has only 256 bytes of RAM, and not much else. Apart from a few extra chips to output data and address lines to LEDs and a few more to read switches, there are only two major chips in this computer.

With the circuit complete, [Jim] laser cut a small enclosure big enough to house his stripboard PCB, the switches and LEDs, and a few buttons to write to an address, perform a soft reset, and cycle the clock. One of the most practical additions to this switch/blinkenlight setup is a hand crank. There’s no crystal inside this computer, and all clock cycles are done manually. Instead of pushing a button hundreds of times to calculate something. [Jim] added a small hand crank that cycles the clock once per revolution. Crazy, but strangely practical.

[Jim] made a demo video of his computer in action, demonstrating how it’s able to calculate the greatest common divisor of two numbers. You can check that video out below.

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Super Smash Bros on a Calculator

Move over, BlockDude! There’s a new calculator game in town. [Hayleia] and a few other programmers have been hard at work on a clone of Super Smash Bros for graphing calculators that is sure to keep you busy in your next calculus class.

The game, called Smash Bros Open, is based on the Nintendo fighting game and is written specifically for monochrome z80 calculators (the TI-83 and TI-84 being the most ubiquitous of these). The game runs in 6 MHz mode with a simple background, or it can run in 15 MHz mode with a more complicated background. The programmers intend for the game to be open source, so that anyone can add anything to the games that they want, with the hopes of making the game true to its namesake.

Anyone who is looking to download a copy of this should know that Smash Bros Open is currently a work-in-progress. Right now both players need to play on the same calculator (with different keys), and Fox is the only playable character. The programmers hope to resolve the two player issue by using a second calculator as a game pad, or by linking the two calculators using Global CalcNet. As for the other characters, those can be added by others based on the existing code which is available on the project’s forum post!

Thanks to [Chris] for the tip.

Multi-target IDE for 8-Bit CPUs

A long time ago, [Martin] played with old 8-bit computers. Recently, he’s been honing his assembly skills again, and the idea of an IDE for a boatload of old systems came to him. After a year of work, he announced a multitarget IDE for 8-bit computers that works in your browser.

The project is called ASM80, and includes a code editor, a workspace to put all your code, compilers for the 8080/8085, Z80, 6502, 6800 and 6809 CPUs, emulators for all these CPUs, and emulators for a few Czech computers, the ZX Spectrum, and a few of [Grant Searle]’s single board computers.

What makes this project interesting is the syntax for all the different CPUs is pretty much the same. It’s a real, modular code editor that supports macros and everything you would expect for a code editor for ancient computers.

You can check out an assembler description here. [Martin] also has an offline, desktop-based version of ASM80 called IDE80, with a video demo of that below.

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