Despite all the incredible advancements made in video game technology over the last few decades, the 8-bit classics never seem to go out of style. Even if you weren’t old enough to experience these games when they were new, it’s impossible not to be impressed by what the early video game pioneers were able to do with such meager hardware. They’re a reminder of what can be accomplished with dedication and technical mastery.
If you’d like to put a little retro inspiration on your desk, take a look at this fantastic 16 x 16 LED matrix put together by [Josh Gerdes]. While it’s obviously not the only thing you could use it for, the display certainly seems particularly adept at showing old school video game sprites in all their pixelated glory. There’s something about the internal 3D printed grid that gives the sprites a three dimensional look, while the diffused glow reminds us of nights spent hunched over a flickering CRT.
The best part might be how easy it is to put one of these together for yourself. You’ve probably got most of what you need in the parts bin; essentially it’s just a WS2812B strip long enough to liberate 256 LEDs from and a microcontroller to drive them. [Josh] used an Arduino Nano, but anything compatible with the FastLED library would be a drop-in replacement. You’ll also need a 3D printer to run off the grid, and something to put the whole thing into. The 12×12 shadowbox used here looks great, but we imagine clever folks such as yourselves could make do with whatever might be laying around if you can’t nip off to the arts and crafts store right now.
It takes a lot of work to build a modern video game. Typically an entire company will spend months (at least) developing the gameplay, selecting or programming an engine, and working out the bugs. This amount of effort isn’t strictly necessary for older video game systems though, and homebrew developers are quite often able to develop entire games singlehandedly for classic systems. In the past it would have taken some special software, programming knowledge, and possibly hardware, but now anyone can build games for the original Game Boy with minimal barriers of entry.
The project is known as GB Studio and allows people to develop homebrew games for the 8-bit handheld system without programming knowledge. Once built, the games can be played on any emulator or even loaded onto a cartridge and played on original hardware if a flash cart is available. Graphics can be created with anything that can create a .png image, and there are also some features that allow the game to be played over a web browser or on a mobile device.
While it seems like the gameplay is limited to RPG-style games, this is still an impressive feat, and highly useful for anyone curious about game development. It could also be an entry into more involved game programming if it makes the code of the games available to the user. It could even lead to things like emulating entire cartridges on the original hardware.
[Jonathan]’s project is called the Multi Platform Arcade Game Designer, so named for its ability to create games for several 8-bit systems of yesteryear. Currently, the Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, and Acorn Atom are all supported, with plans to add more down the track.
Creating a game is a simple affair, which [Jonathan] explores in a video tutorial series. Sprite and background editors are built into the software. Scripts can be automatically generated to create a wide variety of basic game types, from scrolling shoot-em-ups to classic platformers. There’s also functionality that allows advanced users to add further functionality by supplying some of their own code.
If point-and-click isn’t for you, you can always forge your ZX Spectrum games the classic way, with assembly and BASIC. Video after the break.
Arduinos are a handy tool to have around. They’re versatile, cheap, easy to program, and have a ton of software libraries to build on. They’ve only been around for about a decade and a half though, so if you were living in 1989 and wanted to program a microcontroller you’d probably be stuck with an 8-bit microprocessor with no built-in peripherals to help, reading from a physical book about registers and timing, and probably trying to get a broken ribbon cable to behave so it would actually power up. If you want a less frustrating alternate history to live in, though, check out the latest project from [Marek].
He discovered some 6502 chips (Polish language, Google Translate link) that a Chinese manufacturer was selling, but didn’t really trust that they were legitimate. On a lark he ordered some and upon testing them he found out that they were real 6502s. Building an 8-bit computer is something he’d like to do, but in the meantime he decided to do a project using one of these chips as a general-purpose microcontroller similar to a modern Arduino. The project has similar specs as an Arduino too, including 8kB of RAM memory, 8kB of I/O address space, and various EPROM capabilities. [Marek] went on to build a shield board for it as well, for easy access to some switches and LEDs. It’s a great build that anyone interested in microcontrollers should check out.
Keep in mind that an ATtiny45 has 8 bits like the 6502 but only costs around $1 USD, whereas a 6502 would have cost around $200 in today’s dollars. It’s really only in modern times that we can appreciate the 6502 as a cheap 8-bit microcontroller for that reason alone, but we can also appreciate how it ushered in a computer revolution since competing Intel and Motorola chips cost around six times more before it showed up. They became so popular in fact that people still regularly use them to build retrocomputers of all kinds.
By now we’ve all seen ways to manufacture your own PCBs. There are board shops who will do small orders for one-off projects, or you can try something like the toner transfer method if you want to get really adventurous. One thing we haven’t seen is a circuit board that’s stitched together, but that’s exactly what a group of people at a Vienna arts exhibition have done.
The circuit is stitched together on a sheet of fabric using traditional gold embroidery methods for the threads, which function as the circuit’s wires. The relays are made out of magnetic beads, and the entire circuit functions as a fully programmable, although relatively rudimentary, computer. Logic operations are possible, and a functional schematic of the circuit is also provided. Visitors to the expo can program the circuit and see it in operation in real-time.
While this circuit gives new meaning to the term “wearables”, it wasn’t intended to be worn although we can’t see why something like this couldn’t be made into a functional piece of clothing. The main goal was to explore some historic techniques of this type of embroidery, and explore the relationship we have with the technology that’s all around us. To that end, there have been plenty of other pieces of functional technology used as art recently as well, but of course this isn’t the first textile computing element to grace these pages.
With its vintage sound, there’s no mistaking the unique 8-bit sound of video games from the 80s and 90s. It became so popular that eventually sparked its own genre of music known as “chiptune” for which musicians are still composing today. The music has some other qualities though, namely that it’s relatively simple from a digital standpoint. [Robots Everywhere] found that this simplicity made it perfect as a carrier for wireless power transmission.
The project acts more like a radio transmitter and receiver than it does a true wireless power transmitter, but the principle is the same. It uses a modified speaker driver and amplifier connected to a light source, rather than to a speaker. On the receiving end, there is a solar panel (essentially a large photodetector) which is wired directly to a pair of earbuds. When the chiptune is played through the amplifier, it is sent via light to the solar panel where it can be listened to in the earbuds.
The project is limited to 24,000 bytes per second which is a whole lot more useful than just beaming random audio files around your neighborhood, although that will still work. You can also use something like this to establish a long-distance serial link wirelessly, which can be the basis of a long distance communications network.
If you were a computer-mad teen in the late 1980s, you were probably in the process of graduating from an 8-bit machine to a 16-bit one, maybe an Amiga, or an Atari ST. For the first time though you might not have been the only computer owner in your house, because there was every chance your parents might have joined the fun with a word processor. Maybe American home offices during this period might have had PC clones, but for Brits there was every chance that the parental powerhouse would have been an Amstrad PCW.
Amstrad were the masters of packaging up slightly outdated technology for electronic consumers on a budget, and the PCW was thus a 1970s CP/M machine for the 1980s whose main attraction was that it came with monitor and printer included in the price. [James Ots]’ parents had one that interested him enough that he has returned to the platform and is documenting his work bringing it up to date.
It was the most recent progress in booting into CP/M from an SD card by hijacking the printer ROM that caught our eye, but reading all the build logs that is only the tip of the iceberg. He’s connected another monitor, made a joystick port and a soundcard, and added a memory upgrade to his PCW. Most of these machines would have only been used with the bundled word processor, so those are real enhancements.
We’ve featured quite a few projects involving Amstrad’s CPC home computers, such as this one with a floppy emulator. Amstrad are an interesting company for followers of consumer electronics of the ’70s and ’80s, they never had the out-there tech wackiness of their great rival Sinclair but their logo could be found on an astonishing variety of appliances. The “AMS” in Amstrad are the initials of the company founder [Alan Sugar], who is rather better known in 2017 as the British host of The Apprentice. It is not known whether he intends to lead the country.