Calm Down: It’s Only Assembly Language

Based on [Ben Jojo’s] title — x86 Assembly Doesn’t have to be Scary — we assume that normal programmers fear assembly. Most hackers don’t mind it, but we also don’t often have an excuse to program assembly for desktop computers.

In fact, the post is really well suited for the typical hacker because it focuses the on real mode of an x86 processor after it boots. What makes this tutorial a little more interesting than the usual lecture is that it has interactive areas, where a VM runs your code in the browser after assembling with NASM.

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Unlocking Animal Crossing’s Debug Mode

Originally released on the Nintendo 64 in 2001, Animal Crossing was the first entry into what has become a massively successful franchise. But while the game has appeared on more modern Nintendo consoles, most recently Android and iOS, the version released on the GameCube holds a special place in many fan’s hearts. The GameCube version was the first time those outside of Japan got a taste of the unique community simulation offered by Animal Crossing, and maintains a following nearly 20 years after its release.

[James Chambers] has recently been investigating creating mods for the GameCube version of Animal Crossing, and in the process uncovered some interesting references to a debug mode. That launched a deep dive into the game’s assembly code in an attempt to find what the debug functions did and if they could be enabled without having to patch the game ROM. In the end, he was able to find a push button code that enables debug mode on the retail copy of the game.

[James] starts by using the debugger provided by the Dolphin GameCube emulator to poke around and figure out exactly what flags need to be modified to activate the debug mode. This leads to a few interesting finds, such as being able to pop up a performance monitor graph and some build info. Eventually he finds the proper incantation to bring up a functional debug display in the game, but there was still the mystery of how you do it on the real hardware with a retail copy of the game.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that some special dongle or development version of the GameCube would be required to kick the game into debug mode. But through careful examination of the code path, [James] was able to figure out that hitting a specific combination of buttons on the controller was all that was required to use the debug mode on the stock game. Once the debug mode is started, a controller plugged into the second port allows the user to navigate through options and perform tasks. Not everything is currently understood, but some progress has been made, such as figuring out how to add items to your inventory.

It’s hardly Nintendo’s most popular console, but there’s still a healthy interest in GameCube hacking as the machine approaches its 20th anniversary. We recently saw some impressive work being done to reverse engineer the system’s wireless controllers, though some people are more interested in just cutting the thing in half.

[Thanks to Tim Trzepacz for the tip.]

Writing a New Game for the Game Boy Color

If you’re bored with the Game Boy Color’s offerings, it’s understandable: it’s been around for nearly 20 years, and doesn’t get a lot of new releases these days. [Antonio Niño Díaz] spent over a year coding a game for the GBC: µCity, a Sims City style game. He designed the graphics and even wrote his own music.

[Antonio] did all the programming in Assembly Language, creating modules for managing traffic and the power grid, building creation and destruction, as well as disaster simulations. He has extensive notes in his GitHub page detailing each module and describing how it all works together. He’s given it a GPLv3+ license, so hack away.

The ROM works on emulators, but [Antonio] has verified it works on the original hardware; it just reduces the number of saved cities to accommodate the handheld’s lesser stats.

Hackaday loves our GBC: we’ve written up DIY coprocessors for the GBC, adding an audio amp, and even making a solar-powered Game Boy.

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Reading Bingo Balls with Microcontrollers

Every once in a while a project comes along with that magical power to consume your time and attention for many months. When you finally complete it, you feel sorry that you don’t have to do anything more.

What is so special about this Bingo ball reader? It may seem like an ordinary OCR project at first glance; a camera captures the image and OCR software recognizes the number. Simple as that. And it works without problems, like every simple gadget should.

But then again, maybe it’s not that simple. Numbers are scattered all over the ball, so they have to be located first, and the best candidate for reading must be selected. Then, numbers are painted onto a sphere rather than a flat surface, sometimes making them deformed to the point where their shape has to be recovered first. Also, the angle of reading is not fixed but somewhere on a 360° scale. And then we have the glare problem to boot, as Bingo balls are so shiny that every light source reflects as a saturated bright spot.

So, is that all of it? Well, almost. The task is supposed to be performed by an embedded microcontroller, with limited speed and memory, yet the recognition process for one ball has to be fast — 500 ms at worst. But that’s just one part of the process. The project includes the pipelined mechanism which accepts the ball, transports it to be scanned by the OCR and then shot by the public broadcast camera before it gets dumped. And finally, if the reading was not reliable enough, the ball has to be subtly rotated so that the numbers would be repositioned for another reading attempt.

Despite these challenges I did manage to build this system. It’s fast and reliable, and I discovered some very interesting tricks along the way. Take a look at the quick demo video below to get a feel for the speed, and what the system “sees”. Then join me after the break to dive into the details of this interesting embedded build.

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Does This Demo Remind You of Mario Kart? It Should!

Here’s a slick-looking VGA demo written in assembly by [Yianni Kostaris]; it’s VGA output from an otherwise stock ATmega2560 at 16MHz with no external chips involved. If you’re getting some Super Mario Kart vibes from how it looks, there’s a good reason for that. The demo implements a form of the Super Nintendo’s Mode 7 graphics, which allowed for a background to be efficiently texture-mapped, rotated, and scaled for a 3D effect. It was used in racing games (such as Super Mario Kart) but also in many others. A video of the demo is embedded below.

[Yianni] posted the original demo a year earlier, but just recently added detailed technical information on how it was all accomplished. The AVR outputs VGA signals directly, resulting in 100×120 resolution with 256 colors, zipping along at 60 fps. The AVR itself is not modified or overclocked in any way — it runs at an entirely normal 16MHz and spends 93% of its time handling interrupts. Despite sharing details for how this is done, [Yianni] hasn’t released any code, but told us this demo is an offshoot from another project that is still in progress. It’s worth staying tuned because it’s clear [Yianni] knows his stuff.

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Assembly Required: Subroutine Calls and the 1K Challenge

The first computer I personally owned had 256 bytes of memory. Bytes. The processor in my mouse and keyboard both have more memory than that. Lots more. Granted, 256 bytes was a bit extreme, but even the embedded systems I was building as part of my job back then generally had a small fraction of the 64K bytes of memory they could address.

Some people are probably glad they don’t have to worry about things like that anymore. Me, I kind of miss it. It was often like a puzzle trying to squeeze ten more bytes out of an EPROM to get a bug fix or a new feature put in. I though with the 1K challenge underway, I might share some of the tricks we used in those days to work around the small memory problems.

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Linux: Assembly Required

Sometimes you might need to use assembly sometime to reach your project objectives. Previously I’ve focused more on embedding assembly within gcc or another compiler. But just like some people want to hunt with a bow, or make bread by hand, or do many other things that are no longer absolutely necessary, some people like writing in assembly language.

In the old days of DOS, it was fairly easy to write in assembly language. Good thing, because on the restricted resources available on those machines it might have been the only way to get things to fit. These days, under Windows or Linux or even on a Raspberry Pi, it is hard to get oriented on how to get an assembly language off the ground.

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