There are very few legal ways of obtaining ROM files for video games, and Nintendo’s lawyers are extremely keen on at least reminding you of the fact that you need to own the game cart before obtaining the ROM. With cart in hand, though, most will grab a cart reader to download the game files. While this is a tried-and-true method, for GameBoy games this extra piece of hardware isn’t strictly required. [Travis Goodspeed] is here to show us a method of obtaining ROM files from photographs of the game itself.
Of course, the chips inside the game cart will need to be decapped in order to obtain the pictures, and the pictures will need to be of high quality in order to grab the information. [Travis] is more than capable of this task in his home lab, but some work is still required after this step.
The individual bits in the Game Boy cartridges are created by metal vias on the chip, which are extremely small, but still visible under a microscope. He also has a CAD program that he developed to take this visual information and extract the data from it, which creates a ROM file that’s just as good as any obtained with a cart reader.
This might end up being slightly more work especially if you have to decap the chips and take the photographs yourself, but it’s nonetheless a clever way of obtaining ROM files due to this quirk of Game Boy technology. Encoding data into physical hardware like this is also an excellent way of ensuring that it doesn’t degrade over time. Here are some other methods for long-term data storage.
Custom semiconductor chips are generally big projects made by big companies with big budgets. Thanks to Tiny Tapeout, students, hobbyists, or anyone else can quickly get their designs onto an actual fabricated chip. [Matt Venn] has announced the opening of a third round of the Tiny Tapeout project for March 2023.
In 2022, Tiny Tapeout 1 piloted fabrication of user designs onto custom chips referred to as application-specific integrated circuits or ASICs. Following success of the pilot round, Tiny Tapeout 2 became the first paid version delivering guaranteed silicon. For Tiny Tapeout 2, there were 165 submissions. Most submissions were designed using a hardware description language such as Verilog or Amaranth, but ASICs can also be designed in the visual schematic capture tool Wokwi.
Each submitted design must fit within 150 by 170 microns. That footprint can accommodate around one thousand standard cells, which is certainly enough to explore a digital system of real interest. Examples from Tiny Tapeout 2 include digital neurons, FPGAs, and RISC-V processor cores.
Once the 250 designs are submitted, they’ll be combined into a large grid along with a controller. The controller will receive input signals and pump the inputs via a scan chain through the entire grid to each design. The results from each design continue through the scan chain to be output from the grid. Since all 250 designs will be combined on to one chip, each designer will receive everybody else’s design along with their own. This shared process opens a huge opportunity for experimentation.
Once upon a time, countries protected their domestic industries with tariffs on imports. This gave the home side a price advantage over companies operating overseas, but the practice has somewhat fallen out of fashion in the past few decades.
You can achieve a lot with a Dremel. For instance, apparently you can slim the original NES down into the hand-held form-factor. Both the CPU and the PPU (Picture Processing Unit) are 40-pin DIP chips, which makes NES minification a bit tricky. [Redherring32] wasn’t one to be stopped by this, however, and turned these DIP chips into QFN-style-mounted dies (Nitter) using little more than a Dremel cutting wheel. Why? To bring his TinyTendo handheld game console project to fruition, of course.
DIP chip contacts go out from the die using a web of metal pins called the leadframe. [Redherring32] cuts into that leadframe and leaves only the useful part of the chip on, with the leadframe pieces remaining as QFN-like contact pads. Then, the chip is mounted onto a tailored footprint on the TinyTendo PCB, connected to all the other components that are, thankfully, possible to acquire in SMD form nowadays.
This trick works consistently, and we’re no doubt going to see the TinyTendo being released as a standalone project soon. Just a year ago, we saw [Redherring32] cut into these chips, and wondered what the purpose could’ve been. Now, we know: it’s a logical continuation of his OpenTendo project, a mainboard reverse-engineering and redesign of the original NES, an effort no doubt appreciated by many a NES enthusiast out there. Usually, people don’t cut the actual chips down to a small size – instead, they cut into the mainboards in a practice called ‘trimming’, and this practice has brought us many miniature original-hardware-based game console builds over these years.
As the world begins to slowly pull itself out of the economic effects of the pandemic, there’s one story that has been on our minds for the past couple of years, and it’s probably on yours too. The chip shortage born during those first months of the pandemic has remained with us despite the best efforts of the industry. Last year, pundits were predicting a return to normality in 2022, but will unexpected threats to production such as the war in Ukraine keep us chasing supplies? It’s time to delve into the root of the issue and get to the bottom of it for a Hackaday report.
The Chips Are Down
Going back to 2020, and as global economies abruptly slowed down in the face of stringent lockdowns it’s clear that both chipmakers and their customers hugely underestimated the effect that the pandemic would have on global demand for chips.
As production capacity was reduced or turned to other products in response to the changed conditions, it was soon obvious that the customers’ hunger for chips had not abated, resulting in a shortfall between supply and demand.
We’ve all experienced the chaos that ensued as the supply of popular varieties dried up almost overnight, and as fresh pandemic waves have broken around the world along with a crop of climate and geopolitical uncertainties it’s left many wondering whether the chip situation will ever be the same again.
Green Shoots In Idaho
Amidst all that gloom, there are some encouraging green shoots to be seen. While it’s perhaps not quite time to celebrate, there’s a possibility for some cautious optimism. This month brought the hope that Potato Semiconductor might be cutting the sod on a new production capacity for their ultra-fast digital logic in Idaho, and with other manufacturers following suit it could be that we’ll once again have all the chip capacity we can eat.
But the other side of the chip business coin lies with the customer: we all see the chip shortage from our own semi-insider perspective, but have the tastes of the general public returned towards chips? Early signs are that as consumer confidence returns there are encouraging trends in chip consumption taking root, so we’d be inclined to advise our readers to have cautious optimism. If all goes well, you’ll be having your chips by summer.
The prospects for a new dawn in chip production capacity in 2022 look rosy, but there’s a further snag on the horizon courtesy of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Like so many industries in a globalised economy, the chip industry depends heavily on supplies, consumables, and machinery from beyond the borders of wherever the plants themselves may lie.
In the case of Ukraine there’s a particular raw material whose supply has been severely interrupted, and though we hope for a speedy resolution of the conflict and a consequent resumption of production, the knock-on effect on the production of chips in the rest of the world can not be underestimated. Despite the ramp-up in output led by Idaho, the production of chips globally still relies heavily on Ukrainian sunflower oil. There’s a possibility that an acceptable substitute might be found in canola oil, but it will remain to be seen whether the chip-eating consumers will notice the taste difference.
At least by today’s standards, some of the early chips were really, really big. They may have been revolutionary and they certainly did shrink the size of electronic devices, but integrating a 40-pin DIP into a modern design can be problematic. The solution: cut off all the extra plastic and just work with the die within.
When you buy a chip, how can you be sure you’re getting what you paid for? After all, it’s just a black fleck of plastic with some leads sticking out of it, and a few laser-etched markings on it that attest to what lies within. All of that’s straightforward to fake, of course, and it’s pretty easy to tell if you’ve got a defective chip once you try it out in a circuit.
But what about off-brand chips? Those chips might be functionally similar, but still off-spec in some critical way. That was the case for [Kevin Darrah] which led to his forensic analysis of potentially counterfeit MCU chips. [Kevin] noticed that one of his ATMega328 projects was consuming way too much power in deep sleep mode — about two orders of magnitude too much. The first video below shows his initial investigation and characterization of the problem, including removal of the questionable chip from the dev board it was on and putting it onto a breakout board that should draw less than a microamp in deep sleep. Showing that it drew 100 μA instead sealed the deal — something was up with the chip.
[Kevin] then sent the potentially bogus chip off to a lab for a full forensic analysis, because of course there are companies that do this for a living. The second video below shows the external inspection, which revealed nothing conclusive, followed by an X-ray analysis. That revealed enough weirdness to warrant destructive testing, which showed the sorry truth — the die in the suspect unit was vastly different from the Atmel chip’s die.
It’s hard to say that this chip is a counterfeit; after all, Atmel may have some sort of contract with another foundry to produce MCUs. But it’s clearly an issue to keep in mind when buying bargain-basement chips, especially ones that test functionally almost-sorta in-spec. Caveat emptor.
Counterfeit parts are depressingly common, and are a subject we’ve touched on many times before. If you’d like to know more, start with a guide.