Four Chips To Retro Perfection

Over the years, we’ve seen many people build a computer from the ground up. It’s always great, but this one takes the cake. I’m not just saying that because there’s a cute little ‘Z80 Inside’ logo on the silk screen, either. It’s a four IC Z80 computer, a tiny board, and [Just4Fun]’s entry into this year’s Hackaday Prize.

This single board computer is only four chips, the most important being the CMOS Z80 CPU. This is the same CPU as was found in the TRS-80 and the ZX Spectrum, both classics from the early days of computing. In addition to the PCU, there’s a Toshiba SRAM with 128 whole kilobytes of random access memories. A 74HC00 is thrown into the mix for glue logic, and everything else happens through a specially-programmed ATMega32A. This last chip provides a universal I/O subsystem, the EEPROM, and the 4/8MHz clock for the CPU.

Those four chips are really all you need for a fully functional computer, but you can do so much more with this little board. There’s a uCom board, or basically a ‘transparent’ USB-to-serial emulator that will allow you to upload a hex file to the board. Of course this means you can also connect it to a terminal, and with FuzixOS, there’s Unix for the Z80. It’s a wonderment of retrocomputing, and one of the best ways to build an old computer today.

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Novice Coders Can Create Classic Game Boy Games

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.

Thanks to [Thomas] for the tip!

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That Super Mario Bros. C64 Port Was Too Good For This World

It was foolish to think that the adventure of the Mario Bros. would ever exist outside of the castle walls of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Except for that one time it did. The Hudson Soft company was a close collaborator with Nintendo, and parlayed that favor into being tasked with bringing Super Mario Bros. to platforms beyond the NES. The result of that collaboration would be 1986’s Super Mario Special, a port for the NEC PC-88 line of desktop computers. What ended up on that 5.25″ floppy sounded reminiscent of the Famicom original, but with a grand total of four colors (including black) and not a single scrolling screen in sight; Super Mario Special felt decidedly less than spectacular to play. Those eternally flickering sprites mixed with jarring blank screen transitions would never make it outside of Japan, so for a large swath of the world Mario would remain constrained to a gray plastic cartridge for years to come.

There are no shortage of ways to play Super Mario Bros. these days. Emulation in all of its various official and unofficial forms has taken care of that. Virtually everything with a processor more capable than the NES’s 6502 can play host to the Mushroom Kingdom, however, machines more contemporary with the NES still lacked access to the iconic title.

Enter the 2019 port of Super Mario Bros. for the Commodore 64 by [ZeroPaige]. A culmination of seven years work to port the game onto one of the most prolific computers of the eighties was a clear feat of brilliance and an amazing bit of programming that would have taken 1986 by storm. No pale imitation, this was Mario on the C64. Despite all of the nuance in recreating the jump-and-run model of the original paired with enveloping all eight sound channels of a dual SID chip setup, Nintendo saw fit to stifle the proliferation of this incredible 170 kB of software because they claim it infringes on their copyright.

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Arduino And The Other Kind Of Homebrew

Usually, when we are talking about homebrew around here, we mean building your own equipment. However, most other people probably mean brewing beer, something that’s become increasingly popular as one goes from microbreweries to home kitchen breweries. People have been making beer for centuries so you can imagine it doesn’t take sophisticated equipment, but a little automation can go a long way to making it easier. When [LeapingLamb] made a batch using only a cooler, a stock pot, and a propane burner, he knew he had to do something better. That’s how Brew|LOGIC was born.

There are many ways to make beer, but Brew|LOGIC focuses on a single vessel process and [LeapingLamb] mentions that the system is akin to a sous vide cooker, keeping the contents of the pot at a specific temperature.

Honestly, though, we think he’s selling himself a bit short. The system has a remote application for control and is well-constructed. This isn’t just a temperature controller thrown into a pot. There’s also a pump for recirculation.

The common stock pot gets some serious modifications to hold the heating element and temperature probe. It also gets some spring-loaded clamps to hold the lid down. Expect to do a lot of drilling.

The electronics uses an Arduino, a Bluetooth board, and some relays (including a solid state relay). The finished system can brew between 5 and 15 gallons of beer at a time. While the system seems pretty good to us, he did list some ideas he has for future expansion, including valves, sensors for water level and specific gravity, and some software changes.

After reading that the system was similar to a sous vide cooker, we wondered if you could use a standard one. Turns out, you can. If you want to make better beer without electronic hacking, there’s always the genetic kind.

Nintendo 64 Homebrew Via Game Shark

The Nintendo 64 is a classic console now, and much loved, despite losing in commercial stakes to the dominating PlayStation from Sony. It’s one that doesn’t always get as much attention in the homebrew and hacker scene, compared to platforms like the NES and Game Boy. This means the tools required to work with the console aren’t as well-known. However, there’s a remarkably easy way to load homebrew on to the Nintendo 64, if you’ve got the right hardware.

To pull this off, you’ll need a N64 Gameshark, particularly a version higher than 3.0. These included a parallel port and the relevant onboard logic to allow the console to receive data and commands from an attached computer. [Nathan] demonstrates using the gs_libusb utility to deliver homebrew code to the console, using a USB to parallel adapter to make it easy from a modern computer.

The tools are available on github if you wish to try the hack for yourself. Most hacks we see of the platform are of the portable variety, but if you’ve got something fresh, you know who to call.

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A Low Cost VR Headset

Virtual reality systems have been at the forefront of development for several decades. While there are  commercial offerings now, it’s interesting to go back in time to when the systems were much more limited. [Colin Ord] recently completed his own VR system, modeled on available systems from 20-30 years ago, which gives us a look inside what those systems would have been like, as well as being built for a very low cost using today’s technology.

The core of this project is a head tracker, which uses two BBC Microbits as they have both the accelerometer and compass needed to achieve the project goals. It is also capable of tracking an item and its position in the virtual space. For this project, [Colin] built everything himself including the electronics and the programming. It also makes use of Google Cardboard to hold the screen, lenses, and sensors all in the headset. All of this keeps the costs down, unlike similar systems when they were first unveiled years ago.

The ground-up approach that this project takes is indeed commendable. Hopefully we can see the code released, and others can build upon this excellent work. You could even use it to take a virtual reality cycling tour of the UK.

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The Math That Makes Computers Go, Built On A Tiny PCB

A computer is, at its core, just a bunch of transistors wired together. Once you have enough transistors on a board, though, one of the first layers of abstraction that arises is the Arithmetic Logic Unit. The ALU takes in two sets of data, performs a chosen math function, and outputs one data set as the result. It really is the core of what makes computers compute.

An ALU is built into modern processors, but that wasn’t always how it was done. If you’re looking to build a recreation of an early computer you may need a standalone, and that’s why [roelh] designed an ALU that fits in a square inch piece of circuit board using five multiplexer chips and two XOR chips.

One of the commonly used components for this purpose, the 74LS181 ALU, is not in production anymore. [roelh’s] ALU is intended to be a small footprint replacement of sorts, and can perform seven functions: ADD, SUB, XOR, XNOR, AND, OR, A, B, and NOT A. The small footprint for the design is a constraint of our recent contest: Return of the Square Inch Project. Of course, this meant extra design challenges, such as needing to move the carry in and carry out lines to a separate header because there wasn’t enough space on one edge.

Exploring the theory behind an ALU isn’t just for people building retrocomputers. It is integral to gaining an intuitive understanding of how all computers work. Everyone should consider looking under the hood by walking through the nand2tetris course which uses simulation to build from a NAND gate all the way up to a functioning computer based on The Elements of Computing Science textbook.

If you’re a homebrew computer builder, it might be worthwhile to use one of these ALUs rather than designing your own. Of course, if building components from scratch is your thing we definitely understand that motivation as well.