Hey, MiSTer Emulator, Gimme Almost Any Classic Platform!

I’m back with another of the talks from Hackerspace Gent’s NewLine conference, fresh from my weekend of indulgence quaffing fine Belgian food and beers while mixing with that country’s hacker community. This time it’s an overview from [Michael Smith] of the MiSTer project, a multi-emulator using an FPGA to swap out implementations of everything from an early PDP minicomputer to an 80486SX PC.

At its heart is a dev board containing an Intel Cyclone SoC/FPGA, to which a USB hub must be added, and then a memory upgrade to run all but the simplest of cores. Once the hardware has been taken care of it almost seems as though there are no classic platforms for which there isn’t a core, as a quick browse of the MiSTer forum attests. We are treated to seamless switching between SNES and NED platforms, and even switching different SID chip versions during a running Commodore 64 demo.

There are many different routes to a decent emulator set-up be they using hardware, software, or a combination of both. It’s unlikely that there are any as versatile as this one though, and we’re guessing that as it further evolves it will become a fixture below the monitor or TV of any gamer.  It’s a step up from single-platform FPGA emulators, that’s for certain!

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EDSAC Lives In MiSTer

There’s a lot of argument over which was the first modern computer to be built. There’s room for debate, but EDSAC — the work of Dr. Maurice Wilkes — certainly was among the first. While we’ve seen simulators before, [hrvach’s] FPGA-based simulator for the MiSTer platform has a lot going for it. Check out the video, below.

So much of what we take for granted today was first developed on the EDSAC. For example, the “Wheeler jump” (named after graduate student David Wheeler) was the origin of the idea of a subroutine.

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FPGA Emulates A PDP-1, Breathes New Life Into Classic Video Game

If you’ve ever wanted to sit at the console of the machine that started the revolution in interactive computing, your options are extremely limited. Of the 53 PDP-1 machines that Digital Equipment Corporation made, only three are known to still exist, and just one machine is still in working order at the Computer History Museum. So a rousing game of Spacewar! on the original hardware is probably not something to put on your bucket list.

But thanks to [Hrvoje], there’s now an FPGA emulation of the PDP-1 that lets you play the granddaddy of all video games without breaking into the CHM. The project was started simply to give [Hrvoje] a sandbox for learning FPGAs and Verilog, but apparently went much further than that. The emulation features the complete PDP-1 instruction set, 4kB of core memory, and representations of the original paper tape reader, teletype, operator’s console, and the classic Type 30 CRT. All the hardware is displayed on a standard HDMI monitor, but it’s the CRT implementation that really sells this. The original Type 30 monitor used a CRT from a radar set, and had long-persistence phosphors that gave the display a very distinctive look. [Hrvoje] replicated that by storing each pixel as three values (X, Y, and brightness) in a circle of four chained shift registers. As the pixels move through the shift registers, the brightness value is decreased so it slowly fades. [Hrvoje] thinks it doesn’t look quite right, but we’ll respectfully disagree on that point.

We’ve argued before that the PDP-1 is the machine that started hacker culture, and we think this project is a fitting tribute to the machine as we enter the year in which it will turn sixty. Having the chance to play with it through this emulation is just icing on its birthday cake.

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