The Epic Saga Of Hacking Knights Of The Round

For the uninitiated, Knights of the Round was a hack-and-slash arcade game released by Capcom in 1991 that rather loosely followed the legend of King Arthur and the eponymous Knights of the Round Table. In it, up to three players make their way from stage to stage, vanquishing foes and leveling up their specific character’s weapons and abilities. But [Sebastian Mihai] was looking for a new way to experience this classic title, so he decided to reverse engineer the game and create his own version called Warlock’s Tower.

Those familiar with the original game will no doubt notice some of the differences right away while watching the video below, but for those who don’t have an intimate knowledge of Arthur’s digital adventures, the major changes are listed on the project’s web page. Among the most notable are the removal of cooperative multiplayer and stage time limits. This turns the game from a frantic beat ’em up to a more methodical adventure. Especially since you now have to compete the game in a single life. If we had to guess, we’d say [Sebastian] prefers his games to have a bit of a challenge to them.

Even if you aren’t interested in playing Warlock’s Tower yourself, the story of how [Sebastian] created it is absolutely fascinating. He started with zero knowledge of Motorola 68000 assembly, but by the end of the project, was wrangling multiple debuggers and writing custom tools to help implement the approximately 70 patches that make up the custom build.

The hundreds of hours of work that went into creating these patches is documented as a sort of stream of consciousness on the project page, allowing you to follow along in chronological order. Whether it inspires you to tackle your own reverse engineering project or makes you doubt whether or not you’ve got the patience to see it through, it’s definitely worth a read. If you’re a Knights of the Round fan, you should also take a look at the incredible wealth of information he’s amassed about the original game itself, which honestly serves as an equally impressive project in its own right.

Modified versions of classic games, known colloquially as “ROM hacks” are fairly common among serious fans who want to see their favorite games improved over time. While they aren’t always as ambitious as Warlock’s Tower, they all serve as examples of how a dedicated community can push a product well beyond the scope envisioned by its original creators.

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VME Reverse Engineering

With some free time on his hands waiting for delayed parts to arrive, [Rik] set out to reverse engineer an old VME system he had acquired. VMEbus computers are based on the standard Eurocard PCB format, which defines a wide range of card sizes — the most common being 6U height like [Rik]’s system. They usually consist of a rack-mounted card cage with a passive backplane. Originally, Motorola 68000-based CPU cards were used in VMEbus systems, but any processor could be used as long as you provided the right signals and timings to the system bus. Eurocard systems are less common these days, but are still used in some applications. In fact, if you’re into synthesizers, you may be using Eurocards today — the Eurorack standard is based on the standard 3U card size.

Back to [Rik]’s project, he had no idea what this system was nor how to use it. A bit of probing around and he found two UARTs, a system monitor, and a way to load and dump S-record files. He documents the process quite well, as the internal layout and memory map of the system is unlocked piece by piece. We also like his method of instrumenting the VMEbus signals — logic analyzers are so small today, you can just mount one inside the rack.

Spoiler alert: [Rik] succeeds in mapping out the memory, writes some small programs in 68k assembly language, and even builds his own LED accessory card so he can blink some lights (as one must do).

We wrote about modularity recently, and VMEbus + Eurocard systems are good examples of modular design. You could quickly put together a robust assembly using entirely off-the-shelf cards, or mix in your own custom cards. But technology advancements in clock speeds and miniaturization have made these card cage, passive backplane systems less and less relevant today. Do any of you still use the VMEbus, or have you designed with them in the past? Let us know down in the comments below.

Homebrew 68K Micro-ATX Computer Runs Its Own OS

We’re no stranger to home built Motorola 68000 computers here at Hackaday, but more often than not, they tend to be an experiment in retro minimalism. The venerable processor is usually joined by only a handful of components, and there’s an excellent chance they’ll have taken up residence on a piece of perfboard. Then [NotArtyom] sent in his Blitz, and launched the bar into the stratosphere.

Make no mistake, the Blitz isn’t just some simple demo of classic chips. The open hardware motherboard has onboard floppy, IDE, and PS/2 interfaces, with a trio of 8-bit ISA expansion slots for good measure. The  Motorola 68030 CPU is humming along at 50 MHz, with 4 MB of RAM and 512 KB of ROM along for the ride. Designed to fit the Micro-ATX motherboard standard, you can even mount the Blitz in a contemporary PC case and run it on a standard ATX power supply.

An earlier prototype of the Blitz motherboard.

As if the hardware wasn’t impressive enough, [NotArtyom] went ahead and created his own open source DOS-like operating system for it to run. Written in portable C, G-DOS can run on various m68k boards as well as ARM and PowerPC machines. It’s an incredible project in its own right. If you’re looking for something to show off your homebrew computer, you could certainly do worse than pulling down a copy of G-DOS. If you do port it to a new board, make sure to let [NotArtyom] know.

It’s taken [NotArtyom] three years to develop Blitz and G-DOS with his only goal being to better understand homebrew computers. He has no interest in monetizing the design or turning it into a kit, but instead hopes it will be a resource and inspiration for others with similar interests. Oh yeah, and he did all of this before he even graduated high school. If you weren’t questioning your life’s accomplishments before, now would be a great time to start.

Interested in building your own Motorola 68000 computer, but haven’t yet attained the wizarding level of [NotArtyom]? You could start with something a bit simpler like the 68k-nano, or if you’re really in a pinch, just dead bug a Dragonball 68328.

Changing System Architectures And The Complexities Of Apple’s Butterfly Approach To ISAs

Apple computers will be moving away from Intel chips to its own ARM-based design. An interesting thing about Apple as a company is that it has never felt the need to tie itself to a particular system architecture or ISA. Whereas a company like Microsoft mostly tied its fortunes to Intel’s x86 architecture, and IBM, Sun, HP and other giants preferred vertical integration, Apple is currently moving towards its fifth system architecture for its computers since the company was formed.

What makes this latest change possibly unique, however, is that instead of Apple relying on an external supplier for CPUs and peripheral ICs, they are now targeting a vertical integration approach. Although the ARM ISA is licensed to Apple by Arm Holdings, the ‘Apple Silicon’ design that is used in Apple’s ARM processors is their own, produced by Apple’s own engineers and produced by foundries at the behest of Apple.

In this article I would like to take a look back at Apple’s architectural decisions over the decades and how they made Apple’s move towards vertical integration practically a certainty.

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The Tiniest Working 68K System

68000 microprocessors appeared in the earliest Apple Macintoshes, the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST, and the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive among other familiar systems. If you were alive during the 16-bit era, there is a good chance that you will have owned a Motorola 68000 or one of its derivatives in a computer or game console. By the end of the 1990s it was clear that the 68K line had had its day on the desktop, but a new life for it at the consumer level was found in the PDA market. The first Motorola Dragonball was a 68000 series system-on-chip, and it was a few of these in a BGA package that [Plasmode] had in stock after ordering them in error believing them to be in a different package.

The Dragonball 68328 has an interesting bootstrap mode allowing it to run with no external ROM or RAM, and with only a serial connection to the outside world. Recognising this as having the potential for the smallest possible 68K system, he proceeded to make it happen with some impressive soldering direct to the solder balls of an upturned BGA package.

On a piece of PCB material are simply the 68328, a 32.768kHz crystal and capacitors, a MAX232 circuit for an RS232 serial connection, a reset button, and a power regulator. Using the Motorola DOS debug software which is still available for download after all these years, he was able to connect to his tiny 68K computer and run code. It’s not entirely useful, but of all the possible 68K configurations it has to be the smallest.

This isn’t the first minimal computer using only a processor chip and serial link, in the past we’ve shown you a PDP-11 in the same vein.