Old Firewall Reborn As Retro PC

We like projects where old gear is given a new life. [Splashdust] has a twenty-year old business firewall that’s build like a tank. He cracks it open and finds a complete x86 embedded motherboard inside, and sets off to restore it and turn it into a retro gaming computer (see the video from his Odd & Obsolete YouTube channel below the break).

This business firewall and router box is from a small Swedish firm Clavister, part of their S-Series from the early 2000s. The motherboard appears to be a generic one used in other equipment, and is powered by a VIA Eden ESP 4000 running at 400 MHz. The Eden line of x86 processors were low-power chips targeting embedded applications. The graphics chip is a Twister T by S3 Graphics which was purchased by VIA in 2000. After replacing the electrolytic capacitors, and making a few cables, [Splashdust] pops in a PCI sound card and boots up into Windows 98 from a CF card (we like the compact PCB vise he uses).

In two follow-up videos (here and here), he builds an enclosure (instructions on Thingiverse) and tries out several other operating systems. He was able to get the Tiny Core Linux distribution running with the NetSurf browser, but failed to get Windows 2000 or XP to work. Returning to Windows 98, he tweaks drivers and settings and eventually has a respectable retro-gaming computer for his efforts. The next time you’re cleaning out your junk bins, have a peek inside those pizza-box gadgets first — you may find a similar gem.

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Refining The Greatest Joystick Of The 1980s

The Competition Pro joystick is often considered to be the pinnacle of input devices, at least as far as the 1980s gaming goes. But the design isn’t perfect, and time hasn’t been kind to certain aspects of its mechanism. For example, the large rubber disc used to keep the stick centered on early generations of the hardware will invariably be hardened up on any surviving specimens. Looking to return these classic controllers to their former glory, and then some, [mageb] has released a number of 3D printed modifications for the Competition Pro that should be of great interest to the vintage gamer.

The new microswitches

First and foremost is the deletion of the original rubber disc for a new spring mechanism. Even if this is the only modification you do, [mageb] says you’ll already have a better and longer-lasting joystick to show for it. But if you want to continue with the full rebuild, be aware that there’s no going back to stock. Once you start cutting the original parts, you’re committed to taking it all the way.

Assuming you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty, the next step is cutting the metal contacts from the bottom of the face buttons so they’ll work with the new microswitch array he’s designed. Each button gets its switch, and four handle movement of the joystick. You can try out different switches to adjust the feel of the joystick, but [mageb] assures us that he’s already done the research and put the best quality switches in the bill of materials.

The end result is a Competition Pro joystick that looks more or less the same from the outside, but is considerably improved internally. That’s always a win in our books, though we’re sure somebody out there is going to get mad that the brittle old rubber disc wasn’t sent to the Smithsonian.

ATtiny85 on circuit board with 2n2222, pushbutton, usb-c power connector, LED, and speaker.

Custom Compression Squeezes Classic Computer Choruses Into A Tiny Controller

Geeks of a certain vintage will have fond memories of games that were simplistic by today’s standards, but drew one in all the same. Their low fidelity graphics were often complimented by equally low fidelity music being forced through the afterthought of a speaker that inhabited most computers. Despite the technical constraints of the era, these games didn’t just offer gameplay. They told stories, and they were immersive in a way that some would think wouldn’t be relatable to a younger generation.

That didn’t stop [Thanassis Tsiodras] from sharing the classic “The Secret of Monkey Island” with his niece and nephew when they were young. Excited to see his family after a year of separation due to COVID-19, [Thanassis] wanted to give them a handmade gift: The music from “The Secret of Monkey Island” on a custom player. What an uncle!

[Thanassis] could have just recorded the music and played it back using any number of chips made for the purpose, but being a long time software engineer, he decided to take the scenic route to his destination. First, DOSBox was hacked to dump the speaker output into a file. Python, C, and 30 years of experience were leveraged to squeeze everything into the 8 KB storage of an ATtiny85. Doing so was no small feat, as it required that he create a custom implementation of Huffman compression to get the data small enough to fit on chip. And when it fit, but didn’t work, even more optimization was needed.

The end result was worth it however, with the music from “The Secret of Monkey Island” playing in its original form from a speaker driven by the ever so humble but useful 2n2222. [Thanassis]’ site is replete with details too intricate to post here, but too neat to miss. Watch the video below the break for a demonstration.

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Pew Pew In The Palm Of Your Hand

It’s often said that “getting there is half the fun”, and we think that can be just as true when building hardware as it is during the roadtrip to your favorite hacker con. Many of us enjoy the process of planning, designing, and building a new gadget as much as playing with it when it’s done. We get the impression [Radomir Dopieralski] feels the same way, as he’s currently working on yet another iteration of his PewPew project.

For the uninitiated, [Radomir] has already created a number of devices in the PewPew line, which are designed to make programming games on “bare metal” easier and more approachable for newcomers by using CircuitPython.

The original version was a shield for the Adafruit Feather, which eventually evolved into a standalone device. The latest version, called the M4, includes many niceties such as a large TFT screen and an acrylic enclosure. It’s also switched over to the iconic Game Boy layout, to really drive home that classic gaming feel.

As [Radomir] explains, previous versions of the PewPew were designed to be as cheap and easy to manufacture as possible, since they were to be used in game programming workshops. But outside of that environment, they left a little something to be desired. With the M4, he’s created something that’s much closer to a traditional game system. In that respect it’s a bit like the Arduboy: you can still use it to learn game development, but it’s also appealing enough that you might just play other people’s games on it instead.

Another World On The Apple II

What’s more fun than porting an old game released for an old system such as the Apple IIgs to its 10-year-older predecessor, the Apple II from 1977? Cue [Deater]’s port of the classic video game ‘Another World‘ to the original Apple II. As was fairly obvious from the onset, the main challenges were with the amount of RAM, as well as with the offered graphics resolutions.

Whereas the Apple II could address up to 48 kB of RAM, the 16-bit Apple IIgs with 65C816 processor could be upgraded to a maximum of 8 MB. The graphics modes offered by the latter also allowed ‘Another World’ to run at a highly playable 320×200, whereas the ported version is currently limited to the ‘low resolution’ mode at 40×48 pixels.

The game itself still needs a lot of work to add missing parts and fix bugs, but considering that it has been implemented in 6502 assembler from scratch, using just the gameplay of the IIgs version as reference, it’s most definitely an achievement which would have earned [Deater] a lot of respect back in the late ’80s as well.

Feel free to check out the Github page for this project, grab a floppy disk image from the project page and get playing. Don’t forget to check out the gameplay video linked after the break as well.

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Perfecting A Bluetooth N64 Controller

Love it or hate it, the Nintendo 64 controller doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Dedicated fans are still looking for ways to use the unique trilobed controller with modern systems, and they won’t be satisfied until they perfectly replicate the original experience. [Shyri Villar] has been working on perfecting a blend of original and modern hardware that looks very promising.

The project started when [Shyri] found that you could take the internals from a modern third party Bluetooth N64 controller made by 8BitDo and put them into the original controller’s case. This would give you the original buttons back, and overall a more authentic weight and feel. Unfortunately, this usually means dumping the original N64 joystick for the 8BitDo’s.

What [Shyri] wanted to do was install the 8BitDo PCB into an original N64 controller, but adapt Nintendo’s joystick to communicate with it. Unfortunately, since the original joystick used optical encoders and the 8BitDo version uses potentiometers, there’s something of a language gap.

To bridge the divide, both the X and Y dimensions of the joystick get their own PIC12F675 microcontroller and X9C103S digital potentiometer. The microcontrollers read the X and Y values from the original joystick’s encoders, and use the digital potentiometers to provide the 8BitDo with the expected analog input. Right now the electronics are held on two scraps of perfboard tucked into the side “wings” of the controller, but hopefully we’ll see a custom PCB in the future.

If you’re more interested in going back in time with your trusty N64 controller, then you might be interested in learning more about how one hacker managed to hook it up to the MSX.

An MSX With A Nintendo Controller

Console owners inhabit their own individual tribes depending upon their manufacturer of choice, and so often never the twain shall meet. But sometimes there are those what-if moments, could Mario have saved the princess more quickly through PlayStation buttons, or how would Sonic the Hedgehog have been with a Nintendo controller? [Danjovic] is finding the answer to one of those questions, with an interface between Nintendo 64 controllers and MSX hardware including the earlier Sega consoles.

In hardware terms, it’s a pretty simple device in the manner of many such projects, an Arduino Nano, a resistor, and a couple of sockets. The clever part lies not in its choice of microcontroller, but in the way it uses the Nano-s timing to ensure the minimum delay between button press and game action. The detail is in the write-up, but in short it makes use of the MSX’s need to attend to video lines to buy extra time for any conversion steps.

The MSX computers have had their share of controller upgrade courtesy of Nintendo hardware in the past, we’ve seen a Wii nunchuck controller talk to them before, as well as a SNES one.

Header image: [mboverload] (Public-domain).