Zork And The Z-Machine: Bringing The Mainframe To 8-bit Home Computers

Computer games have been around about as long as computers have. And though it may be hard to believe, Zork, a text-based adventure game, was the Fortnite of its time. But Zork is more than that. For portability and size reasons, Zork itself is written in Zork Implementation Language (ZIL), makes heavy use of the brand-new concept of object-oriented programming, and runs on a virtual machine. All this back in 1979. They used every trick in the book to pack as much of the Underground Empire into computers that had only 32 kB of RAM. But more even more than a technological tour de force, Zork is an unmissable milestone in the history of computer gaming. But it didn’t spring up out of nowhere.

DEC PDP-10 Flip Chip module
DEC PDP-10 Flip Chip module

The computer revolution had just taken a fierce hold during the second World War, and showed no sign of subsiding during the 1950s and 1960s. More affordable computer systems were becoming available for purchase by businesses as well as universities. MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) was fortunate to have ties to ARPA, which gave MIT’s LCS and AI labs (formerly part of Project MAC) access to considerable computing resources, mostly in the form of DEC PDP systems.

The result: students at the MIT Dynamic Modeling Group (part of LCS) having access to a PDP-10 KA10 mainframe — heavy iron at the time. Though this PDP-10 was the original 1968 model with discrete transistor Flip Chip modules and wire-wrapping, it had been heavily modified, adding virtual memory and paging support to expand the original 1,152 kB of core memory. Running the MIT-developed Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS) OS, it was a highly capable multi-user system.

Naturally, it got mostly used for playing games.
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The Zork Virtual Machine Implemented In Hardware

ZorkHitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and all the other Infocom text adventures are much more clever than the appear at first glance. They actually run on a virtual machine, with all the code for the game files squirreled away in the Z-machine format. This is great if you’re writing a game for a dozen platforms; once you have an interpreter running on one system, the entire library of games can be shipped out the door.

While the Z-machine has been ported to all the retrocomputers you can imagine and a few different brands of microcontrollers, no one has yet implemented the Z-machine in hardware. There’s a reason for this: it’s crazy. Nevertheless, [Charlie] managed to implement the Z-machine in an FPGA, using only a few extra commands for driving a display.

zork2The circuit is constructed with a $10 eBay special FPGA, the Cyclone II EP2C5. Other than that, it’s just some Flash, some RAM, a display, and a whole lot of wire. The standard Z-machine spec is followed, version 3 specifically, meaning this text adventure on a chip can run nearly every Infocom game ever written. The most popular ones, at least.

This isn’t [Charlie]’s first time in the ring with the Infocom Z-machine. He ported the Z-machine to a freakin’ pen a few years ago.

You can check out [Charlie]’s video demo below. Because there was a bit of extra space in the FPGA, [Charlie] managed to put a Mandelbrot implementation and Space Invaders in as an easter egg.

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